THE CARTEL A union-busting doc with an adamant — if not quite apolitical — focus on the children slipping through the cracks, The Cartel uses New Jersey as Exhibit A in its case against this country's crooked education system. Though it is first in education spending, New Jersey has an abysmal dropout rate and equally dire testing scores; director Bob Bowdon cites what a former school superintendent calls "rampant, pervasive, institutionalized" budgetary corruption and a deeply entrenched, self-interested teachers union as the culprits. Bowdon, a former local television reporter and anchorman, pulls together a familiar repertoire of talking heads, man-on-the-street interviews, remedial graphics and stilted B-roll, and ultimately this information-packed indictment plays like a feature-length "in-depth" news segment. Moving loosely from angle to angle — the tenure system, the plot against voucher programs, the stonewalling of charter schools — The Cartel makes up for what it lacks in style and structure with selective but stone-cold facts. Although a school-district president rolling up to a budgetary hearing in a white limo and an administration parking lot clogged with luxury cars are undeniably good gets, Bowdon's strength as a documentarian is more evident in the patience and logic with which he makes an argument for a state and a system in desperate need of reform. (Michelle Orange) (Sunset 5)
DANCING ACROSS BORDERS When 16-year-old Sokvannara Sar, a charismatic Cambodian with a gift for his native folk dances, arrived in New York City in 2001 as the protegé of the unbelievably rich Manhattan socialite (and generous dance patron) Anne Bass, he had never seen ballet — and wasn't that stoked about it. "This ballet thing is going to turn me into a duck," he remembers thinking. "I don't think I want to do this." It's a sentiment Sar repeats throughout Dancing Across Borders, and it is to first-time director Bass' credit that she marked his ambivalence in this otherwise blithely tone-deaf ode to her own generosity and that of dance instructor Olga Kostritzky. Several uncomfortable factors are at play in the story of Sar's success — the clear class and culture shock; the pressure to compress 10 years of ballet training into three lest he lose his patron's attention — but Bass, enamored of his talent and determined to shape it to her liking ("I hope he's going to be what I want him to be," Kostritzky says), elides every one. Instead, we get white folks ruminating lyrically on the peasant Asian's role as a kind of grand jeté bridge between East and West, and long performance sequences that are dazzling to behold but quite troubling to contemplate. (Michelle Orange) (Nuart)
DEATH AT A FUNERAL It doesn’t take much to improve the first Death at a Funeral, the flat Frank Oz–directed Britcom of 2007; a few tossed-off references to Jet and sickle cell anemia will do it. Though the plot of Dean Craig’s original script remains almost entirely intact (he receives the sole writer’s credit), the tweaks by star-producer Chris Rock — who replaces the pallid ninnies of London with a mostly African-American extended clan gathered in Pasadena to say goodbye to a deceased patriarch — yield some particularly sharp specifics. Rock plays elder son Aaron, whose successful-writer younger brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), has made his riches off books titled Mama’s Secret, Black Hurt and Rhonda’s Tiny Box. Eulogizing Dad before learning about his life on the “waaaaay down-low” (Peter Dinklage reprises his role as the extorting secret boyfriend), Aaron refers to his father’s “love of Golden Girls, especially when it went into syndication.” But Rock’s interventions can’t compensate for excessive fealty to dumb gags involving watery poop and designer hallucinogens. Some cast members bring welcome controlled mania: Tracy Morgan, as a hypochondriacal friend of the family, further hones his logorrheic outbursts. Others, like Luke Wilson, as a scorned suitor of Zoe Saldana, are such null presences that they should have been in the original. (Melissa Anderson)
GO EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP Exit Through the Gift Shop is not just the definitive portrait of street-art counterculture but also a hilarious exposé on the gullibility of the masses who embrace manufactured creative personas. Though it's credited as a Banksy picture — as in the ever-elusive U.K. graffiti ninja — the film began with him as its on-camera subject. Banksy's talking head appears faceless under a dark hood to help explain how the role reversal occurred. The real "director" of most of the footage herein is Thierry Guetta, an eccentric French expat in L.A. who began videotaping his cousin — the mosaic artist Space Invader — on his night bombing missions. From there, Guetta earned the trust of DIY art notables Banksy, Swoon and Shepard Fairey, whom Guetta meets on camera at a Kinko's as Fairey's printing out enlarged copies of his notorious "André the Giant Has a Posse" designs. The irony of creating art with tools from a commercial franchise is not lost on Fairey, who admits that his logos "gain real power from perceived power." Without ruining the late-breaking surprises, the impact of Fairey's quote sharply resonates after Guetta rechristens himself as the artist "Mr. Brainwash," exploiting his connections for his first solo exhibition, an inexplicably successful event aided by an L.A. Weekly cover story that inspired frothing among gallery patrons. Too clever to dismiss as another recycled joke on the inanity of modern art, Exit is strangely inspirational. Go on, pick up an aerosol can, paint yourself an empire, and see if we call your bluff. (Aaron Hillis) (ArcLight, Landmark)
