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Movie Reviews: Heavy Metal in Baghdad, Postal, War, Inc.

THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI As ploddingly familiar as it is good-looking, Roger Spottiswoode’s drama, based on the life of an Englishman who saved an orphanage full of boys from Japanese invaders and Chinese nationalists in the 1930s, distills China’s pain into the story of one white Westerner — plus his romantic interest and a wry native sidekick — making a difference while world history rages around him. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a 21st-century Irish heartthrob appearing here with hair barely tamped down from its trendy coxcomb and an overcooked Oxbridge accent — is more incongruous than terrible as naive Brit George Hogg, who is saved from the Japanese by Chow Yun-Fat (hogging the light relief as a Chinese guerrilla who enjoys blowing stuff up) and further redeemed when a self-appointed American nurse (a capable Radha Mitchell) dumps him at a barely functioning orphanage. Once there, Hogg has the time of his life, planting veggies, fending off lice and foreign soldiers, and finally fleeing with the boys along the unforgiving Silk Road. Beautifully shot by House of Flying Daggers cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, The Children of Huang Shi is a work from the heart, hobbled at the get-go by the anxiety that no one will finance, release or show up for such earnest material without recognizable stars younger than 35, regularly paced explosions and the usual narrative arc curving from despair to slim ray of hope. To read the full version of this review, go to www.laweekly.com/film. (The Landmark; Playhouse 7; TownCenter 5) (Ella Taylor)

GO  THE COOL SCHOOL Taking its title from a 1964 Artforum article linking the rebellious spirit and bop attitudes of West Coast art to those of West Coast jazz, veteran documentarist Morgan Neville’s illustrated history of the painters and sculptors associated with Venice’s Ferus Gallery (1957–1967) is at once lively and analytical. Drawing on original and archival footage of the artists (John Altoon, Ed Kienholz, Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, et al.) at work and at play, on a polyphonic (and often dissonant) chorus of reminiscing heads, and on critical responses that range from the gaga enthusiasm of Ferus collectors Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell to the competitive carping of New York gallery owner Ivan Karp, Neville cobbles together a dramatic tale of two curators — Walter Hopps and Irving Blum — whose daring (if not entirely synchronized) visions of what the nearsighted Poulson/Yorty–era art market might bear put the city on the road to MOCA, Bergamot Station and 2006’s big retrospective of Los Angeles art at the Pompidou Centre. The proceedings are cheerily abetted by vintage black-and-white photographs by Charles Britten, Jerry McMillan, Bill Claxton, Kienholz and others, and a soundtrack that stretches all the way from the abstract expressions of Charles Mingus to the lighter-and-spacier Link Wray stylings of the original score by composer Dan Crane. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ron Stringer)

 

GO  HEAVY METAL IN BAGHDAD Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi’s arresting doc narrows in on the shifting fates and fortunes of Iraq’s only heavy-metal band, Acrassicauda, in the wake of the 2003 invasion. The four bandmates shrug off the novelty of Muslim youths moshing to Metallica covers: “We are living in a heavy-metal world,” one explains, as bombs rock the Casbah-like pyrotechnics at an Iron Maiden show. It only gets heavier, as civil war forces half the band into Syria and a blast obliterates their practice space. Inspired by a Vice profile, the HD-shot doc covers a lot of ground despite (or perhaps because of) its limited focus. Along with grim data about the “brain drain” flight of Iraq’s most educated citizens (and the continuing hemorrhage of refugees into neighboring countries), it offers a gritty travelogue of bullet-riddled Baghdad, which the jittery hipster filmmakers prowl with moonlighting bodyguards, whose paranoia surpasses even their own. In the process, the movie reclaims metal’s appeal to the powerless, as well as its threat — when you can get shot for wearing a Slipknot T-shirt (talk about “Death, be not proud”) or speaking the English you learned off Master of Puppets, raising those devil horns isn’t an empty act of aggression. Given the courageously downbeat closing note, here’s hoping a follow-up catches Acrassicauda rockin’ the free world. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)

POSTAL Regurgitating Mad magazine, South Park and Borat into what he believes may be some sort of comedic superbarf, German fauxteur Uwe Boll exhaustingly and pathetically attempts post-9/11 cultural satire in his umpteenth video-game adaptation (see also: BloodRayne, Alone in the Dark, In the Name of the King, et al.), yet manages to be as toothless as he is tasteless. Poorly framed, tone-deaf, and nonsensical (yet still Boll’s best!), the story follows the perpetually disillusioned Dude (Zack Ward) and his hippie cult-leader uncle (Dave Foley, boasting the year’s most embarrassing full-frontal scene) as they scheme to steal cock-shaped plush toys, then fight the bumbling Taliban. Beginning with two terrorists in a cockpit arguing over the number of virgins they’ve been promised before crashing into the World Trade Center, ending with Dubya and Osama skipping hand in hand into a mushroom-cloud sunset, with Verne Troyer raped by 1,000 monkeys somewhere in between, Postal desperately needs to remind you that its middle finger is permanently raised. Anarchy, my ass — this movie’s about as dangerous (or as funny) as a mouthy, caffeinated suburban teen punk who just saw his first shit-flinging GG Allin performance on YouTube. (Culver Plaza; Monica 4-Plex) (Aaron Hillis) Also read an interview with Uwe Boll.

