Movie Reviews: Just Sex and Nothing Else, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show and more
July August Productions/Sony Pictures ClassicsThe Band's Visit: All dressed up and nowhere to go ...
FILM PICK THE BAND'S VISIT Heavily accented English (don’t worry, there are subtitles throughout) is the only common tongue shared by the characters of Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s impressive feature debut, in which the members of an Egyptian policemen’s orchestra find themselves waylaid in an Israeli backwater town after taking the wrong bus to a concert. The musicians earn the sympathy of a brassy café owner (Ronit Elkabetz), who arranges for the men to spend the night as the lodgers of a few not entirely willing friends and neighbors — the very Israelis whose forefathers fought the Egyptians for three decades. In the hands of many filmmakers, that basic setup would have made for an earnest exercise in getting to know thy former enemy. But Kolirin is too smart to bore us with humanistic bromides, and he has a sense of humor as dry as desert wind. Yes, The Band’s Visit (which reopens in local theaters this weekend, following a one-week Oscar-qualifying run last December) is touching and uplifting and all those other audience-friendly emotions against which film critics are believed to religiously steel themselves. But it merely plucks at your heartstrings rather than yanking on them, and leaves you filled with an elating sense of possibility. Elkabetz, the sultry star of the 2001 Israeli import Late Marriage, is remarkable, as is actor Sasson Gabai as the band’s curmudgeonly widower conductor. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)
July August Productions/Sony Pictures Classics
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The Band's Visit: All dressed up and nowhere to go ...
GO BILLY THE KID Working as a talent scout specializing in "street scouting" (finding ordinary people in real-life locales), director Jennifer Venditti stumbled upon 15-year-old rural-Maine resident Billy. An eccentric loner (by choice and by brutally enforced teen hierarchies) who quotes Robert Frost and The Terminator, plays air-guitar and rocks AC/DC shirts (but also likes disco), Billy has an intense stare and a lumbering walk, and is at once childlike and wise beyond his years. Venditti follows Billy as he interacts with family and schoolmates, the latter of whom treat him like a freak, while the former slowly fill in a dark back story. (It was only after the film was completed that Billy was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.) Straightforward in terms of craftsmanship, this very moving, sometimes discomfiting character study raises questions about the nature of documentary filmmaking. Mild controversy has arisen over some moments that seem staged, and others in which Billy transparently plays to the camera. (In a New York Times interview in which Venditti spoke about Billy's wooing of a young waitress, the director said, "He knew he needed a love story [for the film], a damsel in distress, and of course he found her.") Those are pertinent concerns. But what you ultimately take from the film is the awareness that this smart, self-aware, uncensored kid has been playing to a camera in his own head since well before Venditti came along. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)
THE EYE Ever had a premonition of imminent catastrophe, only to watch helplessly as the worst unfolds? You have if you saw the previews for this snoozer of a paranormal shocker and bought a ticket anyway. Adapted from a derivative Pang Brothers thriller — a U.K.-Hong Kong-Singapore co-production helpfully identified in the credits as a "Chinese-language" film, lest it be mistaken for one of the late-'90s Japanese horror films it's ripping off — the setup is essentially the same: A blind concert violinist (Jessica Alba) gets a cornea transplant and is suddenly privy to visions of the recently (or is it imminently?) deceased. From there, as directed by French horror hommes David Moreau and Xavier Palud (Them), the entire movie is an object lesson in diminishing returns: of nagging shock cuts and blaring sound cues used as indiscriminately as joy buzzers; of "look out behind you!" scares that wouldn't make a Cub Scout flinch; of a blurry visual scheme that was far more terrifying in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where it sought empathy rather than empty sensation. The vulnerability of eyes is normally one of horror's most reliable tropes; this packs all the ocular thrills of a three-hour wait at LensCrafters. Advice to cornea-transplant candidates: If your donor has watched this, politely say, "Next." (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
