CORKED! With their loose-limbed naturalness and improvisational flair, the best mockumentaries, from The Office to This Is Spinal Tap, feel so effortless that they create the false impression that anybody can do it. Sadly, too many indie filmmakers take the bait, with the latest victim being Corked!, a lightly amusing but entirely too flimsy satire of the Sonoma County wine scene. Written and directed by Ross Clendenen and Paul Hawley, Corked! doesn’t tell a story so much as it strings together a lightly connected series of bits concerning typical mockumentary characters: the uptight snob riddled with insecurities (Clendenen); the arrogant and clueless blowhard marketing whizzes (Ben Tolpin and Rob Reinis); and, for the Reno 911! crowd, a mentally disturbed cop (Martina Finch) drunk on her own power. Due to its episodic nature, Corked! resembles a lot of comedy albums where part of the fun comes from the anticipation of finding out if the next segment is brilliant or truly dreadful. But with Corked!, you can’t just fast-forward to the next funny sequence, and since this movie’s success rate is only about 30 percent, you’re left with a lot of stretches that are far from effortless to sit through. (Downtown Independent Theater) (Tim Grierson)
THE COUNTRY TEACHER The solemn new addition to the tiny elementary school faculty in a rural Czech outpost gets off to a heavily symbolic start by turning his pupils on to the glorious diversity of nature — a measure not just of how badly he needs to leap out of the closet but what an open book this movie will be. Given the baby steps currently being taken into gay-themed cinema in Central and Eastern Europe, one wants to look kindly on any movie that won Best Queer Film at the Reykjavik Film Festival last year. And there’s something undeniably fresh about a coming-out story set among animals a-borning and flowers a-blooming rather than a gay bar with support from wisecracking drag queens. But this sweetly ingenuous film, written and directed by Bohdan Sláma, is a lot less sentimental about cows and flowers than it is about its human protagonists, who fall dominolike in love with churls who won’t love them back. Zuzana Bydzovská is very good as the mother of a sullenly beautiful boy with whom the teacher falls in love, but Pavel Liska plays the hapless pedagogue with a long-faced saintliness that leads us to hope in vain for situation comedy. Instead, following one truly risky scene, we get more natural rebirth, and the damp discovery that romantic love may be for the birds, but people will always need people. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)
DOWNLOADING NANCY “Life is like being trapped in the wrong house, looking for a way out,” says Nancy (an excruciatingly believable Maria Bello) in this film’s first moments. A stranger she’s met in an s/m chat room, named Louis “Deep Pain” Farley (Jason Patric), has promised Nancy the torture-’n’-sex release she yearns for, so off she goes to her fate, leaving her clueless husband of 15 years (Rufus Sewell) a note saying that she’s staying with friends, and abandoning viewers to the brutal, agonizing transactions between the film’s three main characters. Nancy’s overriding resolve dominates this story: Nothing will get in the way of her dream death — neither the love she and Louis come to share, nor his attempts to abandon their arrangement. Downloading Nancy is a triumph for the actors, particularly Bello; the harsh lighting, handheld camera, and schizoid electronic soundtrack sink us further into a sense of vertigo and despair. But the jump cuts and nonlinear narrative are gratuitously stylish, and when you peel away this film’s complex performances, at the core of its drawn-out suicide spectacle is pain so extreme, so alienating, and, in the end, so pointless. (Sunset 5) (Elena Oumano)
LAND OF THE LOST Notwithstanding all the boomer studio executives who grow misty-eyed recollecting nerdy childhoods parked in front of the Krofft brothers’ television creation, it’s hard to think of a compelling reason to remake the popular 1970s sci-fi adventure show for the big screen. Brad Silberling’s amiable big puppy of an update has Will Ferrell running at half-speed as an insecure, has-been paleontologist who finds himself lost in time and space with the usual nebbishy Wizard of Oz sidekicks — charming Anna Friel as his fearless assistant, a very funny Danny McBride as a trailer-trash survivalist, and Jorma Taccone as an oversexed Neanderthal. All the while, weird creatures with manga eyes try to get their scaly claws on a time-traveling gizmo that plays gay show tunes far too often to sustain the joke. Like so many nominally child-oriented movies these days, Land of the Lost gets its knickers in such a twist trying to curry favor with several demographics at once — gross-out gags for the nippers, scary dinosaurs for the pimply boys, and a modicum of wit to keep parental bums in seats — that it ends up sagging into a pleasantly undistinguished pudding. The big news is that Matt Lauer, playing himself, can act. A little. Hardly at all, really. But he’s a jolly good sport, and quite handy with a fire extinguisher. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)
