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Movie Reviews: The Tale of Despereaux, The Yellow Handkerchief, Yes Man

GO  GOMORRAH Matteo Garrone’s dramatic portrait of the notorious Italian Mafia organization Neapolitan Camorra focuses on the ancillary figures who, willingly or not, prop up the mob’s activities. The five interwoven narratives in this visceral but disciplined and beautifully acted movie show to devastating effect how ordinary men and women — and especially vulnerable boys desperate for masculine role models — get caught up in the seductive violence and are ruthlessly destroyed by the network’s hardened henchmen. It’s hard to tell whether the movie exaggerates the Mafia’s reach deep into and pollution of the infrastructure of everyday life, laying the groundwork for guerrilla-style civil war. Given Gomorrah’s arch referencing of the brutality in Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, I could wish Garrone were a little less excited himself by the brutality he stretches over 136 long minutes. And if he, too, like author Roberto Saviano (upon whose best-selling exposé the film is based), is forced to leave Italy for fear of mob reprisal, will he be denied entrance to the United States on the grounds that one of the Camorra’s real-life business ventures is helping to underwrite the rebuilding of the Twin Towers in New York? (Sunset 5) (Ella Taylor)

MY NAME IS BRUCE If your ears perk up at the mere mention of a fourth Evil Dead movie, or you tune in to Burn Notice just for co-star Bruce Campbell, then My Name Is Bruce was made precisely with you in mind. A cult B-movie legend to throngs of fanboys who love sardonic zingers delivered with hammed-up machismo, Campbell takes it on the chin as director and meta-star of this juvenile horror/comedy, a self-serving tribute thinly veiled in self-deprecation. Campbell plays himself as a pompous, washed-up oaf who lives in a desert trailer, regularly drunk-dials his ex-wife, and laments taking degrading roles like Cave Alien 2, albeit in a universe where characters quote his old catch phrases and reference his straight-to-video dreck as punch lines. Mistaken for the hero he plays onscreen, Campbell is kidnapped one night by a goth teen (and superfan, naturally) in the hopes that he’ll save the kid’s podunk town from Guan-di, the glowing-eyed Chinese god of war and bean curd who has been accidentally resurrected. With a high-camp villain that seems to have escaped from Bubba Ho-tep, slapstick scares à la Evil Dead, and Ted Raimi playing three different roles, the only things missing from this unfunny Campbell love fest are a passable script, Sam Raimi’s inventiveness and a level of sophistication beyond nose-picking and ass grabs. (Nuart) (Aaron Hillis)

RAB NE BANA DI JODI Working with actor Shah Rukh Khan in the 1995 record-breaker Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Braveheart Wins the Bride), writer, director and latter-day production executive Aditya Chopra re-imagined the Hindi movie hero as an obstreperous romantic, tunefully refusing to take no for an answer. In Chopra’s new Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made by God), SRK again stubbornly lays siege to the affections of a woman who is (for form’s sake) temporarily hesitant, this time cast not as a strapping student but as a mousey milquetoast of a functionary for the Punjab Power Company, who, with his pursed lips and fussy cleanliness, hopes to win love through small gestures of affection. The other twist here is that, as the movie opens, Khan’s Surinder Sahni is already married to his idol, Taani (Anushka Sharma), a match arranged on his deathbed by her father, Surinder’s revered former teacher. “I can never love you,” Taani tells Surinder sadly on their wedding day, and no Shah Rukh Khan character worth his salt is going to take that one lying down. When Taani admits she’s always wanted to learn to dance, and Surinder happily agrees, the way ahead seems clear: Ever since Astaire and Rogers, smooth footwork has been the ideal medium of movie-musical courtship. (Newcomer Sharma turns out to be a charming comedic sparring partner and also a fabulous hoofer.) RNBDJ, in fact, always seems to be right on the verge of blossoming into a classic, but while no actor on Earth could gaze at a woman and lip-synch a line like “Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai” (“I See My God in You”) with as much conviction as King Khan, the romantic declarations feel too grandiose for this modest-spirited movie. The only character sensible enough to offer a word of demurral (“We are human beings only, yaar, not gods”) is a comic relief barber, big-hearted Bobby Khosla (Vinay Pathak), who snips off Surinder’s moustache and gels his hair into a leaning tower, in a nod to the loopiest of all Bolly-cinema conventions, the Double Role. With the help of his impenetrable disguise, Surinder approaches Taani on the dance floor as Raj, exactly the sort of wild and crazy Punjabi guy a mild-mannered bureaucrat would envision as his polar opposite. The impersonation is set up with a wink and a clever twist, but its consequences are psychologically incoherent. As Bobby cogently observes, Raj wouldn’t seem so real to Taani if he hadn’t been in there somewhere all along. So why does the movie endorse the disappointing view that only the muffled, nerdy version of Surinder is authentic and lovable? In effect, the oppressed Taani is allowed to open up but the repressed Surinder is not, which hardly seems fair. (Fallbrook 7; Laguna Hills Mall Cinema; Naz 8 Artesia; Naz 8 Riverside; Norwalk 8) (David Chute)

