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Movie Reviews: The Midnight Meat Train, Mirrors, Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Lucasfilm Ltd.

FALLING The director Richard Dutcher is far from a household name, even in houses belonging to independent film aficionados. His moves don’t play in major festivals, and in a reverse of the usual distribution pattern, they tend to open first in places like Utah (Dutcher’s home state) and Idaho, making their way to the coasts weeks or even months later. And yet, Dutcher has directed at least one bona fide hit, his 2000 sophomore feature God’s Army, which he also wrote and starred in and which grossed north of $2.5 million on a budget of only $300,000 — all the more remarkable in that Dutcher distributed the film himself too. This is probably where I should mention that Dutcher is Mormon, and that God’s Army, which painted a generally cheerful portrait of young LDS missionaries working the streets of Hollywood, owed much of its success to Mormon moviegoers (who, generally speaking, aren’t the moviegoing type). Since then, Dutcher has averaged a new film every two or three years, and to judge by the titles alone — Brigham City, States of Grace — you might conclude that he has continued to make movies for a Mormon audience. Until, that is, you see Dutcher’s films, at which point it becomes difficult to say whether he is preaching to the choir or trying to set it ablaze.

Lucasfilm Ltd.

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars

If Brigham City (2001), a crackerjack thriller whose graphic violence and multiple spiritual crises (a favorite Dutcher subject) did much to alienate the God’s Army crowd, was something like the Mormon Se7en, Dutcher’s latest, Falling (which opens locally this weekend), might be considered the Mormon Medium Cool, seasoned with a healthy pinch of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore. In it, Dutcher plays Eric Boyle, an aspiring filmmaker working as a freelance newshound, hawking footage of fires, suicides and car crashes to the evening news. Meanwhile, Boyle’s aspiring actress wife, Davey (Virginia Reece), sells her soul in a different way, going out on auditions only to be asked to disrobe by lecherous producers and casting agents.

Not one to beat around the bush, Dutcher opens Falling with Eric’s grisly discovery of Davey’s dead body dangling from the ceiling of their Hollywood home, then loops back to show us how the characters came to that moment. What follows is a searing portrait of the wages of sin in the big city. In Dutcher’s L.A., violence and depravity lurk around every corner, and if he sometimes seems to overstate the case, it’s equally clear that he’s working in hyperbole, that he’s inviting us into his own earthly inferno, climaxing in an act of grievous bodily harm (perpetrated against Dutcher) that makes the crucifixion from The Passion of the Christ look positively PG by comparison. Deliberately crude around the edges, with the grainy, hand-held images of an ’80s-era grindhouse special, this open wound of a movie is at once Dutcher’s most accomplished and personal film to date — the one that feels like Dutcher made it for no one other than himself, because if he didn’t get this off his chest, it might have eaten him alive. But here it is in theaters for anyone else who dares. If that makes Falling sound hard to watch, it is — but it’s even harder to shake. (Music Hall) (Scott Foundas)

 FLY ME TO THE MOON The 3-D adventure Fly Me to the Moon imagines an alternate history in which three adolescent houseflies stow away aboard Apollo 11, unintentionally thwarting the under-dramatized space ambitions of a thuggish conglomerate of Russian flies. Alluding to but never showing us the eyes on the back of its characters’ heads, and with Christopher Lloyd’s Grandpa appearing as if he was modeled after Willem Dafoe instead of Jeff Goldblum (or — you know — an actual housefly!), this sketchily conceived and executed space yarn is one missed opportunity after another. As the 3-D genre necessitates, whole patches of the film hinge on pointy objects popping off the screen and threatening ocular protrusion, but aside from Neil Armstrong landing on the lunar surface and awestruck fly-boy Scooter (David Gore) witnessing the totemic event from inside the man’s helmet, there’s nothing inventive about the film’s perspective of the world and the space above our heads. The be-all-that-you-can-be message is sweet, as is the way the main characters are written as secret saviors of the Apollo 11 mission, but the characterizations and details are derivative, with Scooter and his buddies I.Q. (Philip Bolden) and Nat (Trevor Gagnon) more than suggesting Alvin and the Chipmunks, their zero-gravity tomfoolery ripped off wholesale from Homer Simpson’s own. These flies are meant to be one of a kind, but they’re just pop-culture magpies. (Burbank 16; Criterion 6; Glendale Exchange 10) (Ed Gonzalez)

