New Film Reviews

FAQS Writer-director Everett Lewis (Skin and Bone, Luster) makes movies about gay life and love that embrace clichés in order to subvert them, and wield loose, almost meandering narratives that, at their best, allow viewers to organically warm to characters and ideas. His fourth feature, FAQs, begins as young runaway India (Joe Lia) is cornered by gay-bashers and rescued by beautiful drag queen/vigilante Destiny (Allan Louis). From there, India joins Destiny’s loving surrogate family of straight-world castoffs, and takes on her mission of saving young queers from a violently homophobic world. FAQs forcefully rejects the image of the homosexual as victim, proposing that simply being oneself is a radical act. (“Our kisses are like bombs going off in the straight world,” says India to his troubled lover.) Lewis is adept at modulating both tension and free-flowing interpersonal relationships, and he maintains a keen eye for scruffy beauty — Gavin Kelly’s well-lit photography captures the allure of plump lips, sculpted cheekbones and nocturnal urban grace — but the film seems less comfortable in its own skin than his other work. Perhaps because the movie is arguably his most politically confrontational (it opens with an excerpt of the Texan Republican Party’s reprehensible 2004 platform), the dialogue is blunter, and harder for his amateur cast to pull off, while Lewis’ stridency, however justified, ultimately jars against the film’s tender, all-is-love fantasia. (Fairfax) (Hazel-Dawn Dumpert)

A GOOD WOMAN Oscar Wilde fans who find Lady Windermere’s Fan too moralizing for their satiric taste miss the humane wisdom of this dramatic comedy about a fallen woman stepping unannounced into the life of the grown daughter she had abandoned as a baby. Still, Wilde himself would have rolled his eyes at Mike Barker’s shallow effort to spiff up the play for transatlantic markets. It’s no wonder A Good Woman has moldered on Anglo-American shelves for close to three years. Barker shifts the action from Victorian England — where it belongs, as a scathing attack on haute-bourgeois ethics — to the irrelevantly picturesque Amalfi coast of Italy in the 1930s, where Helen Hunt (born for television sitcoms and buried under too much aging pancake) tries not to let Scarlett Johansson (born to play wantons, not prigs in floral frocks) know that she’s her long-lost mum, while gaily blackmailing Scarlett’s studly young stiff of a husband (Mark Umbers) into supporting her shopping budget. Stephen Campbell Moore is miserably out of his depth as the playboy trying to tempt Scarlett, leaving poor Tom Wilkinson to sound a lone note of sophisticated intelligence as the filthy-rich lord who understands that both romantic love and moral choice are more complicated and compromised than this sorry crew’s petty minds can encompass. (ArcLight; One Colorado; AMC Century City) (Ella Taylor)

GO PICK  MANDERLAY In the preface to Pauline Reage’s notorious 1953 erotica Histoire d’O, a supposedly true story is recounted: Upon being legally freed, a group of slaves on Barbados promptly ask their master to take them back and, when he refuses, brutally kill him, move back into their former quarters and resume their daily chores. From that inspiration, Lars von Trier has extrapolated his Manderlay, the second chapter in the director’s announced trilogy, “USA: Land of Opportunities.” Here, having laid waste to the denizens of Dogville, Grace (an adept Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over for Nicole Kidman), her father (Willem Dafoe) and their entourage of well-tailored G-men head south, stopping for a brief respite outside of the titular Alabama plantation where, it quickly becomes apparent, slavery is still in effect — some 70 years after abolition. Despite Daddy’s warning that sometimes it can be a dangerous thing to let a bird out of its cage, Grace employs a mixture of forthrightness and firepower to wrest Manderlay away from the clutches of its elderly matriarch (Lauren Bacall) and sets about a social experiment with distinctly contemporary geopolitical overtones. That is, she sets about bringing freedom to the heretofore oppressed, whether they want it or not. As the wise old house slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover) says to Grace, “America was not ready to welcome us Negroes as equals 70 years ago and it still ain’t, and the way things are goin’, it won’t be in a hundred years” — tough words that will do little to curb the accusations of anti-Americanism and moral superiority routinely hurled at Trier. But at a moment when the L.A. riots are barely a decade behind us, Bill Cosby gets raked over the coals for daring to suggest that his fellow African-Americans should lift themselves out of the ghetto, and the can’t-we-all-get-along platitudes of Crash pass as a canny pulse-taking of race in America, pardon me if I’m exhilarated by the boldness with which Trier hauls the musty skeletons out of our sociopolitical closet. Manderlay amounts to a public lynching of white America’s propensity for heal-the-world benevolence and a deeply troubled contemplation of black America’s residual “slave mentality.” It’s true, of course, that Trier still hasn’t set foot on U.S. soil, but it may be that he sees us, in all our virtue and victimhood, that much more clearly for it. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)


