Movie Reviews: Choke, August Evening, Eagle Eye, Nights in Rodanthe
THE AMAZING TRUTH ABOUT QUEEN RAQUELA The amazing truth about Queen Raquela is that she’s constructed from clichés, infected by media-borne dictates of insipid faggotry that have, unfortunately, circled the globe and made near-insufferable creatures out of too many queers. The not-quite-amazing truth about this “documentary” is that it’s actually mildly engrossing, building to a final-act clash between First and Third worlds that is riveting and highly uncomfortable to watch. The quotation marks around “documentary” are because writer-director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson employs dramatic re-creations and staged moments in the telling of the real-life story of his subject, Raquela, a Filipina lady-boy who, playing herself in the film, pines for Europe, a white knight and real womanhood. Anyone who’s seen any of the endless documentaries on Third World trannys can tick off the checklist of items found here: hooking to make a living; repeated cycles of disappointment at the hands of “real” men who ply fantasies then flee payoff; vapid bitchiness passed off as queer wit; really bad plastic surgery. It’s a bleak, often grim, fairy tale. But there are powerful moments of insight, too, as when, explaining in voice-over why she prefers unsafe sex, Raquela states that the feel of the unsheathed dick inside her is “one way to make us feel like women.” (Regent Showcase) (Ernest Hardy)
GO AUGUST EVENING There are stories that depict how resilient family bonds are in times of duress, and those that reject such rosy ideals in order to show how tenuous even blood relationships can be, First-timer Chris Eska’s Spanish-language drama (and Independent Spirit Award winner for Best Feature Under $500,000) quietly and bittersweetly validates both notions. In the rural southern Texas of some long-lost Terrence Malick film (where it’s always magic hour!), graying paterfamilias and illegal farm worker Jaime (Pedro Castaneda) loses his wife, then his job, provoking him to hop a bus with his widowed daughter-in-law, Lupe (Veronica Loren), to see his surviving kids in San Antonio. Passed off between the proud, working-class son who never told him about his grandchild and the annoyed, suburban daughter who hooked up with a white man, Jaime’s only security is Lupe, a guarded introvert who feels overly pressured to remarry by a family she’s not even related to. Perhaps Eska didn’t have to write all of his characters into overlapping crossroads of crisis, but he’s more nuanced than overt, and his cast (especially Loren and the nonprofessional Castaneda) sells it. We see exactly how the older and younger generations let each other down as their time together ticks slowly away — and boy, does it ever: Eska’s visual digressions are lyrical in the moment (think early David Gordon Green) but ultimately indulgent at more than two hours. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)
BATTLE IN SEATTLE Written and directed by Stuart Townsend, Battle in Seattle reanimates the recent past — namely the late-1999 street actions that, as the largest organized protest of the Clinton era, successfully shut down the World Trade Organization’s “Millennium” round of negotiations. While the rest of the developed world quaked in fear of the dreaded Y2K “virus,” tens of thousands of costumed demonstrators danced in the streets of downtown Seattle. Billed the “Battle in Seattle” before it even happened, this was the first Internet protest in history, as someone explains in the movie with reference to the demonstrators’ uncanny ability to coordinate blockage of the city’s pressure points. For his part, Townsend is rather more labored in orchestrating the ensemble. His protagonists are taken from all sides of the event, including glamorous demonstrators of various persuasions (notably OutKast’s André Benjamin), a police officer (Woody Harrelson) and his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron), a feisty TV-news reporter (Connie Nielsen), and Seattle’s beleaguered mayor (Ray Liotta). Their intentions, like Townsend’s, are mostly good, but Battle in Seattle is too frantic to make more than a transitory impression, yet too responsibly hackneyed to achieve pure tabloid hysteria. In that sense, it’s true to the actual event. The impression the movie leaves is less what the French activist Yves Frémion termed an “orgasm of history” than a hiccup. The world held its breath and moved on. (The Landmark) (J. Hoberman)
