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Movie Reviews: Casi Divas, Post Grad, Shorts

Passing Strange
David Lee Sundance Selects

CASI DIVAS Casi Divas, a none-too-clever but hustling-to-please Mexican comedy, concerns a diverse citizenship drawn together across dividing lines — of race, class, sexuality, gender (re)assignment — by the embrace of pop monoculture. With predictable reservations, this seems a good thing to director Issa López, a pioneer in pumping American studio money into a bottomed-out Mexican film industry (though this time, she’s on Columbia’s dime, with Hans Zimmer imported to pluck out a score). A popular telenovela soap opera producer announces a nationwide search for a new leading lady to debut in an upcoming film adaptation. The Mexico City lights draw Catalina (Diana Garcia) from the factories of Ciudad Juárez, where disappearing co-workers join the city’s staggering figures of unsolved homicides. Francisca (Maya Zapata), a Zapotec Indian, represents rural Oaxaca, while local Yesenia (Daniela Schmidt) is, secretly, the most disenfranchised of all. An appealing cast smiles away through turbulent tone shifts, as López piles on social problems until the film resembles a landmark. Like a populist politician furiously pumping hands on the campaign trail, pandering to a gallery of representative stereotypes, you’ll admire the energy even while knowing better than to trust the everything-to-everyone gestures. (AMC Burbank Town Center 8, Mann Chinese 6) (Nick Pinkerton)

GO  EARTH DAYS Veteran doc maker Robert Stone (Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Oswald’s Ghost) assembles nine talking, graying heads to reminisce about the origins of the environmental movement in the U.S., which kicked off in earnest in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and blossomed with the first Earth Day in 1970. Stone’s nonet — which includes former secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, and “hippie astronaut” Rusty Schweickart — engagingly recount the sober realizations of the ’60s (back-to-the-landers “who tried to live in an egalitarian way but quickly got over it,” Brand chuckles) and acknowledge that green power was diluted when it became Washington-centric in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s great archival footage (those anti-pollution PSAs with Iron Eyes Cody from the ’70s remain quite powerful), including a snippet from Face the Nation during which former Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway asks whether environmentalism is deflecting attention away from far more polarizing, pressing issues like Vietnam, civil rights and women’s liberation. The question is never answered but remains just as salient in our post–Inconvenient Truth era, when many consider carrying an “I’m NOT a Plastic Bag” tote or sipping from a Klean Kanteen bottle a political act. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Melissa Anderson)

GO  GOTTA DANCE Dori Berinstein’s documentary, which looks at a year in the lives of the 12 women and one chunky B-boy in the New Jersey Nets senior — as in older than 60 — hip-hop dance team, would be just another disposable, albeit touching, distraction if its subtext didn’t hint that growing old in this ageist society is a bitch. Sixty may be the new 45, but to their condescending young instructors recruited from the well-toned ranks of the real Nets dancers, the seniors are a frustration: sometimes cute, sometimes annoying — like children. Any viewers also in need of an attitude adjustment need only witness these lockin’ and poppin’ sages struggle without complaint to conquer creaky joints, impaired rhythmic instincts and complicated choreography. If that’s not enough to award proper respect to the team — which includes a pair of evergreen beauties, schoolteacher Betsy, who dances as her way bolder persona, Betty, and a tiny 83-year-old ray of grandmotherly sunshine — fascinating biographical snippets of the lives of all 13 members in their primes arrive midway to remind us that even the youngest and hippest among us grow old, if we’re lucky. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Elena Oumano)