RANG DE BASANTI Already a cultural phenomenon in India, this reformist melodrama by Rakesh Omprakash Mehra (Aks) uses razor-sharp technique and an eavesdropper’s ear for dialogue to update the patriotic fervor of Bollywood’s golden age. Mehra seems to be trying to jump-start the idealism of the young movie audience and of the movie industry at the same time. Here, he’s devised a premise that is psychologically as well as rhetorically effective, as a group of slackers at Delhi University is hired by a British indie moviemaker (Alice Payton) to portray the heroes of the terrorist phase of the Indian independence movement. The students, whose ranks include superstar Aimer Khan (Lagan), go from rolling their eyes over the rebels’ heartfelt rhetoric to imitating those sentiments and then absorbing them into their bloodstream. Khan is at least a decade too old to play even a postgraduate hanger-on, but it’s hard to imagine anyone younger bringing as much wisdom to the role, the glimpses of desperation camouflaged by his seemingly cheerful aimlessness. Veteran character actor Atoll Kukri (Chanting Bar) is equally impressive as a Hindu fundamentalist fire-breather, stubborn and angry but not a fraud or a thug. The movie falters only toward the end: Mehra seems locked into a motif of literal-minded match-cuts between the past and the present, and in order to maintain it, he has the newly awakened youthful reformers adopt the violent methods of the revolutionaries — the first actions that seem to have been imposed on the characters by the moviemakers. Luckily, the fluidity and textured authenticity of the earlier Delhi U. sequences stay with us well beyond this programmatic conclusion. (Fallbrook 7) (David Chute)

SOMETHING NEW For a film that supposedly examines racial differences in fresh ways, it’s ironic how unoriginal Something New is. Black workaholic Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) insists she’s too busy for love, but nonetheless feels lonely on Valentine’s Day. Agreeing to a blind date, she meets Brian (Simon Baker), a sweet, sexy, charming landscaper who has only one critical flaw — he’s white. Deciding she’ll never see him again, she later runs into Brian at a party and, feeling guilty for brushing him off earlier, she hires him to redo her back yard. Because she’s high strung (and black) and he’s laid-back (and white), she initially resists his advances, but soon enough the two begin a tentative relationship. First-time director Sanaa Hamri can’t do much with first-time screenwriter Kriss Turner’s sitcom dialogue, and while none of the actors embarrass themselves — well, except for Alfre Woodard, who should be above playing shrill, disapproving mother characters — the film drifts through a comfortable miasma of predictable romantic complications and resolutions made only slightly more memorable because of the underlying questions about racial politics in the bedroom. There’s no denying that we still live in a world where interracial dating is frowned upon in some circles, but Something New never feels remotely like the world we live in — it’s a fabrication of a gauzy romantic-comedy movieland where people of all colors can be equally trite and dull. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

GO THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA Tommy Lee Jones’ thoroughly impressive big-screen directing debut, scripted by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), is an elegiac modern Western about the profound, but fleeting, friendship that develops between West Texas rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) and the eponymous, undocumented Mexican ranch hand (Julio Cesar Cedillo) who, soon after the film begins, turns up dead from a mysterious gunshot wound. As the title implies, Melquiades Estrada’s journey to his desired final resting place won’t be a peaceful one, and as he is successively exhumed and re-interred, Three Burials takes on some of the macabre absurdity of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The spirit of Peckinpah hangs over the film in other respects, too — in Jones’ and Arriaga’s affection for tequila and loose women and hard-driving men, and most of all in its funerary tone, in the way that by honoring his pledge to escort Mel’s corpse back to Mexico, Pete too seems to be coming home. Arriaga’s script progresses in nonlinear fashion, splintering off into multiple intersecting storylines that form a frieze of loneliness and human suffering. And as it closes in on its destination, the movie grows large with a sense of Mexico as the real last frontier, and of the lengths to which one man might go to honor the only thing in his life of any real value — his word. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada may not be a love story per se, but for my money it’s the most deeply affecting portrait of cowboy camaraderie to be found on movie screens this season. (Selected theaters) (Scott Foundas)


