GO THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF PHIL SPECTOR A portrait of a pop music genius as (pre-)convicted murderer, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector lives up to its grandiose title. Vikram Jayanti's BBC production is culled from 50 hours of interviews made during the reclusive Spector's first trial — he was accused of sticking one of his many guns in actress Lana Clarkson's mouth and blowing out her brains — but it's less a documentary than a Top 40 opera. The Agony begins with Spector bitching about the jury and the judge (not fair that he keeps reminding the court that somebody died). Then Jayanti segues — bang! — to a vintage kinescope of the Ronettes performing songwriter Spector's infectiously plaintive "Be My Baby." Pure ecstasy! And so it goes for the next 100 minutes, as Spector's discourse is interwoven with his greatest hits, often played in their glorious entirety. Spector's rage is constant, his grudges are boundless (Tony Bennett seems to be a particular bête noire), and his paranoia (persecuted because he created the '60s) is indistinguishable from his self-importance. The artist refers to his early-'60s hits as "little symphonies for the kids" — hardly an exaggeration. To have been in junior high school when rhapsodic fugues of yearning like "Uptown" or "Be My Baby" first poured from the radio is to have a sensibility, if not a fantasy life, in some way molded by this monster of self-absorption. To see The Agony and the Ecstasy is to be haunted by the specter of that long-ago innocence. (J. Hoberman) (Egyptian Theater)
GO BROTHERHOOD The Dutch film Brotherhood, which won last year's Rome International Film Festival, arrives with a scenario that makes it easy to dismiss: Two young men, both members of a neo-Nazi street gang, fall in love. Sounds trashy, sounds silly, but first-time director Nicolo Donato, who wrote the screenplay with Rasmus Birch, and a superb ensemble refuse to wink, resulting in a film that constantly subverts expectation. Recently dismissed from the Dutch army, 22-year-old Lars (Thure Lindhardt) falls in with a small gang of ultranationalist thugs whose leader (Nicolas Bro) sees potential in the smart, literate Lars. Eventually, Lars is sent to live with Jimmy (David Dencik), the leader's brooding second-in-command, in a small house he's remodeling for one of the group's rich patrons. And there, as promised, the two men slowly fall in love. This still sounds like a potboiler, but here's the thing: What lingers in the mind about Brotherhood isn't the details of plot but the soulful tension between Lars and Jimmy, whose merest glance at one another is a complex mix of passion, need and fear. These guys are bigoted and violent, and don't in any way deserve redemption, but you may find yourself hoping that they find it anyway. (Chuck Wilson) (Sunset 5)
GO A FILM UNFINISHED Does it matter that a young Israeli filmmaker's imaginative reconstruction of an abandoned Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw ghetto is not, strictly speaking, a documentary? Not if it sets a crucial historical record straight. Discovered by East German archivists after World War II and accepted for decades as one of the few visual documents of life inside the ghetto, the 1942 film — in which rich Jews lived the high life in the ghetto, while ignoring or exploiting the suffering of the poor Jews — was revealed as manipulative distortion once a British film researcher uncovered a fifth reel of outtakes in 1998. Mixing staged scenes with documentary footage of starving or dying Jews, the new footage made clear that the Nazis forced more prosperous-looking Jews into service as actors in order to portray the ghetto as a place of unpalatable extremes they created themselves. Filmmaker Yael Hersonski, herself the granddaughter of a Warsaw ghetto survivor, rebuilt the rough cuts into A Film Unfinished, adding commentary from nine survivors as they watch, as well as excerpts from ghetto documents and testimony from the only identified Nazi cameraman on the project. The most wrenching testimony comes from an elderly Israeli survivor of the ghetto, who, watching the film, covers her eyes, then finds solace in the fact that she has recovered enough humanity to find her past unbearable. (Ella Taylor) (Royal, Town Center)
GO JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD An international art star by 23 and dead from a heroin overdose at 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat was drawn, in the words of one curator, to "the romance of the person whose life is so intense, it's more than he can bear." In her elegiac tribute, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Tamra Davis, who became friends with the painter in 1983, mercifully avoids much of the gassy nostalgia that typifies documentaries made about artists in New York in the late '70s and '80s; only one interviewee gushes that "everybody did everything then." Instead of the platitudes and fatuous art-world rhetoric that defined the 1996 biopic Basquiat by Julian Schnabel (a blustery talking head here), Davis focuses on fascinating specifics to illuminate the life and work of the man who took, in the words of Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson, "all the street energies and translated them into high art." Centering her film around an interview she shot of the then-25-year-old Basquiat — beautiful, slightly bemused — in 1985, Davis uses that footage to provide emotional heft. Though marred by erratic production values (the audio is especially crummy), Davis' homage — tender, never hagiographic — also contains some biting analysis of the racism, both overt and insidious, that Basquiat was up against. (Melissa Anderson) (Nuart)
