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Movie Reviews: Save Me, Take Out, Hounddog

Chris Smith trades Wisconsin for Goa in The Pool

GHOST TOWN It takes a good while for Ricky Gervais to warm up in Ghost Town; it takes even longer for the audience to warm to Ricky Gervais. During the opening minutes of the film — an occasionally effective mash-up of Ghost, The Sixth Sense and The Frighteners — Gervais, as Bertram Pincus, DDS, is nearly mute as a dentist who enjoys his work because it allows him the peace and quiet that comes with sticking cotton balls into his patients’ mouths. He’s but a “sad little man,” says one observer; “a fucking prick,” says another. But after briefly dying on an operating table, he sees dead people. And the dead, of course, bring Bertram to life, especially Greg Kinnear’s tuxedoed Frank, offed while shouting down the Realtor who revealed his affair. Frank latches onto Bertram in the desperate hope that the dentist can bust up his widow’s (Téa Leoni) remarriage. If it sounds all so pale and predictable, it is. Director and co-writer David Koepp, more or less remaking his 1999 film Stir of Echoes with a romantic-comedy’s dopey grin this time, does little to break with the genre’s conventions. But Ghost Town, dead on arrival throughout much of its first half, picks up as it slows down — when it ditches the decidedly dreary romantic slap-shtick of the living and focuses, however briefly, on the needy, aching dead. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 
HOUNDDOG Having lurched through a gauntlet of Sundance jeers, recuts and release delays, writer-director Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog — at least as far as the press notes indicate (urgently) — now exists as a version different from the one that met such derision. One imagines, however, that the song — both the hip-swiveler of the title and the Southern Gothic story of FUBAR families, innocence and, yes, child rape that it brackets — remains more or less the same. Dakota Fanning plays 12-year-old Lewellen, and while the role will test the patience of even the staunchest survival-parable lovers, Fanning’s extraordinary poise finally trumps precocity. “I’m gonna kill my daddy one day,” she declares in the first scene, and why not? Played by David Morse, he’s an inconstant brute with a wardrobe full of wife beaters, in case there was any doubt. The symbolism is as clobbering as the blows that send Lewellen’s maybe-mommy (Robin Wright Penn) reeling: Snakes abound, notably in a grotesque, crotch-slithering dream sequence. Shot in mellow green and gold, Hounddog manages an engaging summer sweetness in its early scenes, as Lewellen plots to obtain a ticket to a local Elvis concert, but in the wake of the inadvertent betrayal that leads to her now-notorious rape (a sequence that, ironically, seems to have lost the horrific impact it needs), the film turns listless. By the time Lewellen gets tutored in the white girl blues by a band of magical Negroes, it has fulfilled its risible potential. (Culver Plaza; Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Michelle Orange)

 
IGOR A cartoon to which my 5-year-old responded with an “I don’t want to talk about it” when I asked how he liked this atrocious-looking, alleged comedy about an evil scientist’s assistant’s attempt to out-evil the boss, and the competition, to become beloved throughout the dreary land of Malaria. And this from a kid who was as excited about Igor as he was Star Wars: Clone Wars, the latter an unhealthy obsession since diapers. (His mother offered only an irritated scowl, followed by a brief how-could-they rant about the movie’s heretical use of Annie iconography.) Alas, what a dispiriting wreck from the director of direct-to-video animated Disney sequels (Anthony Leondis) and the writer of a handful of American Dad episodes (Chris McKenna) — which, right there, should have been warning enough. Not sure who Igor’s intended audience is: With its copious references to murder and mayhem, it’s a touch too scary and far too boring for the wee ones and decidedly too messy and far too boring for their parents. Steve Buscemi as a cranky immortal cat and Sean Hayes as a jarred (bird) brain on wheels are the sidekicks who should have starred; instead, it’s John Cusack as the tiny Igor with big dreams and Molly Shannon as the big monster with enormous aspirations — to become a spoiled actress. So bad it’s scary. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 
MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week. (Citywide)

