BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE There’s no official rule that says werewolf movies have to be boring, but it doesn’t seem like anyone has tried particularly hard in a long, long time. Blood and Chocolate does nothing to buck the trend. Looking as bored as the viewer is likely to feel, Agnes Bruckner goes through the motions as Vivian, a Hungarian-American werewolf in Bucharest who inexplicably falls for a dumb-ass comic book artist named Aiden (Hugh Dancy, who looks more like a boy-band refugee than your typical geek). The head werewolf (Olivier Martinez) lives in an absinthe factory. The beastly transformations are accomplished via circa-1980 camera dissolves. And there are multiple pathetic attempts at faking martial-art-du-jour parkour. At one point, Aiden says to Vivian, “If you cared a goddamn thing about me, you’d have left me before we ever met!” By the same logic, dear reader, if you care a goddamn thing about your evening’s entertainment, you’ll walk out of this howler before you ever buy a ticket. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
CAN MR. SMITH GET TO WASHINGTON ANYMORE? The contested 2000 presidential outcome still casts a long shadow across our political landscape, causing many Americans (especially moviegoing liberals) to view one of the key components of our country’s democracy — its ability to carry out free elections — with increasing suspicion. Can Mr. Smith, like the equally engaging Street Fight before it, taps into that national anxiety, focusing on the 2004 Missouri Democratic primary, when Jeff Smith, an unknown 29-year-old college instructor, battled Russ Carnahan, the lackluster son of the state’s most powerful political family, for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. If you’re familiar with Street Fight or The War Room, then the structure of director/editor/cinematographer Frank Popper’s film may cause cinematic déjà vu: Again we watch a bright young candidate and his campaign team develop from green outsiders into dogged warriors, squaring off against a heavily favored rival in a battle that culminates in a dramatic Election Day finale. But while the scenario is familiar, the film really finds its footing when showing Smith’s maturation on the stump. For all its rah-rah David-vs.-Goliath populism, Can Mr. Smith understands that even an uncorrupted outsider like Smith must master the art of campaign gamesmanship to be successful, and marvels at how an acutely likable, principled everyman with a slight lisp and short stature grows into a worthy contender in front of our eyes. Both the documentary and the candidate lose their naiveté along the way without abandoning the idealism that inspired the endeavor in the first place. (Grande 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)
CONSTELLATION Depictions of upper-middle-class African-American life are such a rare screen commodity that one wants to give a movie like Constellation every possible benefit of the doubt. Written and directed by Jordan Walker-Pearlman (whose promising 2000 debut feature, The Visit, starred several of the same actors), the film leapfrogs between present-day Huntsville, Alabama, and a time 50 years earlier, when segregation laws tore a beautiful young black woman (Gabrielle Union) from the white soldier she loved. Now that woman is dead, about to be buried, and as her extended family — an emotionally withdrawn artist brother (Billy Dee Williams), his ex-wife (Lesley Ann Warren) and their two daughters (Melissa De Sousa and Zoe Saldana) — gather for the funeral, it’s as if she is guiding them from beyond the grave to find peace, love and understanding in their own troubled relationships. Constellation (which was filmed in 2004 and played festivals in 2005) positions itself as a sweeping, multigenerational tearjerker in the style of The Notebook, complete with endless shots of two characters staring meaningfully at one another while gloppy music wells on the soundtrack. Only Williams, however, makes any real emotional connection: I’m not sure I’d call his performance good, but there’s something fascinating about seeing the man once heralded as “the black Clark Gable” three decades removed from heartthrob status, heavy and sullen-looking, weighed down by the burdens of time and age. (Magic Johnson 15; South Bay Galleria 16) (Scott Foundas)
EPIC MOVIE The speeds of sound and light remain constants, but the speed of crap accelerates like a rocket luge on Crisco Mountain. Seriously, the daddy of the (blank)-movie genre, 1980’s Airplane!, stocked its pop-culture arsenal with references to 1957’s Zero Hour, 1970’s Airport and 1975’s Jaws. By contrast, this ostensible parody of big-budget adventures (specifically, The Chronicles of Narnia) reaches all the way back to last May’s The Da Vinci Code, July’s Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and October’s Borat. (Borat?!) Just like the filmmakers’ previous Date Movie, this feeble fast-buck shitbomb is an amateur-hour game of Spot That Reference, intended for people who crack up simply at the mention of anything topical — sudoku, “Lazy Sunday,” Cribs. Which means that by the time this dud drops on Netflix, it’ll be as obsolete as a Chia Pet joke book. The only bright spot: Darrell Hammond’s spot-on demolition of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, uncanny right down to his swashbuckling dying gesture. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