GO  REFUSENIK The brave Soviet Jews in Laura Bialis’s absorbing portrait of the refusenik movement of the 1960s and ’70s had to contend not only with official Soviet repression of religious expression and their own concomitant ignorance of their heritage but also with the virulent anti-Semitism that had flourished in Russia for centuries. In one respect, however, the dissidents lucked out: Their plight resonated powerfully with civil-rights campaigners, campus radicals and ethnic-pride activists all over the West. Sources from all of these now-graying groups, as well as archival footage tell a straight-ahead but moving story of how a pro–Soviet Jewry movement composed mainly of housewives and students badgered their own governments to put pressure on the Soviets to let their people go — by that time, from the Siberian labor camps, mental hospitals, prisons and house arrests that were punishment for applying for visas to leave for Israel. For all its euphoric ending, though, Refusenik tells a partial story: Successive waves of Soviet émigrés (many of whom went immediately to more prosperous nations instead of Israel) flooded the tiny country with overqualified new citizens, who ended up doing the work they’d been demoted to back home — sweeping streets and manning elevators. Today, their leader, Natan Sharansky, is one of Israel’s leading hawks on the occupied territories, showing the darker side of the intransigent courage that got him through nine years in a Soviet jail. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

 

GO  SANGRE DE MI SANGRE Writer-director Christopher Zalla’s first feature, Sangre de Mi Sangre, treats the situation of Mexican illegals as the subject for a miserabilist thriller. First shown scrambling for money in a shantytown, teenage Juan (Armando Hernandez) is literally chased into the van that will transport him from the slums of Pueblo to those of Brooklyn. En route, he meets Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola), who is Juan’s age but infinitely more naïve, armed with a letter of introduction for the father he has never known but imagines to be a New York restaurateur. This is an encounter between a natural predator and his natural victim. That the latter is conveniently illiterate makes it all the easier for Juan to assume Pedro’s identity once he has stolen the letter, and now the movie takes its metaphysical turn. While Pedro wanders Williamsburg, Juan reinvents himself as a long-lost child wooing Pedro’s father Diego (Jesus Ochoa), who is nothing more elevated than a dishwasher. As Pedro searches for his father, Juan hunts for Diego’s stashed fortune — and Zalla cuts between these two quests as the movie’s principals unknowingly brush by each other on the mean streets of Brooklyn. The result is contrived but compelling — as is the movie’s high-powered humanism. Zalla keeps his camera close to his subjects and defines his characters through their actions. Juan enters running and leaves the same way — a figure with no fixed identity, who is nowhere at home. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (J. Hoberman)

TUYA’S MARRIAGE Like The Story of the Weeping Camel and Mongolian Ping Pong, Tuya’s Marriage is partly an anthropological survey of Inner Mongolia’s grasslands, though director Wang Quan An shuns the allegorical and the fanciful for a more straightforward look at community. Wang’s articulation of a vanishing way of life foregrounds the experience of young Tuya (Yu Nan), whose injured herder husband encourages her to take a new mate after she suffers a lumbar dislocation and is unable to care for their children. Around them, people booze and smoke to get by, and as the pinch of modernity tightens, suicide emerges as an exit strategy. Wang’s vision is preferable to the esoteric chic of Khadak, but the Chinese director still maintains an emotional remove from his subject, tracing the encroaching will of capitalism — as in the evolution from horses to motorcycles to cars — more clinically than poetically. Maybe because of Weeping Camel and Ping Pong, a frame chock-a-block with sheep is beginning to feel like dull visual shorthand for untainted primitivism. Or maybe Tuya’s Marriage (which won the Golden Bear at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival) disappoints because it lacks the fearless, uncontrived pathos of its predecessors. (One Colorado) (Ed Gonzalez)

WAR, INC. Impassioned lefties John Cusack, cult novelist Mark Leyner and Bulworth scribe Jeremy Pikser co-wrote this ineffectual Iraq War farce, which challenges the corrupt military-industrial complex and privatization with such an embarrassingly generic, dated, fish-in-a-barrel aplomb that it’s no wonder David Mamet denounced his former life as a “brain-dead liberal.” Flatly directed and poorly timed by Joshua Seftel, the film stars Cusack as a Tabasco-chugging assassin in the thinly disguised Middle Eastern country of Turaqistan, working incognito as a trade-show producer while on assignment for a Halliburton-like corporation (sideways-growling Dan Aykroyd standing in for Cheney and all), which has hired him to kill an oil minister. It’s certainly more audacious than your typical Cusack vehicle, which might’ve been fine if Naomi Klein’s ideas on disaster capitalism — a major inspiration for the project — hadn’t been filtered through an atonal jumble of quasi-Strangelovean histrionics, absurdist slapstick, sudden melodrama and violent action, and then still offered as pointed or relevant criticism. (Democracy Light cigarettes, Golden Palace Casino ads on tanks, war-amputee Rockettes and Hilary Duff as a Central European pop tart named Yonica Babyyeah ... does any of this deserve such a smug, moralizing tone?) Antiwar, anti-Bush, anti-corporate, yet neither as progressive nor half as funny as the Harold and Kumar sequel, War, Inc. squanders some top-tier talent (Marisa Tomei, Sir Ben Kingsley) as well as our patience. (The Landmark) (Aaron Hillis)