GO HANDSOME HARRY A fixture of New York City's No Wave scene of the late '70s and early '80s — an era of prolific DIY filmmaking, when everybody seemed to be collaborating with everyone else — Bette Gordon continues her exploration of desire, with Handsome Harry. A road movie ensemble piece interrupted by Fireworks-like flashbacks, HH finds its hero (played by Jamey Sheridan) reconciling with the unpalatable notion that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, each man maims the thing he loves. Harry, a well-liked, long-divorced middle-ager capable of only the most awkward interactions with the diner waitress who clearly wants him and the 20-ish son who's driven hundreds of miles to visit him in upstate New York, takes off suddenly for Philadelphia to visit Tom (Steve Buscemi), a dying Navy buddy. "We became men together," Tom reminisces in his hospital bed — rites of passage that torment Harry, who continues to seek friends from the service to assuage his guilt over a heinous act of betrayal and cruelty. Each visit serves as a set piece for the particular pathologies of white midlife manhood: entitlement, repression, rage, self-pity. Gordon films every encounter — some of which droop under too much hectoring (the script is by first-timer Nicholas T. Proferes) — with a hesitant empathy, maintaining just the right tone before Harry's lushly romantic final reunion. In Gordon's films, eros' capacity to disturb and disrupt is celebrated as its greatest quality. (Melissa Anderson)
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THE JONESES For a while, at least, a pitch-black (and, therefore, pitch-perfect) tale of our times: Four business partners masquerading as a happy family move into seven-figure suburbia and sell their friends and neighbors — which is to say, contacts and customers — on their early-adopter, newer-than-brand-new layaway lifestyle. David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth are the client-sponsored grifters; they bait their prey with the latest and greatest gadgets and flash-frozen sushi rolls fresh off the assembly line. But, sadly, the audience is conned most of all. What plays hard and dark for the film's first half goes squishy and blindingly bright as calamity and then outright tragedy lead to the saw-it-coming resolution writer-director Derrick Borte thinks is more sincere than it actually plays. Duchovny is alternately (and suitably) confident and befuddled as the ex–car salesman newly hired to play "Dad"; Moore, as the crew's boss, out to make numbers and not friends, is as icy as the Pomtinis she's pushing on commission; and the "kids," one closeted gay and one slutty, aren't dopes. But for whatever reason, the movie goes soft: Business turns to pleasure turns to hurt, and the moral of the story becomes the story, shrug. Still, there's Gary Cole as the next-door neighbor who buys the sales pitch he can't afford. That's recommendation enough. (Robert Wilonsky) (Citywide)
LETTERS TO GOD The latest offering in Evangelical-oriented entertainment, Letters To God tells the story of an 8-year-old boy who copes with cancer by sending heartfelt epistolary prayers through the mail, which in turn inspire his entire suburban community. "Write a letter to God," an ailing Tyler (Tanner Maguire) advises his older brother. "It's like texting your best friend." Like most fundamentalist fare, the film works unapologetically in the style of sloganeering after-school specials. In dramatic terms, the problem with devotionals is that the end point is always fore-ordained; they're all about answers (the answer, in fact), not questions. But this weakness is also the genre's promise. One doesn't turn to these movies for escapism or suspense but for comfort and affirmation. Letters To God performs this service adequately, even pleasantly — save for the morbid teasing out of Tyler's demise. Yet spirituals also have an Evangelical imperative, which pushes them beyond benign antidrama to hard-sell propaganda. Tyler doesn't just die a good boy, a believer and a saint: He dies a crusading missionary, his cancer exploited to convert everyone from the mailman to his 8-year-old classmates. With little in the way of story or spectacle to offer nonbelievers, the film itself just preaches to the choir. (Eric Hynes) (Citywide)
THE PERFECT GAME Obstructing the potential of a legacy he had begun in the '80s by collaborating on Michael Nesmith's eccentric sketch-comedy movies (Elephant Parts, Doctor Duck's Super Secret All-Purpose Sauce), director William Dear now appears to be your go-to guy for forgettable, family-friendly baseball flicks. Following his Angels in the Outfield and The Sandlot: Heading Home is this Downy-soft, by-the-numbers biopic with Christian undertones — adapted by W. William Winokur from his book — about nine poor kids from Monterrey, Mexico, who became the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League World Series back in 1957. In an uncomplicated role, Clifton Collins Jr. barely has to flex his typical sad-eyed humanism as Cesar Faz, a former St. Louis Cardinals janitor who never got his big coaching break because he was Mexican. Laid off for the same reason and now embittered, Cesar winds up back down South, where he's convinced by a doting young ragamuffin — and encouraged by Cheech Marin's humble priest — to guide an underdog team on the road to victory. Barely dramatizing off-the-field struggles like visa problems and the boys' first taste of good ol' American racism, the film does a disservice to the community it depicts by rendering an inspiring cultural story entirely uninspired. (Aaron Hillis)
WHO DO YOU LOVE The life and times of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess, and the outsize personalities of his signees — Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry — would make a terrific movie. In fact, it did, and it was called Cadillac Records. Well, who wants leftovers? There was obvious wrangling over rights between the dueling Chess biopics: Cadillac got Chuck, and Who Do You Love got Bo. Etta James is herein rechristened "Ivy Mills" (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and cruelly dispatched with a plot-handy heroin overdose. Chess, played by Jon Abrahams, is now a far more central figure — or does everyone else just seem more marginal? — while Love's restoration of redundant brother/partner Phil Chess shows exactly why he was written out of Cadillac. Abrahams plays Chess' self-assurance as off-putting clamminess, and a running gag that requires him to greet everyone as "Motherfucker" — supposedly, this endlessly bemuses black musicians and lets them know he's not like other white guys — goes from awful to insufferable. Also free with its facts, Cadillac understood the complex tangle of personal, racial and familial loyalties that were behind putting electric blues on wax. Who Do You Love solves segregation with a harmonica duet, suggesting its proclivity for hot air. (Nick Pinkerton) (Monica, Sunset 5, Playhouse)