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Movie Reviews: Here and There, The Philosopher Kings, The Oath

BEST WORST MOVIE Michael Paul Stephenson, director of Best Worst Movie, debuted in straight-to-video as the freckled kiddie in Troll 2. Shot in Utah with a cast of locals by Italian exploitation director Claudio Fragasso, that 1990 horror has gained a cult reputation for ESL dialogue and superlative wrongheadedness. I've had a hard time believing T2 wasn't conscious of its ridiculousness — there's a scene of kids laughing at a bad movie in it — but Fragasso shows a helluva poker face discussing his serious intent. Stephenson interviewed most of T2's cast for his DVD Special Feature of a documentary as they reunited for road show screenings, but Stephenson's main focus is on George Hardy, Dad in T2 and "rich man's Craig T. Nelson." A strained, robust, divorced dentist practicing in Alexander City, Alabama, Hardy is tickled by his new niche fame, repeating his "catchphrases" ("You can't piss on hospitality!") to less- and less-receptive audiences until the former Auburn cheerleader finds himself completely out of his element at a horror-fantasy convention ("I guarantee you, only about 5 percent of these people floss their teeth on a daily basis"). On-location reenactments and fan footage are pure padding, but Best Worst does capture the ravages of contracting the acting "bug" — though Stephenson's self-exemption from his film's scrutiny feels craven, especially when he visits screen-mother Margo Prey to ogle her infirm mother and kitten-themed décor. (Nick Pinkerton) (Nuart)

THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN Mia Hansen-Løve's drama about love, sorrow and the heartbreak of independent-film financing is sliced neatly, if not all that effectively, in half by the death of its protagonist Grégoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who is based on the colorful French producer Humbert Balsan. Balsan killed himself in 2005, when his company went bankrupt, and the movie catches his panicked restlessness as he sweet-talks the money men while squeezing in a vacation at his discreetly luxurious country home with the porcelain-pretty family he adores. There's more than enough contempo-Gallic gracious living, but for once in the life of dandified French cinema, this is less about ennui or adultery in glamorous settings (there is a family secret, but it doesn't add up to much) than about the process of work in an office full of dynamically committed people desperately doing their jobs, even as the whole house of cards threatens to collapse. Hansen-Løve takes a gods-and-monsters approach to Grégoire, begging us to decide whether he's a genius talent-spotter or a selfish rotter — a romantically oversized dichotomy for a man who may simply have been better suited to nursing talent than to making the trains run on time. But Hansen-Løve's fevered mix of love for and resentment toward this man lends urgency to his unraveling. Which may be why, after she kills him off in a manner far more sensational than Balsan's actual demise, The Father of My Children loses focus and sags into a how-we-got-through-it family procedural. (Ella Taylor) (Landmark)

GO  HERE AND THERE A pleasant, minor-key romance, Darko Lungulov's Here and There has the unadorned integrity of a classic joke. There's pleasure in watching the conceit unfold, which is sweetened by an unexpectedly poignant payoff. Veteran bit player David Thornton headlines as Robert, a surly boho graybeard who has given up jazz saxophone for full-time depression. Unemployable and out of New York crash pads, he takes a young immigrant up on a $5,000 scheme to marry and chaperone his Serbian girlfriend to America. Needless to say, complications arise, and Robert finds himself marooned — unpaid, luggageless, and wearing another man's mismatched sweat suit — in Belgrade. Though the world didn't need another tale of white-male midlife crisis, as Robert makes his breakthrough, the film does, too, creating characters from local color and wisely favoring Belgrade over an NYC-set parallel plot. Most importantly, it steers away from inflated notions of redemption in favor of the unexpectedly sublime, like the odd intimacy of wearing gifted pajamas, and a friendship forged over a two-liter beer. Sporting a perma-frown and crazily cowlicked hair, Thornton stops short of outright mugging, while Mirjana Karanovic, as Robert's tentative love interest, emerges as the movie's soul. Their scenes together hint at greater depths of feeling than Lungulov's slight, if admirably restrained, first film is designed to explore. (Eric Hynes) (Music Hall)

