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Movie Reviews: Trash Humpers, A Nightmare in Las Cruces, Letters to Juliet

HAPPINESS RUNS Born and raised on a polygamous commune in the wilderness, embittered teen hippie Victor (Mark L. Young) has realized that the nonconformist ideals of his elders — like his parents (odd-duck pairing Andie MacDowell and Mark Boone Junior) and a seductive hypnotist guru (Rutger Hauer) — have produced a litter of burnt-out, oversexed, downright oppressed kids without the ability to see their looming self-destruction. Loosely based on writer-director Adam Sherman's similar cult upbringing and disillusionment, the film builds on a fascinating cautionary tale, but doesn't develop its characters past whatever movie-of-the-week crisis each suffers from. We get that everyone's folks are too busy getting high or laid, but without a deepening of those parent-child dynamics, we're left with a tacky Lord of the Flies scenario, seemingly filmed by Larry Clark like a trippy '60s surf movie. Victor doesn't have the scratch to move away, and he's also distracted by his constantly naked, childhood love, Becky (Hanna Hall, the youngest sis from The Virgin Suicides), who has returned to care for her ailing dad and fuck every boy just to feel anything. (Aaron Hillis) (Sunset 5)

JUST WRIGHT Another movie, not as awful as this one, might one day find better use for the easygoing vibe between Queen Latifah and Common, the stars of Just Wright, a romantic comedy (for the ladies) with basketball and cameoing NBA players in it (for the fellas). That absolutely no chemistry exists between them as love interests is the first of the many flaws in a film that also demands we believe the New Jersey Nets could become Eastern Conference champions. Earthy, virtuous physical therapist and hoops fanatic Leslie Wright (Latifah) shares her house with her hyperfemme, gold-digging childhood friend, Morgan (Paula Patton). The p.t. meets Net Scott McNight (Common) and develops a crush — but Rules-playing Morgan gets the All-Star's marriage proposal. A midpoint ligament injury allows thick girls to triumph over thin ones: Leslie and Scott share cocoa bread, a quick kiss and, eventually, a bed. Writer Michael Elliot distinguishes himself by putting words into Latifah's mouth that she probably hasn't uttered since Living Single went off the air: "I'm a Jersey girl. I gotta represent!" Though no pheromones could ever be secreted in a love triangle this square, watching Leslie and Scott's relationship shift from platonic to romantic is as weird and wrong as watching siblings kiss each other on the mouth. (Melissa Anderson) (Citywide)

LETTERS TO JULIET Blonde, pillow-topped and spineless, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has a secure fact-checking job and is engaged to Victor (Gael García Bernal), a hunky restaurateur of indeterminate exotic origin, who dangles hot, fresh fettuccine into her mouth in a totally nonthreatening, not-at-all–9½ Weeks-ish way. But Sophie's not satisfied: She really wants to write, an ambition that sets the eyes of both boyfriend and boss aglaze. When Victor seems more interested in spending their Italian vacation hunting truffles than digging her, Sophie drifts off and ends up in Verona at the mythic home of Shakespeare's Juliet, where a cadre of volunteer secretaries answers letters left behind by lovelorns. Soon, Sophie's tagging along as English widow Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) visits a roundelay of Italian geezers to find the farmhand she loved and left back in the '50s. Enter Claire's no-fun lawyer grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan), whose interest in Sophie's writing makes up for his post-schoolboy prissiness. Juliet's core messages — date boys who are cool with you having a career and don't settle; NYC wine snobs are selfish, but guys who grow grapes and/or do pro bono legal work will love you forever — are inoffensive, but they're hardly the stuff of swooning fantasia. And fantasy Juliet clearly intends to be — too many plane tickets are booked last-minute without mention of the cost of the trip. Gary Winick's flat direction does the material no favors: If Egan and Seyfried have any chemistry, it's framed out of their awkwardly staged climactic kisses. (Karina Longworth) (Citywide)

A NIGHTMARE IN LAS CRUCES On February 10, 1990, in Los Cruces, New Mexico, two armed men robbed a bowling alley and then put bullets in the heads of the seven people they'd stumbled upon in the building, including two sisters, aged 6 and 2. For 20 years the culprits have been at large, and director Charlie Minn made this documentary, in part, to keep the story alive while cataloguing the lives lost, ruined or deeply crippled by the massacre. From the start, however, as the viewer listens to the entire 911 call made after the gunmen fled, and as graphic crime-scene photos fill the screen, a sense of dread sets in that what's about to unfold is exploitation tricked up in moral outrage. As the film unfolds, it proves to be just that. To Minn's credit, he sheds light on a shady businessman's shady family, one of whom may have been the true target of the bloody rampage (police officials interviewed agree that the half-ass robbery was a front for the attack), and the teary testimonials by grieving widows and mothers are genuinely wrenching. But Minn, a mediocre interviewer, tips his hand by not only repeatedly showing bloody crime scene photos and videos but in staging reunions of survivors who haven't seen each other in more than a decade so his camera can capture tears. He also includes self-aggrandizing news footage of himself being interviewed about making the film. The cause? Noble. The crusader? Not so much. (Ernest Hardy) (Beverly Center)

