Movie Reviews: The Rocker, The House Bunny, Death Race
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL The scattershot America the Beautiful recapitulates vintage Beauty Myth trumpery: Beauty standards make us average frumps miserable and are the conspiratorial invention of a cabal of Madison Avenue execs working in concert with Patriarchal Hegemony. Director Darryl Roberts, a well-intentioned softie, follows early-blooming 13-year-old Gerren Taylor up the ranks of supermodeldom, with visits to the plastic surgeon and wretched, pop-scored montages. The title’s indefensible; the implication is that beauty standards are a particular province of the U.S., but there’s no evidence provided as to what separates us from other modern, media-soaked nations (and even less made of the fact that, for a people allegedly obsessed with self-image, we’re fatties). The eminently obnoxious Eve Ensler shows up to bolster Roberts’ central thesis: We’re all helpless to resist the hypnotic tune of advertisers, magazine editors, and the runway bunch. Of course, in the real world, no industry is more widely mocked and disdained than fashion, and tuning out commercials is something most cognizant people learn to do by kindergarten. Nevertheless, Roberts & Co. seem to demand a paradigm shift — say, a return to the pre-industrial Eden (anorexia, we’re told, came to Fiji along with the first televisions). Good luck with that. (Culver Plaza; Regency Academy; Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)
GO ANITA O’DAY: THE LIFE OF A JAZZ SINGER A good deal livelier than the usual music-doc embalming, this worshipful tribute to jazz singer Anita O’Day — completed shortly before her death in 2006 by her then manager, Robbie Cavolina, and co-director Ian McCrudden — is rescued from its own adoration (and too-busy, faux-’50s graphics) by its subject: a tough cookie, racetrack devotee, and brassy raconteur who may be the least self-pitying reformed addict in the history of pop biographies. Whether in film clips dating back to her 1940s emergence in Gene Krupa’s big band, or in interviews taken near the end of her life, the mercurial O’Day remains a voracious, vivacious presence who resists being filed away, even as the directors marshal hall-of-fame testimony from her many admirers — from Margaret Whiting and Dr. Billy Taylor to actor-director John Cameron Mitchell, who compares her spontaneity to Cassavetes. As opposed to her scandalous autobiography High Times Hard Times, the movie is downright reticent on subjects such as a backstage rape and subsequent abortion. The directors prefer to secure O’Day’s due as, in the words of critic Will Friedwald, the only white jazz singer who belongs in the company of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. To watch her landmark tea-dress slink through “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is to hear every syllable expressed as if at the spark of conception, fully formed and felt. (Music Hall) (Jim Ridley)
CTHULU Fans of H.P. Lovecraft monsters with octopus-shaped heads be warned: no such creatures appear in this very loose adaptation of the author’s short story, “The Shadow Over Inssmouth.” Instead, director Daniel Gildark and screenwriter Grant Cogswell use the story as a jumping-off point for an allegory about homophobia and gay “reparative therapy.” Against a backdrop of global crisis (yep, War on Terror metaphors here too), college professor Russ (Jason Cottle) returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral, where he must confront the homophobia of his father and the town pastor (Dennis Kleinsmith), whose religion — the worship of ancient fish gods — is apparently just as bigoted as fundamentalist Christianity when it comes to gays. Meanwhile, an old romance is rekindled with a former school friend (Scott Patrick Green) who may or may not be bi. About an hour into the movie, more classical horror elements (dead kid, subterranean albino people, inhuman shrieks) finally kick in; prior to that, the most frightening scene involves our hero being forced to have sex with Tori Spelling. Stuart Gordon adapted the story more conventionally in 2001’s Dagon, and it remains the better bet for Lovecraft lovers. (Regent Showcase) (Luke Y. Thompson)
DEATH RACE It’s not that 1975’s Roger Corman–produced Death Race 2000 was so precious a grindhouse treasure that a remake seems offensive, but by running over the original’s blunt social commentary on audience bloodlust in dire economic times, the newly homogenized Death Race has become the product once satirized. (Did we not learn anything from Rollerball?) Jason Statham’s sinewy simian charisma drives the action as a former racing champ framed for murder in the dystopian days of 2012, forced by wicked warden Joan Allen to replace fallen hero Frankenstein in a pay-per-view bloodsport on wheels. It’s probably clichéd to compare fanboy ridiculousness like this to video games, but as writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson’s résumé includes Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, it’s also apt: Statham’s nemeses are introduced to us by their missile-mounted cars and name cards, as if to say “Select a character to play.” Ian McShane’s grease monkey Coach offers tips on how to beat all three stages (as they’re titled onscreen) of the brutal race, and convoluted rules about power-ups pervade. “Activate death heads,” commands Allen, who isn't quite icy enough to pull off villainy like “Fuck with me, and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk!” With its inexplicably watchable shotgun-riding bimbos, unconscious homoeroticism and Shawshank Redemption ending, The Fast and the Frivolous here is almost so bad it’s good. Almost ... (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
GO HAMLET 2 Not nearly as uproarious as it should be, Dick director Andrew Fleming’s latest high school farce premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and, after a spirited bidding war, was sold for a cool $10 million.
