THE ELEPHANT KING In the miasma of permanent-vacation desperation (c.f., Malcolm Lowry, Saint Jack) we find Jake (Jonno Roberts), a footloose American hedonist in Thailand, blowing his ’rents’ retirement funds on getting blown. Lonesome, he flies out his kid brother (Tate Ellington), an un-laid squirmy introvert, for a taste of highlife in the Land of Smiles. This King of Marvin Gardens redux is a pale excuse for a cinematographer’s holiday, with actors along as compositional place holders. Dueling for Worst Performance honors are a teeth-gnashingly flustered Ellen Burstyn as the boys’ forsaken mother (“You have to watch out for the AIDS bacteria”) and Josef Sommer as their father, seen clicking through Thai porn sites — a handful of scenes with them and you’re ready for exile. It doesn’t help that auteur Seth Grossman dispenses press-kit head slappers like, “The way these brothers take care of the elephant reflects the way America tries to take care of the world.” But featured French-Thai actress Florence Faivre is a knockout, and DP Diego Quemada-Diez was clearly hot to expose film while adrift in the ocean of party lights. Equivalent to a crummy band with a monster of a drummer who convinces you to stay for the whole show anyways. (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)
FRONTRUNNERS The great American student-government election: Teenagers exposing their fragile egos to public ballot-box rejection and spending a small fortune on poster board, all for the possible distinction of assigning Homecoming subcommittees and allocating school funds for a laminator. This is the stuff of which Frontrunners is made. Caroline Suh’s doc exists somewhere between Robert Drew’s Primary and reality TV, following the 2007 election cycle at New York City’s cream-of-the-crop Stuyvesant High School, where the student (busy)body is made up of potential valedictorians from every borough. That the student-government “popularity contest” is a microcosm of the adult political arena is an old saw — see Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s perennially quoted “High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” To that idea we owe primary-season think pieces recasting Alexander Payne’s Election with Barack and Hillary, as well as Frontrunners’ savvy election-eve release date. Tactfully avoiding actual policy details and emotionally sticky stuff, cutting for punch lines, and overlaying campaigning montages with a playlist shuffle of kazoo-whimsical indie feyness, Suh shows herself ever-happy to settle for the shallow rewards of pop documentary here. Depending on your level of fatigue with The Other Campaign, this may be good enough. (Nuart) (Nick Pinkerton)
THE GAY BED & BREAKFAST OF TERROR The Gay Bed & Breakfast of Terror delivers on its title, with less subtlety. An opening musical number titled “Watch Out for the Straights!” sets the tone. (Heterosexual sins: driving sedans, bad hair.) Writer-director Jaymes Thompson aims five incredibly generic gay/lesbian couples (plus one token obese hag) at the titular venue, only to have them picked off by Jesus-crazed freaks. Since slasher movies are famously obsessed with picking off copulating straight teens and minorities, consider this a counterstrike. The big idea here is that mother Helen (Mari Marks) wants to convert a gay man to marry her lesbian daughter Luella (Georgia Jean), redeeming two sins at once. So the crazed, hypocritical, lustful and ugly woman — and her repressed offspring — get pitted against 10 fine specimens of urbane, all-queer-all-the-time stereotype, whose only real interests are being fabulous and fashionable. You could argue that this is just gay camp taken to its extreme, but then what’s with the shrieking drag queen screaming, “Why are all the beautiful people gay?” There’s no joking here, only a sincere belief that anyone who isn’t a sophisticated urban queer is a mouth-breathing Reagan fanatic panting to give a homosexual beat down. (Sunset 5) (Vadim Rizov)
GOD AND GAYS: BRIDGING THE GAP Actress turned director Luane Beck is not the first to pusheth thy hot button on the subject of reconciliation between homosexuality and religion, but worse than being a mere latecomer, her God and Gays: Bridging the Gap arrives after documentaries like For the Bible Tells Me So and Trembling Before G-d have already mined the material with greater sagacity. Is being gay a choice? Does a gay agenda exist? Can someone lead an LGBT lifestyle and a holy one? These aren’t new or particularly profound questions today, though the film addresses them as if it were breaking new ground, which soon reeks of vanity project. Strolling down the boardwalk, Beck walks hand in hand with her real-life partner and producer, Kim Clark, pretentiously reenacting conversations they’ve had about their own spiritual grapplings. The Rev. Deborah L. Johnson, an out lesbian who officiated their partnership, proves the only enlightened speaker in their hideously shot gallery of dry talking heads, but as soon as her arguments get meaty (Is love the same as sexuality? Could biblical condemnation of gays stem from mis-translation, or is it simply an outmoded text that was never meant to be taken as directive?), Beck skimps on the follow-up queries. Most of the interviews are strictly anecdotal — memories of personal triumph or loss that might provide catharsis to those in similar roles — but with so much political controversy in the air, this is a missed opportunity of Religulous proportions. (Grande 4-Plex) (Aaron Hillis)
HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR My child made me promise I wouldn’t come on all ’60s-righteous about this one, and Lord knows how I’ve tried to focus on the potential of Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and all the other vanilla muffins making their leap from small to big screen. But truly, High School Musical 3: Senior Year is as far as all but one of the cast (Ashley Tisdale, a lone standout as the mildly mean girl Sharpay) will be going other than straight to Dancing With the Stars. Set against a production design seemingly inspired by the American flag, director Kenny Ortega’s choreography is industrial and efficient, if haplessly stranded somewhere between Michael Jackson and the Village People. Should we be grateful that no one in this color-blind, class-free, odorless and colorless crew does heroin, gets pregnant or jumps off a cliff? Maybe, but unless you call “Should I go to Juilliard or Berkeley?” a heavy dilemma, HSM 3 isn’t about anything beyond the impulse to burst into tuneless song and dance every five minutes, interwoven with a wan ripoff of All About Eve. However they’ve colluded in making HSM one of the most lucrative TV youth franchises ever, the world’s tweens and teens deserve better than this bottomlessly bland pap. On the way home, we rented West Side Story and Hairspray. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)
GO LET THE RIGHT ONE IN Terrible title, brilliant film. In '80s Stockholm, an outcast boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is routinely bullied at school until a mysterious girl his age, Eli (Lina Leandersson), moves in next door. She too feels isolated and rejected by the world outside, but for very different reasons; could be, I dunno, something to do with her taste for human blood and ability to fly. Tomas Alfredson, whose prior credits are primarily on Swedish TV shows, makes an astute leap to the big screen with this coming-of-age/horror hybrid that not only delivers gorgeous wintry panoramas but also the requisite metaphors — in this case, vampirism as both adolescent power fantasy and terminal-disease medicament. When it comes to preteens as eternal vampires, Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire used to be the gold standard; in Leandersson, I think we have a new champion. And if you ever wanted to know what exactly happens to vampires if they enter your house without being first invited across the threshold, this may be the first movie to show the consequences in graphic detail. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Luke Y. Thompson)
MAX PAYNE If Oscars were handed out for fake snow, director John Moore’s bleary, dreary, sub–Sin City big-screen video game would clean up like Ben-Hur: by the 50th exterior shot strewn with fistfuls of art-directed dandruff, a viewer stuck in this film noir snow globe feels like W.C. Fields in “The Fatal Glass of Beer.” Trudging sullenly through Moore’s winter wonderland is avenging lawman Mark Wahlberg, tracking the syndicate responsible for his family’s murder. The role requires Wahlberg to run the gamut of emotions, from A to A as he opens doors, glowers, assembles guns, glowers, points guns, glowers — and, for a big finish, glowers. (Even if he endows Max Payne with min brayne, the actor still comes off better than Mila Kunis, a vengeful assassin by way of a Macy’s makeup counter, or Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, who plays badass Lieutenant Bravura as if his name were Rookie Nondescript.) At least the summer’s dunderheaded Wanted indulged its thrill-junkie jones for destruction without shame: Apart from one cool effects shot of a dragon-winged demon whisking a thug from a high-rise window — you’ve seen it in the trailer — and a constructivist fistfight rendered in comic-book panels of discrete motion, this joyless, humorless third-person-shooter cheats even on its modest promise of mindless mayhem. The only moment that even mildly ruffles the harbinger-of-doom PG-13 rating belongs to future Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, who peels off her dress with NC-17 aplomb — then vanishes from the movie, proving more adept than anyone else involved at dodging a bullet. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
NOAH’S ARC: JUMPING THE BROOM Modeled heavily on Sex and the City (problem #1) and set in West Hollywood (problem #2), the canceled Noah’s Arc cable series followed the same-gender-loving Negro lives and loves of 20-something struggling screenwriter Noah and his three older, if not always wiser, friends, Ricky, Chance and Alex. Like the cinematic version of its maternal root, the Noah’s Arc film, Jumping the Broom, centers on the bumpy road to marriage — an especially timely subject to which the film brings heavy-handed polemics, teary bust-ups and reconciliations and lots of slapstick comedy but no real insight or depth. After settling on Martha’s Vineyard for the upcoming bougie-fabulous wedding of Wade and Noah, the fellas are put through the paces of addiction; school-boy crushes; cheating hearts; familial homophobia; lectures on AIDS, adoption and African babies; and the reappearance of a certain queer British rapper. And that’s just for starters. It’s a wearying checklist that would be daunting even in the hands of a more talented filmmaker than series creator (and Jumping the Broom director-co-writer) Patrick Ian Polk. While there are some solid chuckles scattered throughout the film, Polk’s heavy-handed political sloganeering is lifted straight from pamphlets, while his character development and plotting are clumsy and filled with holes. The ensemble acting is, putting it kindly, wildly uneven. Worst of all for a project that’s always confused designer labels for social awareness and political progress, Polk lacks the visual skills to pull us into the film’s fetishizing of the so-called good life. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)
