AL FRANKEN: GOD SPOKE Early on in the documentary Al Franken: God Spoke, a Harvard undergrad asks the visiting Franken if he claims that there’s no such thing as left-wing propaganda. She’s the type of smug little wart everyone who goes to college encounters, playing at an ideological version of Stump the Band. Franken answers that it’s his job to point out and ridicule the lies spouted by the right wing. And when he calmly and devastatingly demonstrates the fallacy in Brit Hume’s claim that an American soldier in Iraq has the same chance of being killed as an average California citizen, or when he annotates the factual sleight of hand in Zell Miller’s claims of John Kerry being anti-defense, Franken does just what he claims. Throughout God Spoke, Franken comes off as passionate and funny, with an impressive ability to muster facts and an absence of smugness. His brand of liberalism, grounded in his middle-class Midwestern upbringing, seems just the sort that could renew liberalism’s once wide appeal. But that student’s smart-ass question is a fair one, and it’s just the one that God Spoke avoids as it follows Franken from the shaky inauguration of the Air America radio network to his fairly recent announcement that he’s thinking of moving back to Minnesota and running against Republican Senator Norm Coleman. Directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus and executive-produced by D.A. Pennebaker, the movie, with its dedication to cinéma vérité, is one more example that the technique is useless when examining questions of politics or history. Existing in the moment without inquiry or challenge, cinéma vérité fosters exactly the sort of refusal to think beyond the immediate that this film criticizes in right-wing dittoheads. Franken seems like too much of a good guy to be long satisfied with preaching to the choir on Air America. Having spent time in the back of cabs with their radios tuned to both Rush Limbaugh and Randi Rhodes, I can say that it doesn’t matter what the loudmouth haranguing you believes. Neither political discourse nor politics itself can withstand that sort of intellectual degradation and survive. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Charles Taylor)ALL THE KING'S MEN See film feature (Citywide)AURORA BOREALIS Because they apparently couldn’t wait until the next Ed Burns movie, first-time feature director James C.E. Burke and screenwriter Brent Boyd have conspired to give us their own cinematic paean to the comforts of home and the virtues of hanging out with “the guys” instead of going out into the world and making something of your life. In a nicely measured performance, Dawson’s Creek heartthrob Joshua Jackson plays the rudderless Duncan, who works as a handyman in a Minnesota apartment building and falls for the free-spirited nurse (sexy-kooky Juliette Lewis) who tends to his Parkinson’s-afflicted grandfather (scenery-inhaling Donald Sutherland). The legacy of a dead father looms large, thickly accented Midwesterners offer pearls of country wisdom that usually begin with “In my day…,” and the question of whether Duncan will follow his lady love out to the California coast fails to generate edge-of-your-seat suspense. Aurora Borealis — yes, that title eventually comes home to roost — doesn’t offend in any way, but it’s so self-consciously quaint, so unwaveringly “nice,” that you nearly wish it did. (Regent Showcase; Royal; One Colorado; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)
DARSHAN: THE EMBRACE The spiritual equivalent of those lightweight exotic-travel films popular at Disneyland and IMAX theaters, Darshan blandly introduces the Western world to Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma, a prominent Hindu guru famous for her charitable work, pacifist teachings and public appearances — which conclude with hugs for each of her adoring disciples. Director Jan Kounen’s documentary weaves an impressionistic, sometimes hypnotic spell, fluttering between Amma’s religious gatherings, impassioned testimonials from followers, and leisurely glides across India’s scenic beauty and harsh poverty. Though the film’s languid style does its best to mimic Amma’s placid, mystical demeanor, Darshan fails as an examination into the woman’s inner life — the few snippets of her on-camera interview are hardly illuminating. Intellectually, Kounen’s juxtaposition of scenes of Amma’s compassionate behavior and the disturbing images of Indian squalor (maggots devouring dead livestock) underscores the economic desperation of the flocks to which this spiritual shepherd offers strength and comfort. But by so blindly embracing Amma, Darshan treats her divinity as a given, and although Kounen includes long segments from her spiritual gatherings within the film, the footage never gives us a glimpse into why more than 25 million people across the globe have sought out “the hugging saint.” Unless you’re already a true believer, Amma comes across in Darshan as a perfect angel, a frustrating enigma and a rather dull cinematic subject. (Monica 4-Plex; Regency Academy) (Tim Grierson)
