GO 4 Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s first feature is an immediate attention grabber. A quartet of dogs lounge around a beautifully lit nighttime street when suddenly… War of the Worlds! Or rather, Midnight in Moscow: Anything can happen. This self-assured debut, directed from a script by Russian avant-garde novelist Vladimir Sorokin, continues its nocturne with a series of vaguely menacing non sequiturs. A guy views the flayed carcasses hanging in a meat locker; a tangle of warm bodies resolves itself into a stone-faced hooker extricating herself and taking off. Uncanny torpor carries over into a quieter sort of directorial tour de force. The hooker, the meat dealer and a skinhead ­piano tuner turn up around closing time at a bar and, after making small talk about dogs, regale each other with fantastic lies regarding their identities and occupations. A residue of drunken irrationality and the specter of genetic modification hang over the remainder of the movie. Although Khrzhanovsky has several tricks up his sleeve, 4’s most provocative quality is its ironic surplus of beauty. (Fairfax) (J. Hoberman)

In the decade since he won Sundance and scored a modest commercial hit with The Brothers McMullen, writer, director, actor and former Entertainment Tonight PA Ed Burns has churned out a series of thinly disguised retreads of his promising debut feature, to diminishing financial and artistic returns. In his latest, which makes a pit stop in theaters en route to the video store, Burns plays a Long Island newspaperman reunited with a gaggle of family and friends on the eve of his wedding. Myriad crises and displays of post-post-adolescent bad behavior ensue, from the underachieving cousin (Jay Mohr) who pines for his clearly disinterested ex to the disheveled older brother (Donal Logue) whose own marriage has hit the skids. For good measure, there’s also a long-absent childhood pal (John Leguizamo) whose admission of homosexuality is played by the film as though it were a Crying Game–style shocker. At the center of it all rests Burns, that unwavering avatar of red-blooded Irish-Catholic masculinity, dispensing sage lessons in dude-ology while wondering if he himself is really ready for “I do.” Fatally conventional in nearly every respect, the movie would be easy to dismiss were it not for Burns’ frustrating knack for inserting unexpectedly truthful moments amid all the dross. Midway through The Groomsmen, a happily married-with-children barkeep (Matthew Lillard) delivers a wise and lyrical monologue about the joys of fatherhood. There are also a number of affecting, well-played scenes mixed in with a great many others that make you wonder if Burns was paying any attention to the actors or knew what to say to them. So Burns remains an enigma: After six features, it’s still impossible to tell if he’s a filmmaker with something to say or merely one of the longest-running novelty acts in modern movies. (ArcLight; AMC Century City) (Scott Foundas)

I KNOW I’M NOT ALONE For two decades, Michael Franti has epitomized Bay Area granola rap — achingly sincere, power-to-the-people, politics-infused music — in his groups the Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, and as a solo artist. But there’s always been something stilted, affected at the center. The documentary I Know I’m Not Alone, which Franti produced, directed and provided music for, follows the dreadlocked raptivist as he travels to Baghdad, Israel and Palestinian homes on the West Bank to see for himself the human costs of war. The viewer is given familiar images of war-torn neighborhoods, talking heads that vent anger, sadness and desperation-fueled longing for Hussein, and unintentionally cringe-inducing moments from Franti. When a cabdriver warns Franti that he’d be a target for kidnappers or attack in certain areas, Franti channels his inner Bruce Willis and says in voice-over, “Despite the risk, I wanted to meet the locals.” Cut to just that. He strums his guitar and sings for families who, he admits, speak almost no English and can’t understand him, and their strained smiles for the camera make you squirm. To remedy the situation, Franti learns an Arabic word — habibi — which roughly means “most beloved friend,” and sings an entire song of just that word to a roomful of smiling Iraqis. His unreflective, narcissistic humanitarianism is straight out of an old SCTV skit. (Fairfax) (Ernest Hardy)

