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Movie Reviews: Mugabe and the White African, Peepli Live, Animal Kingdom

GO  ANIMAL KINGDOM Happily sampling nasty beats and riffs from the Scorsese catalog, the new Aussie crime saga Animal Kingdom begins with a hushed but breath-holding set piece: A gawky lad watches TV on the couch next to his dozing mum ... until the already-summoned EMTs arrive and the boy calmly tells them she's OD'd on smack. As it becomes clear she's dead, his eyes continually, habitually veer back to the stupid game show on TV. First-time writer/director David Michôd limns a dank and lost family history in just these few, barely conscious gestures. The alienated teen is Joshua (James Frecheville), who, with nowhere else to go, moves in with his garrulous grandmother, Smurf, and is accepted into her roiling nest of pathology. This chintzy suburban house is where up to half of the movie plays out, dominated by Smurf's three sons: Darren (Luke Ford), a surly post-teen visibly uneasy with following the family line; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a tattooed coke brute; and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest, a bank robber off his meds and hiding out from the fuzz. With Joshua's narration, the template is GoodFellas but without the crescendos. No speeding bullet, Michôd's film luxuriates in its own, exaggerated sense of tragedy, observing the family as it self-destructs under pressure. But the director's strenuous efforts to accumulate tension are often only just that. Still, Animal Kingdom is a work of obvious ambition, and seeing a debut filmmaker swing for the fences like this is its own kind of satisfaction. (Michael Atkinson) (Arclight Hollywood, AMC Century City)

EAT, PRAY, LOVE Lusciously shot by Oscar winner Robert Richardson (The Aviator, JFK), Eat Pray Love delivers a sensory overload as intense as Inception's but heavily calibrated to stir the hearts, loins and tear ducts of women for whom love handles and spiritual bankruptcy are of equally pressing concern. Julia Roberts' Liz leaves behind flaky husband Billy Crudup and "Yonkers yogi" boy-toy James Franco to embark on a yearlong solo walkabout, with stops in Italy, India and Bali. Writer/director Ryan Murphy keeps emotional currents bubbling on the surface, serving up near-constant catharsis but hardly any arc — the title is a spoiler in three parts. As vicarious travelogue, EPL stumbles by flattening its loaded locations into (beautifully photographed) set dressing. Politics and economics hardly exist; each place is populated chiefly by wise exotics who talk funny (including Richard Jenkins' Texan in the ashram) and exist solely to spout slogans and tell stories that make Liz's problems seem small. "Believe in love again!" "Americans know entertainment but not pleasure!" "It won't last forever — nothing does!" Liz's happily-ever-after hookup with hunky divorcé Javier Bardem should be EPL's glorious guilty-pleasure crescendo; instead, it's a rushed, foregone conclusion. Though targeted to the same female filmgoers who flocked to the self-realization via food porn of Julie & Julia, EPL is a comparative downer, letting viewers experience the rush of self-improvement without having to do any of the work. I cried. Mission accomplished? (Karina Longworth) (Citywide)

THE EXPENDABLES "If the money's right, we don't care where the job is." So explains Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), the leader of hired-gun task force the Expendables. This credo lands Ross and his team (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture and Terry Crews in "the Carl Weathers Memorial Role") in the Gulf of Aden as our story begins. Somali pirates staging a videotaped decapitation are pinned down by dancing laser sights — and soon, the baddies are ripped apart. A human trunk splats against the wall, and star/director/co-screenwriter Stallone slaps his cards on the table. Tipped by the presence of Rocky IV nemesis Lundgren and cameo favors called in from Planet Hollywood, The Expendables is a throwback to '80s run-and-gun action, when Hollywood gym rats made boffo box office depopulating Third World countries. Pirates liquidated, the Expendables' next mission concerns the fate of the South American nation of Vilena, where Generalissimo Garza grinds the populace beneath his iron heel. Garza is torn between his imperialist backers (Eric Roberts and bodyguard "Stone Cold" Steve Austin) and his idealistic daughter. As in Stallone's last Rambo, where a good-hearted Christian woman resurrected John Rambo's wrath to the woe of the Burmese junta, the daughter's vague Hope gives the Expendables a purpose. Though The Expendables does not have that Rambo's ... let us call it focus, it tries manfully to top that film's kill-'em-all climax. If The Expendables is no classic, for about 20 minutes, it blowed up real good. (Nick Pinkerton) (Citywide)

