BABY MAMA Could have sworn I’ve seen this episode of Baby Mama before — like sometime in January 2007, when it was originally titled “The Baby Show” and aired on that other prime-time series starring Tina Fey, 30 Rock. (Wait a minute — you say Baby Mama’s a movie and not a TV show? Seriously? Coulda sworn …) It was funny the first time around when Fey, as late-night-TV exec Liz Lemon, suddenly found herself drawn to the sound of cooing and the scent of baby powder. Baby Mama extends the joke, then softens it, then smothers it in its crib — an unpleasant picture perhaps but not any more disagreeable than the phrase “Produced by Lorne Michaels.” Ultimately, that’s all this shrugging disappointment is: a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched a good hour past the point of no return. It even pairs Fey with her former “Weekend Update” co-anchor Amy Poehler, who shows up as mercenary womb-provider Angie, a character that is really just Amy Poehler barely trying to maintain a hillbilly accent. Ultimately, the movie exists solely to reunite a winning comic duo: two women so singularly in sync that, during their “Weekend Update” stint, they genuinely laughed at each other’s jokes despite their well-rehearsed familiarity come showtime. Kate and Angie are just Tina and Amy goofing around — drunk-dancing, crooning along to video-game karaoke and, once more, finishing each other’s sentences. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 

GO  BLIND MOUNTAIN Li Yang’s follow-up to his 2003 Blind Shaft (a shockingly direct account of greed and murder in China’s illegal coal mines) exhibits a similar documentary subtext and “blind” narrative force, detailing the spectacle of a spirited, pretty college student (Huang Lu) abducted and sold as a bride to a troglodyte husband, then held as a virtual prisoner in a remote Shanxi village. “This can’t be happening,” Xuemei wails, waking from a drugged sleep to find her duplicitous traveling companions gone and her ID vanished, leaving the viewer to ponder the enormity of losing one’s identity in China — a land where government authority appears helpless and bad luck rules. Blind Mountain forces its way through numerous illogicalities and several plot lapses to a shockingly abrupt ending that brought down the house at the movie’s Cannes Film Festival press screening last May. Although Li evidently made a number of cuts before Blind Mountain’s international premiere, the movie manages to land its share of eye-blackening blows. Rural medics are seen demanding payment up-front before attending to a dying patient. The ruggedly beautiful, indifferent landscape cares more about Xuemei’s plight than do the police. The point is made: Although the movie is strategically set in the early ’90s, slavery has hardly been eradicated in China. (Grande 4-Plex) (J. Hoberman)

 

GO  BODY OF WAR Co-directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue — yes, that Phil Donahue — Body of War is neither the most cinematic nor the most elegantly crafted of recent Iraq war documentaries, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most deeply affecting. Where Spiro and Donahue triumph is in putting a human face on the war — namely, that of U.S. Army Specialist Tomas Young, a patriotic Kansas City youth who was shot through the collarbone and paralyzed from the chest down after less than a week on the ground in Baghdad. Unambiguously angry and direct in an old-fashioned protest-movie way (complete with original, Phil Ochs–ian anthems composed and performed by Eddie Vedder), Body of War follows Young’s bittersweet homecoming, his adjustment to life in a wheelchair, his conversion into an antiwar activist and the gradual collapse of his marriage. But the most devastating scenes in the film are arguably Spiro and Donahue’s found-footage flashbacks to the 2002 debates in both houses of Congress leading up to the authorization of war — eerily sound-alike sound bites that turn Body of War into the latest uncredited Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)

 

GO  CONSTANTINE’S SWORD X marks the spot, literally, where Christianity and the Catholic Church fostered the centuries of religious hatred and anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. So argues James Carroll in his 2001 book Constantine’s Sword and in this searching, intellectually lively documentary. Carroll, the former priest turned National Book Award–winning novelist, journalist and memoirist, claims the die was cast in the year 312, when Constantine I claimed his decisive Roman victory under the sign of the labarum. Once the cross displaced life-giving emblems (shepherds, fish) as the symbol of Christianity, the religion made Christ’s death its rallying point — providing a handy weapon against the fingered murderers, Europe’s thriving Jews. How long could the damage linger? Fast-forward almost two millennia to the U.S. Air Force Academy in the evangelical hotbed of Colorado Springs, where Jewish cadets face thousands of brass-sanctioned fliers for The Passion of the Christ and insistent proselytizing. Journeying from Colorado to Rome to Auschwitz with his own tangled father-son military history as a running thread (and director Oren Jacoby heightening the tone of moral imperative), Carroll runs the risk of conducting a Gray Line whirlwind tour of religious intolerance. But if his film is more provocative personal inquiry than reportorial knockout punch, it still pokes needed holes in the concept of papal infallibility and, if nothing else, demonstrates why we should feel cold shivers whenever President George W. Bush bandies the term “crusade.” (Music Hall) (Jim Ridley)

