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Movie Reviews: Zombie Strippers, Floating Life, Lost in Beijing

Flight of the Red Balloon
Tsai cheng-tai

BEYOND THE CALL Attempting to portray its Good Samaritan subjects as just regular guys, Beyond the Call is that rare inspirational documentary that errs on the side of restraint, although it still doesn’t make for very gripping cinema. The film follows Ed Artis, James Laws and Walt Ratterman, three successful middle-aged Americans who decided in 1995 to form Knightsbridge International, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief worldwide without regard to race, religion or national origin.” Director and cinematographer Adrian Belic positions his subjects as unconventional do-gooders. Rather than sanctimonious blowhards or weepy bleeding hearts, they’re a salty, alpha-male bunch with refreshingly unpretentious attitudes about the positive impact they’ve made in impoverished areas like the Philippines and Afghanistan. The downside is that the men remain honorable ciphers. The brief glimpses we get into their personal lives offer some interesting backstory — Artis was a juvenile delinquent and Laws is a Napoleon fanatic — but the film’s emphasis on their episodic, picturesque travels yields little in terms of character detail or insight into the altruistic mindset. You walk out of Beyond the Call admiring these humanitarians but not the movie about them — unless you like films with lots of hugging. (Grande 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)

Tsai cheng-tai

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Flight of the Red Balloon

 

DARK MATTER “Inspired by” the 1991 University of Iowa school shootings, Dark Matter gives a sympathetic picture of Liu Xing (Liu Ye), its doctoral candidate turned sociopath. Maladjusting to cultural amputation, the international student’s letters home become increasingly Travis Bickle–like in their remove from reality. The China he’s left behind is dreary, but at least it’s a comprehensible, straightforward wasteland — unlike the mirage of America, where we see freedom and opportunity extolled, but toadying and conformity rewarded. First-time filmmaker Shi-Zheng Chen shows little aptitude for accurately transcribing the textures of human interaction; there’s not a single credible performance here, including Meryl Streep as a faculty Sinophile, doing that thing where she grinds every line through a gauntlet of tremulous inflections. More surprising, considering Chen’s pedigree in directing operas, are his conspicuously inept mad scenes: Liu Xing’s final snap is dramatized in a disco-strobed student lounge. So what pushes him over the edge? That he can’t get laid? Indigestion from mixing wuxia with cowboy culture (the film implicitly perpetuates the think-piece insipidity that American gun violence has more to do with Zane Gray than lax handgun laws)? Who knows? Despite overtures toward evenhandedness, Dark Matter’s insights go no deeper than “chickens coming home to roost” banality. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Nick Pinkerton)

 

EXPELLED: NO INTELLIGENCE ALLOWED Ben Stein became a minor cultural icon from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, almost making people forget that, from his early days as a Nixon speechwriter on, he’s been a rigid cultural conservative. Stein capitalizes on that goodwill with Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a propaganda “documentary” he cowrote and hosts. His thesis: “Teaching Darwinian evolution but ignoring intelligent design in America’s public schools and universities is the biggest threat to American freedom today — bigger, presumably, than Al Qaeda, Iraq and the recession combined.” A series of interviews with ID true believers has him playing Michael Moore dumb — no hard questions for the folks at the Discovery Center, whose infamous leaked 1993 “wedge memo” stated as one of its primary goals the propagation of the idea “that nature and human beings are created by God.” ID’ers protest that they’re simply interested in secular alternatives to Darwinian evolution; their scientific opponents, meanwhile, are potential communists and Nazis (Stein visits Dachau for an insulting, “it happened here” moment”). Using the powers of low-grade montage to compare the divide between evolutionary scientists and ID’s proponents to the Berlin Wall, Stein becomes, with his doc’s insistence that we tear down that wall, Ronald Reagan. Bizarre and hysterical. (AMC South Bay Galleria 16; Burbank Town Center 8; Regal The Avenue 13;UA Marina Del Rey 6) (Vadim Rizov)

 

GO  THE FIRST SATURDAY IN MAY Of the 40,000 thoroughbreds foaled in the U.S. annually, only 20 make the regal two-minute run that is the Kentucky Derby, a Mardi Gras–like spectacle that brings out bourbon-drinking gawkers and gamblers, crazy hats and Carson Cressley, apparently. Galloping toward the 2006 edition of this Holy Grail event, the Hennegan brothers’ zesty directorial debut trails the prep season of six diligent horse trainers, including an optimistic MS patient who works for the prime minister of Dubai, and a wheelchair-bound dad whose passions are undeterred by the irony that an equestrian accident caused his paralysis. Many of the subjects, we learn, are victorious year after year, but the Hennegans are deft enough editors to convince us of a six-way underdog competition, and the track sequences can be real nail biters. Of course, if you’re not already a fan, the multitude of stakes races — which comprises the film’s bulk — eventually gets tedious, and one wishes for more detail on the personal dramas, off-track hooks in plain sight (why introduce one trainer’s 71-year-old father, who wants to be the oldest winning jockey, in the final minutes?), and sport’s controversies (maybe codistributor Churchill Downs Inc. doesn’t know about PETA?). First Saturday isn’t exactly a winner, but it places — if you’re feeling it, go ahead and tear up your tickets and throw ’em on the theater floor. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

