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Movie reviews: House, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Also, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

Role Models

Role Models

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS During World War II, a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) receives a promotion and moves his wife (Vera Farmiga), teenage daughter (Amber Beattie), and 8-year-old son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), to a remote country house. Almost immediately, Bruno spies through his bedroom window a nearby “farm” where the workers wear “striped pajamas.” Curious and bored, Bruno sneaks out, makes his way through the woods, and comes upon a barbed-wire fence, behind which sits Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a pale, thin, clearly starving boy Bruno’s age. Bruno begins visiting Shmuel every day, and slowly — very slowly — comes to realize that strange and possibly terrible things are happening on this farm that his father oversees. In adapting Irishman John Boyne’s acclaimed young-adult novel, writer-director Mark Herman (Little Voice) draws beautifully modulated performances from his two child actors, who navigate a full range of emotions, from wonder and betrayal to guilt. In the end, their characters meet a fate so absurdly melodramatic that I cringed. A moment later, it occurred to me that the finale might just devastate — and educate — middle- and high school–age audiences, themselves only a little less naive than Bruno, who could do worse than to have this earnest, well-made film be their first Holocaust drama. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark) (Chuck Wilson)

GO CAPTAIN ABU RAED Abu Raed (Nadim Sawalha) is an elderly widower who works as a janitor at the international airport in Amman, Jordan. He’s well-read, philosophical and given to moments of spontaneous whimsy, as when he finds the discarded hat of a jet pilot and wears it on the way home from work. A pleasant misunderstanding ensues — the impoverished kids in Abu Raed’s neighborhood assume he’s actually a pilot and treat him with such exaggerated respect that he decides to play along, Arabian Nights–style, entertaining himself and them with tales of his imagined travels. But one boy, Murad (Hussein Al-Sous), aggressively resists the storyteller’s charms, and grows hell-bent on exposing “Captain Abu Raed” as a fraud. From that power struggle, Jordanian-American writer-director Amin Matalqa derives a wealth of unpredictable tensions. Raed isn’t so sold on his new mystique that he meanly deceives the kids; if anything, he’s sympathetic to his young detractor (whom he can hear being beaten nightly, owing to the neighborhood acoustics). What is most deeply illuminated (especially by Sawalha’s magnificent performance) is the courage the little myths we invent about ourselves give us, to truly become ourselves. This is particularly well-dramatized in a subplot about Raed’s one grown-up friend, a female jet pilot (Rana Sultan) who actually lives the dream he spins for his young listeners. Her travels inspire him, but she must struggle for respect as a woman of achievement in male-dominated Arab society. Small wonder that Captain Abu Raed won an audience award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Such a subtle yet global view of human struggle — the whole world viewed through the prism of a single poor neighborhood — is a mark of extraordinary promise from this remarkable new filmmaker. (Music Hall) (F.X. Feeney)

CIRCULATION Films starring vampires and zombies are typically reserved for elucidating postdeath waking nightmares in which one either shakes hands with or unsuccessfully runs from the Reaper. While the less monstrous Circulation tackles these vintage horror-film tropes, it injects a certain amount of hope into the proceedings. Here, not only do the characters linger for a while as half-alive humans in Purgatory (a.k.a. the Mexican desert); but, as they inch toward their individual ends, they discover that they have the potential for reincarnation ... as animals. This New Age twist rescues Ryan Harper’s slow-paced feature debut from the depths of dullness. In terms of plot, all one gets is Gene (Sherman Klotz), a truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel, picking up a hitchhiking Ana (Yvonne de la Rosa), who has risen from a fatal car accident caused by her abusive husband. As they cruise the desert, Gene and Ana increasingly engage animalistic fantasies; she eats plants after visualizing herself as a caterpillar, while he, dreaming of golden orb weavers, becomes a lasso specialist. The uncanny experience of watching the actors express these animal instincts that heightens the film’s excellent supernatural aspect. The pacing problem comes from Harper’s portrayal of purgatory as a desolate, sun-baked nowhere that’s generally unpopulated and devoid of action, save for two characters who can’t communicate due to a language barrier. The scenes building up to possible transformations are effectively disturbing, and to Harper’s credit, his minimal use of clichéd special effects helps to distinguish his film from its straight-up horror predecessors. Some viewers may take comfort in this shamanistic B-movie, while the rest will wish it were more like Dawn of the Dead. (Grande 4-Plex) (Trinie Dalton)