Concerning a childish man’s struggle with adult responsibility and, as its title suggests, a son’s relation to his father, the movie — which Fleming wrote with South Park veteran Pam Brady — is a sort of backstage Bad News Bears in which a beleaguered high school drama teacher (Steve Coogan) attempts to save his job by staging a musical sequel to the most famous play in the English language. (To add to the fun, his class is heavily salted with lovable, mainly Latino gangbangers.) One of the funniest men in England, Coogan here plays American — which is to say, he projects his character as a sincere idiot. Coogan will do anything for a laugh, and given how little he has to work with here, he has to. It’s impressive that he can fill the screen even though he’s still regularly upstaged by Catherine Keener in her specialty role as castrating spouse, never more inspired than when playing a scene with a margarita as big as a birdbath.
Perhaps because it deals with the anxiety of influence, Hamlet 2 is surprisingly sympathetic to writers: “Oh my God — writing is so hard!” Coogan exclaims at the word processor. He accepts advice from a 12-year-old drama critic and, in the grand finale, is saved by the national press, which rallies around the production as a free speech issue. Not exactly Springtime for Hitler, the climactic musical features a “Raped in the Face” number and a familiar-seeming “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” routine in which a beatific, fright-wigged Coogan descends from the ceiling to intone: “Father, I forgive you.” We know that the now-liberated actor is actually talking about his earthly dad. The show ends with Coogan still suspended in the air — not unlike the movie, which, not quite a parody, is something like a failed metaphor for itself. (ArcLight Hollywood, The Grove, Landmark, AMC Santa Monica 7, ArcLight Sherman Oaks) (J. Hoberman)
GO THE HOUSE BUNNY Anyone who saw her light up the edges of Lost in Translation and Just Friends, or steal the entire show in Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face, knows by now that Anna Faris has been shaping up as the most inventive screen comedienne of her generation — and she proves it once more in this lace-panties-thin farce about a happy-go-lucky Playboy bunny who finds herself unceremoniously booted from Hef’s mansion after hitting retirement age (27, which we’re told is really 59 in “bunny years”). Living out of her car on the streets of L.A., Shelley (Faris) eventually takes up residence as house mother to a bunch of sorority-girl also-rans a few plastic surgeries shy of supermodel status, and ... well, you can pretty much guess what happens from there. Directed with little distinction by SNL vet Fred Wolf, The House Bunny operates on the level of a skin-deep sociological experiment with a predictable be-yourself, inner-beauty message; as Faris turns her fugly charges from homely brainiacs and man-hating shut-ins into superficially gorgeous, judgmental twits, she finds her own slutty charms (including a hilarious send-up of Marilyn Monroe’s billowing-skirt routine from The Seven Year Itch) at a loss to woo the smart, dorky-cute man of her dreams (Colin Hanks). The screenwriting team of Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith are rather shamelessly aping their own Legally Blonde here, but they’ve written Faris some great, ditzy one-liners (“The eyes are the nipples of the face”), which she takes and runs with, occasionally tripping over someone or something along the way and landing a pratfall worthy of Olympic gold. The movie is basically on one level and Faris on another — in that exclusive aerie occupied by Judy Holliday, Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball and a few other blissfully original comedy goddesses. If only there was a Hawks or a Lubitsch around to keep her in steady employ. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
