THE CAKE EATERS There’s no kind of wonderful in Mary Stuart Masterson’s directorial debut, yet however slight her ensemble drama — about two distressed families in the Rockwellian framings of time-forgotten rural America — it’s at least convincing in its genuine sweetness. When wandering musician Guy Kimbrough (screenwriter Jayce Bartok) learns that his ailing mother has finally died, he stumbles back home to the passive aggressiveness of his awkward younger brother, Beagle (Aaron Stanford), who hasn’t forgiven him for abandoning the clan. Grieving patriarch Easy (Bruce Dern) has been secretly schtupping the mildly kooky grandmother of Georgia (standout Kristen Stewart), a sexually curious high-schooler who slurs and walks shakily as she suffers the neural disease Friedreich’s ataxia. Like their pop, the Kimbrough boys both have their own romantic complications (Beagle and the years-younger Georgia want to hook up in spite of her mother’s disapproval, and Guy reconnects with the ex-fiancée he ditched in his exodus), and since everyone here broods instead of speaks their minds, the perfunctory moments of quiet indie revelation actually add up. Bungee-strapped to her new beau on his scooter, Georgia extends her arms to draw in the sunshine (see also: the forthcoming DVD cover), and as we fade out with Easy and sons bonding over steak and beers, our cockles are warmed — the movie forgotten. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Aaron Hillis)
THE EDGE OF LOVE No longer weighted down by the perukes she had to wear in The Duchess. Keira Knightley returns to the simpler chignons of Atonement in another World War II–set prestige piece with a starchy literary pedigree — this one scripted by her mum, Sharman MacDonald. Knightley sings and affects a Welsh whisper as Vera, a childhood friend of Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys, the gay sib on Brothers and Sisters), who meets up with the pickled poet in London during the Blitz. When Thomas’ even more aggro spouse, Caitlin (Sienna Miller, in a role originally attached to Lindsay Lohan), arrives, Vera opens her flat to the couple and the trio becomes one big cuddle puddle. Adding a fourth wheel, Vera hastily marries stoic soldier William (Cillian Murphy); while he’s off fighting in Greece, the threesome decamp to adjoining cottages in Wales. Director John Maybury showed a defter hand with the artist biopic in his 1998 Francis Bacon film, Love Is the Devil. Here he repeatedly falls into the genre’s traps, creating an inert, claustrophobic movie in which the constant sound of inhaled cigarette smoke is as showboaty as Rhys murmuring Thomas’ poetry and Murphy’s shell shock. Occasionally, Angelo Badalamenti’s fine score will pleasantly remind you of Mulholland Drive. Knightley and Miller’s pseudo-sapphic tub-splashing will not. (Nuart) (Melissa Anderson)
MISS MARCH “That’s four years’ worth of poop,” a doctor remarks when Eugene (Zach Cregger) — who wakes up from a coma after his best friend, Tucker (Trevor Moore), wallops him with a baseball bat, only to discover that his virginal high-school sweetheart is now a Playboy centerfold — voids his bowels. Miss March, which Whitest Kids U’ Know Cregger and Moore also co-wrote and co-directed, sprays like an exploding colostomy bag for 89 minutes. Only a moron would expect a dude road-trip-sex comedy to be more than an aggressive expression of male sexual anxiety. But really, when did women become such vile creatures that they must be stabbed in the face with a fork after a botched blowjob, become near roadkill, and drink dog pee (and love it!)? To make assholes respect you, ladies, try this: Become a Bunny to pay your vegetable boyfriend’s medical bills while saving yourself to have sex with him, or a Slavic lesbian who ingeniously transforms a Perrier bottle into a dildo. Hugh Hefner shows up to give an addled lecture after Eugene and Tucker make it to the Playboy Mansion, and you think: Wasn’t it just last summer that he so sweetly played himself in The House Bunny? (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)
THE OBJECTIVE On the hunt for WMD in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, a CIA agent (Jonas Ball) leads a Special Ops team into the mountains to find a cleric who can point them to a hidden stash. Instead, they get progressively more lost, their compasses and equipment stop working, and they hear strange noises at night. Not a bad premise, that — basically a Blair Witch Project rip-off tied into current war anxieties. And since The Objective was directed by Blair Witch co-creator Daniel Myrick, co-scripted by Wesley Clark Jr. (son of the NATO general and presidential candidate) and cast with several real military veterans, you’d think it would be a perfect mix. (What’s scarier than terrorists? Ghost terrorists!) Instead, it plays like a disastrous Sci-Fi Channel castoff, thanks in no small part to Myrick’s odd decision to include incessant voice-over narration by Ball, which plays like a really terrible in-character DVD commentary track. But it’s hard to blame Myrick for not having faith in the ability of images alone to tell the story; nothing here is interestingly staged or shot, and the former soldiers somehow manage to be unconvincing ... as soldiers. Ten years on, it’s hard to begrudge the director for trying to make a comeback by rehashing his prior formula, but perhaps he should have stuck even closer and handed the cameras to the actors again — or, cast talented actors to begin with. (Sunset 5) (Luke Y. Thompson)