CALLBACK: THE UNMAKING OF BLOODSTAIN Whoever came up with the phrase “write what you know” probably never realized just how many aspiring actors would take it way too much to heart, resulting in an unending stream of low-budget movies in which relatively unknown actors play really annoying unknown actors looking for work. Thankfully, in Callback, some of them end up dead or severely injured, which goes a long way toward winning back some audience goodwill. Peter (Johnny Moreno) is a pretentious would-be star who likes to overdo it on the warm-up exercises, questions about his motivation, and so forth; Carl (Michael DeGood) is a pathetic excuse for a criminal whose producer uncle gives him the chance to become an equally pathetic excuse for a thespian; and Tony (Jeff Parise) is a recently released mental patient who’s like Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor in reverse — once he goes off his meds, he quits being a sad schlub and becomes a handsome devil with a dark streak (and a fake Latino accent). All three awkwardly cross paths before being cast in the same film, and once they figure out the connections, things get dangerous. Director Eric M. Wolfson handles the tension of the climactic sequences deftly and manages some earlier nonlinear bits effectively too ... it’s just that the story itself isn’t that interesting, and the cast looks way too clean and made-up to be living in their sleazy surroundings. (Sunset 5) (Luke Y. Thompson)
GO CHOKE There’s a whole lotta fucking going on in Choke, Clark Gregg’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s first-person novel about a sex addict named Victor Mancini with severe Mommy issues — fucking in a cramped airplane bathroom, on a barnyard’s itchy haystack, in a grimy toilet stall, in a hospital’s chapel. Sam Rockwell plays Mancini, an emotionally disconnected Colonial America theme-park employee, who, in his spare time, ditches his sexaholic meetings to screw one of his fellow addicts on the bathroom floor; good thing he’s her sponsor. Gregg has shuffled around some scenes (the book’s first is now toward the film’s end) while rendering the story altogether stickier with sentiment. But in the end, Gregg and Palahniuk wind up in the same place — with a dude for whom doin’ it just ain’t cuttin’ it anymore. And Palahniuk and Gregg (who has perhaps the film’s funniest role as the theme park’s strict taskmaster) both suffer the same flaw: They explain and explain again the genesis of Mancini’s demons, to the point where the novel and movie play almost like parodies of novels and movies in which a character must get in touch with his feelings in order to become a better man. Basically, Mancini’s gonna fuck himself crazy or fuck himself sane. Yawn. (Selected theaters) (Robert Wilonsky)
DAYS AND CLOUDS A movie about bourgeois downward mobility at least has good timing going for it, but though Silvio Soldini’s new film is every bit as gently sympathetic to the hurts and losses of regular folk as his Bread and Tulips (2000), it plays out more like a 12-step program than a human drama. Days and Clouds diligently walks us through but fails to explore the marital tensions that afflict Elsa (the charming Margherita Buy), a recently graduated art restorer, and her laid-off businessman husband, Michele (Antonio Albanese) as they struggle to adapt to life first without the boat, the dinners out and the vacations abroad, then without the basics. She takes a job at a call center. He works as a messenger and handyman in between bouts of depressed idleness. Meanwhile, absorbed in their respective miseries, the couple grows further and further apart until they’re barely communicating. What a pity that love, family solidarity and a sermon on the evils of covetousness walk in on cue to take care of business — along with, absurdly, the mutual contemplation of frescoes as balm for the worried soul who has no idea where the next utility payment is coming from. (Music Hall; One Colorado) (Ella Taylor)
EAGLE EYE Director D.J. Caruso fancies himself a hipster Hitchcock, with Shia LaBeouf as his snarky Jimmy Stewart. Last year, the duo remade Rear Window and called it Disturbia; this week, they return with their North by Northwest–The Man Who Knew Too Much mash-up, Eagle Eye, which is also flavored with overpowering dashes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Live Free or Die Hard and The Parallax View. To offer up even the barest hint of plot synopsis would be fruitless for two reasons: It would take a week to untangle this convoluted tale — also starring Michelle Monaghan as a single mom, Michael Chiklis as the Secretary of Defense, Billy Bob Thornton as an FBI agent and Rosario Dawson as an Air Force investigator — and you’d never believe it anyway. For grins: LaBeouf and Monaghan are two dupes in the wrong place at the wrong time wrangled into a plot not only to kill the president, but most every other government official in the line of succession. By whom? Um ... HAL 9000. From tepid start to laughable middle to thudding finish (and the final two minutes smack of a reshoot), it’s nothing but a herky-jerky clusterfuck of noise and nonsense that scoffs at logic in order to justify its brainless treatise on American foreign policy, terrorism and government surveillance. Big Brother’s watching you, and he can’t stop laughing his ass off. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)