 

 GO  FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON The Red Balloon was the art-house E.T. of 1956. Flight of the Red Balloon is something far more baffling — a literal-minded movie with an amiably free-floating metaphor. Chinese grandmaster Hou Hsiao-hsien, who only screened The Red Balloon after he was commissioned to remake it by the Musée d’Orsay, has said the film shows the “cruel realities” of childhood. His own version begins as fantasy, as 7-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) addresses the otherwise unnoticed scarlet sphere drifting overhead, and then casually naturalizes, tracking the boy over the roofs of Paris to contemplate the untidy existence he shares with his mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche). The movie is animated not only by the hide-and-seek antics of the red balloon but also by Binoche’s extravagant turn as a frazzled performance artist. Played with total self-absorption and a corresponding absence of vanity, Suzanne is a harried composition in frowsy blond-itude, filmy scarves and mad décolletage — the most dynamic female protagonist in the Hou oeuvre. Suzanne’s situation may be an emotional jumble, but untethered by mundane reality, the balloon is free to roam. In its unexpected rhythms and visual surprises, its structural innovations and experimental perfs, its creative misunderstandings and its outré syntheses, Flight of the Red Balloon is a movie of genius. It is in a class by itself. (Royal) (J. Hoberman) 

 

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM The plot is pure choose-your-own-adventure: A bullied wuxia fanboy from South Boston (Michael Angarano) is teleported back into a LARP fantasia of feudal China, where he’s singled out as the long-anticipated “Chosen One” prophesied to topple a despotic warlord. Our nominal hero then recedes behind the two Mr. Miyagis who adopt him: a Lisa Bonet–bewigged Jackie Chan and warrior-monk Jet Li (English line readings: 75 percent intelligible). This is the first collaboration between Kung Fu’s Astaire and Kelly, and, as that, it disappoints. Like so much in Rob Minkoff’s movie, the fight arrangements by choreographer Yuen Woo-ping aren’t so much bad as undistinguished: The camera placement is off, the tempo unvaried, and Chan’s movements are obscured by his piled-on robes. The cinematography lacks storybook indelibility; Collin Chou’s Jade Warlord is a stock archvillain (though Bingbing Li’s bullwhip-toting “white-haired demon,” announced with apocalyptic reverb, is lovely) ... and then there’s the scene where Li actually pisses in Chan’s face — a degradation that will seem familiar to viewers incensed by the demographic-outreach casting of white-dude Angarano. Taken as a whole, though, it’s an amiable lost and found of epic-adventure tropes. As I still illogically treasure Willow, many a 10-year-old who sees The Forbidden Kingdom will remember it fondly in spite of its flaws. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

 

GO  FUNKY FOREST: THE FIRST CONTACT Funky? Beyond. As for where the forest might be, to whom contact is made, and what might happen the second or third time around, beats me — over the head, repeatedly, with a blunt, slap-happy doofus stick. Written and directed by a trio of Japanese filmmakers (Katsuhito Ishii, Shunichiro Miki, Aniki), this epic J-pop WTF mashes sci-fi, sitcom, romcom, clowning, dreams, dancing and outlandish Croenenbergian fantasia in a dizzying kaleidoscope of brash non sequitur. We begin with the Mole Brothers, hosts of a white-on-white slapstick variety show being watched by a recumbent spaceman prior to launching his bioplastic pod into a miasma of intergalactic protozoa. From there we meet Little Mataru, a bored schoolgirl who daydreams herself into an inscrutable superhero contest with cutesy robots and spinning space blobs; Guitar Brother, a lovesick troubadour and eldest of the Unpopular With Women Brothers; Notti and Takefumi (too complicated to explain); and the Babbling Hot Springs Vixens, a clutch of voluble young salesgirls on holiday, who narrate tales of the Alien Piko-Riko, The Big Ginko Tree and Buck Naked and the Panda. And that’s just the first half. If there’s a theme to Funky Forest, it’s the transformative power of the imagination through dreams, music, performance and freewheeling pomo crazy time. Hug these trees! They hug back. (ImaginAsian Center) (Nathan Lee)