GO DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER The nonfiction-film genre has grown fast, cheap and out of control lately with the democratization of digital video cameras and iMovie. Much agitprop on politics and the environment is out there masquerading as documentary work. Filmmakers no longer feel the need to spend years tracking the development of a subject. So it’s extraordinary to finally see a film worthy of comparison to Errol Morris’s seminal The Thin Blue Line arriving two decades later. A lifetime in the making, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father investigates the murder of Dr. Andrew Bagby, whom director Kurt Kuenne had known and filmed in home movies since they were childhood friends. Bagby’s ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, emerged as the prime suspect, and escaped to Canada while pregnant with their unborn son. Upon learning this, Kuenne set out to interview everyone Bagby ever knew, so that baby Zachary would one day get to know his dad. Meanwhile, Bagby’s parents relocated from California to Newfoundland to fight for custody of their grandson when it seemed there was no end to Turner’s extradition process. Kuenne lovingly assembles home-movie footage and new interviews, while deftly borrowing a narrative trick from fiction — the plot twist — to create a true-crime story so gripping, devastating and ultimately unforgettable that it easily trumps any thriller Hollywood has to offer this year. (Sunset 5) (Martin Tsai)

FASHION There are worse ways to spend two-and-a-half hours than gazing at Priyanka Chopra, the most down-to-earth of the current Bollywood goddesses. But by casting her as a naive provincial beauty who dreams of becoming India’s next top model, writer-director Madhur Bhandarkar has reduced the level of suspense to near zero in his finger-wagging slog through the Mumbai high-fashion scene. What could possibly come between this face and the cover of Vogue India? Bhandarkar has for himself carved out a niche with a series of middle-brow social dramas anatomizing clearly defined subcultures: taxi dancer night clubs in Chandni Bar (2001), gossip rags in Page 3 (2005), multinationals in Corporate (2006) and a microcosmic colony of street people in his best work to date, Traffic Signal (2007). (His next: Jail.) For all the research that supposedly goes into them, the revelations in Bhandarkar’s films are often dismayingly old hat. There are fame-is-hell clichés in Fashion that could have been “researched” from the DVD of The Valley of the Dolls — or the pulpy best-sellers of Shobhaa De, India’s Jackie Collins. Visually, this is his flashiest work, especially in the hyperactive runway scenes, and the performers make good use of a couple of sure-fire soapy moments: Chopra’s Meghna Mathur finally bonding with the stick-thin drug-addicted rival (Kangana Ranaut) she stepped over on the way up; the “gay marriage, Indian style” of a closeted designer (Samir Soni) to a female beard, while his much younger boyfriend watches from the audience. Bhandarkar has skillfully crafted his reputation as a truth-telling realist, which may be what enables him to get away with so much melodramatic hokum. (Culver Plaza; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (David Chute)

THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY From Freestyle Releasing, the self-service distributor that brought you D-War and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, comes a movie even worse than those two combined. It really makes things tough on those of us who try our damnedest to defend horror as a legitimate, meritorious genre, when crap like this gets churned out on Halloween, but perhaps this critic’s sacrifice of time and money won’t be in vain if everyone reading avoids The Haunting of Molly Hartley like vegetable sticks in a trick-or-treat bag. In the vein of the antiseptic, CW-kid-starring pseudo-horror we all thought had been left behind along with the rest of the ’90s, Molly Hartley stars 20-year-old Haley Bennett as the titular 17-year-old, a prep-school girl whose “haunting” consists of flashbacks to the time when her now-committed mother tried to kill her with a pair of scissors. Why? Well, you’ll have to wait until the end of this tedious, scareless slog to find out, but suffice it to say, Satan is involved. Too bad Ol’ Scratch doesn’t actually show up; that might have made for at least one visually interesting shot. Producer-turned-director Mickey Liddell (Everwood) evinces no talent whatsoever in his new role; he too seems to have sold his soul for this opportunity, and been shortchanged on the deal. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