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GO  DARE NOT WALK ALONE The more things change, the more they stay the same for disenfranchised African-Americans in the historic Florida city of St. Augustine. At least that’s the argument persuasively, if haphazardly, put forth by director Jeremy Dean’s documentary Dare Not Walk Alone, which casts one eye back to the city’s not-insignificant role in the 1960s Civil Rights movement while keeping the other fixed on the communities of local blacks still living in virtual Third World poverty. Inelegantly made and sometimes awkward in its transitions between the two eras, Dean’s film nonetheless packs a punch, thanks to vivid archival footage from this lesser-known (compared to Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham) hotbed of Southern racial unrest, but also to its clear-eyed look at the adversaries of Martin Luther King Jr.’s utopian “dream.” Interviewed in 2005, octogenarian motel owner James Brock (whose Monson Motor Lodge became a locus of pro- and anti-segregation demonstrations) refers to his old adversary Dr. King as “a fancy manipulator” and shows little contrition about having once poured acid into a swimming pool filled with black youths. Meanwhile, Dean notes the lack of so much as a single black officer in St. Augustine’s police and fire departments. Serendipitously arriving in theaters just as the nation’s first serious African-American presidential candidate has a major-party nomination in his sights, Dare Not Walk Alone reminds us that, for far too many Americans of color, “free at last” has meant trading one sociological prison for another. (Grande 4-Plex) (Scott Foundas)

 

DEAL Director and co-writer Gil Cates Jr.’s poker drama shuffles through the usual sports-movie and coming-of-age clichés; its derivativeness is less problematic than its lethargy. Cocky Alex (Bret Harrison) is being pushed into law school, but his passion is cards, specifically the big paydays for Texas Hold’em. Intrigued by this talented, undisciplined phenom, former world-class player Tommy Vinson (Burt Reynolds) takes Alex under his wing. When you’re working with clearly conventional material, it helps to attack it from a cockeyed angle or at least adopt a gritty, lived-in urgency, but Deal is fatally earnest: It honestly believes it’s the first poker film to have a mentor character tell his young protégé that success in cards is similar to success in life. No amount of whipping camera movements and real-life pros like Chris Moneymaker can generate tension in the film’s myriad poker matches since Cates displays little interest in understanding the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of this milieu. As the arrogant upstart, Harrison is largely a twit, leaving Reynolds to supply the B-movie integrity Deal otherwise lacks. While all those around him strain for gravitas, his hangdog expression is almost noble, the embodiment of playing the cards you’re dealt. (Selected theaters) (Tim Grierson)

 

DECEPTION Lonely is the life of the mogul. The long hours and hectic schedule make dating a headache, but who needs romance when you have the services of an anonymous sex club at your disposal? Like Rideshare with benefits, the “list” around which Deception centers is a phone directory of stock-market power players who make anonymous dates with each other to satisfy their carnal appetites. What could be better than a system that streamlines sex the way the Blackberry streamlined communication? As one female participant explains, the list offers “intimacy without intricacy.” Smug and sculpted Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) is the charismatic lawyer who inducts a meek auditor (Ewan MacGregor) into this secret society; when the auditor falls for one of its mysterious beauties (Michelle Williams), an elaborate con begins to unravel. Director Marcel Lagenegger is known for his sleek, stylish television ads, and his feature film debut has the same feel as one of his spots for Toyota or Mercedes. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Heat, The Insider) paints a nighttime metropolis reflected in inky glass and diffused beams of color; this vision of Gotham is as fastidious as the cockpit of a BMW. But rather than sell luxury sedans, Deception offers a fantasy even big money can’t buy — Wall Street as a cross between a James Bond adventure and a Victoria’s Secret spread. (Citywide) (Sam Sweet)

