CHOOSE CONNOR Pimply Owen Norris (Alex Linz) thinks his life is about to begin when he lands a summer job as the youth campaign spokesman for Senator Connor (Steven Weber). It’s not difficult to guess where this is going: The idealistic 15-year-old gets sick after his debut political soiree, foreshadowing the wretchedness in store for him. At least writer/director Luke Eberl grants Choose Connor a little texture by weaving in some unexpected details with the generic clichés. Our possibly closeted teenage protagonist becomes fast friends with the congressman’s gay nephew (Escher Holloway), and the developing relationship plays out with an awkward sweetness at odds with the otherwise grimy proceedings. The narrative also (inadvertently!) parallels the current campaign season, as Senator Connor jumps in to answer on Owen’s behalf during his first photo-op — calling to mind John McCain’s damage-control chaperoning of Sarah Palin. But for all the potential of this coming-of-age/political-awakening tale, Choose Connor undoes itself with an egregiously sordid turn. Aren’t politics depraved enough without the filmmaker resorting to a sex scandal that rivals that of the Catholic Church? Like this election cycle, the movie leaves you cynical and weary. We’ve seen it all before. (Sunset 5) (Kristi Mitsuda)
GO CITY OF EMBER The struggle at the center of City of Ember, another treat from the maker of Monster House, is one for the good of all mankind. But what were the denizens of this world running from when they first trekked underground? Two hundred years after their mucky netherworld’s inception, the ever-hiccupping generator that keeps the lights on in Ember threatens to go forever kaput. It’s up to Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) to decipher the clues left inside a mysterious box and usher their people — like Obama or Moses, take your pick — toward deliverance. Back story and motivation are almost nil here, but director Gil Kenan reveres the abstract tenor of Jeanne DuPrau’s acclaimed children’s book, understanding the postapocalyptic story as an allegory for the determination of humanity against the forces of darkness — whatever or whoever they may be. Its look suggests a twee City of Lost Children, but Kenan isn’t hung up on style alone, equally and voluptuously reveling in artifice and the courageous will of Ronan and Treadaway’s hopeful foot soldiers. The story subtly evokes Rand and scripture, colliding secular and spiritual values, and, as such, appeals to the blue- and red-minded alike. (Citywide) (Ed Gonzalez)
FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL Tinkering with his image in a way most 007’s don’t consider until they’ve washed their hands of the Bond biz, Daniel Craig assumes the moderately unflattering role of Joe Scot, a faded movie star floundering in a sea of joyless sex and drugs. Craig’s shaken-but-not-stirred charisma makes the most of an underwritten part, but the movie nearly flat-lines when the actor’s not onscreen, which is often. The eponymous stroll down memory lane, which consumes nearly half the running time, replaces Craig with Harry Eden as a 15-year-old Scot growing up in a quaint English village bathed in the golden glow lazy movies use to evoke time regained. Young Joe goes through predictable rites of passage, mooning over a glam-rock-loving nymphet (Felicity Jones) and discovering the joys and terrors of sex with a reliably horny housewife (Jodhi May). Writer-director Baillie Walsh works overtime milking Freud and brimstone from the proceedings, but the compulsive sexuality that supposedly fills the air is lost in a profusion of stodgy coming-of-age tropes, treacly strings and characters that never transcend one-word descriptions like “sassy” or “crotchety.” And when a grown-up Joe finally revisits his old stomping grounds to tie up loose ends, you can be sure he won’t really be going home again. (Music Hall) (Lance Goldenberg)
MATTIE FRESNO AND THE HOLOFLUX UNIVERSE “Define distracted,” petty criminal Al Lewis (Ellen Cleghorne) asks murder suspect Mattie Fresno (Angela Pierce) early on in Mattie Fresno and the Holoflux Universe, and even in a story as unwieldily metafictional as this, it probably wouldn’t do to have Mattie name her own movie. But you get the point — distraction and diffuseness, not the proffered “unified theory of what is,” are the thematic and aesthetic core of director Phil Gallo’s failed political satire/media roasting/New Age fantasy. One could describe Mattie Fresno as being “about” the title character’s involvement in a convoluted assassination scheme, or “about” her physicist grandfather’s self-created alternate universe, but to do so would imply that the movie hangs together more coherently than the average YouTube video. Too bad, because the assassination plot, conceived by a public-relations firm to win the public’s eternal sympathy for a struggling client, briefly sustains a welcome, rabid cynicism about the politico-media complex, “spin doctors,” megalomaniacal TV personalities, fake holy men and an American public that laps it all up like a pig at the trough. Unfortunately, Mattie Fresno blunts these sharp satirical edges with moments of aimless screwball comedy, awkwardly composed flashbacks and green-screened dream sequences suggestive of anything but the universe’s deepest complexities. Rarely has a film killed off its own best instincts with more vigor. (Grande 4-Plex) (Matt Brennan)