GO  MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN The idea of a film pleading the cause of white landowners in the new Africa might make you roll your eyes. But if there's one dictator whose thuggery and contempt for his own people can't be written off as a legacy of colonialism, it's Robert Mugabe, whose despotic, chaotic 30-year rule of Zimbabwe has brought the country to its knees. Shot undercover by British filmmakers Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, this incendiary documentary showcases Mugabe's corrupt use of land reform to further polarize a fragile nation already divided along racial lines, by following an elderly white farmer's struggle to avoid being forced off the land he bought in 1978. Trying to bring their case before an international tribunal in Namibia, Mike Campbell and his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, find themselves stonewalled, intimidated and finally horrifically beaten and tortured by Mugabe's hoodlums. At times, the film glides over salient questions: It would help, for example, to know how much Campbell pays the black workers he calls his "community" and who, he concedes, risk their lives daily in his employ. But as his extraordinarily brave black female attorney points out, at stake are not merely the rights of this family or, indeed, of all white farmers but the future of race relations and human rights in Africa. (Ella Taylor) (Music Hall)

MUNDO ALAS Following a group of handicapped Argentine musicians as they embark on a 2007-08 national tour under the stewardship of famed folk artist León Gieco, Mundo Alas (co-directed by Gieco) presents feel-good sentimentality without depth or nuance. Taking multiple pages from the Spellbound populist-documentary handbook, the film sets its stage with cursory snapshots of its various players — including a wheelchair-bound dancer, a singer with no arms or legs and a tango troupe whose members have Down syndrome — which reveal scant details about their personalities and day-to-day realities, and even fewer specifics regarding how they came to be associated with Gieco in the first place. Actual insight into these people's hearts and minds is replaced with skin-deep montages of cheery tour-bus road-tripping, hanging out with friends and writing songs in the studio. The performances, which culminate with a show at the famed Luna Park, are stirring enough to make the portrait's superficiality all the more pronounced, the musicians' accomplishments undercut by the fact that Gieco avoids depicting any genuine adversity. Instead, what his road movie offers is merely nonfiction comfort food that packages his inspiring subjects' stories into an easy, formulaic triumph-of-the-spirit template. (Nick Schager) (Sunset 5)

GO  PEEPLI LIVE First widely reported in the '90s, an ongoing suicide epidemic in central India has claimed the lives of several tens of thousands of farmers too miserably destitute to go on, in part because their families are thereafter bestowed with a piddling government grant of about $2,000. In first-time filmmaker Anusha Rizvi's amusingly bittersweet satire, bushy-haired introvert Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri, one newcomer in a cast of mostly rural locals) fears his land will soon be seized due to an unpaid loan, and is coerced by his older brother into offing himself for the financial good of his family. Another villager overhears the plan and tells someone else, the escalating game of "Telephone" pulling in the scoop-hungry national media, nervous bureaucrats and two rival politicians who are leveraging the issue for electoral gain. The grand joke of it all, less subversively executed than in Alexander Payne's all-eyes-on-one-pawn farce Citizen Ruth, is that nobody has bothered asking poor Natha what he really wants. It's an unusual taste of mainstream Indian cinema (or, thanks to superstar Aamir Khan's production company, it's a small film given an unusually mainstream push), unexpectedly irreverent, with an earthier, folkier sound track than the typical Bollywood electro-bounce. (Aaron Hillis) (Citywide)

TALES FROM EARTHSEA This 2006 Ghibli Studios adaptation of the Ursula K. Le Guin novels is the handiwork of first-timer Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao — and the lack of the master's poetic control shows. Miyazaki movies (Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away) are always bewitched by dream logic, but this cookie-cutter fantasy saga — a good wizard and bad wizard battle over the karmic "balance" of the titular kingdom, with a troubled prince caught in the middle — is slack and often incomprehensible, full of vague magical rules and eruptions of nonsense without explanation. There are dragons, but to no significant purpose; nightmares about tar; out-of-nowhere body/spirit schisms occurring only for plot convenience; and so on. Goro Miyazaki lacks his father's charm and humor, though he obviously worked the studio's army of background painters to the bone, creating yet another gorgeous medieval Eurocity. Despite the Willem Dafoe–whispered, androgynously evil mage and the incongruous presence of Cheech Marin dubbing the villain's head lackey, Earthsea seems to be a stupendously dull place. It would try the patience of any kid. (Michael Atkinson) (Landmark W.L.A.)

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