 

KISS THE BRIDE “Our obsession with marriage ... it’s masochistic,” says one queer character in C. Jay Cox’s Kiss the Bride, a “scrappy indie” that successfully manages to reproduce, on a shoestring, anonymously professional big-budget asininity. Matt (Philipp Karner), an out-and-proud staffer at Queery magazine, gets a surprise invitation to the straight wedding of the long-out-of-sight high school best buddy who, way back when, turned Matt on to the joys of banging dudes. Reunited in the “podunk town” of his youth with the perpetually shirt-free Ryan (James O’Shea), that shared secret prods Matt into an, “Is he or isn’t he?” investigation. Adding to the confusion is Ryan’s fiancée (played by vast-faced Tori Spelling, an unlikely siren to tempt men out of deeply entrenched sexual preference), with whom both men are taken. Along with a gallery of hastily sketched caricatures visiting for the nuptials, the comedy is heavily reliant on naughty double-entendres (e.g., an “I’m coming” gag that was stupid when it was in American Pie). In the film’s endless countdown to the exchange of vows, complete predictability is avoided only thanks to its openness to the fluidity of sexual identity — which isn’t enough to make this anything more than the most ignoble outing in bi-curious screen hijinks since France produced Poltergay. (Regent Showcase) (Nick Pinkerton)

 

 

THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES Riddled with high concept, this florid adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s 2002 novel is a horror picture of sorts that plays off a Columbine-style high school shooting from the victims’ point of view. For all I know, the author, who’s also a poet, took a delicate approach to this fraught conceit, but moviegoers may mistake The Life Before Her Eyes for an unduly long L’Oréal commercial featuring softly lit film stars moving languidly with swinging hair through overbearingly premonitory weather. All but derailed by director Vadim (House of Sand and Fog) Perelman’s fondness for the slow-motion sequence, The Life Before Her Eyes stars Evan Rachel Wood, shortchanging her considerable talent yet again, as Diana, a troubled small-town teen whose undisciplined appetites are tempered by her friendship with churchgoing good girl Maureen (Eva Amurri, giving her all to a thankless task). Fifteen years after the two friends are improbably commanded by the high school shooter to choose which of them should die, Diana, played by Uma Thurman in various attitudes of vague distress, is living a golden life edged with portents of Something Amiss. A twist that offers fertile potential for subtle meditation on growing up, conscience and roads not traveled ends up buried beneath insect metaphors, lurid flashbacks and a thunderstorm that creaks with the climax to come. (The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

 

LOST IN BEIJING Two modern couples of distant social strata convene at crotch-level in Lost in Beijing. Lin Dong (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is the moneyed owner of a rubdown parlor, and Liu Ping Guo (Fan Bingbing), one of his masseuses, goes home to a cell of an apartment and her husband, An Kun (Tong Da Wei), a high-rise window cleaner. One evening she gets crocked and passes out at work, then comes to with the boss on top of her — and who should bear witness but hubby, squeegeeing outside. Pregnancy intensifies the crisis, but as Dong’s wife (Elaine Jin) is infertile, he submits an indecent proposal to purchase the baby. The selling point here is director Li Yu’s tangle with government censors over the movie — admirable — and maybe what I take for granted is something that mainland China needs to see. But we’re past the curious (Yellow) days that could call a tit revolutionary, or convince the pocket-pool crowd to brave subtitles. The prevalent shooting style is monotonous naturalism, as the camera buzzes between contentious actors and trolls after anything on the move. No performance registers quite so much as the capital city itself, a burgeoning-but-sepulchral range of skyscrapers receding into a Sheetrock-toned sky. (Grande 4-Plex) (Nick Pinkerton) 

 GO  NOTE BY NOTE: THE MAKING OF STEINWAY L1037 Given rapt attention and care in the framing, there is no more engrossing subject than man at work. The proof, yet again, is in director Ben Niles’ chronicle of the production of a single Steinway concert grand — a nine-foot beast that requires a plank the length of an anaconda, a year of assembly and a small army of blue-collar technicians whose skills are as minutely focused and compartmentalized as a safecracker’s. Niles gathers testimonials from a variety of pianists to describe and demonstrate the variances of sound inherent to each Steinway, among the last of the handcrafted pianos. But they’re distractions from the drama in Steinway’s Queens factory, where a single slip of a “pizza wheel” wire stretcher or an imbalance of a few thousandths of an inch could ruin a $25,000 instrument. Niles and cinematographer Ben Wolf scrutinize each step as if it were Rififi’s climactic heist, offering moments of fixated strangeness and wonder — as when a burly Croatian “belly man” installs perfect rows of teensy notches in the bridge, using a swift, unhesitating repetition that seems more magical than robotic. The movie may sell the Steinway supremacy a bit insistently — no wonder a film link turns up on the manufacturer’s Web site — but as a study of stubborn artisanal tradition in the Pro Tools age, Note by Note is a stirring symphony of specialized labor. (Music Hall) (Jim Ridley)

