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AN AMERICAN CAROL In this astonishingly inept, alleged satire from director and co-writer David Zucker — an even more virulent, us-against-them jeremiad than Bill Maher’s Religulous — a bumbling trio of Islamic terrorists set off for America in search of a Hollywood director to help them make a recruitment video for suicide bombers. They find their white knight in slovenly Michigan-born documentary maker Michael Malone (get it?), whose credits include Die, You American Pigs and who, in turn, finds his latent patriotic impulses stirred by visits from the ghosts of JFK, George S. Patton and George Washington (played, I kid you not, by Jon Voight). The jokes, such as they are, come at the expense of people named Mohammed or Hussein, vegans, homosexuals and pretty much anyone who dares to question authority. In the most grotesque musical number this side of From Justin to Kelly, a chorus line of leering, pot-smoking academics conflates higher learning with liberal brainwashing, but it’s Zucker who is the real revisionist historian here: equating peace negotiations with appeasement; likening Moore/Malone (Kevin Farley) to Leni Riefenstahl; invoking the Civil War as an argument against pacifism. There’s been one razor-sharp cultural lampoon at the movies this year — Adam Sandler’s Don’t Mess Withthe Zohan — although Zucker’s achievement may, in fact, be more remarkable: His movie’s level of political discourse makes Couric/Palin look like Frost/Nixon. (Selected theaters) (Scott Foundas)

 
GO  ASHES OF TIME REDUX Cynics make the worst romantics; they should know better, they know they should know better, and they’d die if you knew better. Forced underground by heartbreak, a cynic’s romantic nature can flourish into a sort of private dementia. You can take my weary word for it, or you can take Wong Kar Wai’s, whose new/old film, Ashes of Time Redux, gorgeously sets up the paradox he has returned to throughout his career — romantic memory as both scourge and succor. Wong began shooting Ashes of Time in 1992; he made his breakthrough film, Chung King Express, while still wrestling Ashes to the ground in post-production. Ashes received only a smattering of distribution and has been little-seen in the U.S. That should change with Redux, a refurbishment of the original. Structured over five seasons taken from the Chinese almanac, Redux’s touchstone is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), an assassin-for-hire who runs a drifter hotel in East Buddha Nowhere while refusing to pine for the woman (Maggie Cheung) who married his brother. “The root of man’s problems is memory,” Ouyang says, a theory taken up by various barefoot, blind, lovesick men and berserk, devoted, defeated women. In a move that would become his trademark, Wong rejects the happy ending for the almost ecstatically sad, making your heart soar even as he tells you, essentially, that it’s impossible, all of it — that it’ll never work. (ImaginAsian Center, Playhouse 7, Sunset 5) (Michelle Orange)

 
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  BREAKFAST WITH SCOT Like a diva in training, 11-year-old Scot (Noah Bernett), spells his name with one “t,” wears a feather boa, and isn’t shy about kissing boys at school. None of this amuses his uptight new guardian, Eric (Tom Cavanagh), a professional hockey player turned sportscaster who’s gay but in the closet — despite having lived for years with a lawyer named Sam (Ben Shenkman) — and is the only relative who can take in the newly orphaned Scot. In this often quite funny adaptation of Michael Downing’s 1999 novel, screenwriter Sean Reycraft and director Laurie Lynd move the action from Massachusetts to Canada and accentuate Eric’s machismo, which gives his discomfort over Scot’s tendency to wear belts with puppy decals an added edge. Cavanagh, best known for the TV show Ed, is terrific, as is young Bernett, who steals the show without hogging it. The odd man out is Shenkman, whose character never gets a bonding scene of his own, and instead is made to stand dutifully by as his partner corners the kid’s love, even during the big let’s-be-a-family finale. Ignoring half of the parental unit is a disconcerting misstep in an otherwise sharp little movie. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