THE HOTTIE AND THE NOTTIE Crass, shrill, disingenuous, tawdry, mean-spirited, vulgar, idiotic, boring, slapdash, half-assed, and very, very unfunny, The Hottie and the Nottie stars Paris Hilton as ... but really, need I go on? [Ed.: A little, yes.] Okay, fine: Hilton stars as monosyllabic event-planner Cristabelle Abbott, "the hottest woman in Los Angeles" and absurd object of desire for Nate Cooper (Joel David Moore), an unemployed, unsympathetic asshole. Scripted by Heidi Ferrer and shat onscreen by director Tom Putnam, this strong contender for Worst Movie I've Ever Seen follows Nate's attempt to woo the "hottie" while suffering the rancid foot fungus, oozing facial blisters and hideous tooth decay of her best friend, June Phigg (Christine Lakin). Which leads to such hilarious antics as the yoga-class mishap, in which Nate, inching his nose into Cristabelle's downward-dogging, spandex-clad ass, gets a whiff of Phiggian foot funk instead. Guffaw! Bonus point for Hilton's straight-faced delivery of the sentence, "Do you think I'm a pod person?" Unfortunately, I'll have to take it right back for the inclusion of Randy, a retarded albino stalker. (Burbank Town Center 8; Culver Plaza; One Colorado; Winnetka All Stadium 21) (Nathan Lee)
GO JUST SEX AND NOTHING ELSE After breaking through in Nimród Antal's fest-circuit hit Kontroll, Sándor Csányi has become one of Hungary's biggest movie stars. With his dark eyes and striking features, the 32-year-old actor seems built for brooding poses, but he doesn't coast on his looks; in Krisztina Goda's comedy Just Sex and Nothing Else, he almost seems to be satirizing his own hunk-of-the-moment status. The film's title refers to the newly minted imperative of its heroine, Dóra (Judit Schell), a 30-something Budapest dramaturge smarting from a series of failed relationships and hypersensitive to the ticking of her biological clock. She's in the midst of translating and restaging Dangerous Liaisons when she comes to her unromantic epiphany and places a newspaper ad basically inviting strangers to impregnate her, no strings attached. Second thoughts arrive, on cue, in the form of the play's leading man (Csányi), who comes on like he's thinking of just sex and nothing else (fittingly, since he's been cast as Valmont) but also drops hints that his is not a one-track mind. This scenario doesn't exactly break new rom-com ground, and Dóra's life-improves-on-art revelation that Valmonts might also be virtuous is a fait accompli from the time Schell and Csányi first lock eyes. But well-done piffle beats the other kind, and Goda's precise camera setups, smarter-than-usual dialogue and fine, spontaneous-seeming ensemble work in the scenes introducing Dóra's fractious theater troupe go a long way toward ameliorating the predictability of the proceedings. (Grande 4-Plex) (Adam Nayman)
MILITARY INTELLIGENCE AND YOU! There's an amusing 15-minute short buried in Dale Kutzera's debut feature, Military Intelligence and You, a spoof of World War II–era Army training films that strikes an agreeably silly note early on but then humps on it to the point of enervation. Kutzera starts with a clever idea: The film incorporates footage from actual military-training films into its narrative à la the 1982 Steve Martin vehicle Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. A sonorous and supercilious narrator (Clive Van Owen) introduces the audience — ostensibly grunts about to get their first taste of overseas action — to the concept of military intelligence and the upstanding souls dedicated to gathering it; they include square-jawed pragmatist Major Nick Reed (Patrick Muldoon) and his sultry subordinate Lieutenant Monica Tasty (Elizabeth Bennett). Their discussions about how to locate a concealed Nazi airfield are intercut with the vintage segments to create a storyline that's admirably coherent. But it's also redundant, especially in its stabs at topicality. Nary a scene passes without some broad, knowingly anachronistic nod to the Iraq quagmire and the war on terror, with our fact-and-ethics-challenged FDR-era heroes standing in for the chicken hawks of the current administration. Flatly equating WWII with the post-9/11 situation is naive at best and callow at worst, and Kutzera is more interested in scoring easy, sub-SNL laughs (Reed's staff continually modulates the terror alert from "tangerine" to "butterscotch" to "autumn harvest") than in examining the complexities underlying American attitudes toward war then and now. There are some good deadpan performances here (Muldoon, who memorably had his brain sucked out in Starship Troopers, smartly cements his status as a strapping empty-head specialist), but it would be a shame if this smarmy, kiddie-pool-shallow bit of gimmickry were to be confused with clear-eyed satire. (Nuart) (Adam Nayman)