THE PERFECT SLEEP An ungainly fusion of dutiful homage and snarky send-up, The Perfect Sleep steeps itself in the trappings of film noir while tripping over itself to slather the whole thing in irony. The movie layers its fatalistic drama with absurdist horseplay and a few moments of Lynch-ian mysticism, but it’s an awkward mix at best; even when The PerfectSleep is trying to be funny, it’s far too self-conscious to really be much fun. First-time director Jeremy Alter and writer-star Anton Pardoe wear their cineaste credentials on their sleeves in this convoluted tale of a brooding assassin (Pardoe) wreaking vengeance on old enemies while rescuing a childhood sweetheart — before inevitably discovering you can’t go home again. The film’s visuals are elegantly noir-ish, the plot as bizarrely convoluted as The Maltese Falcon’s, but the filmmakers strain at showing us how clever they can be. The Perfect Sleep lurches from reality to metareality, as the cartoonish characters wear us down with wide swathes of expository dialogue, and the entire film is layered with a faux-noir voice-over that manages to sound both hard-boiled and fey. The nonstop narration has something to say about everything that shows up on the screen (some may feel they’re already listening to the film’s DVD audio commentary), at one point even pausing to admire a shot straight out of a Jean-Pierre Melville crime drama. “Sorry if it seems kinda cliché, but the French dig this kind of visual,” the narrator marvels. “And I dig the French.” (Sunset 5) (Lance Goldenberg)
RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN This remake of Disney’s 1975 classic Escape to Witch Mountain is pure, if mildly enjoyable, boilerplate: A spaceship crashes on Earth and its young sibling-duo passengers must return home in order to save their own planet and ours; a curmudgeon cabbie is corralled into helping them and has his heart thawed in return, even scoring a G-rated love interest; sinister U.S. government operatives miss the big “save the world” picture in their quest to capture and experiment upon the “illegal aliens.” Director Andy Fickman, working from Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback’s rote, hole-laden screenplay, fills Racewith impressive action sequences and winning performances from a cast working hard to turn types into characters. (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, the OG Witch Mountain children, have cameos.) The crowd of preteens with whom I saw the film clapped, laughed and cheered throughout; their parents leaned more toward lukewarm chuckles. The remake’s core strength, ironically, derives from its most cynical departure from the source material — the shoehorning of Dwayne Johnson’s taciturn cabdriver into the story. This remake, reportedly written with Johnson (not the tale’s child characters) in mind, is a calculated bid to turn the Rock into a more family-friendly commodity. That calculation may be transparent, but it pays off: Cracking one-liners and alternating between world-weariness and growing affection for his charges, Johnson is wonderful — much better than his material. (Citywide) (Ernest Hardy)
GO THE SECRETS Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher sets his fledgling feminist film at a Jewish seminary in Safed, where students Noemi (Ania Bukstein) and Michel (Michal Shtamler) form an unlikely friendship. Humorless Noemi is the Tracy Flick of Orthodox Jews, whereas glamorous Michel — raised in France from the age of 12 — smokes, flirts and wears knee-high boots. But the former’s book smarts and the latter’s chutzpah find common cause when the two are assigned to deliver food to Anouk (Fanny Ardant), a terminally ill woman previously convicted of murder: Soon, the girls are bonding and breaking tradition, secretly performing a series of kabbalistic tikkuns upon Anouk in a ritual cleansing before she dies. After a giggly sleepover takes a sapphic turn, an unexpectedly emboldened Noemi progresses further along the path of self-actualization. Her quest for liberation, seeded in the knowledge that her recently deceased mother suffered from depression due to Noemi’s oppressive Orthodox rabbi father, finds full flower as she continues her studies, refuses to marry and sticks to her sexual guns. Although overlong by about 20 minutes, The Secrets mostly handles its subject matter with grace and charm; its heroine’s proud defiance even mitigates a questionably celebratory conclusion. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Kristi Mitsuda)
SHERMAN’S WAY Director Craig Saavedra and writer Tom Nance’s collaboration plays like something out of an indie-film paint-by-numbers. Take a richie-rich, straight-laced stuffed-shirt (Michael Shulman as set-for-life college student Sherman), stick him in a beat-up roadster heading cross-country that’s piloted by a wacky wash-up (James LeGros as forgotten Winter Olympian Palmer “The Bomber”), toss in a few eccentrics and hotties-to-trot along the way, and, voila, off to the film festival circuit we shall go in search of shallow-end enlightenment. The acting doesn’t help — just how many cue cards were used in this production, anyhow? And, though no fault of its own, the film now feels like a rinky-dink redo of HBO’s new Eastbound & Down series, starring Danny McBride in more or less the same role as LeGros — the former star athlete who thinks he’s big shit but is nothing more than a dumb shit on his way to the footnotes. (Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Robert Wilonsky)