 
CALL + RESPONSE Somebody’s got to pick up where Bono left off, right? A Bay Area musician and Live Aid baby, Justin Dillon recently discovered human trafficking, then decided to make a movie about it. Performance excerpts from the “Concert to End Slavery” (sure to be a companion music DVD) are annoyingly interspersed with Dillon’s earnest efforts at self-education. Madeleine Albright, The New York Times’ Nicholas D. Kristof and other experts give him a tutorial on the millions of women and children who are pressed into service as prostitutes, child soldiers and agricultural workers. Cornel West (gah!) explains slavery and the blues. Onscreen graphics, palsied camera work and those damn music clips (Matisyahu, Moby, etc.) make this more MTV than Frontline, but Dillon knows his audience was weaned on basic cable. The result is like American Idol meets C.A.R.E. infomercial. Concerned celebrity-activists Ashley Judd, Daryl Hannah and Julia Ormond testify to the horrors of trafficking and even visit a few brothels in Thailand and India. If you don’t read the papers, this will be shocking and new. That the Oscar-winning documentary Born into Brothels was there first, and to better effect, doesn’t deter Dillon’s enthusiastic advocacy for “open-source activism.” His call is commendable if not compelling. “I don’t want to wear someone else’s despair,” Judd tells him about third-world garment manufacturing. Hey, we should put that on a T-shirt! Oh, wait … (Sunset 5) (Brian Miller)

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GO  CITY OF EMBER The struggle at the center of City of Ember, another treat from the maker of Monster House, is one for the good of all mankind. But what were the denizens of this world running from when they first trekked underground? Two hundred years after their mucky netherworld’s inception, the ever-hiccupping generator that keeps the lights on in Ember threatens to go forever kaput. It’s up to Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) to decipher the clues left inside a mysterious box and usher their people — like Obama or Moses, take your pick — toward deliverance. Back story and motivation are almost nil here, but director Gil Kenan reveres the abstract tenor of Jeanne DuPrau’s acclaimed children’s book, understanding the postapocalyptic story as an allegory for the determination of humanity against the forces of darkness — whatever or whoever they may be. Its look suggests a twee City of Lost Children, but Kenan isn’t hung up on style alone, equally and voluptuously reveling in artifice and the courageous will of Ronan and Treadaway’s hopeful foot soldiers. The story subtly evokes Rand and scripture, colliding secular and spiritual values, and, as such, appeals to the blue- and red-minded alike. (Citywide) (Ed Gonzalez) 

 
THE EXPRESS The story of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis — the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1961, two years before he succumbed to leukemia — is absolutely worthy of a big-screen retelling. Davis, who died before ever playing a down alongside Jim Brown for the Cleveland Browns, has almost become a footnote — an inspirational fairy tale. Based on a Davis biography, Gary Fleder’s account is a noble attempt at humanizing the myth, but it succumbs to the worst sorts of sports-movie clichés: Its smash-mouth football scenes play like Gatorade commercials, and off the field, its characters infuse every casual aside with the dramatic gravitas of History in the Making. To his credit, Rob Brown, first seen in 2000’s Finding Forrester, plays Davis with quiet subtlety (to the point where he almost disappears in some scenes). But Dennis Quaid, as Syracuse’s Ben Schwartzwalder, is stuck with the thankless role of accidental civil rights pioneer — the gruff, color-blind coach who must nonetheless overcome his own ingrained racism and internalized fears. And, like all formulaic biopics, The Express sacrifices the details for the Big Picture — hagiography without the humanity (wait, is that his girlfriend? wife? what?), populated by sorta-enlightened Yankees, rabidly racist Southerners and a ghost who remains as elusive as the running back no defender could catch. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 
GOOD DICK An unnamed video store clerk (Jason Ritter) falls hard for an unnamed woman (writer-director Marianna Palka) who rents porn and barely notices him. Undeterred, the sweet-natured guy nonchalantly insinuates himself into her life, tracking down where she lives, finding excuses to hang around her building, and eventually wearing her down until she allows him to move in with her. Though she’s not interested in him — frankly, she’s so withdrawn she barely seems interested in anything — he starts behaving as if they’re a couple. In anyone else’s hands, Palka’s antiromantic comedy would be an ironic parody of stalker films, but her insistence on playing the situation straight yields some rewarding emotional results. The characters may be misfits — we learn just how much so, as the film progresses — but the performances are nicely restrained, allowing no actorly preciousness or smug cheap shots at the pair’s expense. Unfortunately, Good Dick is all high-wire act, determinedly thwarting the expectations of its genre but unable to present a wholly successful alternative to romcom conventionality. It feels provocative but inconclusive — brimming with intriguing ideas about love’s dark underbelly but not quite confident enough to pull them off. (Nuart) (Tim Grierson)

