BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON The postmodern trend of self-reflexive horror movies � itself a clich� by now �� comes back to haunt us with this engaging and surprisingly clever entry about an aspiring psycho killer in the Jason Voorhees/Michael Myers mold who tells all to a TV newsmagazine crew in the days leading up to his planned assault on a posse of hormonal teenagers at (where else?) an abandoned farmhouse. If Scream sought to explain the rules of the slasher game, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon attempts to demystify the tricks of the trade, as its eponymous stalker (Nathan Baesel) explains just how those in his �profession� manage to make doors slam mysteriously shut, cause fuse boxes to blow at opportune moments, and sprint across great distances while appearing to move very, very slowly. And since no horror-movie bogeyman would be complete without a tireless archnemesis, or �Ahab,� Vernon gets one in the form of beleaguered psychiatrist Doc Halloran (played by Nightmare on Elm Street star Robert Englund, in an affectionate nod to Donald Pleasance�s familiar Halloween persona). Studded with similar in-jokes for the fan-boy crowd, this debut feature for writer-director Scott Glosserman and co-writer David J. Stieve verges on the twee and overly self-conscious at times, especially when Vernon takes to lecturing his media observers about the genre�s Freudian symbology. But at its best, Behind the Mask offers some, um, cutting insights about mass-media blood lust and the cult of the serial killer, and in Baesel, who is by turns charming, manic and thoroughly scary, it has a gifted young actor who clearly relishes a role he can sink his pitchfork into. (Los Feliz 3; Sunset 5) (Scott Foundas) See film feature

BEYOND THE GATES See film feature

CAFFEINE �Maybe you can help solve a mystery,� echoed Robert Stack�s immortal words at the end of each episode of the 1980s reality-TV phenom Unsolved Mysteries. But it would take a regular Sherlock Holmes to figure out what possessed Emmy-nominated Mysteries creator John Cosgrove (whose r�sum� also includes small-screen documentaries on subjects ranging from teen pregnancy to gun control) to try his hand at this overly antic coffeehouse comedy. Shot on a Santa Clarita sound stage but set inexplicably in London, Caffeine unfolds over the course of one eventful day at the Black Cat Cafe, where the manager (Marsha Thomason) has just kicked her cheating boyfriend (who also happens to be the chef) to the curb, a demented old granny keeps mistaking patrons for her cross-dressing husband, and a couple of stoner dudes (Andrew Lee Potts and Mike Vogel) try to curry favor with a Tolstoy-reading porn star (the strapping Sonya Walger). And then there�s Grey�s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl � probably the only reason the movie is getting any kind of distribution �� as a lovelorn young woman on a blind date with a steroidal cockney loudmouth who propositions sex by pointing excitedly at his trousers and announcing, �Never �ad any complaints.� Cosgrove and screenwriter Dean Craig aim for the kind of close-quarters chaos that John Cleese and Connie Booth turned into high comic art on Fawlty Towers, but Caffeine�s roundelay of sophomoric urination, masturbation and pedophilia gags isn�t half as funny as the atrocious British accents of the largely American cast (including waiters Mena Suvari and Mark Pellegrino) or the endlessly recycled exterior shot of a double-decker bus passing by. Bloody hell, indeed! (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Scott Foundas)

DEAD SILENCE was not screened in advance of our print deadline, but a review will appear here soon. (Citywide)

FIRED! Woody Allen canned actress Annabelle Gurwitch from his 2003 play, Writer�s Block, with a dressing-down so traumatic that it sent her reeling right into the arms of a book contract (Fired!), a stage play (Fired!), and now Fired! the movie, in which the camera-hungry Gurwitch (with co-directors Chris Bradley and Kyle LaBrache) succeeds in assembling the best kind of pity party � one where all the revelers are sharp, funny and finally successful enough not to give a shit about their past job woes. (Gurwitch solicits confessions from celebrity friends, including Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick and David Cross, but the highlight is Tate Donovan�s puppet-show reenactment of being replaced by Matthew Broderick in Torch Song Trilogy.) Too bad Gurwitch�s attempt to extend her neurotic hobbyhorse into a survey of the American job market � including a trip to a GM plant in Lansing, Michigan � smacks of disingenuous slumming. (Grande 4-Plex; Monica 4-Plex) (Michelle Orange)

I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE From the makers of Pootie Tang, one the greatest movies ever made, comes I Think I Love My Wife, the most unlikely remake in the history of cinema. Director, co-writer and star Chris Rock claims his comedy is an update of Chloe in the Afternoon, the concluding opus in Eric Rohmer�s famous suite of �Moral Tales.� None of the froggy nuance and mise en sc�ne nonsense here; Rock appears to have been inspired by the opportunity Chloe affords for unloading bitter chauvinism and venting hostility. The moral of this tale is that when women aren�t sexless, boring and safe (i.e., wives), they�re horny, fun and frightening. Rock plays Richard, an über-buppie investment banker whose mellow Westchester domesticity is upended by the arrival of Nikki (Kerry Washington), a flirtatious fox from his past. Co-written by Pootie director Louis C.K., the plot wonders if Dick can resist while offering just a touch of that old crazed, incongruous, sah-dah-tay je ne sais quoi (notably in an elevator meltdown scene that rivals the bare-assed squirm from Borat). Rock capably directs a screenplay graced with one or two chuckles (�You stare at a soccer mom too long and they�ll post your name on the Internet�) and soured by a whole lot of misogyny. (Citywide) (Nathan Lee)