GO IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS Did Los Angeles sign with a new agent? That’s the impression made by writer-director Alex Holdridge’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss, in which our fair city, best known for its performances as urban jungle, moneyed playground and future dystopia, has been cast against type as the sort of blissful, iconographic lovers’ paradise typically played by New York, London or Paris. Here is an L.A. movie in which people manage to make meaningful interpersonal connections without crashing their cars into one another. After all, there’s always Craigslist. That’s where Wilson (Scoot McNairy), a self-pitying Texas transplant still nursing the wounds of a broken relationship, meets Vivian (Sara Simmonds), an impetuous aspiring actress auditioning potential dates on a lonely New Year’s Eve. He’s hit rock bottom, epitomized by a scene in which Wilson jerks off to a Photoshop-ed photo of his roommate’s girlfriend. Vivian is a diva in fur collar, oversized sunglasses and oversized attitude. But she agrees to give Wilson a few hours in which to win her favor, and if he does, she just might give him that elusive, witching-hour smooch. Keenly aware that there’s nothing romantic about being stuck on the freeway, Holdridge gets his characters out of gridlock and onto public transit, from Hollywood to downtown and back, where they banter, bicker and just maybe fall in love in the shadows of the Orpheum Theatre, St. Vincent Court and the L.A. Stock Exchange — all photographed in lustrous black-and-white by cinematographer Robert Murphy (provided, that is, you see In Search of a Midnight Kiss in a theater and not via distributor IFC Films’ on-demand cable service, where it is being presented in color). Holdridge’s film veers wildly between low-key romantic comedy and antic slapstick (especially in the third act, when Vivian’s blockheaded ex-boyfriend comes home to roost) and doesn’t always hit the mark. But this is one of those auspicious, no-budget indies that makes you feel like you’re catching a slew of bright young talents at the dawn of their careers — McNairy, an unlikely but ingratiating leading man with bedhead and slack jaw; Simmonds, a wonderfully appealing screwball ingenue; and Holdridge, who has a welcome eye for the timeless in a rapidly changing metropolis. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)
THE LONGSHOTS In the ’90s, Ice Cube and Limp Bizkit co-headlined the Family Values Tour as, respectively, a rap legend and the nadir of music up to that point. Cube and Bizkit frontman-cum-filmmaker Fred Durst reteam for The Longshots, canceling each other out into total mediocrity. Curtis Plummer (Cube) is a laid-off factory worker, just like everyone else in Minden, Louisiana; he spends his days in mild alcoholism, one Bud tallboy at a time. Sister Claire (Tasha Smith) needs someone to look after her daughter Jasmine (Keke Palmer) while she’s working. And guess what happens? Disgruntled uncle and unhappy niece (an aspiring model who spends her time reading fantasy books, making her the easy target of every kid in school) bond over football; Jasmine shows off her terrific arm, joins the team, takes them to the Pop Warner Super Bowl, and reinvigorates the hopes and dreams of an entire town. Based on a true story rendered nearly unrecognizable — the real Jasmine developed over several seasons rather than a few weeks, for one thing — The Longshots strains so hard to inspire, every moment underlined with a by-the-numbers score, that it ends up totally innocuous. Director Durst and DP Conrad W. Hall bathe everything in a sickly beige, neutering all but Cube’s natural charisma. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)
MIRRORS Often kidded for the many times he bellows “Dammit!” at 11th-hour moments on 24, Kiefer Sutherland finally gets to show his range — and he proves equally skilled at “Goddammit!” and “Shit!” Even so, it’s a mystery why Sutherland attached himself to this dour, muddled thriller (copied from a Korean shocker) about a tormented ex-cop literally bedeviled by evil forces that use mirrors to stalk their prey. The demons have powers that wax and wane at whim, like wizards at the command of a 12-year-old Dungeonmaster: one moment they can yank apart someone’s jaws, the next they can’t even steer Sutherland’s car into an oncoming truck. Fans of murky tedium will be in heaven: apart from a few gory moments, French splatter maven Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes) directs on the principle that a movie cannot have enough scenes of someone creeping through dimly lit sets. Aja saves his one clever visual trick for the end, along with a Zabriskie Point finale full of slow-motion exploding glass. Maybe that’s why the ungodly 110-minute running time feels like 47 years of bad luck. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
