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Movie Reviews: Cheri, My Sister's Keeper, The Stoning of Soraya M.

CHERI “For the first time in my life, I felt morally certain of having written a novel for which I need neither blush nor doubt,” Colette said of Chéri, her 1920 novel of the belle époque Parisian demimonde. Stephen Frears’ anemic adaptation, written by Christopher Hampton (who also folds in 1926’s The Last of Chéri), would most likely make the author nod off or plug her ears. Chéri, the most celebrated of Colette’s male characters, is a louche 19-year-old millionaire played by Rupert Friend, acting opposite Michelle Pfeiffer as Lea, a courtesan d’un certain âge who has a six-year affair with the insolent androgyne until he’s married off. Frears and Hampton’s missteps begin immediately, with the director providing pinched narration as he recounts, over so many cartes de visite, the histories of other famous ladies who made a handsome living on their backs. It’s the first of innumerable auditory assaults, continuing with Alexandre Desplat’s frantic score and the clash of English and American accents (especially puzzling in the scenes with Brit Friend and Kathy Bates as his retired-prostie mother). Pfeiffer, uncertain how to convey the older, wiser erotomane, resorts to sounding like Samantha Jones auditioning for Masterpiece Theater, her décolletage the only part of this movie getting any air. (ArcLight Hollywood; Royal; Playhouse 7; ArcLight Sherman Oaks) (Melissa Anderson)

DEAD SNOW Dude, that’s not a regular zombie biting your neck, it’s a Nazi zombie! Which means that the flesh eaters in Dead Snow are better dressed than your typical George Romero undead, and a lot more relentless. The unlucky travelers crossing paths with these swine are a modern-day group of medical students vacationing in the Norwegian Alps. A local tells them that, during World War II, a platoon of German soldiers were driven by the nearby townspeople into the mountains, never to be seen again. “There’s an evil presence here,” he warns, but, of course, the arrogant youths don’t listen. For more than half of this 90-minute film, director Tommy Wirkola plays things pretty straight — a mistake, perhaps, since the first half is pretty boring — but once the Nazi zombies start arriving en masse, in the broad light of day, he abruptly shifts to an Evil Dead–style zaniness, including the sight of a potential victim hanging off the side of a mountain while using a zombie’s entrails as rope. Although the film probably plays funnier in its native Norway, hardcore horror fans should enjoy the high splatter factor — let’s call this the gooiest movie of the year (so far). (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

LIFE IS HOT IN CRACKTOWN Life goes far past the boiling point for most of the characters in this hilariously overwrought ghetto soap opera from cult writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock). Adapting his own 1993 short-story collection, Giovinazzo brings the Crash/Babel approach to bear on a collection of low-lifes and hard-luck cases inhabiting an unnamed city’s seedy skid row (location shooting was done in Los Angeles). Among the usual suspects: Kerry Washington and Mark Webber (the latter sporting DD prosthetic breasts) as the world’s two least convincing pre-op transsexuals; a couple of Dickensian waifs abused and neglected by their addict parents (Illeana Douglas and Edoardo Ballerini); assorted teenage trick-turners and aspirant gangbangers; and a mini-mart night clerk (Victor Rasuk) hoping not to become the latest victim of the neighborhood’s random violence. Elsewhere, the likes of Lara Flynn Boyle and Superman Returns star Brandon Routh angle for street cred in crackhead cameos, while Giovinazzo punctuates the screenplay with such bon mots as “Your pussy too good for my fuckin’ friends?” and “You better give me my fuckin’ money, bitch.” Per the title, everyone lights up to dull the pain. The audience, alas, is offered no such respite. (Sunset 5) (Scott Foundas)