LITTLE MAN With its equal parts tasteless and hilarious assault on the hypocrisy
of Hamptons high society, the Wayans brothers’ white-faced farce White Chicks
was the most pleasurably guilty attraction of the summer 2004 movie
season. On paper, the new Wayans caper, about a diminutive jewel thief
(Marlon Wayans) masquerading as a newborn baby, sounds like a suitably
irreverent follow-up. But the surprise of Little Man is that it
turns out to be the last thing you’d expect (or want) from the
brothers: a bid for respectability. Well, maybe respectability is too
strong a term for a movie rife with dick jokes, hits to the groin and a
parade of the dumbest white people this side of a blaxploitation flick.
There’s no question, though, that the Wayanses have dialed down the
outrageousness to nearly sub-PG-13 levels, with the movie’s best gag
(involving the “baby”’s sexual prowess) taking place entirely
offscreen. The rest of the time, we’re subjected to some sub-Sopranos
antics about a mobster (Chazz Palminteri, slumming) who wants Wayans’
head on a plate and a series of missed comic opportunities involving
the childless couple (Shawn Wayans and Kerry Washington) who
unsuspectingly take the thief into their home. The sight of a
pint-sized Wayans — made possible by elaborate computer effects that
graft the actor’s face onto the body of a two-and-a-half-foot-tall
child actor — is indeed a hoot, but having accomplished that feat, the
movie (directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans, who co-wrote the script with
Shawn and Marlon) quickly runs dry of ideas. If only In Living Color were still on the air to serve up the inevitable Little Man parody: Now that would be worth the price of admission. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

MINI’S FIRST TIME Writer-director Nick Guthe’s debut feature has all the makings of a camp jailbait classic. Nikki Reed is Mini, a super-rich L.A. brat who signs up to be a high-class escort in an attempt to cure her afterschool ennui. Lo and behold, Mini’s first trick turns out to be her stepfather (an amusing Alec Baldwin). The two (naturally) become an item, and in between nauseating sex scenes, they plot to get Mini’s mom (Carrie-Ann Moss) out of the picture. In the hands of a lurid lion like John McNaughton (Wild Things, Speaking of Sex), this scenario could be late-nite cable gold, but Guthe doesn’t have the balls to take the story to the really tawdry places it could go — instead of following the characters’ pervy desires, he simply leads everyone to a contrived “gotcha” ending. As a director, Guthe wants to titillate (gratuitous shots of Reed’s barely legal behind) and moralize (Mini’s faux–Bret Easton Ellis voice-over narration), which leaves no room for the genuine thrills of watching well-toned rich people screw each other over. Mini is too tame for Skina-max and too inane to survive on the art-house circuit. It’s a pretentious erotic thriller that gives honest trash a bad name. (ArcLight; Mann Criterion; Playhouse 7; Sherman Oaks 5) (James C. Taylor)

ONCE IN A LIFETIME  See film feature

THE OH IN OHIO Cleveland marketer Priscilla Chase (Parker Posey) has never had an orgasm, despite the diligent efforts of her high-school-teacher husband, Jack (Paul Rudd). The Chases soon separate, and Priscilla begins sleeping around, only to discover that carnal bliss was always just a vibrator away. Although they have few insights into marriage, first-time director Billy Kent and screenwriter Adam Wierzbianski (pals since childhood) have fun tracking Priscilla’s and Jack’s adventures in singledom, including Jack’s affair with a student (Mischa Barton) and Priscilla’s two great romances, first with that dildo, and later with a widowed swimming-pool mogul (Danny DeVito, terrific). The film’s first half has several crassly funny set pieces, from Liza Minnelli’s cameo as a sex guru (“Liberate your labia!”) to Priscilla’s days-long first encounter with her magic cylinder — scenes that remind you of Posey’s comedic inventiveness. She’s Carol Burnett’s uncensored crazy cousin. Posey and Rudd are the real deal, so it’s almost sad when Priscilla and Jack are left hanging in the final act, their issues unresolved. It’s as if the filmmakers lost their nerve when it came time to write the kind of intimate, revealing conversation that can make a sex toy unnecessary. (Sunset 5; Westside Pavilion; One Colorado; Fallbrook 7) (Chuck Wilson)

YOU, ME AND DUPREE See film feature

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