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 bad-ass 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)
MORNING LIGHT Two unnerving phenomena — the popularity of reality-TV competitions and the Walt Disney Company’s ability to churn out entertainment starring the most squeaky-clean humans on Earth — come together in this nightmarishly upbeat documentary about a group of young people who face off with the world’s best sailors in a 2,500-mile boat race from Long Beach to Hawaii. Under the watchful eye of Disney exec Roy E. Disney, 15 hand-selected college-age seafarers train for the annual Transpacific Yacht Race, eventually deciding among themselves who will make up the final crew of 11. The movie’s first half consists of typical America’s Next Top Model–type rigmarole where we’re forced to hear every contestant’s back story — although here, no one’s a closet lesbian or anorexic. Once the crew is selected, things improve somewhat, as director Mark Monroe shifts his attention to the race, treating the audience to one gorgeous panoramic shot of the Pacific Ocean after another. But no matter how many times these young adults insist that this grueling competition is changing their lives, Morning Light strenuously ignores the obvious emotional and physical toll, playing up the gosh-darn fun factor until the participants feel like cogs in the film’s inspiration machine. These kids survive their adventure on the high seas, but escaping the powerful Disney agenda is another matter entirely. (Selected theaters) (Tim Grierson)
PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE If Patti Smith’s narration to Dream of Life was simplified into a stanza, it might go something like this: As long as I can remember, I sought to be free/Bob Dylan once tuned this guitar for me/My mission is to give people my energy/Fred, Jesse and Jackson are my family tree/New generations, rise up, rise up, take to the streets/Me and Flea talking about pee. Her much more long-winded monologues are just as randomly assembled in the documentary, 109 mostly black-and-white minutes of punk’s wet nurse floating through the modern world while endlessly ruminating on mortality, art and the occasional bodily function. Problem is, there’s nary a hint of context, even with biographic essentials: When Patti sprinkles the ashes of “Robert” onto her palm, we’re momentarily left to guess that’s Mapplethorpe; when she and erstwhile paramour Sam Shepard are acoustically jamming and their respective tattoos come up, the playwright muses, “That was a weird night at the Chelsea.” More, please? Blame first-time director Steven Sebring, the fashion photographer whom the “very private” Patti entrusted to film her for 11 years, and who says in regard to Dream of Life: “I want to turn people on to Patti Smith.” If the resulting movie had been comprehensible to anyone besides those who have an armpit-hair fetish thanks to Easter, he might’ve stood a chance. (Nuart) (Camille Dodero)
GO QUARANTINE The megaplex boneyard is littered with inferior U.S. remakes of superior overseas horror films, and their existence is even more galling when they keep the originals from getting domestic distribution. It’s a shame that this English-language cover of an excellent Spanish shocker will eclipse the original, at least in U.S. theaters — but even those who despise remakes will have to admit that director John Erick Dowdle’s furious retread is scary as hell. (Unless, that is, they’ve seen the idiot trailer, which gives away the entire damn movie.) Practically a scene-for-scene re-creation, the U.S. version retains the setting — an apartment building under siege by zombie contagion — as well as the gimmick: The movie unfolds in on-the-spot news footage shot by the crew penned up inside. Far more convincing than Cloverfield or Diary of the Dead in its fake-found-footage ambience, Quarantine wisely spends its first 15 minutes acclimating the audience to its chirpy feature-reporter heroine (Jennifer Carpenter). From there, it’s utterly relentless as the dwindling dwellers lunge through infested corridors in gradually vanishing light. The lack of music, the nerve-wracking sound design, the suggestive lighting and the unobtrusive cutting combine to keep us off-guard, but it’s the ensemble that evokes bat-shit terror so convincingly. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
SAVING MARRIAGE Come November 4, Californians will punch their ballot for or against an amendment to the state constitution titled “Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry Act” (a.k.a. Prop. 8). That’s a harsh name for a measure whose origins can be traced to a 2003 Massachusetts Judicial Court order stating that full marriage rights must be made available to all. Political bedlam ensued, prompting an assembly bill, which, if passed, would have been the first step toward writing a gay-marriage ban into the Massachusetts Constitution. In this energetic and unapologetically biased documentary, directors Mike Roth and John Henning are there for the first, failed statehouse vote and the two-year battle that follows, during which queer activists and their hetero sympathizers organize against a second legislative vote on the potential amendment and, later still, a civil action seeking the same initiative. Amid the turmoil, the directors capture the sweet angst of several couples planning their nuptials, but what propels Saving Marriage is footage of the campaign to replace an old-school state representative with a gay 25-year-old health care worker — a political novice whose attempt to change the system from within makes one think that there’s hope yet for this democracy thing. (Regent Showcase) (Chuck Wilson)