MY ONE AND ONLY Your enjoyment of My One and Only will depend on how much the words “inspired by incidents in the life of actor and Hollywood icon George Hamilton” spark swoony memories. Star of Love at First Bite and Zorro, the Gay Blade, The Suntanned One executive-produced this benign coming-of-ager about the 1953 cross-country adventures of teenage George (Logan Lerman), his swish half-brother, Robbie (Mark Rendall), and their Blanche DuBois–like mother, Anne (Renée Zellweger), who leaves her philandering bandleader spouse (Kevin Bacon) in New York. Stops in Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis allow Anne to husband-hunt, as director Richard Loncraine ushers a series of TV actors (Steven Weber, Chris Noth, Eric McCormack) in and out as potential mates. Written by Charlie Peters, My One and Only allows Zellweger to fully commit to her bargain-basement Tennessee Williams character, if not a consistently Southern accent. Rendall does limp-wrist well; Lerman serves as an adequate vessel for Hamilton, exorcising adolescent struggles with Mom, whose biggest failing is not knowing that The Catcher in the Rye is his favorite book. Occasionally diverting but ultimately forgettable, My One and Only will become unforgivable if it inspires other former competitors from Dancing With the Stars to go in search of lost time. (The Landmark) (Melissa Anderson)

GO  PASSING STRANGE “People say, ‘Why don’t you bring the play to Los Angeles?’ And we say, ‘How about if we don’t?’ ” Those were the words singer-songwriter (and former Negro Problem frontman) Stew had for the Weekly’s Judith Lewis last year, when explaining why his Tony-winning, autobiographical rock musical Passing Strange had yet to be performed in his own hometown — fitting, perhaps, given the strong feeling of ambivalence toward L.A. that courses through the play itself. Now, for those (like this critic) who missed the show during its runs in Berkeley and on Broadway, Spike Lee’s concert-film version — taped during the final two performances at the Belasco Theatre and once more especially for Lee’s army of craning, swooshing cameras — provides a richly satisfying record. To see it, however, you’ll have to order it from the Sundance Institute’s “Sundance Selects” on-demand cable service, since like the stage version, Lee’s film is bypassing local theaters despite opening this week at the IFC Center in New York.

Appearing center stage, flanked by a trio of backing musicians, the regal Stew (né Mark Stewart) serves as narrator and interlocutor for this Proustian journey into the irretrievable past, centered on a restless African-American teen (known only as “Youth” and played superbly by Daniel Breaker) coming of age in South Central in the 1970s. Chafing at the clichés of urban black identity and desperate for “real” experience, Stew’s musically minded alter ego sets sail for Europe, where he gets a crash course in a whole new set of clichés, discovering sex and drugs in Amsterdam and joining a radical collective in Berlin. At every step, the “real” rips through the Youth’s — to say nothing of Rent’s — idealized notions of la vie bohème, and our hero finds himself faced with the conundrum of Sondheim’s Georges Seurat: to make love or art. Nimbly directed by Lee and propelled by a rousing cabaret rock score (by Stew and Heidi Rodewald) that cleanses the palate of contemporary Broadway’s prevailing jukebox drivel, Passing Strange conjures a rare kind of theatrical magic with its emotionally raw, frequently euphoric portrait of the (black) artist as a young man. (Scott Foundas)

POST GRAD Post Grad tries to do three things at once — and half-hits the mark on only one. Part of it is wacky Little Miss Sunshine family time, with Carol Burnett in the Alan Arkin part and Michael Keaton as the clueless paterfamilias. Part is sketch comedy, which — given Keaton’s frequently under-used talents, plus Jane Lynch as his wife and a supporting cast stacked so deep that J.K. Simmons can be thrown away on two scenes — is not half-bad. But most of Post Grad is a soggy, Devil Wears Prada–aspiring romance, with Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel) as a just-graduated girl whose deep lust for literature (she has read The Catcher in the Rye!) is exceeded only by her flawless navigation in heels. When a job in publishing isn’t forthcoming until the second act, Malby leaves the big city and heads back to the homestead to choose between the older Brazilian hottie next door (Rodrigo Santoro) and her devoted, absolutely spineless BFF, Adam (Zach Gilford), who has waited around for years, passive-aggressively declaiming his unrequited love while hoping for better things. Then comes that second act, which features Malby actually getting a magazine job in this economic climate, only to quit it for true love. Yes, she quit a publishing job. In 2009. Vicky Jenson’s live-action debut is as cartoonish as er work on Shrek, and that’s Okay for the comic bits. The rest seems like a remarkably cynical crossbreed — for all demographics but, ultimately, for none. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)