FIREPROOF was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found online at www.laweekly.com/film. (Selected theaters)
GO FREEBIRD A charming mix of male bonding, drug humor and halfhearted crime caper, writer-director Jon Ivay’s British motorcycle comedy plays like a decaffeinated version of Guy Ritchie’s hyperactive lad films. Three friends fumbling into middle age — divorced father Fred (Gary Stretch), lone-wolf Tyg (Geoff Bell) and perpetually high Grouch (Phil Daniels) — hop on their choppers for a trip from London to Wales to secure a crop of sweet weed, only to be slowed down by existential coming-of-age crises and an unwitting entanglement in a feud between rival biker gangs. Freebird is the sort of road movie where plot takes a definite back seat to character interplay, and luckily its three lead actors have a ball goofing on one another while moving from one quirky situation to the next. Although many of the jokes revolve around the effects of the substances the guys ingest — a crucial story point occurs because they take some inordinately strong mushrooms — Ivay’s screenplay contains a deeper emotional component than your typical stoner comedy, becoming an affectionate satire on that moment when an aging pothead realizes there might be more to existence than staving off the munchies. The life lessons are rather obvious, and the third-act showdown is a drag, but Freebird floats by on its very positive vibes. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)
HANK AND MIKE In the misanthropic comedy Hank and Mike, Easter is run by a corporation that employs real-life Easter bunnies to deliver treats to kids. Two such bunnies are horny, drunken Hank (Thomas Michael) and sweet pushover Mike (Paolo Mancini), best friends and roommates who get downsized and must learn to live in the scary human world. Directed by Matthiew Klinck and written by the costars, Hank and Mike puts all its comedic eggs in one basket, hoping that the Bad Santa crowd will love watching dudes in bunny suits smoking, swearing and screwing. Given the thin setup and broad-joke characters, it’s not surprising that the film sprang from a recurring bit on a sketch-comedy show — Canada’s Y B Normal? — and consequently the audience gets an 86-minute reminder of how fortunate we are that Lorne Michaels has stopped unleashing SNL movies on us. There are some laughs to be had at the expense of bunnies behaving badly, but as in the overrated Bad Santa, the repetitive crass humor too often gives way to a misogynistic streak that caters to the meathead contingent. Worse, the filmmakers try to sneak in some heartwarming sentiments near the end — hey, if the jokes are falling flat, they might as well pander to our emotions, right? (Nuart) (Tim Grierson)
THE LUCKY ONES Saying The Lucky Ones is the best film about Iraq yet is the proverbial damning with faint praise. Conservative op-ed writers of the world, rejoice: The three soldiers in Neil Burger’s film aren’t raving psychopaths or illiterate hulks, just normal Americans who love eating McDonald’s when they’re on leave. One of them even believes in God. There’s Cheever (Tim Robbins), whose name must be a joke; a suburban homeowner and stand-up guy, he’s about as far as you can get from family abuse and three-martini lunches. Along for an ad hoc road-trip: TK (Michael Pena), a cocky business-advice-spouting dude, and Colee (Rachel McAdams), as nice a gal you’d ever hope to meet. All three actors are excellent — I’d been assuming that Robbins forgot how to underact sometime in the ’90s, but this almost makes up for Mystic River — and Burger’s film works scene to scene. But its hopelessly schematic road-trip arc (bond-fight-reconcile-repeat) grows increasingly tedious. It’s a “well-made” film: Explosive emotional confrontations are deferred, the ending is purposefully unresolved, the camera work deliberately unshowy. Thank goodness for all that — and the fact that a hashed-over war debate gets less time than one character’s ED problem — but it’s finally all too familiar. (Selected theaters) (Vadim Rizov)
MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL Befitting a Dane Cook vehicle, My Best Friend’s Girl is relentlessly crass, which shouldn’t bother anyone younger than 30 familiar with Cook’s punch lines: He uses “cunt” as often as Henny Youngman punned. Tank (Cook) turns a profit meeting cute with girls, taking them on the worst dates ever, and then sending them back to their grateful fuck-up boyfriends. Trouble comes when roommate/lifelong friend Dustin (Justin Biggs, displaying none of neurotic namesake Hoffman’s charm) strikes out with his infatuation Alexis (Kate Hudson) and asks Tank to do cleanup. Serial womanizer Tank and serial monogamist Alexis, predictably, hit it off. Needless complications ensue. Tank’s whole shtick is taking advantage of stupid women’s desire to live in banal romantic comedies, but the film he’s in is just as bad as any other Hudson movie. Women are easily manipulated and probably skanks; guys either need to get laid or go home. The best thing in the whole mess is the Cars song — played in whole or part some four times. Stay at home and crank it sporadically over 100 minutes and you’ll reap all the benefits. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)
