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Movie Reviews: Fanboys, The Pink Panther 2, Push

Absurdistan
First Run Features

GO ABSURDISTAN A droll comic fable about a water shortage, a battle of the sexes and the teenage lovers caught in the middle, Absurdistan doesn’t have a ton of high-voltage laughs, but it’s a nonstop charm machine. Living in a remote, tiny village in the hinterlands between Europe and Asia, Aya (Kristýna Maléová) and Temelko (Maximilian Mauff) long to consummate their relationship, but vow to wait until a date suggested by Aya’s astrologist grandmother — four years in the future. When the day comes, though, Absurdistan’s desert community is suffering from a drought brought on by a decaying irrigation pipe, which the community’s lazy male population refuses to fix. So Aya organizes a female sex strike until the menfolk remedy the situation. The resulting gender war and Temelko’s attempts to bring water to Absurdistan are decidedly low-stakes affairs, but director Veit Helmer (Tuvalu) is more interested in crafting a gently amusing modern-day folktale in which the happy ending is assured from the first moment Aya and Temelko beam at one another. As demonstrated by the film’s low-grade special effects, Absurdistan makes a virtue out of modest, handmade storytelling without falling prey to cutesy self-indulgence, and Helmer gets astounding comic mileage out of the loutish stupidity of the village’s very hairy men. (Nuart) (Tim Grierson)

BLESSED IS THE MATCH: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF HANNAH SENESH Hannah Senesh, the ardent young socialist-Zionist who emigrated from Budapest to Palestine and was tortured and killed by the Nazis for parachuting into Hungary to stimulate Jewish resistance, has become such a sainted Joan of Arc to Israelis that it’s a relief to watch her scaled down into a flawed woman (of enormous bravery) here. Based on a memoir by Senesh’s mother, Roberta Grossman’s film is an ungainly hybrid of straight-up documentary and ingenuous re-enactment. Grossman smartly shifts the focus from the parachutist’s derring-do to the bizarre sequence of events by which, held in the same prison, Senesh and her mother managed to communicate with one another and buoy the spirits of other prisoners. Senesh had a soulful side — she wrote the poem, “Eli, Eli,” which became the famous Holocaust song — but, like many people of outstanding public courage, she was less adept at private life. To her regret, she never had a lover, and one of her surviving fellow partisans frankly admits that he found more in her to admire than to like. Senesh’s fortitude, and her intransigent refusal to beg for her life at the end, raise complicated questions about heroism, as Anglo-Jewish historian Martin Gilbert underscores when he asks what counts as failure in the context of the Holocaust. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

CHOCOLATE The world may not have needed a Thai-language martial arts hybrid of Kill Bill and Rain Man, but, by God, it has one now. Already chopped into countless snippets and strewn across YouTube, director Prachya Pinkaew’s followup to the mighty Muay Thai epics Ong-Bak and The Protector offers more of everything: more score-settling for the West’s Asian-action culture thievery; more maudlin interludes; and more knees, fists and elbows to the skull than the oeuvres of Bruce Lee and Vince McMahon combined. In place of his former leading man Tony Jaa, Pinkaew offers instant action-hero JeeJa Yanin as an autistic girl who instinctively apes the fights she sees in movies and video games. When her ex–moll mom develops cancer, the girl goes collecting on old debts to pay for her treatment — and if you can stop goggling at the tasteless premise, the formula of a slight, scrawny chick pulverizing brawny thugs never loses its fist-pumping appeal. Though the plot just lets Pinkaew restage the same fight over and over on different sets, let it also be said that they get bigger and better each time — culminating in a neck-snapping, head-busting, leg-twisting, gravity-defying free-for-all played out on ledges high above a city street. This is backyard wrestling as cinema, and you can judge for yourself if that’s a recommendation or a warning. (Memo to Magnolia Pictures’ genre-movie subsidiary Magnet, which also put out the excellent Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In: More, please.) (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