HOLY ROLLERS Inspired by a drug ring that used Hasidic Jews to transport more than 1 million pills of Ecstasy to the United States in a six-month period between 1998 and 1999, Kevin Asch's Holy Rollers stars Jesse Eisenberg as a good-old Brooklyn boy turned midlevel dope importer. Driven by the sense of economic inferiority and sexual uncertainty that the film suggests lie latent at the heart of the Hasidic experience, Eisenberg's Sam Gold hooks up with a neighborhood hotshot who promises him the chance to earn extra gelt by transporting "medicine" back from Amsterdam. Both intoxicated and repelled by the undercurrent of the forbidden, Sam reluctantly dedicates himself to his new pursuit; it's not long before he's cutting off his payot and striking deals with the suppliers on his own. Nicely detailed in its early scenes of Hasidic life (if somewhat less so in its depiction of the drug operation) and powered by Eisenberg's finely graded performance, Holy Rollers is too beholden to its predictable pattern of rise, fall and partial redemption. Failing to generate either excitement as a crime story or credibility as a morality play, the film ultimately confirms the traditional values that helped to push its confused lead to the brink of damnation in the first place. (Andrew Schenker) (Landmark)

 

KITES Indian-made and trilingual in Hindi, Spanish, and English, Kites is set and was mostly shot in the American Southwest—although in its backlit visual overkill, complete with neon reflected in rain-drenched streets, it more closely resembles some of the most overwrought Hong Kong gangster romances of the late 1980s. Jay (Hrithik Roshan, one of Hindi cinema’s most engaging leading men) rolls off a freight train with a gaping bullet wound and a lot of backstory to unload. A con artist, not as amoral he thinks he is, Jay makes the mistake of falling hard for Natasha (Bárbara Mori), the fiancée of a spoiled young Sin City prince of crime, setting up an impossibly-beautiful-lovers-on-the-run-scenario that director Anurag Basu shoots like a series of windswept fashion videos. Even with the lights of the Vegas Strip forming a gauzy halo behind his tousled head, Roshan is a master at low-keying his enormous charm and shrugging off his blinding handsomeness. Mori, a Mexican telenovela star, is almost a match for him: She's a dead ringer for Megan Fox, but warmer and less calculating in her sexiness. Not even the incoherent mish-mash of the plot (mostly faux–Sergio Leone by way of Tarantino and Rodriguez, with periodic car-flipping chase sequences) can entirely dim the appeal of this match-up between a blue-eyed Punjabi and a blue-eyed Mexican of almost equal comeliness. Kites will be released Stateside both in this original 130-minute, subtitled version and in a shorter, dubbed “remix” prepared by noted Bollywood aficionado Brett Ratner. You have been warned. (David Chute) (Beverly Center, Culver Plaza, Fallbrook)

THE LIVING WAKE Fatally eccentric, Sol Tryon's The Living Wake recounts the odyssey of outlandish weirdo K. Roth Binew (Mike O'Connell) as he delivers invitations to his going-away (from life) party via a bicycle rickshaw driven by devoted friend and minion Mills (Jesse Eisenberg). Resident of a bizarre forest fantasyland seemingly sprung from his own warped consciousness, Binew shouts, boozes and breaks into song over his failure as an author and artist. No mere morose buffoon, however, O'Connell's bearded, well-dressed oddball mixes misery with manic glee as he spars with a ham steak–throwing rival, takes counsel with a psychic, and steals a goat for a romantic picnic with his elderly nanny. Binew's condition is rooted in his attempt to learn the meaning of life, a quest for knowledge that laces his journey with blunt, existential overtones. The piece's sheer peculiarity is its prime calling card, and in O'Connell, it has a grandiose ringmaster for the carnivalesque craziness. Yet from an opening newsreel biography to a climactic Viking funeral ceremony, the film's absurdity proves oppressive, its linguistic cartwheels so mirthless, and its meticulous Wes Anderson–indebted set design and visual compositions so self-conscious, that the ridiculousness feels petrified. (Nick Schager) (Sunset 5)

