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Movie Reviews: Food, Inc., Imagine That, Moon

The Taking of Pelham 123: Stop or my subway dispatcher will shoot!

THE ART OF BEING STRAIGHT Misunderstood, reviled and even doubted to really exist, bisexuals throw a wrench in binary thinking about sexuality; they befuddle as many queer folk as they do straight. In The Art of Being Straight, writer-director Jesse Rosen attempts to illuminate the bisexual experience from the inside out, with “straight” boy Jon (played by Rosen) broadening his sexual horizons in the film’s main plot, and acerbic young dyke Maddy (Rachel Castillo, excellent) flirting with a woman-on-man affair as the subplot. College friends, the two are transplants to L.A., grappling with career complications as they wrestle with newfound desires. Rosen’s script is competently crafted, and his cast is talented. The film is undermined, though, by his simplistic — even scarily retro — ideas about queer sexuality. Jon is introduced to man-sex by his creepy, stalkerlike boss, and their big sex scene is not just uncomfortable but joyless, lacking heat. And while Rosen shows playfulness and real sexual ardor in his boy-girl sex scenes, the homo couplings are all drunken and tortured. The psychologically flat script isn’t nearly up to the task of depicting the pleasure within confusion/despair (or vice versa); neither are Rosen’s acting chops. (Music Hall) (Ernest Hardy)

DIM SUM FUNERAL Director Anna Chi’s Chinese-American family drama, from a screenplay by Donald Martin, is ambitious in scope and banal in execution. When the Xiao family matriarch (nicknamed Dragon Lady by her kin) dies unexpectedly, her four estranged adult children are forced by their nanny (Talia Shire) to honor their late mother’s wishes for a traditional Chinese funeral — a request that baffles them, as they’ve been pointedly raised with no connection to Chinese culture. So the warring siblings come together to sort through Mom’s estate, as well as the family’s “secrets and lies.” (Yes, someone utters that phrase.) In addition to the slow peeling back of the dead woman’s own history, the script throws in a sassy lesbian daughter and her edgy girlfriend; a biracial grandchild whose embittered mother was forbidden to marry his father; a haughty former beauty queen sister-in-law; and a sister grieving the death of her young son. It’s a lot to take in, but Chi’s pedestrian direction never pushes beyond the script’s trite psychological and sociocultural insights, or its forced feel-good resolutions. What pleasure is to be found in Dim Sum lies in the chance to see such underutilized actors as Russell Wong and Kelly Hu on the big screen, though both have been better in past performances, and you wish they had material worthy of them here. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Ernest Hardy)

GO  FOOD, INC. Anyone who has read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Fast Food Nation will experience a strong sense of déjà vu as the film Food, Inc. unfolds. That’s because many of the case studies used in this dark look at food production came from those books. Indeed, authors Michael Pollen and Eric Schlosser appear throughout the film as talking heads, their placid and jovial manner sometimes undercutting the shocking nature of the material presented. There’s nothing jovial about the mother whose 2-year-old child dies just days after eating an E. coli-tainted burger. Other tragedies are not as explicit. We meet an Indiana gleaner pursuing the age-old career of scavenging seeds from agricultural detritus, so the farmers can plant them the next year. And then we see chemical giant Monsanto hectoring him until his business goes bust, claiming that his activities challenge the so-called intellectual-property rights for their genetically engineered seeds, which have contaminated fields all over the state. In between are aerial shots of fields and feed lots, giving the film a pastoral feel, even though one of director Robert Kenner’s central points is that our romanticization of farming prevents us from seeing how it has become a malevolent corporate venture. Despite occasional spiritual uplift, the film cultivates a feeling of paranoia as it progresses, so that none of the printed nostrums flashed over the final credits (“You can change the world with every bite”) can dispel the notion that we and the Earth are irretrievably fucked. (Nuart) (Robert Sietsema)

IMAGINE THAT Eddie Murphy is Denver investment consultant Evan, with a workaholic schedule that leaves little space for 7-year-old daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi). Adding to his pressures is the meteoric rise of a co-worker, shtick Native American “Whitefeather,” (played by Thomas Haden Church, fitfully amusing, with characterization and makeup owing much to Phil Hartman’s SNL Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer), whose financial consultations come couched in pseudomysticism and PowerPoint razzle-dazzle. Evan’s interest in parent-child bonding spikes when Olivia becomes a medium for clairvoyant insights into international business trends via her imaginary friends. On the surface, the idea of combining Bloomberg Terminals, market jargon and childish fancy seems counterintuitive. That’s because it is. But Imagine That does manage to get a crowd tearing up on cue for its emotional climax; as much as it works, it’s through the personal charm of Murphy and Shahidi. Strikes against include God-awful Beatles covers, overreliance on the hilarity of grown-ups in suits saying “poop,” and obtrusive Red Bull product placement — the beverage company may as well start producing films itself after this and Yes Man. If memory serves, kiddies like whatever movie you drop them at but, for the record, Drop Dead Fred remains the vastly superior film. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

