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New Film Reviews

ANNAPOLIS Reports suggest that Annapolis was filmed last year, but watching this naval clunker, you’d swear it had been on the shelf since before the Gulf War. All of the main characters are training to be officers, yet the entire movie unspools without a single reference to war, al Qaeda or Iraq. No, in this sanitized, Touchstone vision of the U.S. Naval Academy, the only thing cadets today worry about is boxing. Director Justin Lin’s second feature exhibits none of the sensitivity to male friendship and competition — or ear for adolescent banter — that he brought to his debut film, Better Luck Tomorrow. Instead of focusing on his characters, Lin lavishes his attention on motion-control camera effects designed to amp up his crudely staged fight scenes and enliven David Collard’s poorly dramatized script (which reeks of studio “development” and should have been torpedoed long before production started). Annapolis succeeds only in the difficult mission of making charismatic actors like James Franco and Tyrese Gibson seem bland and surprisingly unsexy. Jordana Brewster does raise eyebrows as the hottest naval instructor since Kelly McGillis, but, unlike Top Gun, Annapolis is in no danger of inspiring record numbers of young men to run to Navy recruiting centers — or movie theaters. (Citywide) (James C. Taylor)

BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2 In this family-friendly sequel to Big Momma’s House, Martin Lawrence returns as FBI agent Malcolm Turner, whose best undercover outfit is the full-body fat suit, wig and button-up dress that turns him into a big-thighed, streetwise grandma. In a plotline that’s hard to track and doesn’t matter a bit, screenwriter Don Rhymer (who co-wrote the first film) sends Momma to work as nanny to three attention-starved kids, whose father (Mark Moses) has created a computer program the bad guys need in order to access secret government files. Mercifully free of excess mania, sexual innuendo and fart jokes, this sweet-natured comedy, ably directed by John Whitesell (Malibu’s Most Wanted), has some nice bits of business, including a grief-stricken Chihuahua, a misguided day-spa excursion for Momma, and a 3-year-old boy who likes to hurl himself spread-eagled off high cabinets and jungle gyms. Although he’s a man who often seems uncomfortable in front of the camera, donning drag releases the confident, inventive, even joyful Lawrence, the one who’ll give Robin Williams a run for his money when the two finally team up — never say never — for Big Momma vs. Mrs. Doubtfire. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

BUBBLE Exciting though it is that Steven Soderbergh’s new movie is to be released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and on cable television — allowing audiences to choose how they watch the movie and sidestepping the glum forecast that DVD is here and moviegoing is dead — I’m not persuaded that Bubble has the muscle or the charisma to jump-start a genuine revolution in distribution, or even a canny new marketing ploy. Shot in high definition by Soderbergh from a bare-bones script by Coleman Hough, this spare tale of loneliness and jealousy in a dead-end heartland town turns on a hopeless love triangle between three employees in a doll factory: middle-aged Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), who goes home every night to an elderly father; Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a near-comatose youth who lives with his mother; and Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a single parent and new hire of dubious character. The cast is entirely nonprofessional and drawn from the same ranks as the characters they play, and the fresh, unprocessed talent of Doebereiner — a Southern Ohio KFC manager — lends the movie a raw power it doesn’t quite deserve. While Bubble may be read as an admirable attempt to wrestle reality television away from the hacks, the story is so flat and transparent in the telling, so empty of psychological mystery and depth, it skates dangerously close to condescension. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)