THE LOTTERY TICKET Midway through Lottery Ticket, a teen-comedy-cum-wish-fulfillment fantasy, the movie's hero, Kevin Carson, goes on a spending spree. The holder of a $370 million lottery ticket that he can't cash in until after the July 4 holiday, Kevin accepts a $100,000 loan from a local gangster, and proceeds to spend it all in one night. Because Kevin is played by the rapper Bow Wow (née Lil' Bow Wow), it's tempting to view this section of the film as aspirational autobiography. This is basically how Bow Wow lives most of the time, right? The kids at my screening cheered wildly for every scene of Kevin's cash frenzy. It would be pretty sweet to have that much money! Credit Lottery Ticket for honesty, I guess, in never making an argument against being fabulously wealthy. The theme of this formulaic but vibrant comedy could best be described as a paraphrase of Biggie's well-worn credo. Mo' money, mo' problems — but mo' money, yeah, definitely. Lottery Ticket works best when it uses the housing project to orchestrate zany collisions of broad comic types, all played by familiar faces: the neighborhood gossip (Charlie Murphy); the hysterical granny (Loretta Devine); the avaricious preacher (Mike Epps). Ice Cube plays a retired ex-boxer named Thump, and watching him putter around telling stories of bygone days is a sorry reminder of just how very, very long it's been since Friday, the movie that perfected the template from which Lottery Ticket was drawn. (Dan Kois) (Citywide)
MAO'S LAST DANCER Good films about ballet can be numbered on one hand. And about Chinese dissidents? I've still got enough fingers to type this review. Based on the memoirs of Li Cunxin, Mao's Last Dancer means well, but it stumbles between genres. Li is played by three actors as he grows from plucky peasant lad in the '70s to grim-faced trainee at a Beijing dance academy to visiting student at the Houston Ballet. (By then, 1981, he's portrayed by Chi Cao, a Chinese-born dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, who can act a little.) Confounded by our cowboy hats, materialism and discothèques, Li feels more comfortable onstage. And there — so corny it's true! — he gets his big break when a soloist is injured. Don Quixote earns him raves, and a convenient blond girlfriend provides the chance for a green-card marriage. Should he stay or should he go? And how will the Chinese government respond if Li defects? Director Bruce Beresford employs many flashbacks in this predictable, sentimental tale but has no feel for the dance sequences, which lurch into slo-mo for each triumphant jeté. There are bits of humor at the margins, chiefly from Bruce Greenwood as Li's arch, gay ballet master. (Kyle MacLachlan's attorney seems like a guest star on Dallas.) The melodrama of a divided family is reliably squeezed for tears, but the movie's best scene is one that awestruck young Li watches with us: There is Baryshnikov dancing on grainy samizdat VHS — free, glorious, yet far from home. (Brian Miller) (ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark, Playhouse, Town Center)
NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS Disney's dictum that external appearances reflect internal character is promoted by Universal's Nanny McPhee Returns. In director Susanna White's sequel to the 2005 Nanny McPhee, the titular ugly nanny (played, under unsightly makeup, by star/writer Emma Thompson) appears in wartime on the doorstep of Maggie Gyllenhaal's harried mother. Gyllenhaal's efforts to control three unruly kids and their snooty visiting cousins are complicated by her soldier husband's absence, as well as by her sniveling brother-in-law's (Rhys Ifans) attempts to make her sell the poo-covered family farm. Imparting life lessons with a bang from her magic cane, Thompson's intimidating caregiver is a charmless snooze. As the children's bad habits disappear, so, too, do McPhee's hairy moles and snaggletooth, and just as every book can be judged by its cover in this English countryside–set fable, every source that the film futilely strives to emulate proves transparent. Awash in CG pandemonium involving synchronized-swimming pigs and burping birds, McPhee's latest saga neither conjures the humanistic heart of Babe nor addresses father-son separation issues with the sobriety of The Water Horse. Instead, it's merely a compendium of photocopied elements, cartoonish special effects and easy-bake happily-ever-afters. (Nick Schager) (Citywide)