MY BROTHER Further evidence of the distressing state of African-American cinema, this torpid, independently made urban melodrama follows aspiring standup comic Isaiah (Nashawn Kearse) as he takes a job �moving packages� for some shady Middle Easterners in an ill-advised effort to make a better life for himself and his developmentally disabled brother (Christopher Scott). As the shit hits the fan and Isaiah finds himself on the run from shadowy men who want to bust his kneecaps, My Brother flashes back to show us how both boys came of age on the streets of New York � first under the care of their TB-stricken mother (Vanessa Williams) and, later, as wards of the worst state-run institutions this side of One Flew Over the Cuckoo�s Nest. When he isn�t trafficking in that risible old notion that a black man�s only hope of movin�-on-up in America is by turning to a life of crime, writer-director Anthony Lover (not surprisingly, a vet of ABC afterschool specials) takes such a kid-gloves approach to his handicapped star that he achieves the opposite of the intended effect: Every time Scott enters a scene, it�s as if someone just told the entire cast, �Whatever you do, don�t say �retard.� � (AMC Magic Johnson Theatres) (Scott Foundas)

NOMAD: THE WARRIOR Centuries before Sacha Baron Cohen elevated Kazakhstan to a destination on the Great Silk Road, the Eurasian territory was inhabited by nomadic tribes whose refusal to band together left them vulnerable to marauding invaders. In the early 1700s, the biggest and baddest of the plundering hordes were the Jungars. This sweeping historical drama follows the rough outlines of Kazakh history in presenting the tale of Ablai Khan, who unified the feuding societies just in time to beat back the Jungars. Wide-screen cinematography captures the austere beauty of the semiarid, windswept steppes, the costumes and horseback riding are impressively authentic-looking, and the cast of B-picture, handsome Western actors � Mexico�s Kuno Becker and Americans Jay Hernandez and Jason Scott Lee � convey appropriate stoicism, though not much real emotion. With a commendable sincerity but also an unfortunate Hollywood veneer, Nomad is a poor man�s Gladiator. (Music Hall; One Colorado; South Bay Galleria 16) (Jean Oppenheimer)

PREMONITION Barely a year after she sent love letters to a paramour in a really different time zone in The Lake House, Sandra Bullock toys once more with the laws of physics in this hackneyed supernatural thriller that plays like a cross between a Lifetime network spinoff of Final Destination and the infamous Bobby-in-the-shower episode of Dallas. Clearly itching to show us that Miss Congeniality has a dark, brooding side, Bullock here plays a seemingly well-adjusted suburban wife and mom who answers a knock at the door and finds out that her husband (Julian McMahon) has been killed in a car crash on his way home from a business trip. But when Bullock wakes up the next morning, hubby is alive and well and hasn�t even left town yet. Then, the morning after that, it�s back to planning the funeral arrangements �� oh, and figuring out why her daughter suddenly has mysterious scars all over her face, and who that mystery blonde is who keeps lurking in the shadows. As generic as its title, Premonition continues to toggle between the A-side and B-side of Bullock�s fractured life, while she makes some predictably unsavory discoveries about her husband and is ultimately forced to decide whether she should let her beloved meet his grisly end or attempt to thwart the course of fate. The moral complexities inherent in that scenario � which may be the strangest metaphor for female empowerment ever to grace the screen � are well beyond what German-born director Mennan Yapo and screenwriter Bill Kelly are prepared to deal with. They only want us to play that tiresome guessing game: Is it all a dream or is it really happening? Instead, you may find yourself asking: Is this cinema or merely Cinemax? (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)


TORTILLA HEAVEN God loves all his children, including the imbeciles who make up Falf�rrias, New Mexico, the fictional small town that provides the setting for director Judy Hecht Dumontet�s clumsy family comedy. Cut off from the highway, and thus civilization, Falf�rrias� community of 73 Mexican and Native American residents lead a quiet religious life � everybody prays all the time � until Isidor (Jos� Z��iga), the owner of the town�s only restaurant, discovers Jesus� face on one of his tortillas. Quickly thereafter, miracles start popping up all over town, zealous neighbors demand to gaze at the holy tortilla, and Gil (Miguel Sandoval), an out-of-town charlatan, arrives to fill Isidor�s head with visions of merchandising rights. If it was simply a jokey commentary on the dangers of greed and religious fervor, Tortilla Heaven would be forgivable. But Hecht Dumontet deserves special derision for her hypocritical condescension toward Falf�rrias� simple-folk caricatures, rendering them as God-fearing dolts worthy of scorn until the patronizing finale, which tries for a spiritual uplift that�s as disingenuous as it is incompetently executed. As a director, she encourages copious mugging, which is particularly galling when a low-budget film manages to wrangle talents like Sandoval and Lupe Ontiveros and then gives them only bad physical comedy to work with. The press notes trumpet the film�s hiring of real Mexicans and Native Americans to provide an authenticity often missing from mainstream films about the region. After sitting through Tortilla Heaven, these two groups will probably wonder what they ever did to deserve such �authenticity.� (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)


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