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GO  FOUR MINUTES Four Minutes won two Lola Awards — the German equivalent of the Oscar — last year, including one for Best Picture, which should tell you something about how far removed from Hollywood the Deutsche Filmakademie is. This is no Titanic, or even a Crash: It’s a blood-on-the-keys piano psychodrama set in a women’s prison, peppered with lesbian overtones and unsettling flashbacks. If watching tender body parts smashed against panes of glass and set on fire makes you queasy, stay away. If Nazi allusions and yearnings make you uncomfortable, stay far away. Jenny (played by the brilliantly repulsive Hannah Herzsprung) is a sullen, stony-eyed young killer with remarkable musical talent. Traude (Monica Bleibtreu) is an ancient piano teacher who haunts the prison hoping to atone for a 50-year-old misdeed — and is determined to take Jenny on as a student and groom her for an upcoming competition, even after the girl beats a guard into bloody submission against a baby grand. Although the tone of the film drifts precariously toward the self-serious, writer-director Chris Kraus redeems himself with snatches of dark jailhouse humor and a quiet attentiveness to minute gradations of human feeling. The milieu is predictably drab, but the relationship between the two women is as poignant as the Schubert impromptu to which it unfolds. (Music Hall) (Julia Wallace)

 

JACK AND JILL VS. THE WORLD Jack (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is a successful New York advertising exec caught in a complacent existence; Jill (Taryn Manning) is the perky bohemian determined to shake him out of his shell. This second feature from director Vanessa Parise is named after the nursery rhyme in which a brother and sister suffer a simple tumble, but this film’s Jill faces a slightly more severe problem: cystic fibrosis. The basic plot is a twist on a story that Hollywood has been rewriting since at least 1938, when Katharine Hepburn improved Cary Grant’s life by turning it upside down in Bringing Up Baby. That film didn’t need the specter of life-threatening illness to make us care about its characters, but then again, that film had Grant and Hepburn. Prinze’s face has filled out since the heartthrob days of She’s All That, his broad, boyish smile and dark eyes now flattened into a vacant stare and stiffened mouth; here is someone for whom acting is no longer fun. Manning, best known for her role as the runty hooker Nola in Hustle & Flow, relishes playing “quirky” characters, but her performance here borders on caricature — between her blonde locks, feisty grin and rusty etiquette, one can’t watch Jill and not think of Amy Poehler in the ads for Baby Mama. More farce might have served the film well; as Parise draws from a playbook of medical melodrama and romantic-comedies clichés, her moral about living outside the box becomes harder and harder to swallow. (Beverly Center) (Sam Sweet)

 

GO  PATHOLOGY Crank co-creators Neveldine and Taylor — who apparently no longer require the luxury of first names — scripted this tale of deranged young doctors in the L.A. coroner’s office, who test each other to come up with ever more elaborate murders in hopes of stumping their colleagues as to the cause of death. The duo bring their crazed, anything-goes sensibility to the table, but they aren’t a perfect match with German director Marc Schoelermann, who seems to like his horror more brooding and artsy. So while our main characters engage in plenty of gratuitous sex, violence and combinations of both, Schoelermann will be damned if he lets the rather obviously named Dr. Grey (Milo Ventimiglia) look like he’s enjoying a second of it. As the new kid who gets swept up in all the madness, Ventimiglia is morose from the start, and not exactly the portrait of seduced innocence this story really needs. Nonetheless, when a movie opens with the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally as performed by cadavers, and later proceeds to sex scenes involving scalpels and needles, the actual plot is inconsequential. Fans of hard-R exploitation will love this; everyone else will likely be appalled. Screw ’em. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

 

A PLUMM SUMMER Quiz time: This perfectly pleasant old-school children’s movie failed to get commercial distribution because (a) no talking dog; (b) no other visible special effects; (c) its up-front admission that small-town America is not all golden evening light and supportive grizzled neighbors; or (d) it’s a vanity project for broadcaster Lisa Guerrero, who stars as a plucky mom, and whose husband co-produced. Probably all of the above, and to be honest, A Plumm Summer isn’t remotely in the same league as My Dog Skip, Fly Away Home, Lassie or any of the handful of traditional family dramas that have restored luster to a genre that’s been overtaken by techno-acrobats. But first-time director Caroline Zelder brings warmth and restraint to this tale of Montana child detectives on the case of a beloved frog puppet that, to the devastation of its over-invested owner-operator (Henry Winkler), goes missing. Evidently, this really happened back in 1968. The rather creaky plot woven by Zelder and co-writers Frank Antonelli and T.J. Lynch, in which it takes a village to find a frog, opens up into a sensitive family drama about a teenage boy (an appealing Chris J. Kelly) desperately trying to please his heedless father (William Baldwin), a former boxer and full-time drunk. There’s a twist I won’t ruin for you, but let’s just say that anyone over the age of 10 who hasn’t figured it out by halftime hasn’t been paying attention. (Selected theaters) (Ella Taylor)