FEAST Feast isn’t the least bit artful, but it is gleefully gruesome, which may be all one can ask of a no-budget monster movie. As the film opens, a freaked-out stranger bursts into an isolated desert tavern to warn the dozen or so people inside that man-eating creatures, ones that may be from another planet, are heading their way. Viewers of the reality series Project Greenlight — that’s the one where Matt Damon and Ben Affleck choose a first-time director to film the screenplay of a novice writer — know that Feast is the long-shelved byproduct of the show’s final season, and that its endearingly timid director of choice, John Gulager, along with his harried crew, couldn’t decide what form their onscreen demons should take. That probably explains why they appear, at various points in the movie, to be horny gremlins, or the wayward progeny of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. They’re vicious, though, and while most of the action sequences are too dark and frenzied to track, Gulager and screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton have come up with some wittily nasty moments, such as the yanked-out-eyeball scene, and a creature-vs.-pissed-off-mom showdown that’s gooey and gross. They should premiere this movie at a Midwest drive-in. (Playhouse 7; Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)
FLYBOYS During World War I, a period of significantly better Franco-American relations than we enjoy today, a few hundred Yanks volunteered for service in the Lafayette Escadrille, the French fighter-pilot squadron that defended the Allied skies against German invasion. Their story is now an independently produced $60 million epic courtesy of producer Dean Devlin (Independence Day), and if Flyboys poses little threat to Hell’s Angels or The Dawn Patrol in the pantheon of WWI aerial actioners, it’s nevertheless a highly enjoyable programmer about those brave young men and their rickety flying machines. With its schematically diverse cast of characters — the farm boy (James Franco) who lost the farm, the no-nonsense captain (Jean Reno), the revered flying ace (Martin Henderson) — and gee-whiz dialogue (“You think there’ll be any future in flying after the war?”), there’s arguably more steaming ham and cheese on display here than in your average croque monsieur. But under the sure hand of director (and veteran pilot) Tony Bill, this unashamedly old-fashioned adventure yarn is infectiously earnest and stacked sky-high with the kind of details that will be nirvana for period-aviation buffs, from the primitive training methods employed to acquaint untested pilots with real flying conditions to the loving branding of cockpits with hand-painted insignias. Realized with a combination of vintage and replica aircraft, as well as elaborate CGI effects, the airborne sequences are duly awesome, if a tad monotonous. Ironically, the movie really takes off when it’s on the ground, especially in the unhurried romance between Franco and a comely French maiden (newcomer Jennifer Decker). They speak not a word of the same language, but like so many men and women who met each other on the battlefields, they nonetheless manage to find love in the time of war. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
PICK THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP In the latest tale of amour fou from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry, aspiring artist Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) returns to Paris from Mexico following the death of his father. After moving back into his childhood bedroom and landing a dead-end typesetting job, he becomes smitten with the quirky Stephanie (comely Charlotte Gainsbourg), who makes Stephane so nervous he can’t bring himself to tell her he’s her next-door neighbor, let alone that he loves her. As before, Gondry takes us deep into that dense gray matter between his protagonist’s ears, and the elaborate fantasy sequences that unfold there rival Sunshine for their freewheeling absurdist brio. Cardboard and toy-car cities spring to life; an anthropomorphic electric razor adds hair; kitchen-sink spigots unleash torrents of cellophane; and, in one ineffably lovely scene, Stephane and Stephanie go skiing down bedsheet mountains. Nobody at Lacuna Inc. is trying to vacuum out any of Stephane’s memories, mind you, but like Jim Carrey’s Joel Barish, Stephane finds it easier to express himself in his dream life, where he hosts his own TV show, than in his waking one, where his terror of grown-up romance frequently prompts a regression into ill-tempered adolescence. (In one scene, when Stephanie comments on her large hands, he responds that she must have a large penis.) At Sundance, where The Science of Sleep premiered, such antics struck more than a few critics as noxiously juvenile. As one who has himself been reduced to a puddle of pubescent ooze in the presence of many a beautiful woman, I’m more sympathetic. For the soul of Gondry’s work, it seems to me, is neither its soaring flights of visual fancy nor its sometimes crude slapstick, but rather its pained understanding of a generation hopelessly tongue-tied when it comes to matters of the heart. (Sunset 5; NuWilshire) (Scott Foundas)
ZEN NOIR Any hopes that Marc Rosenbush’s film might transcend its unimaginative title are dashed almost immediately, as manic fade-outs, fade-ins and overlays of portentous symbols give way to mannered dialogue and bad jokes. The thin plot involves a detective (Duane Sharp) who gets a tip about a murder at a Buddhist temple and goes to investigate. Nonsensically, we’ve already seen the “murder” — a monk falling over dead, without provocation, during meditation. The script tosses us a few red herrings before morphing into a didactic (and stultifying) lesson in spiritual enlightenment. Along the way, Zen Noir commits a few crimes of its own, against noir, Buddhism and filmmaking. For one: Sharp’s detective, a sweaty jumble of nerves, lacks even a twinge of allure; the actor stammers and stutters, indicating distress rather than acting it. Debra Miller, playing a female practitioner, fares better, but the weird and remote interplay between the two is speciously sold as romance. (“What’s a lay person?” “A person who can still get laid.”) It’s a long 71 minutes. (One Colorado; Westside Pavilion) (Melissa Levine)
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