SPIRAL For filmmakers, there's a fine line between being a film geek who nods reverently toward the assorted influences in one's own work and being someone whose art is drawn so deeply and almost exclusively from the world of cinema that it flits between familiar and banal, derivative and plagiaristic. Spiral is a film too rooted in cinema, and not enough in the human. Mason (Joel Moore) is an asthmatic loner who paints, listens to jazz, and whose demeanor is a hybrid of mentally challenged and vaguely self-tortured. He works for an auto-insurance company — a job he holds thanks to rare generosity from his smarmy, asshole friend/boss Berkeley (Zach Levi). He's also plagued by dreams and visions that suggest he may have recently killed the object of his crush. Enter a new girl at the office (Amber Tamblyn), who's perky, chatty, and inexplicably drawn to Mason and his off-kilter world. All three main characters are broadly drawn, and the actors ladle their performances with drama-school effect, so what the viewer gets is the banging together of "types," not the interplay of actual characters. It's a wit-free homage to Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamalan that, for all its slick presentation, never comes close to hitting the mark of its forebears. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)
STRANGE WILDERNESS Last seen, and quite unforgettably, as one of Rescue Dawn's tragic POWs, Steve Zahn returns to the jungle to headline this innocuously awful, February-dumped comedy in his trusty but musty persona of the happy-go-unlucky, half-stoned schemer. On a South American search for Bigfoot, a last-ditch effort to save their failing TV wildlife program, host Zahn and his even more incompetent crew — a who's-who of slumming talent that includes Jonah Hill, Justin Long, Broken Lizard's Kevin Heffernan and Ernest Borgnine (!) — smoke dope, joy-buzz each other's crotches and wag their tongues at every skinny blonde or fake teat that catches their fratty gaze. Why former SNL writers Fred Wolf (who also directs) and Peter Gaulke would force such proven improvisers to stick to such drooling playground idiocy is a mystery not worth solving, as it concerns a script that smugly tries to squeeze a dozen rapid-fire punch lines out of a guy named Dick. (Alternatively, how can you screw up Mystery Science Theater 3000-style voice-overs of old nature-show footage with this cast?) No snob to lowbrow ridiculousness when it's actually unexpected, I'll admit to being amused exactly once, when Zahn gets deep-throated by a gigantic prop turkey which, despite the mouthful, keeps on flapping. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
SUMMER LOVE Full of the dusty sweat and fly-bitten gore of Sergio Leone's greatest works, Summer Love, the feature-film debut from Polish artist-turned-director Piotr Uklanski, comes touted as the first "kielbasa Western." Rather than merely paying homage, however, Uklanski has said that he used the spaghetti Western as a "found object," plucking the genre's stock characters and set pieces — everything from the steely-eyed stranger to the bombastic shootouts — and repositioning them in a rambling, often beautiful collage. But unlike genre-appropriating spectacles such as Death Proof, Summer Love isn't born of an enthusiasm for movies and moviegoing, but of an appreciation for genre films as seen through the cold, detached lens of a museum theorist. Fittingly, for a director better suited to conceptual art than cinematic storytelling, the film's most memorable moments play with notions of representation. Warnings are carved into hanging portraits with a knife and smeared onto parchment with blood, while one scene shows a broken sheriff drawing tears onto his cheek with a grease pencil. In a pivotal love scene, the bodies themselves are contorted to spell the word "sex"; elsewhere, a grizzled cowboy's piss forms the outline of a naked woman on hot sand. For all his visual punch lines, Uklanski, like so many artists-turned-directors before him, mistakes the screen for an installation piece. By eschewing any attempt at storytelling or character development, a film with all of the Western's fecund imagery and putrid fumes still ends up feeling as flat and distant as a gallery wall. (Grande 4-Plex) (Sam Sweet)