PICK GO  FATELESS  Ending a lull in Holocaust movies — a welcome one, given how lazy and sentimental so much filmmaking about the Shoah has gotten — is a remarkably tough-minded debut by Lajos Koltai, a Hungarian whose resumé as a cinematographer runs a hair-raising gamut from Mephisto to Home for the Holidays. In one of the many indelible images that leap out from the terrific Fateless, an exhausted group of concentration-camp inmates, forced to stand outdoors throughout a freezing night in nothing but their prison stripes, sway gracefully back and forth as they fight off sleep in order not to fall down and risk being shot or bludgeoned to death. Composer Ennio Morricone’s wordless chorale lends this horrifying scene a mournful lyricism that’s certain to ruffle the feathers of critics who believe that artistic beauty is sacrilege when applied to the worst genocide mankind has ever known. But though Fateless mimics the doggedly realist accretion of physical detail that marked Roman Polanski’s similarly themed The Pianist, the movie also keeps faith with the philosophical discovery at the heart of its source, an autobiographical novel by Nobel prizewinner Imre Kertész, who also wrote the startlingly matter-of-fact screenplay. Marcell Nagy, a curly eighth-grader whose oval Modigliani face telegraphs both stoicism and an intensely inquiring temperament, plays the author’s alter ego, Gyuri Köves, a Budapest teenager who’s abruptly parted from his comfortable middle-class life when the Nazis haul him off to a series of concentration camps, among them Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Cinematographer Gyula Pados, who shot the arresting 2005 movie Kontroll, brings a terrifying, desaturated beauty to the boy’s habitat — the dank, rain-soaked parade ground of the camp at night; his wounded knee invaded by maggots. Like The Pianist, Fateless painstakingly builds up the reality of what it is like to be drawn into a perfectly arbitrary hell you can neither comprehend nor rationalize. But it’s not until the end — when Gyuri returns to a nearly unrecognizable home and calmly turns away the clichés lobbed at him by guilty, sympathetic and frankly disbelieving gentiles — that we grasp what has kept this boy alive: not just the physical instinct to survive with help from a kind mentor, but the refusal of all illusion. Standing in a pretty Budapest square restored to full color near his home, now occupied by strangers, Gyuri understands that happiness will come to him as surely as catastrophe did. This isn’t the de rigueur uplift that eviscerates so many Holocaust movies, but a willingness — like that of the great Primo Levi — to entertain the outer limits of human potential for good and evil. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)

IMAGINE ME & YOU The premise seems tailor-made for a low-budget gay comedy you’d find playing at the Regent Showcase: On her wedding day, a blushing bride discovers her true love — and it’s a woman! Thankfully, British writer-director Ol Parker’s romantic dramedy has a broader emotional palette, but its upscale treatment of burgeoning same-sex love can’t escape some fundamental chemistry problems. The bride in question is Rachel (Piper Perabo), who, despite being devoted to her longtime boyfriend Heck (Matthew Goode), feels anxious walking down the aisle — feelings that only become more pronounced when she meets Luce (Lena Headey), the ravishing (and gay) wedding florist. Settling into married life, and with Heck busy at work, lonely Rachel bonds with Luce, and although Rachel has never had any homosexual leanings, a mutual attraction develops between the two women. Parker infuses this romantic triangle with an empathy that shames his American counterparts. By presenting Heck as more nuanced than the typically ineffectual pushover and Luce as a warm but certainly not perfect partner, he positions Rachel’s infidelity as a thoughtful question about the difficulty of commitment. But while the film’s tasty London settings add a whiff of elegance, Parker’s confection collapses because we never believe Rachel and Luce as destined soul mates. The blame rests entirely with Perabo’s meager performance. Rather than conveying the dangers and euphoria associated with following your heart, she comes across as merely indecisive and whiny. Rachel may be confused about her sexual identity, but audiences will have little doubt that her competing love interests both deserve better than her. (Sunset 5; NuWilshire) (Tim Grierson)

SEE THIS MOVIE It’s oddly appropriate, and probably intentional, that this long-in-the-wings film finally hits theaters during the time of year reserved for much festival-related talk about acquisitions, scrambling to screenings and after-after-parties — just the stuff See This Movie sets out to skewer. Seth Meyers and John Cho star as a no-talent aspiring filmmaker and his hapless producer who scam their way into a last-minute slot at a festival. The only hitch being that they haven’t actually made the film yet, and so they scramble to shoot enough footage to hastily assemble something to screen. The idea is funny enough — although much of the film-fest-related comedy has also been mined by IFC’s comedy series The Festival — and the ever-engaging leads give it their all, aided by mockumentary veteran Jim Piddick and brief appearances by executive producers Chris and Paul Weitz. But director David Rosenthal and his writing partner, Joseph M. Smith, simply don’t come up with enough material to keep the laughs coming at a reasonable pace and never quite get a groove rolling. In the age of easily digestible/downloadable comedy cupcakes like Lazy Sunday and Yacht Rock, it seems the sketch-stretched-to-feature-length is even more painfully obvious and unnecessary than it used to be. (Regent Showcase) (Mark Olsen)

UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION The 600-year-old vampire princess Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is lethally efficient with the semiautomatic pistols strapped ’round her curvaceous waist, but as a bloodsucker, she’s an embarrassment: She doesn’t believe in biting people (sigh). If Selene is vampirically challenged, it’s probably because her mind, like that of those who sit through this film, has been numbed out by the hopelessly convoluted mythology devised by director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Danny McBride. As with Underworld: Evolution’s 2003 predecessor, you leave the theater feeling as if the filmmakers are still back there, with PowerPoint flow charts, explaining the flashback-intensive plotline, which this time has something to do with Selene’s walled-in-a-tomb vampire uncle, his pissed-off werewolf twin brother and the gold amulet that will set them free. With her long, black coat and midair karate-chop skills, Selene is more Matrix-y Neo than Count Dracula, which may explain why this movie is so brutally un-fun. When Selene and her half-vampire, half-wolf dream-boy blond sidekick (Scott Speedman) have sex — a major event for Underworld fans — Wiseman is so busy staging tasteful slo-mo sighs that he completely misses the point: A hunky werewolf is fucking a hot babe vampire. That is not the moment to chintz on sharpened incisors and hairy paws. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

PICK GO  WILLIAM EGGLESTON IN THE REAL WORLD
The acclaimed photographer William Eggleston has described himself as being “at war with the obvious,” and much the same can be said about Michael Almereyda’s extraordinary documentary. As he did in his earlier, Sam Shepard documentary, This So-Called Disaster, Almereyda has crafted an uncannily revealing portrait of a major American artist at work, all the more remarkable for the deceptive casualness with which it unfolds, as if Almereyda had just shown up. Actively suppressing the urge to “explain” Eggleston or to put his photographs into some kind of artistic “context,” the film instead approaches its subject in much the same way that Eggleston does the people and objects before his own camera lens — which is to say stealthily, from a cautious distance, and yet with extraordinary intimacy. There are long scenes here of Eggleston at rest, which some will call voyeuristic or pointless, though they are in fact among the most remarkable things in the film — snapshots of the artist as an ordinary man, as vulnerable as the rest of us, but capable of seeing uncommon beauty in the seemingly everyday as few of us can. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian) (Scott Foundas)

GOOD REP:
REVERENCE:  THE FILMS OF OWEN LAND (FORMERLY KNOWN AS GEORGE LANDOW)
Irreverence is more like it. The avant-garde shorts of filmmaker George Landow (who, following “a mysterious territorial dispute in the late 1970s,” changed his name to Owen Land) unleash delirium-inducing assaults on orthodoxy — particularly of the religious and cinematic variety. In the animated The Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter (1968), two sketches of Tibetan deities come to life on their artist’s page, much to his own surprise. No Sir, Orison! (1975) shows a grocery shopper singing an impassioned hymn to the pleasures of supermarkets, then dropping to his knees in prayer in the middle of the canned-goods aisle. And in what may be Land’s/Landow’s most famous/infamous work, Wide Angle Saxon (1975), a moviegoer experiences a spiritual awakening while watching an experimental film at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, while a TV news reporter repeatedly flubs his lines on camera and a Christian evangelist lectures on the subject of Christ’s crucifixion. Devious word games, superimpositions and trompe l’oeil effects abound, all guided by their creator’s ambidextrous grasp of film grammar and his sandpaper-dry wit. Land/Landow was only in his late 20s and early 30s when he crafted these films — today, he is a figure more rumored than known. This series, which has toured the world since its premiere at the 2005 Rotterdam Film Festival, seeks to bring him back. (Filmforum at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.; Sun., Jan. 29, 8 p.m. www.lafilmforum.org ) (Scott Foundas)

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