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MY LIFE IN RUINS Substitute “career” for “life” in the title of this stillborn travelogue comedy, and you’ll have a succinct verdict on My Big Fat Greek Wedding writer-star Nia Vardalos, whose efforts to prove herself more than a one-megahit wonder have been greeted by audiences with an apathy previously reserved for the post–Crocodile Dundee oeuvre of Paul Hogan (see the short-lived 2003 sitcom My Big Fat Greek Life and the even shorter-lived 2004 drag-queen farce Connie and Carla). Here, in the opening salvo of her double-barreled 2009 comeback bid — the Vardalos-scripted and -directed I Hate Valentine’s Day is set to follow in July — the Greek-Canadian comedienne once more tries to parlay her Hellenic pride into box-office gold, starring as an unemployed history professor reduced to working as an Athenian tour guide. The result, written by The Simpsons alum Mike Reiss and directed (in a manner of speaking) by Grumpy Old Men’s Donald Petrie, is a strangely self-loathing affair that paints Vardalos’ tour group as a uniformly ill-mannered, culturally illiterate bunch, while rendering Greece itself as a badly plumbed Third World hellhole run by lazy, Zorba-dancing louts. The requisite ugly Americans are here, as well as the beer-guzzling Aussies and one wizened, Viagra-popping widower (Richard Dreyfuss, really slumming it). But then, what did you expect from a movie with characters named Poupi and Doudi Kakas? (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
GO PRESSURE COOKER Wilma Stephenson runs her high school culinary-arts class like a Marine sergeant: She’s loud, cranky and prone to threatening bodily harm. Stephenson, a central figure in co-directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker’s likable, straightforward Pressure Cooker, is a slacker’s nightmare and a nerd’s masochistic dream. For her students at a northeastern Philadelphia school, she might also be their ticket out of stifling homes and a dead-end neighborhood. Pressure Cooker focuses on three seniors taking Stephenson’s class to prepare for the Culinary Institute of America’s scholarship competition: Fatoumata, a recent immigrant from Africa, who longs to escape her oppressive father; Tyree, a football player hoping to secure a future not only for himself but his single mom; and Erica, a young woman who, after a lifetime of caring for her blind sister, has decided to get hers. The intersection of food and identity is briefly explored, and the prep/exam sequences have a tension and charm that keeps the film moving toward its literally rewarding climax. Stephenson looms largest as a reminder of what the right teacher can mean to a kid looking for a way out; it takes a strong woman and a special grace to not only let her protégés go, year after year, but also to practically shove them out the door. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Michelle Orange)
SERAPHINE Martin Provost’s lyrical but bracing portrait of the early–20th-century French painter Séraphine Louis begins and ends with a quietly ecstatic shot of the artist nestling up to the rustling leaves of a majestic tree. In Provost’s vision, the dirt-poor country housekeeper’s elemental flower paintings, derided by her bourgeois neighbors, are powered by her love of nature, the direct line she believes she has to the Virgin Mary, and the support of Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German collector whose floors Séraphine scrubs with the same fervor she brings to collecting chicken blood to mix her own brand of red paint. If Séraphine’s untutored primitivism is a romance imposed by the filmmaker — in real life, she sat in on art classes for young ladies in Paris — it’s a compelling one that seduced an adoring French public and earned the movie seven Césars, including a well-deserved Best Actress award for Yolande Moreau. The actress brings a potent restraint to this beady-eyed, unkempt and all-but-feral outcast who seethes with inner struggle between strength and appalling vulnerability. Séraphine’s dependence on her patron — a cultivated but emotionally detached homosexual, who knew a fellow outsider when he saw one but came and went in her life without warning — is almost as unbearably moving as her inevitable unraveling, when money and fame cut the artist off from her creative wellsprings and drove her over the edge. (Landmark; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)
THROW DOWN YOUR HEART It was The Beverly Hillbillies (or rather, bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs strumming its theme song) that first drew 11-time Grammy-winning banjo sensation Béla Fleck to his musical weapon of choice — which, contrary to what most believe, didn’t originate in the pig-squealing backwoods of Appalachia. On a heartfelt personal and cultural mission, Fleck financed a five-week trip to Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and Mali to revisit the banjo’s actual African roots and place those five strings back in a more historically accurate context. Along with his audio engineer, Dave Sinko, and his half-brother, Sascha Paladino, — who directs this concert doc-cum-travelogue — Fleck meets and collaborates with locals, from a Ugandan village’s only female thumb-piano player and blind multi-instrumentalist Anania Ngoliga to Malian superstar Oumou Sangaré. All the jams are fabulously stirring but not sappy, especially when Fleck duels with a Gambian man on a three-string akonting (forefather to the banjo), but there’s nothing more to the film, as if Paul Simon took us behind the scenes of recording Graceland. It’s refreshing to see a doc in Africa that’s not about the heartbreak of HIV and genocide, but setting the bar low means the film could also have been a whole lot shorter. (Music Hall) (Aaron Hillis)