 

 

GO PATHOLOGY Crank creators Neveldine and Taylor — who apparently no longer require the luxury of first names — scripted this tale of deranged young doctors in the L.A. coroner’s office who test each other to come up with ever more elaborate murders in hopes of stumping their colleagues as to the cause of death. The duo bring their crazed, anything-goes sensibility to the table, but they aren’t a perfect match with German director Marc Schoelermann, who seems to like his horror more brooding and artsy. So while our main characters engage in plenty of gratuitous sex, violence, and combinations of both, Schoelermann will be damned if he lets the rather obviously named Dr. Grey (Milo Ventimiglia) look like he’s enjoying a second of it. As the new kid who gets swept up in all the madness, Ventimiglia is morose from the start, and not exactly the portrait of seduced innocence this story really needs. Nonetheless, when a movie opens with the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally as performed by cadavers, and later proceeds to sex scenes involving scalpels and needles, the actual plot is inconsequential. Fans of hard-R exploitation will love this; everyone else will likely be appalled. Screw ’em. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

 

PROM NIGHT This gore-free PG-13 slasher film bears the same title as a fondly remembered and very bad 1980 horror movie that starred Jamie Lee Curtis. It wasn’t her finest hour, nor is this quasi-remake likely to do much for Brittany Snow, who stars as Donna, a Connecticut teen who witnessed her love-obsessed high school teacher (Johnathon Schaech, deserving better) butchering her family to death. Three years later, Teach is on the loose and hiding out in the fancy hotel where an unsuspecting Donna and friends celebrate prom. As the night crawls along, an assortment of maids, bellboys and horny-but-nice teens is stabbed to death in moments of violence that director Nelson McCormick stages with a minimum of blood but also, regrettably, a minimum of suspense. He and screenwriter J.S. Cardone don’t have one original thought between them, but they do appear to share an obsession with characters opening hotel-room closets in which the steel hangers gleam ominously. There’s nothing scary in there, but here’s a shudder-inducing fact: McCormick and Cardone are currently collaborating on a remake of the witty and nearly perfect 1987 thriller The Stepfather. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

 

WATER Grim-eyed fortunetellers across political and policy spectrums have long warned that impending global skirmishes over freshwater supplies will make wars fought over oil look like child’s play. In the documentary Water, director Saida Medvedeva foregoes such earthbound concerns for more philosophical musings on the increasingly valuable liquid, examining not just its medicinal but its mystical qualities. You get some idea of the film’s tone and leanings by the presence of scientist Masaru Emoto (What the Bleep Do We Know?) who, along with a coterie of international colleagues, argues that water has memory, and that, while its molecular structure never changes, exposure to humans and other substances radically changes the “character” of H2O. The film’s overall tone recalls educational films shown to schoolkids, but it quickly shifts from a quick recounting of basic science to claims and “research” that are dubious at best: Water crystals formed while Bach was being played are contrasted against those formed to hard rock; water that has been “thanked” is compared to that which has been told, “you disgust me.” All but the most uncritically accepting of New Age pap will roll their eyes or giggle ... or both. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

 GO  ZOMBIE STRIPPERS During George W. Bush’s fourth term as president, the administration’s desire for crises and predisposition toward fuck-ups leads to the creation of a zombie virus the government hopes will help replenish troops for its various overseas conflicts. Infected women become superstrong and maintain their intelligence, but the men remain your typical shambling, mindless undead. So when the virus leaks into a strip club, the place becomes the most popular illegal joint in town. All too often with horror/cult movies, a catchy title masks a low budget and an even lower level of talent, but director Jay Lee (The Slaughter) delivers absolutely everything you could possibly hope for in his film called Zombie Strippers, with a consistently hilarious, brutal and titillating mash-up of Return of the Living Dead and Showgirls, which actually beats out Mark Pirro’s Nudist Colony of the Dead for the unofficial title of best naked-zombie movie ever. He even manages some George Romero–style social commentary, with zombie-dom as a metaphor for plastic surgery — that star Jenna Jameson’s plasticized, prezombie face is actually scarier than the final monstrous version only proves the point. Easily the best movie of the year, so far. Really. (Nuart) (Luke Y. Thompson)


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