NIGHTS IN RODANTHE This movie works so strenuously to satisfy its target audience’s every desire that it’s a minor surprise that the filmmakers didn’t provide cashmere blankets, a snuggly pair of slippers and a warm cup of cocoa for everyone entering the theater. Based on sap-master Nicholas Sparks’ novel, Nights in Rodanthe introduces us to Adrienne (Diane Lane), an overworked, separated mother separated who decides to take a minivacation by running her friend’s North Carolina beachfront inn for a few days. Her only guest is Paul (Richard Gere), a divorced plastic surgeon who also needs a break from his life. What follows every step of the way is exactly what you think will happen, with Lane doing her standard feisty-mature-hottie routine and Gere in sensitive-heartthrob mode. The feature directorial debut of theater veteran George C. Wolfe (Angels in America), Nights exhibits a certain amount of integrity in its dedication to being uncomplicated, unashamed romantic goo, but after a while, its self-serious celebration of middle-aged ennui redeemed by screwing a handsome stranger with a full head of hair can’t help but inspire a couple cynical chuckles. Still, don’t be surprised if your mom loves it. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)
SHOOT ON SIGHT Named for the London police’s secretive “Operation Kratos” anti-terrorist tactics, which led to the wrongful killing of Brazilian national Jean Charles de Menezes just after the July 7, 2005, Underground bombings, director Jag Mundhra’s suspense(-less) drama oversimplifies the controversy by fictionalizing the victim into an innocent Muslim citizen. In a political move calculated by his Scotland Yard boss (Brian Cox), a Pakistani-born police commander (Naseeruddin Shah) with Greta Scacchi for a wife is assigned to the murder investigation in order to placate the media, but when a routine call uncovers a real terror attack, our hero discovers the “unlikely” culprit to be exactly who we suspected in half that time. As if made for ignoramuses who get nervous around brown skin, nearly everything onscreen is condescendingly telegraphed — from the plodding dialogue jammed with black-or-white morals to the lingering reaction shots, one-dimensional racists and radicals, obvious mood music, and thriller clichés (the easily recognized surveillance-vid detail, the easily guessed computer password, the mano a mano showdown in public). “Is it a crime to be a Muslim?” asks the poster’s tag line. If you really need that answered, have I got a crude network-TV event of a movie for you. (Culver Plaza Theatres) (Aaron Hillis)
SMOTHER was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found online at www.laweekly.com/film. (AMC Burbank; One Colorado; Fallbrook 7; Mann Chinese 6)
GO A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS In an escape from the Hollywood machine that hired him for products like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday, filmmaker Wayne Wang returns to his roots with a personal immigrant-experience story like those he told early in his career (Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum). Adapted by Yiyun Li from her collection of Chinese-American short stories, Wang’s sharply lensed A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is so buoyant and decidedly modest in tone and scale that you almost believe it might float away from the screen. A self-proclaimed “rocket scientist,” retired widower Mr. Shi (Henry O, a convivial composite of Down by Law’s note-taking tourist Roberto Benigni with the slouchy, Magoo-ish demeanor of Monsieur Hulot) arrives in small-town America to visit his divorced daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu), after a dozen years apart. While the exasperated Yilan spends most days avoiding her pop and his culturally/generationally misguided attempts to rescue her, Mr. Shi ventures out to lap up the local flavor, chatting up random shopkeepers, sunbathers and Mormons. Most memorable are his park-bench visits with an old Iranian woman, each enjoying the other’s company without speaking the same dialect (smartly, the scenes aren’t subtitled). There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here, but it’s a film you’ll want to befriend. (Royal; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Aaron Hillis)
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