THE ROCKER Directed by Peter Cattaneo, The Rocker is more or less the Pete Best Story — the tale of a poor bastard who gets shitcanned right on the brink of record-bin immortality. The film opens in Cleveland, mid-1980s, where Rainn Wilson’s Robert “Fish” Fishman is behind the kit for Vesuvius, a metal band fronted by three head-bobbing, hair-waving morons (Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, and Bradley Cooper) whose loyalty only extends to the dotted line. Told to either ditch their drummer or lose a deal with a record label, his bandmates choose the former, sending Fish into a tailspin from which he never recovers. Until decades later, that is, when he falls in with A.D.D., the high-school band for which his portly, pale nephew (Josh Gad) plays keyboard. Fish wins over the sulking, songwriting frontman (Teddy Geiger) and the brooding, scowling guitarist (Emma Stone), and they’re signed and touring and sell-out famous within hours of making their Interwebs debut. Sooner or later, they’re forced to choose between opening for Vesuvius or busting up the band. A juvenile fairy tale that plays like the pilot for a Jonas Brothers sitcom on the Disney Channel, this is sugary-sweet stuff — pop instead of rock. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)
GO TEN NIGHTS OF DREAMS Based on an anthology of short stories published by Japanese writer Natsume Soseki in 1908, Ten Nights of Dreams is a sometimes terrifying, sometimes wildly amusing and occasionally flat interpretation of Soseki’s tales by a who’s who of Japanese filmmakers. To achieve the surreal dreamscapes mapped out on the page, the assorted directors toy with genre (Kon Ichikawa’s “Second Dream” is, in part, a tongue-in-cheek silent film that takes playful aim at the tenets of Buddhism and the mythology of the samurai,) use claymation, serve up off-kilter hip-hop dance moves and shape unnerving shadows through artful lighting. Of special note is the wistful “First Dream,” which was directed by the late Akio Jissoji just before his death in 2006, and is especially resonant as it deals with the feelings of abandonment and confusion following the death of a loved one. But the highlights of this collection are The Grudge director Takashi Shimizu’s “Third Dream,” with its fused psychology of writer’s block and paternal angst personified in the form of a creepy puppet-child, and the final dream, directed by Yudai Yamaguchi, whose wittily biting stance on pork consumption would earn it the PETA seal of approval. (ImaginAsian Center) (Ernest Hardy)
WHAT WE DO IS SECRET In my day, you had to visit a dozen Blockbusters to find a ratty copy of The Decline of Western Civilization. Now, the story of Darby Crash and the Germs has been pruned into the same formulaic Great Man narrative you’d expect to see applied to, say, Babe Ruth. Crash, the frontman of one of SoCal’s more enduring punk acts, was a self-immolating, conflicted queer in a scene whose attitude toward the gay stuff was ambivalent at best. In his book Enter Naomi, author Joe Carducci was clearly talking about the Germs clique when he wrote that Hollywood rock’s tone “was set by show-biz pedophiles grabbing after faghags-in-denial chasing reluctant homosexuals back into the closet” — an analysis about a zillion times smarter than Secret’s treatment. Combining the stereotypes of a hundred indie coming-out dramas with an insight into intra-band politics worthy of a VH1 pundit, first-time writer/director Rodger Grossman’s version of the Germs’ story, with Crash played by Shane West, sounds almost verbatim like the far superior 2002 oral history Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs. The worst kind of bastard adaptation, Secret subtracts without adding: What’s not on-screen is the covert thrill of teenage self-invention that kept Germs armbands circulating on a generation of weird kids, despite media indifference and cultural amnesia — and much of the reason that Crash’s story bears telling. (Nuart) (Nick Pinkerton)
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