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GO SECRECY Few Americans would argue with Winston Churchill’s dictum: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” But the culture of secrecy that has developed within the Bush/Cheney White House has taken that admonition to dangerous extremes. The inherent tension that exists between the public’s right to know and the government’s need for confidentiality in the service of national security is the subject of Secrecy, a powerful documentary by Harvard professors Peter Galison and Robb Moss. In addition to historical footage, the film employs a series of pulsating animated drawings, with the white ink against the black background injecting an appropriately unsettling, even sinister tone. Arguments on both sides of the debate are presented, although the filmmakers have a clear point of view: that the current level of secrecy is harmful. Most chilling is the former CIA station chief who defends secrecy on the grounds that it “allows us the latitude of action to use methods that are not necessarily consistent with our values as a nation.” (Music Hall) (Jean Oppenheimer)
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES From its attention-grabbing B-movie beginning, The Secret Life of Bees, a family drama based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, chugs pleasantly into a television special tailored for the crossover female market, while dropping tantalizing hints that it has more on its mind than a benign tale of substitute mothering across the color line. The ever-capable Dakota Fanning plays Lily, a motherless teenager who flees her bullying father (Paul Bettany, channeling Brad Dourif) to find safe haven with three black beekeeping sisters more solidly equipped for life than she. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) bathes them in a honeyed glow and tempers the soundtrack’s jaunty Motown music with a soft guitar when Southern racism pokes in its unwelcome head. Stately black actresses approaching middle age always run the risk of getting locked in as the face of Black Equanimity, and as August, the oldest sister whose job it is to teach Lily how to live a good life, Queen Latifah has no choice but to succumb. Only near the end does this likable but saccharine movie fleetingly complicate the Gone With the Wind–fed delusion that the love of poor black nannies for their white charges was undiluted by bitterness. Is that Hattie McDaniel I hear, whooping for joy from beyond the grave? For a longer version of this review, go to laweekly.com/movies.(Citywide) (Ella Taylor)
GO SEX DRIVE Between his unsympathetic family and his demeaning doughnut-shop job, the likable but luckless Ian (Josh Zuckerman) is a prototypical teen-movie protagonist with a prototypical teen-movie conflict: He’s still a virgin. Naturally, a prototypical solution must follow. With his two best friends (played by Amanda Crew and Clark Duke), Ian steals his brother’s 1969 Pontiac GTO and embarks on a road trip to hook up with his Internet crush. Heralded by Porky’s and perfected by John Hughes, the post-pubescent sex comedy is a genre as identifiable as the film noir or the Western, and Sex Drive doesn’t miss any of the motifs. Sweet muscle car? Check. Terroristic older sibling? Check. (In frosted tips and cut-off sweatshirt, James Marsden relishes the role.) Ample amounts of T&A? Check. Yet, rather than wink at adults with a knowing rehash of early ’80s iconography, director and co-writer Sean Anders aims for the only audience that counts: the youth of today. Like Superbad, Sex Drive maintains its belief that the average modern teenager is funnier and more compelling than the stereotyped hipsters of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist or the fantastic figurines of High School Musical. Even as Ian’s journey detours into National Lampoon–like farce, the movie remains faithful to a portrait of teens as they see themselves. (Citywide) (Sam Sweet)
WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Jaw-droppingly arcane and dripping with self-regard, Barry Levinson’s tedious excuse for a Hollywood caper asks us, as if we haven’t been asked a thousand times before, to pity the poor movie producer — in this case Art Linson, adapting his own memoir about trying to get good movies made in bad old Hollywood. To hear him tell it, Linson (nicely played under the radar by Robert De Niro) is just another harmlessly uxorious Everyman trying to win back his former wife (Robin Wright Penn) and daughters while wielding his Bluetooth on the 405 freeway to fend off or placate the assholes, divas and neurotics whose mission in life is to thwart his every effort to bring art — or, failing that, Sean Penn — to the masses. Begging for sympathy, What Just Happened? invites only schadenfreude. Bruce Willis is very funny as a tantrum-prone star who refuses to shave his scary beard, and Catherine Keener is amusingly uptight as a chilly studio head. But though industry insiders may get a good snigger out of seeing thinly disguised acquaintances hung and quartered, there’s no need to ask how this all-too-aptly titled, poorly lit and gratuitously handheld movie — which never for a moment transcends its narrow milieu — will play in Peoria. It won’t. (The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)