GO  THE OATH A garrulous cabdriver who was Osama bin Laden's bodyguard in Afghanistan lets loose a possibly revisionist history in this outstanding documentary from Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country). Abu Jandal reminisces about his journeys across the porous national borders that tolerate or shelter radical Islamists, his imprisonment by the Yemenis, his apparent rehabilitation, and his guilt over the betrayal that landed his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, in Guantánamo prison, where he became famous for suing Donald Rumsfeld. Today, Abu Jandal moonlights as a (possibly self-appointed) recruiter of young Yemenis to jihad, which he defines so variously that your head hurts. He's a devout Muslim and a loving father, who coaches his adorable son to hate America, declares his opposition to the 9/11 attacks one day, then retracts the next. Who is Abu Jandal, and why is he spilling the beans to an American filmmaker? The Oath is a film about a man who is an enigma — and about the confusion, not the clarity, that is the aftermath of 9/11. Genuinely comfortable with complexity, Poitras is a patiently astute observer of telling contradictions, but she doesn't lack for point of view. The second in a projected trilogy of films plumbing the legacy of 9/11, this usefully meandering documentary lays bare the enduring stain of Guantánamo on American democracy and its ambiguous fallout for radical Islam. Are these two men symbols of al Qaeda's resilience, or its final irrelevance? Poitras doesn't answer this question — and, indeed, who could? (Ella Taylor) (Sunset 5)

 

GO  THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS There's a tendency among well-meaning liberals to romanticize the people most of us look past as we race through our day — the homeless, the working poor — as founts of uncommon common sense and great spiritual insight. Director Patrick Shen comes close to doing just that in his documentary The Philosopher Kings but mercifully falls short of such a noble misfire. Instead he's crafted a hypnotic, moving paean to the complex lives of his subjects, a half-dozen custodians at institutions of higher learning all across the country. Shen treks coast to coast — and even to Haiti — to get the backstories on the folks (Vietnam vets, survivors of domestic abuse, immigrants) who clean toilets and offices and perform sundry other duties at some of our most prestigious colleges and universities. One man works days as a custodian and nights as a cabdriver to support both his massive extended family and his village in Haiti; another is a fledgling political artist, who studies the work created by students at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts so he can better create his own agitprop. The visuals are crisp, and Shen's seamless editing creates conversation between his various subjects, as the spoken musing of one plays over the images of another. Kings arcs hard toward its uplifting ending, but it also completely earns it. (Ernest Hardy) (Downtown Independent)

SHREK FOREVER AFTER In this fourth and final installment in the Shrek franchise, our green hero feels emasculated by the grind of domesticity (marriage, fatherhood) and worn down by the demands of celebrity. His failure to realize that his is indeed a wonderful life leads him to utter a wish for just one day to cavort in his old life of swampy bachelorhood. The wish is granted by the conniving Rumpelstiltskin, whose enforcement of contractual fine-print lands Shrek in a brutal parallel universe in which Rumpelstiltskin rules the kingdom of Far, Far Away with an army of witches as his muscle. There, Fiona (in Xena mode) leads an underground resistance movement, Donkey has no memory of Shrek but still steals almost every scene he's in, and an obese Puss walks away with whatever scenes Donkey doesn't. It takes the film a deadly long time to kick in, and when it does, it largely retreads formula: ironic use of pop standards, musical numbers with contemporary choreography played for maximum laughs, risqué one-liners. By the middle of the second act, Forever After finally finds its groove, becoming mildly amusing (the actors — Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas — are in fine form) but never rising to the inspired heights of the original. And the 3-D effects are so weak as to bring nothing to the table. (Ernest Hardy) (Citywide)

SOLITARY MAN Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien, frequent writing partners who scripted Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, have here created The Michael Douglas Experience; whether you respond to the material depends largely on how much you enjoy the actor lazily riffing on the oily creatures of his past. After a prologue set six and a half years ago shows thriving car-dealership owner and loyal husband Ben Kalmen (Douglas) being told by his doctor that there's an irregularity in his EKG, the film returns to the present, with the damage of his mortality scare already done. Divorced from college sweetheart Susan Sarandon and his business ruined, Ben is free to continue his pathetic behavior: bedding girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker's 18-year-old daughter and asking his own daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer, the most revelatory of the crowded, hardworking supporting cast), for rent money. Koppelman's script contains some tart dialogue about deluded, middle-aged male vanity — "Give me a hug, so people will think we're married," Ben tells Susan — and the film courageously shows its reprobate hero sliding further, not redeeming himself. "The men who live like Ben Kalmen all model themselves after characters Michael has played," Koppelman says in the press notes — and the lead is all too content not to stretch himself beyond playing a copy of a copy of a copy. (Melissa Anderson) (ArcLight Hollywood)


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