STEAM Aimed squarely at the Fried Green Tomatoes crowd, this female-empowerment flick gives the Lifetime Network a good name. Three women meet in a steam bath, and I’d like to report that they simply talk and talk and talk for the next two hours. Instead, unfortunately, they enact three separate minidramas that Steam intercuts to no good purpose. Ruby Dee is a stoic widow, estranged from church and kin, who finds love with a kindly widower. Ally Sheedy is a divorcée, intimidated by her spiteful ex, who finds love with her son’s peewee football coach (a younger man!). Newbie actress Kate Siegel is a college girl, dominated by fanatical Catholic parents, who finds love with — get ready for it — a lesbian. The three vignettes proceed in parallel, mechanical terms: new passions, unexpected obstacles, hopeful resolutions. Writer-director Kyle Schickner embraces every cliché with gusto. (Behold the cruel intolerance of the patriarchy!) Among his heroines, only the careworn Sheedy manages to suggest that life ain’t so simple. If she and Chelsea Handler, as her sarcastic BFF, somehow managed to escape Steam and head over to Showtime, there’s a chance that Weeds might be hiring. Just so long as they leave this one off their résumés. (Sunset 5) (Brian Miller)
SUNSHINE CLEANING More than a year after its first twirl at Sundance, this Amy Adams–Emily Blunt dramedy finally shrugs its way into theaters, and it feels almost like an afterthought. A film about sisters who go into the crime-scene-cleanup business, it’s a muddled mess: terrific performances (from Adams, especially, as the ex–high school cheerleader now at the bottom of the pile) buried beneath contrivances and clichés, not to mention Alan Arkin cast yet again as the foulmouthed gramps dispensing four-lettered advice to a troubled youngster (Jason Spevack, as Adams’ son, who’ll lick anything and anyone). Director Christine Jeffs, working with Megan Holley’s screenplay, renders the light and dark as a muddy shade of sitcom-pilot gray. This has the makings of a great Showtime series — feels a bit like Weeds but with cleaning fluid instead of bong water. Too bad what’s intended to play as funny (girls and gore) stumbles into slapstick; what’s meant to play as profound (girls and dead-mommy issues) sinks into the overwrought. Yet another willful, comically tortured “indie” coated with Hollywood’s happy-ending sheen — or perhaps, at this point, it’s simply hard to buy the perky Adams and pretty Blunt as schlumpy losers trapped in the bland flyover with an Oscar winner stuck in rerun mode. (ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark) (Robert Wilonsky)
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13B This Bollywood thriller opens promisingly enough with a bustling montage of p.o.v. shots that suggest household appliances are spying on a hale-and-hearty fam, recently installed in a sunny high-rise. Television, the graying bogeyman of J-horror and its American retreads, emerges again as the star in-house menace: A soap-opera serial uncannily mirrors the apartment’s daily dramas, mesmerizing the clueless female contingent. Already rattled by a balky elevator and a prayer room whose walls repel nails, beleaguered-good-guy husband Manohar (R. Madhavan) is horrified when the show foretells wife Priya’s miscarriage, making it must-see TV. Thus does the first half of 13B feel like watching the same belabored movie twice, as the sleeve-tugging sound cues and close-ups snuff out suspense. When the building turns out to stand on the site of a bungalow massacre, the theme of punitive destiny tied to passive narcissism gives way to a convoluted 30-year-old family curse involving two separate retarded siblings. In case you’re wondering where the song and dance fits in, director Vikram Kumar and company serve a starvation ration of two lackluster beach numbers, saving the censored-in-India “Sexy Mama” jam for the credits — wherein Madhavan rocks a giant “13B” gold chain. (Norwalk 8; Naz 8) (Nicolas Rapold)
THIS IS THE LIFE Ava Duvernay’s documentary This Is the Life is so immediately and fully engrossing that it meets its ambitious goals for the viewer — to illuminate a brief, paradoxically undervalued but globally influential L.A.-based music scene while broadening the accepted parameters of hip-hop — and without feeling lectured to. It’s rare that being schooled so deeply is so pleasurable. The Good Life hip-hop scene started in the early ’90s in South-Central L.A.’s Good Life health-food store, run by neighborhood stalwart Bea Hall and her son. The duo wanted to create a venue for local (soon citywide) youth to express their musical creativity in a safe, positive atmosphere. Their most famous rule: No profanity allowed. Soon, a movement was afoot that spawned hip-hop iconoclasts like Pigeon John, Abstract Rude, Medusa, Volume 10 and the venerated Freestyle Fellowship, all making some of the most artful, experimental rap music ever. Duvernay’s film also persuasively argues that mainstream artists such as Ice Cube lifted more than a little from the ground being broken. This Is the Life vaults into the upper echelons of must-see hip-hop documentaries: It’s smart, informative, and hugely important historically, filled with rare performance footage that still crackles. The underground-icon talking heads (shot in their homes, against freeway backdrops) wax poetic, philosophical and enthusiastic. “Something like that couldn’t happen in any other city, in any other part of the world, at any other time,” says Cut Chemist. “It was perfect.” (Downtown Independent) (Ernest Hardy)