GO  KABEI: OUR MOTHER Kabei, an unpretentious and old-fashioned (that is, crisply legible) domestic drama, shows how Rising Sun Japan’s sense of national destiny affects one family. Aside from a miscalculated coda, it’s set in the years leading up to and immediately after the Emperor’s Army declares war on Britain and the U.S. Father “Tobei” (Mitsugoro Bando) is locked up for writing against the ongoing “crusade” in China. In his absence, Mama “Kabei” (Sayuri Yoshinaga) raises their two daughters, the youngest playing the part of Teruyo Nogami, a longtime Kurosawa collaborator, whose memoir was the basis of Kabei — the text periodically interrupts for guided-tour voice-over. Family support comes from an aunt, a sluggard uncle and a former student, played by Tadanobu Asano, transitioning from comic-relief fop to doomed gravitas. The axis of Kabei is the dining table in the cramped Nogami home; the drama dilutes when perspective shifts to missing loved ones — in prison cells and a torpedoed troop transport — and away from Yoshinaga’s emotive eloquence. About the age of his young protagonists during World War II, director Yôji Yamada does get the period’s texture on film. Best known for his Tora-san melodrama franchise (40-odd films, 1969-96), old workhorse Yamada delivers the solar plexus emotional hit of a tragic telegram with precision that shows a lifetime’s practice, turning Hallmarkisms sublime. (Music Hall) (Nick Pinkerton)

MOON Moon is a modest science-fiction film with major aspirations. The tale of a lonely spaceman might have made an excellent Twilight Zone episode, but Moon’s premise is even more suggestive of a song by director Duncan Jones’ father, David Bowie, whose 1969 hit “Space Oddity” took a depressed astronaut as its protagonist. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is introduced running laps on his lunar-station treadmill. Bell, alone save for his chaperone Gerty — an ungainly robotic valet with the soothing voice of Kevin Spacey and a smiley face on its TV monitor — has been at this dump of a base for nearly three years and, having almost fulfilled his contract, desperately wants out. The movie is a virtual solo for Rockwell, whose shambolic Everyman is already perilously close to a nervous breakdown, when he totals his lunar Land Rover while out on a repair mission. Bell wakes up in the infirmary and, motivated by an obscure urge to investigate, tricks Gerty into allowing him back outside. Revisiting the scene of the accident, he finds another guy in the crashed vehicle: him. At this point, Rockwell’s one-man show turns into a doppelgänger act. Impressively pulled together on a modest budget, Moon has a strong lead and a valid philosophical premise but, despite Bell’s fissured psyche, the drama is inert. Ground control to Major Tom: Moon orbits an idea, but it doesn’t go anywhere. (Selected theaters) (J. Hoberman)

STREET DREAMS The love child of skateboarding champ and reality star Rob Dyrdek (of MTV’s Rob & Big), Street Dreams is set in Chicago, where Derek (Paul Rodriguez), a 17-year-old Mexican-American, dreams of making it to the pro skateboarding circuit. Derek’s parents don’t approve, but his four best buddies believe in him, although Troy (played by Dyrdek), the group’s unofficial leader, is growing increasingly jealous. On the road to an amateur contest in Tampa, where Derek and Troy will face off, first-time director Chris Zamoscianyk nicely captures the boozy, profane silliness of teenage boys on the loose, while drawing believable performances from a cast comprised largely of nonactors (including the charismatic Rodriguez, who’s known in pro-skating circles as P-Rod). What regrettably eludes the director is the mad beauty of boys speeding pell-mell down city streets, as well as the potential poetry in their airborne spins off curbs and handrails. Street Dreams is enjoyable enough, but it’s a shame that Zamoscianyk and Dyrdek (who also co-wrote the script) fail to suggest that some boarders — millions of them, no doubt — skate not for sponsored glory, but for the solace they find in an activity that allows them to conquer, however fleetingly, this rock-hard world. (Beverly Center; Mann Chinese 6; AMC Burbank; Mann Plant 16) (Chuck Wilson)