THE MESSENGERS Oh boy — a shocker set against the terrifying backdrop of North Dakota sunflower farming! Get ready for the ultimate in helianthus horror as a Chicago couple (Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller, no threat to Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor), their troubled teen daughter (Kristen Stewart) and mute 3-year-old son stake their future on a haunted farmhouse, where apparitions bedevil the kids but leave the disbelieving parents alone. The second lousy horror movie in a month (after The Hitcher) to reference Hitchcock’s The Birds, the film is credited to Bangkok/Hong Kong filmmakers Danny and Oxide Pang (The Eye), with reported reshoots by Eduardo Rodriguez (Curandero). But the end result looks heavily doctored: The Sam Raimi-produced feature is a badly acted, nonsensical patchwork of fake scares, crow attacks and wall-crawling CGI spooks, capped by a DVD extra of an ending that must have the real resolution gagged somewhere in a closet. At least The Messengers can claim two dubious cinematic records: the fastest-growing field of sunflowers in movie history, and the quickest recovery from a pitchfork impalement. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
SALAAM-E-ISHQ: A SALUTE TO LOVE Writer-director Nikhil Advani (Kal Ho Naa Ho) cuts with crisp elegance between six passionate love stories in this master-class, South Asian extreme version of a tear-streaked Bollywood music drama. The nominal leads, Priyanka Chopra and Salman Khan, are as sleek and sexy as they’ve ever been (which is saying a lot) in the screwball-comedy anchor plot about a spoiled Mumbai movie star and the mysterious stranger who is pursuing her. The playfulness of that storyline frees the movie to track some much darker emotions in the various subplots, the most engaging of which feature the deep-welled ’80s leading man Anil Kapoor (1942: A Love Story) as a catatonically depressed London TV producer contemplating an affair; heartthrob John Abraham (Water) as a devastated husband nursing his wife after an accident; and comedy star Govinda (Coolie No. 1) as a motor-mouth Delhi tax driver whose faith in romance is rewarded by the seemingly magical appearance of the leggy blond foreign woman of his dreams. With so many chances to burrow under our defenses, Salaam-e-Ishq should be a delirious wallow, but it isn’t quite, although the musical sequences in particular evoke an impressive variety of moods. The celebratory air of a midfilm production number in which the protagonists of all six stories, in as many different locations, sing and dance to the soaring title tune, contrasts sharply with a later interlude in which the affairs all hit a bad patch and the music becomes a wailed prayer: “Oh God, is this love or punishment?” In a Bollywood movie, scenes like these aren’t one-off stunts, as they can be in American movies such as Magnolia. Here, they express a deep-rooted sense that all these lovers, and many more besides, are all dancing to the same cosmic tune. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8; Laguna Hills 3) (David Chute)
TRAFFIC SIGNAL A skillfully woven multi-character drama, Traffic Signal is a methodical depiction of a stratified alternative society cobbled together by the group of Bombay street people who congregate around the towering signal post in the center of a busy four-way intersection. Everyone who subsists there, from the fake beggars to the strutting con artists to the prostitutes (male and female) who take over after dark, seems to have a role to play, and so this microcosmic society looks surprisingly self-sufficient—until, inevitably, its “internal contradictions” are exposed. The director and co-screenwriter, Madhur Bhandarkar, has become one of the leading lights of off-Bollywood “parallel cinema” for his films that anatomize various clearly defined sub-cultures: taxi dancer night clubs in Chandni Bar (2001), gossip rags in Page 3 (2005), corrupt multi-nationals in Corporate (2006). Although his staging is often flat-footed and graceless, Bhandarkar has impeccably correct politics, and the intricate, switchbacks construction of his stories can be engrossing. Traffic Signal is his most enjoyable film so far, largely because its uninhibitedly profane characters are more fun to watch than a bunch of buttoned-down bourgeois back-stabbers. Bhandarkar also allows himself a few more moments than usual of heart-tugging, crowd-pleasing melodrama. Silsila, the “manager” of this intersection — the guy who collects protection money and arranges lucrative traffic jams — is played by former child actor Kunal Khemu, who at thirteen was Aamir Khan’s aspiring tough guy sidekick in Raja Hindustani (1996). With his flashing eyes and artfully shaggy hair, Silsila is obviously a romanticized movie version of a sidewalk scam artist, plunked down in a cluttered neo-realist environment. But when his eyes meet those of a willowy, wide-eyed peddler named Rani (Neetu Chandra) and his gift of gab suddenly deserts him, you may not care. Pushed a few steps further, this love story in the midst of squalor could have made a fine Puccini opera. (Naz 8) (David Chute)
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