GO UGLY ME Starring ravishing former telenovela actress Bárbara Mori, the Chilean Ugly Me is a predictable romantic comedy immeasurably redeemed by its likable performances and easygoing charm. Disillusioned after learning of her husband's infidelity, Amanda (Mori), a talented architect, flees cosmopolitan Santiago for the sleepier Valparaíso, hiding her fetching appearance behind an unflattering wig and fat suit in the hope of finally being valued for her brains. But her new life faces its first test when she gets hired to work alongside Marcelo (Marcelo Mazzarello), a handsome Lothario who views women only as sexual conquests. Deciding to teach him some manners, Amanda woos Marcelo as "Helena" — Amanda sans camouflage — so that she can torment his hormones and then humiliate him. The setup may be Rom-Com 101, but, as directed by Carlos Dabed, Ugly Me is a breezy delight for all the reasons it runs counter to typical Hollywood conventions. For one, the characters are refreshingly grown-up and witty, not infantile jerks hurling crude putdowns disguised as "flirting." For another, Mori (as Helena) and Mazzarello exude a hot-blooded rapport that's sexy and playful, giving the silly proceedings a terrific carnal undercurrent. Mazzarello plays the archetypal cad with self-mocking humor, making his inevitable change of heart deeply satisfying, and Mori, whether buried in bad makeup or dropping jaws in a slinky number, turns out to be a fine actress who just happens to be a total knockout. (Regent Showcase; One Colorado; Mann Plant 16) (Tim Grierson)
VINCE VAUGHN'S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW: 30 DAYS AND 30 NIGHTS — HOLLYWOOD TO THE HEARTLAND Even at 100 minutes, this documentary about Vaughn and pals' 2005 bus tour from L.A. to Chicago (and all points in between, oy) plays a little long — mostly due to the "comedy show" part, which is filled with such antiquated bits as "Starbucks customers order the damnedest things," "dudes who show off their iPods in the gym are douche bags" and "techno music's for tone-deaf stoners." Echoing the far more successful Comedians of Comedy, Ari Sandel's backstage-diving doc showcases the grind of life on the road. Only, Vaughn's fab foursome — amiable irritant John Caparulo, nostalgic Bret Ernst, would-be waiter Sebastian Maniscalco and proud Muslim Ahmed Ahmed — are thrilled to be along for the ride. The doc provides plenty of back story (meeting the comics' families offers generous context to material heard earlier in the film). But in the end, it's the bits involving Vaughn and his celeb guests that linger, chief among them two re-enactments — one where Justin Long reads Vaughn's part in Swingers with Jon Favreau, and the other in which Vaughn replays his part in a 1991 CBS Schoolbreak Special about steroid use with his actual co-star, A Christmas Story's all-growed-up Peter Billingsley. Also on hand: Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Keir O'Donnell — or, as he's always referred to, "the gay guy" from Wedding Crashers. (Selected theaters) (Robert Wilonsky)
GO WELCOME HOME ROSCOE JENKINS In this overlong but exuberantly performed comedy from writer-director Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother), Martin Lawrence is R.J. Stevens, a tabloid-TV talk-show host who takes his Survivor-winning fiancée (Joy Bryant, terrific) home to Georgia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his parents (James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery). In Hollywood, R.J.'s a king, but down home, he's still seen as the hapless kid who lost every childhood game to his cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer), who arrives at the reunion on the arm of R.J.'s unrequited love (Nicole Ari Parker). Although the big comic setups in Lee's script feel a bit forced — R.J.'s encounter with a skunk, R.J. and Clyde's climactic obstacle-course showdown — the director continually sets up moments of rapid-fire, barb-filled interplay among his accomplished cast, which also includes The Green Mile's Michael Clarke Duncan. As R.J.'s crazy cousins (lots of cousins in this house), Mike Epps and the stand-up comic Mo'Nique counterbalance each other nicely — he with a sly, street-hustler charm and she with raise-the-rooftops boisterousness. It's impressive, actually, that Lawrence lets this film's supporting players steal so much of his show — as movie stars go, he must be a pretty secure guy. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)
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