MADE IN AMERICA Why is there so much violence in South L.A.? What are the historical roots of the Bloods and Crips? Stacy Peralta’s documentary Made in America employs hip-hop beats and music-video aesthetics (quick edits, slick cinematography, artful use of still photography) to answer those twined questions. With narration by Forest Whitaker, Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys, Riding Giants) turns his cameras on former and current gang members who outline the origins of gangs (one starting point: the once-racist policies of the Boy Scouts, which forced young black males to form makeshift youth groups of their own), the evolution of the gangs, their role in the civil-rights movement of the ’60s, and the American government’s hand in turning Bloods and Crips from community activists into community scourge. It’s a lot to take in, and Peralta does an admirable job cramming tons of history and insight into his reportage on how the “’hood” came to be. Made in America is fueled by his palpable frustration and unapologetic lefty sympathizing, which is the film’s strength. Its failure to really address the role of economic policies and job loss is a glaring weakness, however, underscoring not only a crucial information deficit but also Peralta’s real-life remove from his own subject matter. Those unfamiliar with the subject matter should use Made in America as the gateway film to check out the superior All Power to the People and Bastards of the Party. The latter, directed by former Blood Cle “Bone” Sloan, is the raw, underground joint to Peralta’s pop opus. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

 

FANBOYS This dust-gatherer about four friends traveling cross country in 1998 to sneak a peek at a rough cut of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is meant for the dude content to simply stare at an Imperial storm trooper’s empty helmet for 90 minutes. It’s for the two childhood friends who parted ways back in junior high over a dispute about whether Captain James T. Kirk could kick Han Solo’s ass. And it’s for every girl who ever donned a Princess Leia Jabba’s palace slave-girl costume, lest her boyfriend refuse her access to the Dianoga under his robe. (And, yes, it’s for everyone who knows that a Dianoga is the tentacled, one-eyed creature living in the Death Star’s garbage masher. Just ask my 5-year-old.) So there’s your target audience — Kevin Smith, in other words, who cameos as himself in a film loaded with more what-the? guests than an entire season of The Love Boat. The rest of you, find something — anything — better to do. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

LUCK BY CHANCE Farhan Akhtar, the talented young director (Dil Chahta Hai) turned leading man (Rock On!), may simply be too nice a guy (and lack the dramatic chops) to effectively play the boyish wannabe actor with a cold conniving soul at the center of his sister Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance, an enjoyable but ultimately toothless inside-Bollywood dramady. Key sequences in which Akhtar’s Vikram Jaisingh reveals the unsuspected depth of his self-serving amorality don’t send the intended chill up the spine, because there’s nothing slithering beneath the surface of Akhtar’s blandly likable performance. (Konkona Sen Sharma, as the devoted aspiring actress Vikram repeatedly betrays, quietly acts this amateur under the table.) Like quite a few finger-wagging movies about moviemaking, Luck By Chance doesn’t have the budget to capture the full cheesy splendor of the blockbuster film shoots it disapproves of. But the Akhtar siblings, who co-wrote the script, are lifelong Hindi cinema insiders (their dad is legendary Sholay screenwriter and ubiquitous film-song lyricist Javed Akhtar) and their levelheaded sense of the way the business operates keeps things grounded. A sharply observed subplot about the near collapse and frantic resurrection of a major Bollywood production feels like frontline reporting rather than satire. Better yet, the Akhtars have created a half-dozen sharp supporting roles and handed them to practiced actors whose relish for the job keeps the movie jumping. Longtime Bollywood favorite Rishi Kapoor, as a flop-sweat producer in love with his own flamboyance, and his 1973 Bobby co-star, Dimple Kapadia, as a diva actress turned stage mother, are amazingly good at snapping one-liners back and forth, in long-drawn-out volleys that would not be out of place at Wimbledon. (Culver Plaza; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8; Norwalk 8; Laguna 16) (David Chute)