 
THE PINK CONSPIRACY Sputtering along on fumes that would barely have sustained an 11-minute Love, American Style vignette, The Pink Conspiracy’s solitary gag posits female bonding as a process so deeply malevolent it might give the most embittered misogynist pause. Sadly, the filmmakers don’t know what to do with their ridiculous conceit except to run it into the ground. There’s neither much venom nor irony in lovable nebbish Dave (Bradley Snedeker) discovering that every women he’s ever known belongs to a sinister coven dedicated to making his life unbearable. Snedeker is a blandly endearing presence, but he has little to do beyond looking befuddled or pissed off while stumbling through scene after ineptly executed scene in which various ex-girlfriends stand around delivering stiff line readings about their dislike of the male gender and Dave in particular. None of it makes a great deal of sense, but that’s the least of the movie’s problems. The Pink Conspiracy’s sexual battle royale is as innocuous as it is pointless, no one seems to believe a word they’re saying, and the jokes frequently hover in that dark space where testicles are kicked and boogers are lovingly smeared on faces. You can pardon co-writers/directors Marc Clebanoff and Brian Scott Miller for having nothing to say about male paranoia or female anger, but it’s harder to forgive an anti-chick flick without even the courage of its convictions. (Grande 4-Plex) (Lance Goldenberg)

 

 

GO  THE POOL Leaving Milwaukee to tell an indigenous tale of life on India’s west coast, director/DP Chris Smith (American Movie) inevitably brings an outsider’s eye. Instead of a collection of souvenir-tchotchke exotic vistas, The Pool is an album of observed human minutiae: of kids hustling rupees by reselling plastic bags, and the touching curiosity that passes between the subcontinent’s young men and women. The exposition occurs incidentally, slipped into a bustling schedule of repetitive chores. The protagonists are two overemployed country boys, teenage Venkatesh and 11-year-old Jhangir (played by local nonprofessional actors), transplanted to the provincial capital to earn a living. Bits of “business” anchor a succession of task-oriented scenes (beds turned down, water from the well, street food gobbled on the fly); this heightened consciousness of objects and obligations ballasts the drama-light, class-conscious fable with tactile life. Venkatesh spends his rare off-hours shimmying up a tree to contemplate the water of a posh house’s swimming pool — and the girl beside it — with inchoate longing; it’s his Gatsby green light. He gets behind the walls working for the sullen patriarch (Nana Patekar), never more expressive than when halving a green coconut, or spinning the child’s top that itself practically gives a supporting performance. (Nuart) (Nick Pinkerton)

 

RIGHTEOUS KILL Where once the decline of Robert De Niro’s and Al Pacino’s prodigious talent inspired howls of anguish and impassioned critical essays, it’s a sad state of affairs when the best news about Righteous Kill, the cop thriller that stars them both, is that it isn’t awful. New York City tough-guy detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are investigating a serial killer who’s bumping off heinous criminals acquitted by the judicial system, but suspicion soon turns to the detectives themselves. Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz’s first script was another New York crime drama, Spike Lee’s crackerjack Inside Man, which featured a slew of well-drawn characters as clever as the story’s twists. But Righteous Kill (directed by journeyman Jon Avnet) jettisons most of the wit for macho bluster and a surprise you can see coming down the turnpike. While there’s no point in commenting that De Niro and Pacino are playing calcified versions of their once-great selves, at least Pacino is more reserved than usual — a welcome change. But between the film’s police-procedural minutiae and trite thematic concerns (the weight of Catholic guilt, the thin moral line between cop and crook), Righteous Kill isn’t so much bad as it is played out. No wonder the film’s faded stars seem to fit right in. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson) 

 

GO  SAVE ME The plot of Save Me sounds like a ripped-from-the-headlines gay play circa five years ago, but the film itself subverts expectation. Mark (Chad Allen) is a young New Mexico man who’s crashing from a crystal meth–fueled sex binge, when his brother sends him to a remote desert ministry house run by Gayle (Judith Light) and Ted (Stephen Lang), two devout Christians whose mutual calling is to turn queer boys straight via the Word. A couple of Bible-study classes later, Mark has forsaken meth (with improbable ease), found the Lord and begun a budding relationship with the star resident, Scott (Robert Gant). Seeing Mark and Scott interact causes the already taut-necked Gayle to grow even more tense, and when she blows, it’s high melodrama but also a rather wrenching sight. Directed here by Robert Cary (Ira and Abby), Light, best known for her TV-sitcom work, turns a cliché — the zealot with a secret pain of her own — into an achingly sad woman; it’s one of the year’s best performances (from a script by Light’s husband, Robert Desiderio). Allen, Gant and the ever-generous Lang match her nicely, and though Save Me never quite surmounts its schematic scenario, scene by scene, beat by beat, it’s pretty damn good. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