SHORTS Austin’s rebel without a crew, Robert Rodriguez works in exactly two filmmaking modes: fast, cheap, genre violence (the El Mariachi trilogy, Sin City, Planet Terror), and fast, cheap, CGI-overloaded family adventure (the Spy Kids trilogy, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D). One of the latter, Shorts is a cute and mildly clever fantasy about a nerdy suburban tween named “Toe” (Jimmy Bennett), who finds a rainbow-colored stone with wish-fulfillment powers; with the comic elasticity of a Tex Avery cartoon, the simplistic plot’s limitless possibilities are digitally and unsubtly rendered. (Calling all dung beetles, upright crocodiles, man-sized frankfurters and booger monsters!) Structured episodically but cheekily out of order, the film introduces Toe’s friends, family, schoolyard enemies and broadly eccentric neighbors — including germaphobic scientist William H. Macy and dictatorial CEO James Spader, for whom every parent works to improve a portable gadget that transforms into near-everything — as each comes into perilous contact with the magical rock. Be careful what you wish for, as we learned as adolescents, which is precisely who and only who this rowdy romp is for — though I’d score points for Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann’s slapstick as Toe’s accidentally conjoined folks. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)

GO  SIKANDAR A simple, cautionary tale gone berserk with potboiling twists and a moral ambition as lush and layered as the Kashmir Valley, Sikandar reveals itself to be both a corking narrative and a cogent sketch of the region’s cycle of violence. The title character (played by Parzan Dastur) is a 14-year-old orphan living in Jammu and Kashmir, India, who loves soccer, is devoted to his aunt and uncle, and has three schoolyard bullies on his jock. When he comes across a handgun in the forest on his way to school with his friend and conscience, Nasreen (Ayesha Kapoor), it functions as a kind of magical amulet: Wave it in the air, and all of life’s torments disappear. But the gun attracts as swiftly as it repels, and soon a militant leader is attempting to recruit Sikandar, after plying him with a little firearms-related bonding, to assassinate a local politician. The film’s obvious warning — Kids, for the love of Allah, don’t play with guns! Or Jihadis! — is actually a springboard into a sweaty maze of political intrigue. Despite the cliché-riddled translation and supercorny sound design, writer-director Piyush Jha presents an affecting account of the Kashmir conflict through the struggles of its children. The burden of peace falls on their shoulders, Jha suggests, because the world of adults is a world gone mad. (Naz 8) (Michelle Orange)

X GAMES 3D: THE MOVIE No one expects a film titled X Games 3D: The Movie to be The Hurt Locker of action-sports documentaries — i.e., a sober dissection of the adrenaline junkies who make their living executing death-defying stunts on skateboards and motorcycles — but still, director Steve Lawrence’s glitzy infotainment begs the question, “How much awesomeness can an audience take?” Chronicling the titular Games, an annual Olympics of extreme sports that have made athletes like Tony Hawk millionaire icons, this stereoscopic 3-D documentary segues between cursory profiles of the sport’s major figures and footage from the competitions. Although the novelty of 3-D adds some drama to the contests, your snazzy glasses do nothing to block out the inanity that comes from the mouths of the participants, the play-by-play commentators, and narrator Emile Hirsch, who all endlessly remind us that action sports are about pushing boundaries and/or testing limits and/or living life on the edge. Since none of the on-camera subjects register as anything more than mass-marketed symbols of youthful rebellion, it’s damn near impossible to care who wins. Not that it really matters — the real victor is the film’s distributor, Disney, which conveniently owns ABC and ESPN, the two channels that broadcast the X Games every year. Synergy — now that’s awesome! (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)


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