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PASSENGERS Anne Hathaway has the biggest damn chestnut eyes you’ve ever seen—I spent a lot of time swimming in them, as they’re about the only thing Passengers has going for it. As a young, beautifully coiffured psychiatrist, Hathaway is assigned to depressurize the lone survivors of a commercial airline crash, and finds herself lavishing special after-hours attention on one unusually elated patient (Patrick Wilson, considerably overestimating the charm of squinty smugness). As her patients begin to mysteriously disappear, the movie shifts into “What really happened on that plane?” mode, with chills provided by the dreaded David Morse peeking around corners. Though deceptively marketed as a just-in-time-for-All-Hallow’s-Eve spooktacular, this is really a character-centered romance that non-starts on the total lack of traction between Hathaway and Wilson. The biggest shock (aside from seeing how arbitrarily movies are chosen for theatrical release) is provided by an intrusively blown newspaper. The horribly drawn-out unwinding of an Astonishing Twist Ending retrospectively absolves the film of responsibility for ridiculous scene-stagings and narrative gaffes, and confirms Passengers as a kind of declawed, inside-out Final Destination — with none of the sense of showmanship, and all the looming malice of a mawkish condolence card. (Selected theaters) (Nick Pinkerton)
SAW V For fans of the deathtrap-redemption horror series and its central figure, John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell) — and realistically, only the die-hards are buying tickets at this point — there’s good news and there’s bad news. On the plus side, Saw V director David Hackl, who conceived most of the elaborate contraptions in prior installments, brings an enthusiasm to the table that Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II-Saw IV) seemed to have lost last time around. He also smartly reverts to the Saw II formula of a co-operative series of traps for a group of five victims that plays like a reality show from hell, here interspersed with the search for the late Jigsaw’s new protégé, revealed in part IV to be Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Unfortunately, both Mandylor and Scott Patterson, who returns as fellow Saw IV survivor Agent Strahm, are uninteresting stiffs; worse still are the flashbacks that retroactively place Hoffman in numerous key scenes from the first three films, completely undercutting the relationship between Jigsaw and former protégée Amanda (Shawnee Smith) that was once the heart of the story. The method to the madness of the traps turns out to be quite clever, but the rewriting of Saw mythology is the slasher equivalent of revising Star Wars so that Greedo fires at Han Solo first. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
GO THE TREE OF LIFE Throbbing with midlife crisis after a brush with cancer, Los Angeles–based electronics engineer Hava Volterra journeys to Italy in search of deep background about her late father, a physicist. In Israel, where she grew up, in the ghettos of Venice and in the town of Volterra, which gave her family its name, she digs up a pretty interesting family tree and a truly fascinating history of Italian-Jewish life from the 15th century through the Holocaust, enhanced by interviews with historians in Italy and Israel and some nifty animation and marionette puppetry. One sympathizes with Volterra’s yearning to find out more about her “doting” but remote father, yet he remains a shadowy and not altogether likable figure, who, despite being a devout Communist, felt humiliated by his failure to win a Nobel Prize. Trotting out her family’s illustrious pedigree as scientists, bankers and politicians at every turn, Volterra appears to have inherited some of his intellectual snobbery. Fortunately, her affinity for Italian stereotypes is countered with delightful truculence by the film’s most engaging character, her down-to-earth octogenarian aunt Viviana, who enjoys her work in the kibbutz laundry, entertains kids with puppets on the side, and won’t stand for any bullshit about the romantic essence of the Mediterranean temperament. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)
TRU LOVED Writer-director Stewart Wade’s Tru Loved is a kitschier incarnation of an afterschool special: hokey and simplistic, but also gawkily sweet-natured. Recently relocated from San Francisco to the suburbs, Tru (Najarra Townsend) and family — composed of her two lesbian mothers and two gay fathers — are introduced via faux-’50s sitcom stylings, with the movie temporarily switching from candy-color to black-and-white, as cast members trot out to jaunty music. That ironic impulse coexists somewhat uncomfortably with Tru Loved’s sincerity. Drawn to the newcomer’s outsider edge, high school quarterback Lodell (Matthew Thompson) strikes up a romance with Tru, only to confess to his closeting shortly thereafter. (The film could’ve been titled But I’m a Football Player.) “I didn’t say I’d be your Katie Holmes,” she protests, before reluctantly agreeing to provide social cover for Lo by pretending to be his girlfriend. Matters are complicated when Tru spearheads a gay-straight alliance club with openly out Walter (Tye Olson) and starts secretly dating straight dream-boat Trevor (Jake Abel). Fluffiness aside, the film’s multicultural microcosm does have a giddying effect: Tru Loved offers a utopian vision of inclusiveness you wish the world would embrace. (Music Hall; One Colorado) (Kristi Mitsuda)