PRINCESS KAIULANI Q'orianka Kilcher's first role since her stunning breakout as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick's The New World finds her playing to type as the last princess of Hawaii, struggling against the American takeover of a then-sovereign republic. It's her second indigenous-versus-white people role in a row, which suggests troubling things about her career prospects. Marc Forby's directorial debut doesn't try to avoid comparisons with Malick; with rapturous shots of hands passing through pristine fields, it actively courts them. But Forby is much schlockier, employing pan pipes to signify that we're now in England when the princess travels there to wait out political turmoil; when she returns to a devastated republic, weepy violins kick in, and the end of an era seems (and is) inevitable as Hawaii becomes just another American colony. To be fair, Princess Kaiulani (previous title, unbelievably: Barbarian Princess) is livelier than the usual period piece, it looks decent and moves fast. But that speed means that a whole lot of history gets way too compressed (the takeover of Hawaii is basically reduced to Kilcher's face versus evil, black-hatted Barry Pepper's mustache, a spectacular follicle creation that upstages his entire performance). And this may be the only film in history to have someone learn about egalitarianism at a British boarding school (!). Hawaii's dismal onscreen track record continues; bring back James Michener. (Vadim Rizov) (Monica, Music Hall, Playhouse)

THE THORN IN THE HEART As a music-video director Michel Gondry excelled at making childlike dream worlds real; as a fiction filmmaker (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep), he's best when giving hypercinematic form to the raw inner lives of modern man-children. It's a shock, then, that The Thorn in the Heart, Gondry's documentary about his own family, is so unimaginative and inaccessible. Sweeping through several decades and French countryside towns to focus on Gondry's aunt, former schoolteacher Suzette, Thorn is full of stylistic entry points for the Gondry faithful. His signature shabby-chic stop-motion animation sets scenes, while grainy, oversaturated home movies are woven into new material (some featuring the director as a supporting player) processed to match. The aesthetics are lovely, but lazily conceived; the best scene is a chroma-key exercise scored to a Charlotte Gainsbourg tune, its function in the film inexplicable. Gondry's tricks don't do much to open what is essentially a closed loop. The trouble starts in the first scene: Suzette attempts to tell a story having something to do with her late husband and what was apparently a hilarious misunderstanding involving sauerkraut, but she's laughing so hard that she can barely get the words out. Her family laughs, too — perhaps they're familiar enough with this story that they're getting something we're not, or perhaps they're just being polite. Either way, it's a family bond that Gondry doesn't let us break through. Watching Thorn is like being helplessly locked out of an inside joke. (Karina Longworth) (Sunset 5)

GO  TRASH HUMPERS Harmony Korine, aging enfant terrible and self-proclaimed "most American" of American indies, finds his level and brings it home to Nashville with the gloriously desultory slap in the face of public taste, Trash Humpers. Korine has proposed the film as a VHS tape found in a ditch. Most simply described, this quasi-underground, midnight-friendly, faux-primitive "artifact" documents a trio of fake geriatric bohos, outfitted in thrift-store finery with faces frozen by transparent wrinkle masks, engaging in all manner of antisocial behavior — smashing TV sets, torturing dolls, pouring dish soap on a stack of pancakes, and, most frequently, lasciviously grinding their groins against back-alley garbage bins. A spectacle to be watched in a wino stupor, Trash Humpers is funny from the get-go; the joke expires after 20 minutes, around the time that three hookers, having already been rhythmically spanked, serenade the three devils with a toneless version of "Silent Night." The movie, however, continues for another hour. Sign of the times: Trash Humpers is all about free expression, but Korine's transgressions seem a lot less expansive and liberating than John Waters' or Jack Smith's did back during the invention of identity politics. Rather than self-actualizing, libidinal ecstasy, Trash Humpers projects a cranky resignation to the world as it is. It's ultimately less a celebration of impulse behavior than a celebration of the parodic impulse to record. (J. Hoberman) (Nuart)

WHY AM I DOING THIS? Scenes drag a tad too long and subplots go nowhere, but buried beneath the fat is a funny (if derivative) film about modern Asian identities (including hip-hop thugs), as they play out on both the big screen and the everyday stage. Writer-director Tom Huang plays 30-year-old Tony Chang, a struggling actor who works children's parties until his big break comes, who bums money from his very funny family to make ends meet. At one party, he falls for a schoolteacher (moonlighting as a costumed bear) and proceeds to juggle his flailing career with a fledgling romance. The latter opens a can of worms about Asians dating within and without the race. Meanwhile, his best friend, Lester (played by the very talented Anthony Montgomery), is on a parallel course — trying to break into the world of stand-up as a quirky, nonstereotypical black dude while grappling with the complexities of being in an interracial relationship. Had Huang jettisoned the subplots about Tony's user, actress friend and Lester's creepily dependent mother, his low-budget film would have been more effective and possibly had space to develop the Asian riffs on Hollywood Shuffle, which make up the opening scenes. As it is, Why ... is a modestly entertaining stream of chuckles interspersed with one or two laugh-out-loud moments. (Ernest Hardy) (Music Hall)