HOUSE A few months ago, Lionsgate issued a trailer for Saw V that tried to fake out viewers into thinking they were watching an ad for a Christian film. (Sample ad copy: “His gift is life.”) House is sorta like that, but in reverse; neither a reboot of the ‘80s horror-comedy franchise nor a big-screen bow for Hugh Laurie’s dyspeptic doctor, it’s a Christian parable dressed up in horror trappings. Director Robby Henson (who previously made the serial-killer genre palatable to the faithful with Thr3e) here throws two dysfunctional couples into an old creepy house, where they confront not just a family of crazy Satanists but, more importantly (and boringly, alas), their own emotional traumas. Henson cribs from the best with a scattershot approach that includes references to The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Dead Zone among many others, but the central problem here is one common to faith-based films: The heroes (Reynaldo Rosales and Heidi Dippold) are both overly bland and poorly cast. Thankfully, the villains include Michael Madsen, Lew Temple, and former Devil’s Rejects Bill Moseley and Leslie Easterbrook, who keep things entertaining when they’re on-screen, but too often take a backseat to tediously obvious flashback sequences. (Mann Chinese 6; UA Marina; AMC Burbank; Mann Glendale Exchange) (Luke Y. Thompson)

LOINS OF PUNJAB PRESENTS The zany incomprehensibility of the title should serve as fair warning of the quirkfest to come in neophyte filmmaker Manish Acharya’s Loins of Punjab Presents. Ready to rock the South Asian community over the course of one weekend in New Jersey, “Desi Idol” — sponsored by the eponymous meat wholesalers — will bestow $25,000 and local prestige upon the winner of the talent competition. Imagining itself a stereotype-smashing Bollywood-spirited send-up of American Idol culture, the movie is, in actuality, a by-the-numbers comedy in cross-cultural clothing. Not to suggest that the largely Indian cast is nothing to celebrate or that Acharya’s attempt lacks heart: From the actress rejected by a casting agent looking for someone “more Indian”; the unemployed futures analyst whose job has been outsourced to India; and a turbaned rapper mistaken for a terrorist, each contestant’s story elucidates the ethnic and national tensions regularly encountered by Indian-Americans. But the glibness of these explorations leaves little doubt that the director wants us to walk away with a case of the warm fuzzies rather than a deeper understanding of assimilation. When the cuddliness factor even extends to the characterization of an elderly white couple convinced that every brown-skinned person they meet might bomb the place, you know Punjab has issues that need resolving. (ImaginAsian Center; Regent Showcase; Fallbrook 7) (Kristi Mitsuda)

MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA The 5-year-old didn’t laugh as much as his 40-year-old father, which, granted, isn’t the basis to conclude much. Then again, most of the adults at a Saturday-morning sneak preview of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa were clearly having a better time than the wee ones, which should be expected from a film proffering Charles Darwin wisecracks, class-warfare one-liners, smoky backroom union brokering (including a monkey subbing a spark plug for a lit cigarette), and Alec Baldwin reprising his every last dick-boss role as an alpha lion with a shellacked, gray-streaked mane. The kid adored all heck out of the first movie, and, like its subversive sequel, featured the voices of Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer and Chris Rock; he didn’t have much to say about the second one, save for his fondness for the gag about the crashing plane and the penguins, the latter of whom emerged as the acting-out favorites among the pre-K crowd. Alas, a sad note as Stiller’s Alex is reunited with his parents in Africa — the dad is played by the late Bernie Mac, whose performance ranks among his richest. On a happier note: Sacha Baron Cohen’s King Julien has an expanded role, while Rock’s zebra, who isn’t as special as he thinks, provides a kids movie with a thoughtful moral about fitting in and standing out. Funniest movie of ’08? Close enough, for those who don’t mind monkeying around. (Citywide) (Robert Wilsonky)

P.J. This tale of a psychiatric patient called P.J. (played by an unconvincing Howard Nash), who doesn’t know his own name, doesn’t know how he wound up in the hospital but somehow holds the fate of a dying child in his mysteriously burned hands, would be a stretch even as a brief story arc in a particularly sappy episode of ER. As a 90-minute feature, it borders on preposterous, as Emilio Iasiello and Mark McQuown’s screenplay pads this would-be-uplifting fable with faux-moralizing (courtesy of a flat, poorly directed John Heard as a doctor who’s lost his faith), lame subplots (like Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore as a male nurse who can’t help losing at the race track) and unabashed hokum: A better title would have been Miracles in a Mental Ward. First-time director Russ Emanuel’s unsteady hand with actors and crude mise-en-scène exacerbates the already amateurish vibe. Fans of TV esoterica may enjoy spotting the Gym Teacher from The Wonder Years (Robert Picardo) or the now-teenage “Pepsi Girl” (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) in small roles, but this drippy medical melodrama has little to offer other than making General Hospital seem like a pinnacle of nuance and artistry. (Grande 4-Plex) (James C. Taylor)

REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA Based on a campy sci-fi/horror rock opera first staged in Toronto in 2002, Repo! is also an offshoot of the slash-mash-gash Saw franchise that’s made gazillions for Lionsgate — it’s directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, youthful helmer of Saws II, III and IV. No diabolical torture machines here, unless you read Repo! as a cautionary essay on the perils of the credit economy. A half-century from now, humanity has been decimated by a plague and gone surgery-mad, with desperate survivors buying replacement internal organs from the GeneCo on credit, and scalpel-wielding repo men chasing down deadbeats to reclaim the company’s transplants. Two interlocking family dramas are played out amid the murky clutter of exploitable bodies. A brooding Sweeney Todd type (Anthony Stewart Head) does GeneCo’s bloody business in order to provide medicine for his sickly goth-girl daughter. Meanwhile, the unscrupulous plutocratic head of GeneCo (Paul Sorvino) attempts to rule his spiritually or physically degenerate offspring — among them Paris Hilton. Repo! is a movie of wildly enthusiastic Grand Guignol gross-outs. It’s also entirely sung through, mainly in a persistent belting whine. The whole gaudy miasma reaches its climax with the entire cast converging on the local opera house, West Side Story–style. The grim finality of the ensuing pietà suggests the last act of Hamlet or, rather, Hamlet 2 — so embarrassing that, for the first time, I wanted to avert my eyes from the screen, although that might have been because Repo! appears to have been shot with a cell phone. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (J. Hoberman)

GO ROLE MODELS In every way, this is just another formulaic romp about two selfish slackers getting their priorities rearranged by a couple of kids — instead of breaking new ground, it polishes it with sandpaper. As reps for an energy-drink company, Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott are going nowhere — except to the schools where they pitch their product’s buzz as an acceptable substitute for illegal drugs. Wheeler (Scott) loves the gig, despite the Minotaur costume in which he does his five shows daily for smart-ass kids who wonder if he got the cow outfit at the gay zoo. Then company suit and spokesman Danny (Rudd) chooses the occasion of his break-up with longtime girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks, in what amounts to little more than extended cameo) to sabotage their slacker gigs by running their monster truck up a school’s statuary. For that crime of stupidity (among others), Wheeler and Danny are offered a choice: Go to jail for a month or mentor two boys (Bobb’e J. Thompson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in a Big Brothers–type organization called Sturdy Wings, run by a rather unsteady former coke whore played by Jane Lynch. The inevitable transpires: Men who’d behaved like boys begin acting their age, and boys who’d been left to fend for themselves stop acting out. It’s been the plot of every other Adam Sandler movie — potty humor gets a hug. But Wain, Marino and Rudd pull it off because theirs is a funnier, brainier, bawdier brand of feel-good ... and because you can never go wrong with a climactic, foam-padded sword fight set to KISS. For the full version of this review, go to www.laweekly.com/movies. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

GO SOUL MEN In Soul Men, actor-comedian Bernie Mac, who passed away in August, plays Floyd Henderson, a present-day car-wash mogul who, back in the 1970s, was an R&B backup singer alongside a fellow named Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson). One day, their front man, Marcus Hooks (John Legend), took off on his own, becoming a funk-soul god, leaving Floyd and Louis to part as bitter enemies. Twenty years later, Floyd bursts into Louis’s fleabag L.A. apartment with a plan for the two men to drive to New York and perform at a tribute show for Marcus, whose sudden death hasn’t exactly wrecked his former bandmates. “I’m cryin’ the tears of a motherfuckin’ clown,” Louis declares, and kicks Floyd out. But soon enough, the two are headed cross-country in an El Dorado convertible, bickering, getting stranded and eventually staging their old act in dive bars. While their singing voices are ragged, the old-school hand gestures and side-shuffle footwork is mighty fine. The film dulls out in the home stretch, as screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone employ increasingly silly side turns to delay Floyd and Louis’s arrival in New York. It could be said, too, that the visual style of director Malcolm Lee (Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) rarely matches the energy of his performers, but no matter: Mac and Jackson carry the show — particularly Mac, at his crackly, cranky best here. As swan songs go, Soul Men is pretty sweet. For the full version of this review, go to www.laweekly.com/movies. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