MY SISTER’S KEEPER Eleven-year-old Anna Fitzgerald’s parents didn’t just plan for her — they customized her in utero, with the specific end of providing spare parts and infusions for her leukemia-stricken older sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). When Kate relapses, experiencing renal failure, Anna (Abigail Breslin) defies her birthright duty to play donor and cough up a kidney. She contracts TV-spot lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin, possibly the only actor who doesn’t cry onscreen), who agrees to help her win medical emancipation. Before mom Sara (Cameron Diaz) quit work to scrutinize her daughter’s cell count, she was a lawyer herself, setting the stage for a family catharsis in the courtroom. Screenwriter Jeremy Leven and director Nick Cassavetes, who previously jackpotted with The Notebook, reunite to adapt another heartstrings molester. Based on the 2004 Jodi Picoult bestseller, My Sister’s Keeper mashes Death Be Not Proud with Irreconcilable Differences. The film is extraordinarily explicit in showing the effects of disease and what’s involved in caring for the sick. You don’t usually see this unblinking attention to the progress of physical decay in a PG-13 wide-release movie, and to the degree that it represents a real aspect of human experience generally curtained out of sight, it is, in the language of movie people, a brave decision. But makeup-department realism alone can’t redeem the dramatic fallacies surrounding it. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

THE STONING OF SORAYA M. For those ambivalent about whether stoning women to death is a cruel punishment, here’s The Stoning of Soraya M., a dutifully plodding if watchable dramatization of a real, particularly appalling application of sharia law in small-town Iran. Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) refuses to divorce abusive husband Ali (Navid Negahban), because he won’t leave her enough money to feed her children, so he teams up with their village’s mullah to start a rumor that she’s committing adultery, punishable by death. Events take their inevitable course, with Soraya’s BFF (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) narrating, and Soraya gets to live out the title in a bloody and prolonged sequence reminiscent of The Passion of the Christ — which is appropriate, since Jim Caviezel pops up here, speaking creditable Farsi as the journalist who blows the whole thing up. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh gives the proceedings more flair than is usual for the explicitly didactic: If his ideas (the camera rocketing on the stones thrown at Soroya, as if they were Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ arrows all over again) are bad, at least he’s trying. But this is basically self-congratulatory fare for people who feel more “politically conscious” when reminded that women in the Islamic world can have it rough. Right now, you’re better off just watching the news. (Music Hall; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Vadim Rizov)

UNDER OUR SKIN Like most activist documentaries, Under Our Skin isn’t content to merely make its case and get out of the room. It has to convince us we’re looking at The Greatest Threat to Civilization of Our Time. Lyme disease, we’re told, is the next AIDS, while ominous shadows darken maps of the globe. All that aside, Andy Abrahams Wilson builds a decent, if stylistically dull, case that Lyme disease is far deadlier and more neurologically debilitating than most doctors want to admit, and that the medical boards that should be researching cures and saving people are colluding with insurance companies to deny treatment. (Doctors who treat Lyme disease can be called in front of their state medical boards; complaints are filed not by patients but HMOs angry about paying up.) Wilson’s cross section of victims are willing to look wretched and exposed on camera to hammer their point home. In synopsizing what it’s like to have the disease, Wilson builds a portrait of something reminiscent of Safe, only scarier: symptoms that may or may not exist, denied by those supposed to treat them, and used by insurance companies to batter doctors. Bring on the public health care. (Music Hall) (Vadim Rizov)

YEAR ONE Unbearably painful from shrugging start to outtakes-laden finish, Harold Ramis’ half-assed, harebrained return to writing and directing makes Mel Brooks’ equally muddled, soporific History of the World, Part 1 look downright majestic by comparison — and comparisons are inevitable. Sixteen long years after Groundhog Day, perhaps the greatest American comedy of the 1990s, this is instead the Harold Ramis responsible for Club Paradise — the unfocused and unhinged sketch comedian for whom no laugh’s too cheap, as evidenced by scenes involving the eating of shit, the tossing of testicles and the streaming of urine all over Michael Cera’s face. Released under the Judd Apatow banner, Year One is a hollow, cynical exercise in juvenilia, and the cast of thousands looks like it’d rather be anywhere other than the desert, pretending to be biblical outcasts. Jack Black, as hunter Zed, has never worked so hard for so little. Cera, as gatherer Oh, can’t even obscure his embarrassment behind the strands of a cheap and ill-fitting wig. Not one of the comedy all-stars that Ramis enlisted — among them Paul Rudd, whose cameo as Abel lasts all of 30 seconds and still runs too long; David Cross as bro-killin’ Cain; and Hank Azaria as son-sacrificing Abraham — can wring a single laugh from a screenplay that pauses for a moment to contemplate the existence of God between squeezing out sharts. Year One serves as irrefutable proof that He does not exist. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)