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 Want to know how a city works? Start by watching 1974’s The Taking of Pelham 123, in which subway hijackers test how long it’ll take a million bucks to pass through Gotham’s plumbing. Turns out an hour is just enough time to roust the mayor from his bed, convince him that $1 million is cheap for the hostages’ sure votes, get the Treasury on the horn, and gridlock traffic by wrecking the drop-off car. And yet, in the end, a web of dysfunction from Gracie Mansion to the Transit Authority defeats the crooks’ well-oiled machine. At the time, the movie didn’t connect with audiences. But in the years after 9-11, Pelham took on new life — a parable of New Yorkers’ surly resilience in the face of aggression. With this remake (starring John Travolta as crime ringleader and Denzel Washington as subway dispatcher), director Tony Scott turns a presciently post–9-11 movie into an explicitly post–9-11 movie. Make that post–post–9-11: The chief bad guy only looks like a terrorist, when in fact he’s an even scarier foe — a commodities trader! But if self-conscious stabs at significance don’t sound like as much fun as the original’s unpretentious caper thrills, that’s because they’re not. Scott’s redo comes up short in almost every regard against the ’74 model — against David Shire’s knuckled-brass score, against its gallery of ’70s New York character actors, against Peter Stone’s serrated script. And if it’s somehow unfair to compare the two, why was Pelham even remade? (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

UNBEATABLE HAROLD For the eternally chipper Harold Clark (played by screenwriter Gordon Michaels), who works at a Reno steakhouse, wears mutton chops and drives a pink Cadillac, every day is a “lucky day,” even if Harold’s dream of becoming a TV weatherman seems as remote as the possibility of his finding true love. Based on a one-act Randy Noojin play Michaels appeared in 20 years ago, Unbeatable Harold is an obvious labor of love that is, much like Harold himself, sweet and occasionally amusing but often a bit grating. First-time director Ari Palitz displays a flair for physical comedy — there’s a fun sequence in which Harold tries to climb aboard a runaway car, and another in which he stumbles onto a TV news set — but the film never settles into a steady comic rhythm. As played by Michaels, Harold is one-part Pee-wee Herman and one-part Forrest Gump, a pendulum swing that distances us from Harold’s charms. The supporting cast includes Dylan McDermott, Henry Winkler, Gladys Knight (who briefly sings), Charles Durning and, as the woman whose affections Harold seeks, the lovely Nicole DeHuff (the director’s wife), who tragically died of pneumonia at age 30 after the film was completed. (Downey Cinema 10) (Chuck Wilson)

UNMISTAKEN CHILD Israeli documentarian Nati Baratz’s Unmistaken Child is a drama of faith, about a Tibetan monk’s search for the reincarnation of his beloved master Lama Konchog. This long march, which lasted more than three years, seems confined to Nepal and Northern India; the discreet filmmakers never mention whether they’ve crossed the border into Tibet. The disciple “interviews” an assortment of 18-month-old potential masters, employing a mystical calculus based on signs, dreams and instances of recognition. (It’s clear that intelligence, good nature and agreeable parents are also prerequisites.) In the movie’s key scene, the designated toddler chooses Lama Konchog’s sacred bell, beads and hand drum out of a lineup of similar artifacts — with a swift sureness that put me in mind of kids playing with a Ouija board. The child is surrounded by chuckling monks, and the process happens very quickly. Skeptic that I am, I’d loved to have seen the action slowed down and the body language analyzed to reveal how the little Buddha’s choices were cued. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex) (J. Hoberman)

A WINK AND A SMILE A Wink and a Smile combines a survey of the underground burlesque resurgence, where the traditional striptease style is often subverted to ironic effect, with a look at the gradual mainstreaming of that fringe revival, and the decidedly above-ground women who are attracted to the form for the least ironic reason imaginable: self-empowerment. Director Dierdre Timmons follows 10 women enrolled in a Seattle burlesque class taught by one Miss Indigo Blue, who helps them to prepare the performance that will cap their six weeks of instruction. The film focuses on the body, sexuality and confidence issues the women face down, and while that’s easy to applaud, why pasties and something called a “pussy check” must enter the equation is a bit problematic. The tension between wanting to root for these women and ultimately being faced with what you’re rooting for (a pair of pinwheeling boobies) goes completely unresolved. The “triumphant” finale only reinforced my suspicion that whatever delicate balance the fringe, neo-burlesque revival maintained between art, intellect and good old titillation (Timmons includes footage of some fascinating performances by female, male, male-as-female, female-as-male, and female-as-male-as-female burlesquers) is imperiled by its absorption into the masses. They’ve never much cared why you’d want to show us your tits, so long as you do. (Sunset 5) (Michelle Orange)