THE PINK PANTHER 2 There are maybe two or three laugh-out-loud moments and a handful of chuckles to be culled from Steve Martin’s overlong Pink Panther 2, the latest installment in the lackluster overhaul of Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers’ iconic comedy franchise. That’s as good as it gets. After several of the world’s most important cultural artifacts are stolen, Inspector Clouseau (a lifelessly mugging Martin) is drafted to head up a who’s-who of the world’s leading detectives to track down the culprit. Until that storied team comes together, the film is a dreary checklist of pratfalls, wan double entendres, and frantic, unfunny set pieces. Jolts of inspiration briefly appear in the forms of a dick-waving Andy Garcia and a verbally jousting Alfred Molina (each playing a detective), and Lily Tomlin as a counselor trying to turn the casually racist and sexist Clouseau into a model of political correctness. The rest of the cast (Emily Mortimer, Jeremy Irons, a disarmingly beautiful Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is fine, but it’s Garcia, Molina and Tomlin who give you momentary hope that the film might settle into a witty, irreverent romp. Unfortunately, their efforts are ultimately defeated by Harald Zwart’s inert direction of a flat script. And you’ll have no problem figuring out the villain long before the film ends. (Citywide) (Ernest Hardy)

 

PUSH Not to be mistaken for the acclaimed Mo’Nique Sundance drama, director Paul McGuigan’s harebrained sci-fi thriller about young Americans with extraordinary psychic powers banding together in Hong Kong seems to have been made up as it was being filmed. It’s less X-Men and more “Why, man?” Hero #1 Chris Evans is a second-generation “mover,” with telekinetic abilities; government baddie and “pusher” Djimon Hounsou plants treacherous ideas in other people’s minds; a smugly precocious Dakota Fanning sketches pictures of the future as a “watcher”; and everyone else sounds like the drug nicknames Hunter S. Thompson came up with in his Las Vegas suitcase: “stitches,” “shadows,” “bleeders,” “shifts,” “sniffs” and “wipers.” All that the superskills offer are ridiculous screenwriting shortcuts (Evans hands out instruction cards to his posse, then has his mind erased by a crusty Chinese local in order to thwart telepathic villains and literally change fate) for a puffed-up plot that would make less sense to explain than to watch. The CGI effects are serviceable, if that’s your bag, but the action has no suspense, the set pieces are uninspired (besides all the neon, why are they even in Hong Kong?), and the half-baked, anticlimactic punchline had me expecting an announcement that Season One kicks off on Fox this fall. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)

THE 2008 ACADEMY AWARD-NOMINATED SHORTS Those who have never attended the annual festival of Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts should be advised: Don’t expect all 10 entries to be mini-masterpieces. Nonetheless, there’s some lovely artistry to be found. The live-action selections largely reject tight narrative to engage in meditations on guilt, cultural differences and aging. The closest these films come to a page-turner is On the Line, a twisty drama concerning a tentative friendship between a German security guard and a pretty bookstore employee. By comparison, New Boy is a small shrug of a film, tracing the touchy-feely misadventures of an African boy enduring his first day in an Irish school. Cynical Oscar handicappers will note that the familiar Toyland is the sole short set during the Holocaust, but the film manages to find some poignancy in a Gentile mother’s search for her missing child in Nazi Germany. The biggest missed opportunity is The Pig, an initially intriguing Danish deadpan comedy about an older man’s odd attachment to a painting of a pig. The clear winner is Manon on the Asphalt, a moving rumination that turns a young woman’s serious bike accident into an existential discussion on the fragility of connection. The animation nominees are a battle between the deeply personal and the playfully freewheeling. Somewhere in the middle is This Way Up, a soulful British comedy about a father-and-son undertaker team who brave boulders, rivers and Satan to get their assigned casket to the cemetery on time. Oktapodi is a forgettable Pixar-like adventure yarn about one determined octopus’ quest to save its true love from becoming dinner; actual Pixar’s Presto is dazzlingly animated, but its nimble craftsmanship lacks the heart of the final two nominees. The minimalist Russian Lavatory-Lovestory looks like a New Yorker cartoon, its fable about a lovelorn bathroom attendant is satisfying romantic goo. Finally, there’s Japan’s La Maison en petits cubes, which follows an aging man whose towering house is being consumed by a flood, forcing him to enter the submerged floors and confront the memories held within them. A heartbreaking treatise on the inescapable clutter of life, this film is one of the most modest in this entire series, but, in terms of emotional resonance, it’s among the best. (The Landmark; Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Tim Grierson)


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