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 GO  SHOTGUN Anyone who watched Michael Shannon pump Bug full of basket-case conviction, or steal Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with couldn’t-give-a-fuck contempt, knows he’s one of the most formidable unsung actors working in American movies today. In this tense, lyrical and bone-spare slice-of-death drama by writer-director Jeff Nichols, Shannon gets a role tailored to his lanky Middle American boyishness and the demons peering from behind it. A scarred, taciturn would-be card counter, Shannon’s Son Hayes has served as de facto dad to his brothers (Barlow Jacobs and Douglas Ligon) ever since their mean-ass patriarch bolted, got religion and started a happy new family across town. An outburst of fury at the father’s funeral reopens the Hatfield-McCoy blood feud between the two clans, setting in motion a Jacobean tragedy of eye-for-an-eye retribution. Scored with ragged, boozy soul by Ben Nichols and his band, Lucero, persuasively cast, and shot by Adam Stone (a frequent associate of producer David Gordon Green), with great feeling for dust-blown small-town streets and off-the-interstate Americana, the movie creates a red-state milieu that can turn from cozily familiar to Balkan at the click of a hammer. Above all, it has the riveting Shannon, a winding fuse who shows just by smacking a sibling’s feet off his table that Son will leave nothing blocking his path of greatest resistance — least of all flesh. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)

 SILENCE OF THE SEA Two common themes in contemporary Iranian cinema — the pain of exile and the peculiarities of home­coming — give shape to writer-director Vahid Mousaian’s 2003 drama Silence of the Sea, in which an Iranian actor and playwright (well played by Masoud Rayegany) now living in Sweden returns home following the death of his parents. Landing in the island port city of Qheshm, the man, called Siavash, experiences the de rigueur culture shock and phones ahead to alert old friends on the mainland of his imminent arrival. But then a Buñuelian predicament arises — Siavash finds himself unable to leave this aquatic way station, and the more he tries, the more firmly he stays put. Mousaian has a sensitive approach, but he does dialogue (“I don’t want to remember the past, man!”) nearly as leadenly as he does metaphor: All roads (and waterways) from Qheshm are inevitably clogged with literal ghosts of the past (including Siavash’s parents) and fellow travelers seeking passage out of — rather than back into — the country. Elsewhere, the movie dutifully ticks off its European modernist influences: a troubled Scandinavian marriage straight out of Bergman; an existential beach borrowed from Antonioni. Presented on a double bill with director Bahman Ghobadi’s 1999 short film, Life in Fog, which served as the inspiration for Ghobadi’s 2000 feature A Time for Drunken Horses. (Vine Theater) (Scott Foundas)

 THEN SHE FOUND ME First-time writer-director Helen Hunt stars as April Epner, a schoolteacher desperate to have a child before she turns 40 (Hunt herself turns 45 this year, but never mind that). Adapted by Hunt and two other writers from Elinor Lipman’s novel of the same name, Then She Found Me is a not-surprisingly confident debut; Hunt directs like she acts — straightforward and without humor, even when she’s meant to be funny. Which is probably why this plays like such an odd hybrid: a sitcom pilot rendered as Lifetime melodrama and starring the likes of Matthew Broderick (as her husband and, no kidding, an irresistible man-child), Colin Firth (as the single-dad love interest) and Bette Midler (as the famous mother who gave Hunt up for adoption when she was a year old). Broderick is broad, doughy and dopey — not at all believable as The Guy Everyone Wants to Fuck. But Firth’s terrific, and Midler’s, well, Midler — you keep expecting her to break into song. Even if you didn’t know who directed going in, you’d know coming out; Hunt gives herself more close-ups than Norma Desmond (and Barbra Streisand — no small feat). In short, it’s the kind of film that only a mother, which is to say my mother, would love. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Robert Wilonsky)