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PIRANHA 3-D An earthquake has opened an undersea chasm, unleashing a gazillion piranha fish near an Arizona resort town that just happens to be jammed with spring-break partiers anxious to frolic in the pretty blue lake. Horny horror-movie revelers tend to deserve what's coming to them, a sentiment French-born director Alexandre Aja embraces with maniacal glee in a third-act massacre that's downright ruthless (as was Aja's debut feature, High Tension, and his remake of The Hills Have Eyes). The human prey get filleted in 3-D, no less, a technology that's deployed effectively—as when one piranha or another is plucked from the computer-animated horde and paraded past the moviegoer's nose—but also shamelessly, as when a naked woman points her breasts directly at the camera and shimmies. Irredeemable, and yet, the movie, written by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, is too funny and the filmmaking too self-aware to be truly offensive. Some wonder why the Oscar-nominated Elisabeth Shue agreed to star in such obvious trash, but maybe when she read the part in the script where the piranha deliver a riotously gruesome but poetically just comeuppance to the story's most egregiously misogynist, she laughed her way to saying, "Yes." (Chuck Wilson)
THE SCENESTERS Movies about moviemaking, no matter how scathing they're meant to be, often end up simply stroking the machine, which in turn transforms barbs into love taps. Writer-director Todd Berger tries to short-circuit that circuitous process: The Scenesters also takes aim at the poses and pretensions of L.A.'s Eastside (specifically Silver Lake), while satirizing the efforts of an asshole producer and pretentious director to make a documentary about a serial killer. Unfortunately Berger's satire is often toothless, rarely pushing beyond the obvious even as his plot becomes more convoluted. The film plays like an in-joke home movie of the very folks it means to send up. When struggling director Wallace Cotton (Berger) is hired as a crime-scene videographer by the L.A.P.D., he meets CSI wannabe Charlie Newton (Blaise Miller), who works for Aftershocks, a company that cleans up crime scenes. After Charlie realizes that a series of Eastside murders are related, Wallace and his producer talk him into withholding information from the cops while they film a documentary and the body count rises. (In one of the movie's best lines, Wallace woos Charlie by telling him, "People from all over the world — from Venice to Berlin to Toronto — will get to know you," name-checking locales of three of the world's largest film festivals.) A love story, the history of the dismantling of L.A.'s public transit system by the auto industry, and a huge red herring are thrown in the mix (as well as John Landis as a judge) but can't charge the film's listless pulse. (Ernest Hardy) (Downtown Independent)
GO THE TILLMAN STORY Amir Bar-Lev's assiduous, furious documentary on the Army's craven cover-up of the death by friendly fire of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004 — and the exploitation of his corpse for recruitment purposes — is a withering assessment of U.S. military culture. Unlike recent Afghan war doc Restrepo, Bar-Lev's film feigns no pretense of "neutrality." War is hell, the former documentary relentlessly (if unhelpfully) reminds us. But The Tillman Story goes deeper, exposing a system of arrogance and duplicity that no WikiLeak could ever fully capture. While members of Tillman's immediate family and his widow, Marie, are powerful, riveting talking heads, his mother, Mary, emerges as the tireless moral compass, aided by a former special-ops soldier in decoding 3,000 pages of heavily redacted documents about her son's death. Bar-Lev portrays Tillman, who read Chomsky and Emerson and shunned professional-athlete megalomania, as a fiercely private, principled person. For his sacrifice, leadership and character, his body was hatefully used as propaganda, his family lied to and gravely let down by Congress, which ultimately let Donald Rumsfeld and several four-star generals off the hook. (Melissa Anderson) (Landmark)
VAMPIRES SUCK Writer-director team Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer continue to act as the drain trap to our pop culture toilet. The Date Movie and Meet the Spartans collaborators have made a career of low-overhead channel-surf bricolages catering to ninth-graders with nothing else to do on a Friday night, movies not meant to be watched so much as texted during. (Smart money says Friedberg and Seltzer never sit through these movies in entirety.) Their Vampires Suck isn't a spoof of vampire movies as a genre, which would demand an audience whose collective memory reached beyond 2008, but of the first two Twilight movies specifically, with iconic scenes re-enacted and laced with gags. Many of the film's jokes, such as they are, consist of mentioning the titles of contemporary reality-TV shows, which should be a riot for viewers who think that their cable-channel guide is the soul of wit. Jenn Proske provides a reasonable facsimile of Kristen Stewart's soulful lip-gnashing and eyebrow-fluttering, and there's a giggle-worthy bit with a Segway, but SNL's "The Franks" parody had more laughs, and the distinct advantage of being only two minutes long. If you've ever read a single book — we'll include Stephenie Meyer — you're probably better than this. (Nick Pinkerton) (Citywide)