 HENRY POOLE IS HERE Henry Poole is dying. Diagnosed with an unspecified fatal disease, Poole (Luke Wilson) retreats into the numbing sunniness of suburban Los Angeles, buying a cruddy house and waiting until his daily diet of doughnuts and liquor does him in. Directed by Mark Pellington (taking a break from thrillers like Arlington Road), Henry Poole Is Here tells the uplifting, quasi-spiritual tale of how Poole’s plan of going out Leaving Las Vegas–style fails thanks to a beautiful divorcée neighbor (Radha Mitchell) and a mysterious stain on his house that resembles Christ’s face and dispenses the occasional miracle. Of all the Frat Pack collective, Wilson has been the most comfortable playing buttoned-down adults, so while his performance as a despondent atheist who learns to live and love is affecting in a low-key way, it’s fun to interpret the soppy Henry Poole Is Here as his sincere attempt to confront the postadolescent male angst that his cinematic buddies usually laugh off. But Pellington applies his message — the necessity of hope — a trifle thickly, treating the Christ image’s magical powers with such reverence that you’re almost set up to expect an M. Night Shyamalan–esque third-act switcheroo. What you’re left with instead is a film that could have used some of the genuine intrigue of Pellington’s thrillers to help offset the increasingly doe-eyed narrative. (Citytwide) (Tim Grierson)

 JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER This low-budget horror comedy arrives via a lively trailer and a witty print ad, yet the film itself never quite takes off. Jack Brooks (Trevor Matthews) is an inept plumber and very angry young man, thanks to memories of a childhood camping trip during which his parents and little sister were eaten alive by a Neanderthal-like beast. As an adult, Jack is guilt-ridden, and where first-time director Jon Knautz and co-writer John Ainslie get into trouble is by cutting so often to Jack’s dully earnest counseling sessions that the action plot, involving an ancient curse, begins to feel like an afterthought. Finally, Jack’s community-college professor (Robert Englund, a.k.a. Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger) transforms into a many-tentacled Jabba the Hut, whose gruesome kiss (nicely done) begins turning his students into flesh-eating zombies. Knautz may have pacing issues, but he clearly knows how to stretch a buck, staging a zippy attack sequence in which monster tentacles go slithering down school hallways in search of prey. At that, Jack swings into slaying mode, using his fists of rage to pummel the demons — the ones without and the ones within. His therapist would be thrilled. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

 GO  THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN In a theatrical burial so harsh, one can only assume that Clive Barker really pissed somebody off, Lionsgate chose to open this adaptation of the iconic horror author’s work two weeks ago in a single second-run multiplex barely this side of the L.A. County line in La Mirada. This weekend, it moves inside the city limits for a single midnight screening at the Nuart, and if you’re a horror fan, it’s worth the trip. Soccer thug turned movie Juggernaut Vinnie Jones gives his best performance yet as Mahogany, a near-mute, wart-encrusted butcher who boards a certain secret subway line every night to hammer and slice its passengers into meat (an act we often see through the victims’ eyes, which is especially neat when said eyes are inside a rolling severed head). Bradley Cooper is Leon, an aspiring artist hoping to take his photography to the next level, when an accidental encounter leads him into Mahogany’s path. That he makes the insanely foolish decision to stalk a tall, psychotic butcher is tough to understand but also puts the audience in the unique position of being on the outside looking in. Normally, in movies like this, the hero’s disbelieving girlfriend serves as an annoying foil, but here we’re on her side. Director Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus) is a bit weak when it comes to storytelling, but there are few who could so enthusiastically stage a butcher fight amid hanging human carcasses in a subway car. The ending is one that worked better on the page, with the aid of the reader’s imagination; but it’s also so totally nuts, you’ve gotta admire the cojones behind it. (Nuart) (Luke Y. Thompson)

 MIRRORS was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week. (Citywide)

 RE-CYCLE Its first act suggests that Re-Cycle will be an eerie, effects-driven thriller in line with the Pang Brothers’ renowned series of Eye films. As popular author Ting-yin (played by The Eye’s Angelica Lee) readies her new novel — a ghost story — she experiences a series of hauntings in her apartment: papers slide across a desk, midnight phone calls deliver evil sounds, and stray locks of long hair materialize on the kitchen counter. But just when it seems like the movie is turning into an examination of supernatural claustrophobia, our heroine stumbles upon a warp hole into an alternate world. Dilapidated carnivals, gnarled forests and endless junkyards portend a decaying vision of Earth, but look more like rejected backgrounds for Final Fantasy. A button-cute 7-year-old girl emerges to guide Ting-yin back to normative reality, explaining that the alternate world is inhabited by all the abandoned ideas, images and people of Ting-yin’s lifetime. Sound confusing? It is. The Pangs are grasping for something big here, but the plot feels like an arbitrary role-playing adventure, with 3-D visuals that look like a lot of work for little effect. The film’s final minutes erupt in a display of politicized melodrama so hysterical that it could almost be taken for camp if it wasn’t so noxious. (ImaginAsian Center; Sunset 5) (Sam Sweet)

 STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS George Lucas, that greedy visionary, is now in the infomercial manufacturing business — the pitchman forever selling rehashed product to successive generations of younger and younger Star Wars fans raised on fond memories further curdling with each new entry in a sagging saga that peaked in 1980. As Star Wars movies go, The Clone Wars is minor to the point of irrelevance, nothing more than a stylized direct-to-DVD shrug projected onto a big screen while Lucas launches two more TV series filling in prequel blanks better left empty. Lucas, this time working with director Dave Filoni and writer Henry Gilroy (two cartoon veterans), revisits the gap between Episodes II and III — the so-called Clone Wars to which a passing reference was made in Star Wars, laying the groundwork for a franchise within a franchise starring the cloned offspring of bounty hunter Jango Fett and the Jedi Knights for whom they’re cannon fodder. In this installment, Anakin Skywalker (now a wise-cracking hero stripped entirely of the Dark Side) and Obi-Wan Kenobi must rescue the kidnapped pupa of Jabba the Hutt, while Anakin takes on his own apprentice, headstrong teenybopper Ahsoka Tano — kind of Hannah Montana with orange skin and a lightsaber. Only Sam Jackson, Anthony Daniels and, go figure, Christopher Lee reprise their roles from the live-action series; most of the other cast members are videogame vets, which is appropriate considering the movie looks like a time-killing interstitial you’d normally skip through in order to get to the good stuff. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 STEALING AMERICA: VOTE BY VOTE Never mind that in trying to establish that voter fraud in American elections is a national problem, Stealing America: Vote by Vote mostly relies on insinuation, anecdotes and quotes from blogs. Never mind that it trusts the viewer’s intelligence so little that the opening Thomas Paine quote isn’t just shown onscreen but also read out loud for the presumably illiterate by narrator Peter Coyote. Never mind that it follows that insult with an unsubtle shot of the White House behind bars. Never mind that much of the footage — when it’s not talking heads, news clips or bar graphs — consists simply of Daily Show excerpts taken as the last word in incisive media commentary. Never mind that in the rush to make its case, the movie forgoes any serious investigation and treats paranoid liberal conspiracy theories as fact. Never mind that the film complains at one point that allegations of electronic-voting screw-ups were completely ignored by the mainstream media, only to use clips from CNN and FOX News to validate itself. Never mind any of this. What matters is that Stealing America: Vote by Vote — even by the meager standards of political video documentaries — plays like a particularly dull PowerPoint presentation. The case it lays out is factually sketchy, but as a movie, it’s unforgivable. (Music Hall) (Vadim Rizov)

 XXY On the remote Uruguayan seaside, Alex’s parents have sequestered their daughter away, hoping to keep her secret hidden from the world. That secret is a “difference,” betrayed in Alex’s sketchbook of Henry Darger–esque hermaphrodites: S/he’s intersexed, gender unarticulated at birth. And now, as puberty encroaches, a reconstructive surgeon, with his teenage son in tow, penetrates the family’s metaphor-clogged hideaway for a “friendly visit,” with significant undertones. The looming decision of gender assignment presses on everyone’s every waking moment, especially Alex’s papa (Ricardo Darín), who’s always disconsolately strolling into scenes (including one with an accidental sighting of his daughter reaming her new bend-over boyfriend). It takes a controlling hand to chisel something more contoured than monotony out of this dense angst, and director Lucía Puenzo doesn’t have it, though Inés Efron, as Alex, gives a committed centerpiece performance with a nice, slightly lupine grin. But the monomaniacal concentration upon Alex’s choice — with the teased-at possibility of a genital money-shot the film’s structuring absence — leaves little room for anything more. And so a late character-developing father-son chat by the houseguests (“I was afraid you were a fag”) is too abrupt to entirely skirt accidental comedy — as is Puenzo’s choice to open a scene with a portentous close-up of a carrot being diced. (Nuart) (Nick Pinkerton)