STRANDED: I’VE COME FROM A PLANE THAT CRASHED ON THE MOUNTAINSStranded is that rare movie — less complex and interesting than its press kit. In revisiting the story of the Uruguayan soccer team that crashed in the Andes in 1972 and survived via pragmatic cannibalism, director Gonzalo Arijon finds himself simultaneously profiling and valorizing many of his own childhood friends. Unfortunately, that makes for an overly sympathetic approach that allows people with a set narrative to reiterate key talking points. At a windy two-plus hours, most of Stranded deals with the broadest outlines of the horrific ordeal; much time is devoted to the survivors’ vague musings on what their microsociety says about civilization, fate, et al. Was their mountain commune really a lab experiment for rewriting the social contract? Probably not, but Arijon does a remarkably poor job of delving into the specifics. The film’s length may well be intended to mirror the 72-day ordeal, but it’s relentlessly wearing and lacking in nutritive fiber. You won’t find, for example, the grizzly tidbit about the survivors eating human flesh in front of the rescue team and press when their saviors themselves ran out of powdered soup. Arijon alternates between Kevin Macdonald re-creations on faux-grainy 16mm footage and interviews on the mountain; neither approach works especially well. (Nuart) (Vadim Rizov)

THE TRUTH OF NANKING Japanese right-winger Satoru Mizushima’s propagandist clunker The Truth of Nanking can’t even get the facts straight about itself. Trumpeted as a debunking of the Axis power’s infamous 1937-38 atrocities, the two-and-half-hour film is actually dominated by a mawkish, stagy re-enactment of the final moments of seven convicted war criminals (Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and friends). Barrages of period footage interrupt at intervals to accompany spurious assertions that hundreds of thousands of civilians were not killed and/or raped after Japan’s invasion of China’s then-nationalist capital. (Sample caption: “Please note peaceful expressions on their faces.”) The film therefore pulls off the nasty double feat of denying horrific events and making the viewer party to a lengthy vigil alongside the high command ultimately responsible, who are respectfully and methodically dramatized reciting prayers and poems before their internationally sanctioned hangings. That is, of course, the point for Japanese nationalists smarting over perceived slights to war dead of any stripe. (On a related front, Li Ying’s recent documentary Yasukuni, about an embattled shrine, provides an antidote to the likes of Truth.) Though part of an announced series concocted to rebut last year’s Nanking, the film’s one-week, single-theater yowl will probably soon be forgotten amidst an assortment of Hollywood projects on the subject currently in development. (Grande 4-Plex) (Nicolas Rapold)

THE WORLD UNSEEN Hard to imagine a milder, more tension-free movie about apartheid South Africa than this picture-postcard lesbian almost-romance set in the East Indian immigrant community of Capetown in 1952. It’s especially disappointing, as there’s great promise in the casting. Some of the choked-off, conflicted line readings of Lisa Ray (Water), who plays an all-but-sequestered housewife both exhilarated and terrified by her unexpected responses to a local café owner, are uncannily precise. Ray’s Miriam has the physique and soft features of a pliant sex object, but she’s also tall and strong-looking, with flashes of stubbornness beneath the surface. For the forthright Amina (Sheetal Sheth), a feminist avant le temps, who wears “trousers” and manly floppy hats, Miriam is a femme fantasy figure, an imprisoned domestic goddess ripe for liberation. The issues are clearly defined. What’s missing is a sense of urgency, even in what should be the ultimate emotion-heightening pressure cooker — a society where every unsanctioned association could be a criminal offense. Writer-director Shamin Sarif, who adapted her own novel, may be so intimately aware of every intended nuance that she took them for granted, understated them to a fault. Everything in The World Unseen is discreetly muted: The images are picturesque and orderly, and composer Shigeru Umebayashi bathes them in Out of Africa syrup. Lisa Ray is a magnificent actress, but she’s still waiting for her first great role. (Music Hall) (David Chute)