 
GO THE LITTLE RED TRUCK A brilliant idea for a documentary, beautifully executed: Director-writer-editor-etc. Rob Whitehair follows some 250 kids, wee to teen, in five cities across the U.S. and Canada as they audition for and star in stage productions spearheaded by the Missoula Children’s Theatre, whose patient, boisterous and demanding directors transform a one-off into a life-altering experience. No surprise that the L.A. kids, staging The Little Mermaid, are the camera-savvy pros with impressive chops. And the ones from faraway Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada — for whom live theater’s a rare and magical thing — are the shyest and slightly stunned. But for most, if not all, of the subjects, the opportunities afforded by the MCT are extraordinary — the chance to find themselves by being someone else, with friends and rivals and siblings for whom plays are no longer play time by film’s end. Most of the kids interviewed talk about how they were troubled or in trouble before they got involved in theater. (Some still are — a few of the kids get the boot when they can’t play well with others.) Good for kids just beginning to express themselves; even better for their parents. Hey, where’s Guffman when you really need him? (Music Hall) (Robert Wilonsky)

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LOLA MONTÈS A legendary disaster on its initial release, and consequently one of the great causes célèbres of auteurist film criticism, Max Ophüls’ Franco-German swan song Lola Montès follows a record third inclusion in the New York Film Festival with a weeklong run at two local cinemas. Ophüls’ ironic superproduction — as garish and vulgar as any mid-’50s Hollywood costume drama, albeit knowingly so — takes the career of the 19th-century adventuress Lola Montès as the basis for a meditation on the spectacle of stardom. A new digital restoration, including five “lost” minutes, only heightens this pop art premise. The restored version has the cleaned-up color and hyper-real clarity of a refurbished antique diner. Exploding out from the screen, Martine Carol’s lips put the redness in red. The opening sequence is filled with promise, camera and characters cavorting around static Lola (Carol), the central attraction in a fantastic circus. But the movie grinds to a halt 10 minutes into the delirium, with the diva and her current lover, Franz Liszt, ensconced in a deluxe traveling carriage, and never after regains its momentum. There are moments when Ophüls’ deconstructed historical pageant anticipates more radical films by Manoel de Oliveira and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who made a movie about Lola’s royal lover, Mad Ludwig of Bavaria. But, a lesser film than Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown ­Woman, let alone The Earrings of Madame D …, Lola Montès can be shockingly inert — a staleSachertorte that might have worked as a silent film or an awkward early talkie. Of course, Lola Montès is also a footnote in the psychohistory of taste. Like its subject, the movie demonstrated the power to cloud men’s minds. After its 1963 showing at the NYFF, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris announced he’d stake his critical reputation on the proposition that Lola Montèswas the greatest film of all time — repeating the assertion throughout the decade. Not until Pauline Kael pledged allegiance to Last Tango in Paris in 1973 would an American critic fall so hard. (Royal, Playhouse 7) (J. Hoberman)

 
LOWER LEARNING Things are going downhill fast at L.A.’s Geraldine Ferraro Elementary School, where the coke-snorting principal, Mr. Billings (Rob Corddry, from The Daily Show), is embezzling funds, P.E. class consists of boxing matches between fourth- and fifth-graders, and disillusioned teachers dose their students with Nyquil to keep them quiet. “Shop class,” Billings announces over the intercom, “has been cancelled until the finger is found.” In this foul-mouthed comedy, writer-director Mark Lafferty fires off a few resonant side jokes about grade school, from that shop class incident to the eagerness with which teachers and students alike await the recess bell. But mostly, Lafferty is all about expletives and sexual innuendo of the frankest kind, some of it so raunchy (and unfunny) as to make one wonder if the parents of the film’s many child actors bothered to read the script. One could ask the same of Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria Parker and American Pie’s Jason Biggs, who star as two administrators trying to rescue the school from the evil principal. They’re pros, and do their jobs well enough, but good grief, why are they here? This is major career regression. One assumes they’re doing the filmmakers a favor for some reason, which makes them heroes, or fools, or both. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