WHEN A STRANGER CALLSDirector Simon West’s remake of the 1979 thriller amounts to an assault of jarring music cues and peek-a-boo scares that starts off mechanical and ends up utterly desperate. The original film’s first act concerned a babysitter (Carol Kane) who, tormented by a sadistic anonymous caller, discovers that the threatening calls are coming from inside the house and narrowly escapes with her life. In the new version, the entire plot revolves around that memorable opening — since no one remembers what happened after that part anyway — gruelingly extending the sequence’s running time without adding much in terms of character or twists. Here, it’s blandly hot Jill (Camilla Belle) who’s spending the night in a rich couple’s impossibly opulent home in the middle of the Colorado forest when the heavy-breathing calls begin. But despite composer James Dooley’s overly caffeinated score, there’s no actual suspense — Stranger is one long tease that, instead of building tension around Jill’s efforts to outwit her mysterious stalker, instead has her run around the house, unsuccessfully calling every friend, cop and family member she knows, before she finally confronts her nemesis in one of those battle-to-the-death endings Scream perfectly parodied 10 years ago. While waiting for that predictable finale to arrive, our only consolations are architectural porn shots of the home’s exquisite interior — oh yeah, baby…check out that atrium…oh yeah — and our stray recollections of Belle’s superior performance as Daniel Day-Lewis’s burgeoning teenage daughter in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

THE WHITE HORSE IS DEAD Naya (Resmine Atis), 17, is a pretty wisp living alone in an isolated house with her overbearing mother, Giselle (Irena Stemer), and grappling with guilt and confusion over her father’s suicide. When, under absurdly contrived circumstances, Giselle hires handsome Vince (Andrew Welsh), fresh out of Lompoc, as a live-in yard man, it’s not long before the already fraught mother-daughter power struggle intensifies, and Vince is pruning trees without his shirt on, or spying on Naya as she affixes leeches to her naked body to have her pain sucked away. Part indie psychodrama, part Harlequin romance, The White Horse Is Dead is at its best when luxuriating in languid pacing, the better to take in the sweetness of Naya and Vince’s burgeoning romance, and the atmosphere of solitude and tedium (vaguely ill, Giselle spends her days in bed stroking her exotic pussycat) that both nurtures and threatens it. Writer-director Pete Red Sky has less of a talent for plot and dialogue, which come off as undercooked and, too frequently, silly. He creates some moments that are lovely and compelling on their own — Naya and Vince talk shyly on a garden bench in the dusk, and dance without music in Naya’s bedroom — but are haphazardly pieced together, as if Red Sky shot first and thought later. In doing so, he cheats his characters and his viewers out of a truly meaningful whole. (Monica 4-Plex) (Hazel-Dawn Dumpert)

GO THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN The Hollywood studios where Australian-born director Roger Donaldson has spent much of his career toiling away on competent but undistinguished assignments (The Recruit, Dante’s Peak, Species and the immortal Cocktail) would never have ponied up for this passion project about a determined old codger who ends up breaking the world’s land-speed record on a 1920s motorcycle. After all, the star is old enough to be shilling for Geritol, and the story doesn’t call for an avalanche of CG effects. So Donaldson made the movie independently, and the result is his best work in two decades — a warm, spacious road movie with a stirring sense of the wide-open landscapes of the American West. The World’s Fastest Indian — the title refers to the brand of motorcycle, not the ethnicity of its rider — tells the true story of Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), who in 1963 travels from his home in New Zealand’s southernmost city, via Los Angeles, to the annual “Speed Week” contest at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Along the way, he encounters a vibrant cross section of American dreamers and schemers, including a San Fernando Valley used-car salesman (Paul Rodriguez), a Native American apothecary, an amorous desert widow (Diane Ladd) and a GI on leave from Vietnam who assures Burt that “we should have this war done in six months or so.” Opportunities for schmaltz abound, but like his subject, Donaldson knows it’s always a good idea to place the center of gravity ahead of the center of pressure, which in moviemaking terms means opting for genuine feeling over cheap sentimentality. In one of the best performances of his career, Hopkins plays Munro as a simple man but not a simpleton, generous of spirit and single-minded in his pursuit, hoping against hope that if he travels fast enough, he might succeed at turning back the hands of time. (Selected theaters) (Scott Foundas)

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