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Movie Reviews: First Sunday, Nanking, One Missed Call

 FIRST SUNDAY LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan) is the screwup-schemey one; Durell (Ice Cube), the should-know-better buddy. The latest very awful idea: breaking into a neighborhood church to rob the fund-raising pot so that Durell can keep his kid (it’s complicated/convoluted). As it happens, the board is meeting that night, the choir’s come in for practice, the money turns up missing, and a standoff-cum-whodunit is now under way. Prolific playwright and author David E. Talbert’s first feature starts off as straight ghetto capering, then evolves into an inner-city morality play as a night up close with church folk offers a lesson in Christian virtue and responsibility. At first, the movie is overanxious — trying too hard to squeeze out laughs, pump up the soundtrack, ingratiate the audience — and the straining is abrasive. But once Talbert gets distracted with keeping the plot clunking along, the comedy eases into relaxed sideline banter. Trailers sell Katt Williams’ supporting bit as a fey choir director hard, but Morgan butchers me every time with that over-emphatic delivery thing that makes incidental lines multiplex-leveling funny. (“Let’s take flight!”) His couple of earnest dramatic scenes are, I should add, more honestly felt than anything in The Great Debaters. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

IN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here soon. (Citywide)

NANKING In The Rape of Nanking, journalist Iris Chang chronicled the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking and the atrocities that followed (200,000 murders and more than 20,000 rapes within the first six weeks of the occupation). Chang’s 2005 suicide at the age of 36 spurred businessman Ted Leonsis to fund the production of Nanking, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s documentary on the subject. Focusing on a group of foreigners living in Nanking at the time of the invasion who formed a “Safety Zone” for the Chinese too poor to flee the city, Guttentag and Sturman intersperse readings of letters from the time with wrenching testimonials from Chinese survivors and archival footage. Most of the foreigners were missionaries, with the notable exception of German John Rabe, a Hitler devotee: “There’s a question of morality here,” he wrote, explaining his decision to stay put, “and so far I haven’t been able to sidestep it.” When a Nazi’s ethical core is pricked, attention should be paid. But it wasn’t, the film reminds us, and one can’t help but think of current corollaries and the documentaries to come: While the footage and survivors of Nanking are gray and decaying, its story is not something out of the past. (Royal) (Michelle Orange)

ONE MISSED CALL If your cell phone vibrates while you’re watching One Missed Call, go ahead and answer, because even a wrong number will be more exciting than what’s happening onscreen. Up there, college kids are receiving voice mails in which they hear their own deaths. The calls are always time-dated a day or two in the future, and sure enough, at the appointed hour, the kid in question kicks, sometimes at the hands of a flickering, hooded demon, and sometimes less directly, as when a flying construction spike impales a cocky disbeliever. A demon with bad hair or Death keeping to a schedule — one movie can’t contain both, and regrettably, screenwriter Andrew Klavan (a terrific novelist unaccountably slumming) and director Eric Valette opt to rip off The Ring and not the far wittier Final Destination films. They had no choice, really, since they were hired to remake a Japanese horror hit that spawned two sequels. J-horror has been highly influential, but sooner or later, it all tends to come down to an abused child or wife rising from the dead in anger, a bit that’s become as humdrum as masked hulks stalking horny teens with kitchen knives. Enough already. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

THE PIRATES WHO DON’T DO ANYTHING: A VEGGIETALES MOVIE One way to change your child’s opinion of produce is to subject them to this movie, which makes the prospect of scarfing down a plateful of unseasoned Brussels sprouts seem enticing by comparison. From the present to “somewhere in the 17th century,” three vegetables of vaguely determinate type but obvious racial identity arrive to save a royal family from a group of pirates. All sorts of nonsense is accomplished with the aid of the golden compass, err, the help seeker, a gizmo that allows a cucumber, a gourd and a grape to play heroes in the past. Humorless, incoherent and ugly as sin, director Mike Nawrocki’s Christian-friendly production is as tragic as the candle wax that resembles a glob of man jam and opens Pa Grape’s eyes to the meaning of his adventure. (Citywide) (Ed Gonzalez)

RUNNING WITH ARNOLD Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is either a shining testament to the American Dream or a prime example of how big-money success corrupts the soul. History, perhaps, will regard him as both. Still, even the most die-hard lefty may cringe at this amateurish and wincingly shrill exposé by entertainment journalist turned filmmaker Dan Cox. The 72-minute Running With Arnold is narrated by actor Alec Baldwin, who reportedly recorded his voice-over without having first seen the film (oops), then tried to have it removed after finally catching a screening. The actor was understandably dismayed by Cox’s bricks-and-bat approach, which includes juxtaposing Arnold’s photo with that of famous fascists (Adolf Hitler among them). It’s a shame that Cox resorts to such Rove-style foolishness; Schwarzenegger’s governorship alone contains so much flip-flopping, questionable donations and conflict of interest that an evenhanded summary of the facts might have raised eyebrows even among the devoted. Instead, Cox and his onscreen experts — a group top-heavy with unknown comics — veer off into dire warnings of a constitutional coup that will place the Governator and his evil Republican backers in the White House. Although such a thing certainly seems possible in this whacked-out country of ours, foaming at the mouth rarely saves the republic. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)


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