 
GO QUARANTINE The megaplex boneyard is littered with inferior U.S. remakes of superior overseas horror films, and their existence is even more galling when they keep the originals from getting domestic distribution. It’s a shame that this English-language cover of an excellent Spanish shocker will eclipse the original, at least in U.S. theaters — but even those who despise remakes will have to admit that director John Erick Dowdle’s furious retread is scary as hell. (Unless, that is, they’ve seen the idiot trailer, which gives away the entire damn movie down to the last shot.) Practically a scene-for-scene re-creation, the U.S. version retains the setting — an apartment building under siege by zombie contagion — as well as the gimmick: The movie unfolds in on-the-spot news footage shot by the unlucky crew penned up inside. Far more convincing than Cloverfield or Diary of the Dead in its fake found-footage ambience, Quarantine wisely spends its first 15 minutes acclimating the audience to its chirpy feature-reporter heroine (Jennifer Carpenter). From there, it’s utterly relentless as the dwindling dwellers lunge through infested corridors in gradually vanishing light. The lack of music, the nerve-wracking sound design, the suggestive lighting, and the unobtrusive cutting combine to keep us off-guard, but it’s the ensemble (Steve Harris, Jay Hernandez, Johnathon Schaech) led by the appealing Carpenter that evokes batshit terror so convincingly. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

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ROCKNROLLA
What do you have to do to get your career revoked in England, short of being Gary Glitter? After a box-office-catastrophic two-movie run, Guy Ritchie takes another mulligan and returns to “form” — though his tics and tricks have never added up to more than cockney-accented novelty mixed with 2 Days in the Valley dross. A new pack of capering yobs (some guy from 300, Ludacris), including a Pete Doherty–esque crackhead savant, run off with one another’s loot, their various story lines cut together and the scenes temporally shuffled with enough sleight-of-editing to keep up a semblance of kineticism. Brick-shithouse-built rough boys are given “unexpected colors” (something that, in productions of this nature, is entirely to be expected), such as a taste for Merchant-Ivory films. Digressive soliloquies casually linger on such ephemera as American crayfish and the semiotics of a pack of cigarettes, belying looming violence. Why should a movie so titled have one of the most indifferent soundtracks in recent memory? Because Ritchie is a pop tart at heart (see: wife), for whom “rock & roll” has nothing to do with the weight of riffage, and everything to do with dandyish tailoring and pub-belligerent ’tude. Sum total of scenes that deserved to stay in the final cut: Thandie Newton doing a little shimmying frug. (ArcLight Hollywood, ArcLight Sherman Oaks, The Landmark) (Nick Pinkerton)

 
TALENTO DE BARRIO When conservative watchdogs snarl about the ugliness of gangsta rap, Talento de Barrio might be what they picture in their head — a vile, stupid, violent-crime drama that would be laughable if its content weren’t so toxic. Drug boss Edgar Dinero (reggaeton star Daddy Yankee, who mostly glowers) prowls the gritty streets of Puerto Rico and dreams of becoming a rapper. Directed limply by José Iván Santiago, Talento de Barrio lustfully idolizes its shallow, gun-toting bad boy, as can be witnessed by the disinterested lip service given to crime’s downside and a particularly ­risible moment when Edgar carts out the old “the whole world’s corrupt” justification during a brief monologue. Reggaeton’s success was due to its Latin-influenced reinvention of commercial hip-hop’s sonic palette, but Yankee’s vanity project resorts to every rap-music-video cliché to tell the umpteenth story of a young tough who has to choose between burgeoning stardom and the “reality” of the ’hood. Talento de Barrio sells Yankee’s fans a fantasy of hot babes, cool cars and an endless supply of fresh threads — just so long as you don’t get killed first, of course. Which would be a total drag, because then who’s gonna buy his records? (Beverly Center 13; Mann Plant 16) (Tim Grierson)