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX Kate DiCamillo’s 2003 children’s novel about a big-eared mouse with an inspiring case of shining-knight envy is one of the finest expositions of loss, grief, reactive vengeance and forgiveness for kids. I was looking forward to seeing what Sylvain Chomet, who made the fabulously weird The Triplets of Belleville, would bring to this great yarn, which trusts small children enough to understand the concept of mixed motives and empathize with hurt rats who hurt in return. Alas, for murky reasons, Chomet was bounced from the project shortly after it was green-lit; only his production designer, Evgeni Tomov, remained. So The Tale of Despereaux looks good, in a washed-out, Flemish-masters sort of way. Otherwise, screenwriter Gary Ross, who made the cornball Seabiscuit, and directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen have seen fit to turn this delightful tale into, of all things, an intermittently vicious CGI action movie in which the mouse (voiced by Matthew Broderick), who refuses to cower, gets dumped down a well into a dungeon and shoved into a terrifying gladiatorial battle with a gruesomely drawn cat before he can even start saving the world from darkness and gloom. Clumsily wedged in like a TV commercial between deafening stunts, the emotional storytelling sinks without a trace, leaving you with only one flawed character to cling to — a morally challenged Cabbage-Patch–like servant (wittily voiced by Tracey Ullman), who learns that every girl is somebody’s princess. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

TUNNEL RATS Changes in the German tax laws have changed the way that infamous director Uwe Boll (BloodRayne, Alone in the Dark) does business. No longer able to rely on tax write-offs to raise capital, he’s been forced to go back to basics ... and against all odds, this approach seems to be working. Tunnel Rats, not based on a video game, not featuring crappy CG effects, and not featuring big-name actors in ridiculously miscast roles (Michael Pare is the closest thing to a familiar face), is easily Boll’s best film to date. Admittedly, in some quarters, “best Boll film” is a phrase roughly akin to “least unpleasant diaper change,” but Tunnel Rats really does evince some actual talent. A Vietnam war movie focused primarily on the underground tunnels dug by the Viet Cong — and the unfortunately naive American troops who found themselves fighting inside said passageways — it’s an effectively shot, ultraviolent, ultranihilistic, moderately claustrophobic vision seemingly inspired equally by We Were Soldiers and The Descent. Only when the soldiers open their mouths and engage in overly accented casual conversation does the Boll badness factor become evident; this, however, is rare enough to give one an actual sliver of hope for the eight other films that the Notorious U.W.E. apparently has on his slate for the next two years. (Downtown Independent) (Luke Y. Thompson)

WHERE GOD LEFT HIS SHOES Undercard boxer Frank Diaz (John Leguizamo) is a ring slickster whose lack of jaw and heart has kept his looks while eroding his self-worth. He’s supporting a family on one of those “one paycheck away from the street” budgets, when that one paycheck doesn’t come. From here, Where God Left His Shoes overlaps with classics of hapless patheticism: a little Bicycle Thief, a little “no room at the inn.” The film’s body takes place on Christmas Eve, as Frank drags his preadolescent stepson (David Castro) under turnstiles, borough to borough, trying against deadline to find a job that will satisfy the family’s application for a new apartment. Leguizamo, working at a scramble, gets more onscreen traction than in recent memory; the father-son rapport is bullyish-fraternal, including raunch ribbing about girls and schoolyard sex-ed (“You can’t go raw-dog these days”). Director Salvatore Stabile, a Brooklyn native with a résumé in TV production, knows how to line up a permit and scout out perfect South Brooklyn Italian manors and melancholic intersections. He gets interesting scenes, too — a Halloween eviction, the backing down of a suspiciously kid-friendly cot-jockey at the homeless shelter — though the movie’s vérité is diluted by a cozy, adult-contemporary empathy with those less fortunate, which left me hearing “Another Day in Paradise.” (Grande 4-Plex) (Nick Pinkerton)

GO  THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF Director Udayan Prasad’s post-Katrina road movie is not a remake of Yôji Yamada’s 1977 winner of the first-ever Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, nor is it tied as tightly to Tony Orlando’s oak tree as it is to “Going Home,” the Pete Hamill short story that inspired all of the above. (Of course, Hamill stole from folklore, so go stare at the sun: ain’t nothing new under it.) Affecting in his muted mien of regret, William Hurt plays a freshly paroled Louisiana ex-con with a history of violence — as Maria Bello can attest in parallel flashbacks — who hitches a lift and briefly becomes a father figure to a makeshift family of self-perceived misfits. Behind the wheel is a socially retarded, redneck eccentric (Savage Grace’s Eddie Redmayne) with a dire need for Ritalin and a hard-on for the other drifter, a too-trusting teen romantic (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) with daddy issues and an awkward surge of budding sexuality. It’s the mismatched-ensemble-together-in-loneliness formula that Sundance dreams are made of, and the predictables add up: that title image signaling hope from afar; a run-in with the po-po, and occasionally the next line of dialogue. Still, Hurt’s revealed criminal past could’ve been cringe-worthy, and it’s not. All three leads are solidly convincing in their candor. And Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission) shoots the hell out of the swampy South to make for a nontoxic diversion. (Town Center 5) (Aaron Hillis)

YES MAN Not the Liar Liar sequel it looks like in the trailer, but close enough: Jim Carrey plays a self-absorbed Debbie Downer named Carl Allen, who green-lights every bad decision in an effort to reinvent his sorry life. And, hey, it works! Really well, because his first terrible decision — to give a homeless man all his money — turns out to be a stroke of good fortune, as Carl is rescued by perky, spontaneous Allison (Zooey Deschanel), a singer in an avant-rock band called Munchausen by Proxy and the instructor of a jogging-photography class. How quirky! Theirs quickly blossoms into a romance defined by its random acts of wackiness, including a flight to Lincoln, Nebraska ... just because it’s there. Inevitably, Carl winds up in the stands of a Nebraska-Oklahoma football game, his body covered in red and white paint. See what saying “yes” to anything will get you? Turns a 46-year-old man into a frat boy. (See also: Will Ferrell.) After Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and even 2005’s Fun With Dick and Jane remake, Carrey seemed destined for far more grown-up roles; he’d transitioned from the slap-shticky surreal to the unexpectedly real. But Yes Man is nothing more than warmed-over holiday seconds, a repackaged best-of for those who already own the hits. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)