 

 

GO  TAKE OUT You’ll hopefully think twice before giving the Chinese-food deliveryman a lousy tip after experiencing a nerve-racking day in the life of Ming Ding (wonderfully understated first-timer Charles Jang), an illegal immigrant in Manhattan who struggles to send money home to his wife and child. Woken up and thwacked with a hammer by a gang of loan sharks who helped smuggle him into the U.S., Ming has until the end of the day to pay them $800 in juice — a daunting feat for a guy who’s lucky to earn a tenth of that delivering broccoli and bean curd. Starkly shot in voyeuristically detached DV vérité by Greg the Bunny co-creator Sean Baker (who co-directs the film with Shih-Ching Tsou), Ming’s race to make up the difference in tips after borrowing from friends and family has a compellingly hypnotic effect: Only the faces behind the apartment doors seem to change. But beyond the bickering yuppies, condescending complainers and “that bitch at 845 West End,” a seamless supporting cast of pros and amateurs, and scenes shot in a real takeout restaurant during business hours — plus a palpable sense of levity amid the humility — make for some of the most authentic neorealism this side of De Sica. This is as exceptional as microbudget cinema gets. (Fallbrook 7; Playhouse 7; Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

 
TYLER PERRY’S THE FAMILY THAT PREYS “You’re a woman scorned with no prenup. That’s a recipe for good livin’?” is just one of the zingers Kathy Bates gets to deliver as Charlotte Cartwright, a rich Southern matriarch whose son (Cole Hauser) is having an affair with Andrea (Sanaa Lathan), the social-climbing daughter of Charlotte’s Bible-waving best friend, Alice (Alfre Woodard). Money long ago corrupted the Cartwrights, and now it’s corrupting Andrea, whose cheating ways eventually get her a sock in the face from her absurdly naive husband (Rockmond Dunbar) — a moment of domestic violence that the usually high-minded Tyler Perry appears to condone. Set in an unnamed modern city, this snail-paced film might as well take place in the 1950s, since it seems to have been inspired by one those Hollywood melodramas in which one company employs the entire town, and the only places free of corruption are the church and the local diner. Although juicy secrets spill out on cue in the third act, what’s memorable here is the sparkling chemistry between Bates and Woodard, whose scenes together are a pleasure to watch, even as one thinks that their next outing should be to co-teach a master class titled, “How To Rise Above Cliché.” (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

 

GO  YELLA The gifted German filmmaker Christian Petzold (Wolfsburg, The State I Am In) wrote and directed this tightly controlled metaphysical horror movie, which begins with an upwardly mobile corporate accountant and her if-I-can’t-have-you-nobody-can ex-husband careening off a bridge and plunging into the icy waters of the Elbe. Miraculously, Yella (played by the excellent Petzold regular Nina Hoss) manages to extract herself from the wreckage and skip town, just in time to start her new job in Hanover, where — in between embezzlement schemes and hostile takeovers — she finds herself stalked by the specter of her possibly dead ex. In Hollywood, these would doubtless be the makings of a cookie-cutter woman-in-distress shocker — a supernatural Sleeping With the Enemy. But Petzold, whose avowed inspiration was Herk Harvey’s Lawrence, Kansas–lensed cult classic Carnival of Souls, is less interested in ectoplasmic apparitions than in the equally disembodied eeriness of poker-faced power brokering and glass-and-steel boardrooms. (Hardly accidental is Yella’s journey from the former East Germany to the new West.) Like Laurent Cantet’s Time Out and Nicolas Klotz’s recent Heartbeat Detector, it’s a corporate ghost story in which the undead are scarcely — and scarily — indistinguishable from the living. (Music Hall (Scott Foundas)


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