AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN Around a Small Mountain travels with an itinerant one-ring circus of proud artisans, performing to shrinking rural crowds. “We're the last classics,” announces one. And after a long and stubbornly marginal career heading his creative family, 82-year-old director Jacques Rivette nears closing time with this commedia dell'arte. Leads Sergio Castellitto and Jane Birkin have appeared for Rivette before; regular Pascal Bonitzer contributes to the script; Irina Lubtchansky, taking over the cinematographer's chair, does proud her recently passed father, William, Rivette's DP of 30-odd years. The premise is skeletal: Vittorio (Castellitto), an Italian passing through the Cévennes, is waylaid by the mysterious wince in the gap-toothed smile of the troupe's tightrope walker, Kate (Birkin). There's a breathable air of Southern late-summer afternoons in the public squares and campgrounds where Vittorio and Kate play their approach and retreat. Rivette inserts parentheticals of performers at work, including a reprised routine by the clowns, into which Vittorio is drawn as an incompetent substitute in a keynote scene, funny and illustrative of Rivette's improvisational practice. Rivette is known, if for nothing else, for making epically long features; this is his shortest, sidling along after the tragic secret that's kept Kate away from performing for decades. It's all slight enough to blow away, and rare enough to warrant seeing it before it does. (Nick Pinkerton) (Monica 4, Playhouse)

CATS AND DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE About as unremarkable as a film about talking animals organized into competing intelligence agencies can be, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore overcompensates for its pre-school premise (I don't know if you've heard, but these house pets — they don't like each other) with a steroidal storyline. Using a combination of live action and CGI that will give some audience members PTSD flashbacks to the recent Marmaduke (hold me), director Brad Peyton has been charged with following up the 2001 original with the sequel no one was hoping for — in pointless 3-D. The usual pop culture allusions (Bond is lamentably spoofed; Roger Moore voices a buttoned-up cat) are meant to keep moms and dads grimly entertained, but their kids will be a casualty of the overcrowded whiteboard of a plot. A hapless police dog named Diggs (James Marsden) is recruited into a doggie underground to help stop Kitty Galore (Bette Midler), a hairless cat embittered by the industrial accident that uglified her, from taking over the world. A hater of both dogs and humans, Kitty has gone rogue, and apparently learned how to launch a satellite into space. Cats and dogs (and pigeons and Christina Applegate) must work together to deliver every pet-related groaner imaginable within 85 minutes. (Michelle Orange) (Citywide)

CHARLIE ST. CLOUD In a go-nowhere Pacific Northwest town, dreamy high school sailor Charlie (played mostly by Zac Efron's abs and piercing gaze) puts his Stanford scholarship plans on indefinite hold after he momentarily flatlines in a car accident, which also takes his little brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan). Half a decade later, Charlie has sunk into a shy, brooding routine as a cemetery caretaker, and meets his dead bro in the woods every sunset to toss around a baseball. Adapted from a 2005 novel by Ben Sherwood, this blatant heartstring-puller from director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) is more sentimental than subtle in depicting a grieving young man whose inability to let go has stunted him. But even at its most maudlin (enter Ray Liotta as the St. Jude–praying, cancer-ridden paramedic who revived Charlie and has suddenly reconnected with him), this handsomely shot melodrama has a twist too peculiar to dismiss as some two-bit Nicholas Sparks weepie. Charlie's way up from out of the drain is through the rousing flirtations of saucy redhead Tess (Amanda Crew), and simultaneously, the vaguely supernatural device for our pretty-boy hero's coping becomes so literal that Charlie actually bangs a spirit halfway between life and death. (Aaron Hillis) (Citywide)

COUNTDOWN TO ZERO The title of Lucy Walker's pro-nuclear-disarmament tract Countdown to Zero has two meanings: a paranoiac's ticking off down the last moments until the bomb goes off, and an exhortation to work for the cause until zero missiles and weapons remain. Synthesizing fear and optimism like that requires Walker to be incredibly ambitious in scope, and she offers up a history of the bomb and treaty talks, scientific explanations, a primer on how to smuggle uranium, and much, much more. Trying to touch, however briefly, on everything related to The Bomb means that, inevitably, much of it gets short shrift: SALT I and II are barely mentioned, but the Reykjavík summit's failure is inexplicably highlighted. Walker runs the same old archival test footage we've seen before and interviews the big names — Mikhail Gorbachev and Valerie Plame Wilson both make appearances — to reiterate her already-obvious p.o.v. She's also prone to very literal-minded exposition; to show that a tennis ball–size bomb could level a city, she just throws a tennis ball up against a black screen and has it rotate ominously. This is another well-intentioned but preaching-to-the-choir doc, and boring as well. Never trust a movie that ends with a link. (Vadim Rizov) (Landmark)


DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS In Steve Carell's first few episodes of the American version of The Office, the series hewed closely to the template created by the series' British mastermind, Ricky Gervais. But in the United States, audiences didn't take to so bleak a comic vision, and soon, the tone of the series evolved from harsh satire to affectionate, gentle comedy. Ratings success ensued. That's a lesson well learned by the filmmakers behind Carell's new movie, Dinner for Schmucks, an American reworking of the 1998 French comedy Le Dîner de Cons. Francis Veber's original was fundamentally on the side of the idiots. Not so Dinner for Schmucks, directed by Jay Roach, which takes the snobbish, cruel editor of the original and turns him into Paul Rudd's Tim, the nicest young man you're ever likely to meet. Meanwhile, bowl-cut, Windbreaker-wearing Barry (Carell) is not just an unctuous bumbler but is, in fact, borderline mentally disabled. That is the only conclusion I can reach after watching credulous Barry gleefully smash bottles of wine against the walls of Tim's apartment. Dinner for Schmucks is funny, sure. How can it not be, with good comic actors like Carell and Rudd — plus Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Kristen Schaal and Ron Livingston? And rest assured, no American comedy is going to call itself Dinner for Schmucks without showing us the actual dinner for schmucks, which is, naturally, this movie's comic apogee. There's a blind fencer, and a ventriloquist who's married to a slutty dummy, and a guy who French-kisses his vulture. They're all idiots, or possibly mentally ill. Paramount Pictures and director Jay Roach would like to invite you to a dinner they're hosting, at which you are welcome to laugh at them. (Dan Kois) (Citywide)

THE DRY LAND The dry land that we actually see in The Dry Land is the Texas dirt that James (Ryan O'Nan) comes home to. Strictly speaking, James has returned alive, but his wary squint seems stuck on the Iraqi desert he has just left. Disoriented and selectively amnesiac, he can't pick up the cues to the past he left or reintegrate to small-town life, which director Ryan Piers Williams gets down convincingly with his Anglo-Tejano West Texas of spread-out, fragmented families. His wife (America Ferrera) notices her man isn't quite the same around the time she wakes up in a choke hold. As plot developments diligently refill James' cup of sorrow — who thinks a welcome-home job at a slaughterhouse is a good idea? — he skips town, trying to fill in blacked-out memories with a returned battle buddy (a road-worn Wilmer Valderrama) and by visiting an incapacitated friend at Walter Reed Hospital, a reunion scene that turns on a dime from tentative sentimentality to almost black-comic obscenity. Such really unexpected moments are outnumbered by programmatic ones, but The Dry Land does slip inside the inescapable, closed-circle logic of despair, and O'Nan's shy, precarious performance keeps you with him to the edge of the abyss. (Nick Pinkerton) (AMC Broadway, Sunset 5)

GO  GET LOW It's 1938, and Tennessee hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), who has been in self-imposed exile for 40 years, decides to throw himself a funeral while he's still alive to hear the speeches. He enlists Frank Quinn (Bill Murray, wonderful), the nearby town's funeral director, to make plans and post ads inviting people from all over to attend. For this imperfect but rewarding film, screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, fictionalizing a true story, have given Felix a guilty secret that he's ready to unburden himself of, at long last, during the funeral. Despite a third-act stumble in which first-time director Aaron Schneider undercuts Duvall's wrenchingly confessional monologue with awkward staging and choppy editing, Get Low is a pleasure to watch. Sissy Spacek plays Mattie, Felix's old girlfriend, whose forgiveness he needs the most. Duvall and Spacek have three key scenes together, including one that finds Felix and Mattie walking together down a wooded road. Nothing much happens; they talk and laugh, and their bodies sway back and forth toward each other, like young lovers courting. After a time, he offers her his arm and she takes it, with a firm, happy clutch — two characters, two actors, at ease and in joy, delighting in each other's magic. (Chuck Wilson) (ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark)

HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is a posthumous psychodrama that, according to film archivist and co-director Serge Bromberg, grew out of a chance encounter in a stalled elevator with Clouzot's widow. Bromberg persuaded her to give him access to a particular holy grail: the surviving 15 hours of rushes and test footage from French director Clouzot's abandoned would-be masterpiece, Inferno. Starring Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider, Inferno was meant to portray jealousy as a form of mental illness, but the real head case was its director. Clouzot was unable to finish the movie; as both the survivors interviewed and the surviving footage makes clear, the attempt drove him half-mad. Inferno was an ambitious production. Clouzot prepared elaborately color-coded charts tracking his hero's paranoid state. There were three separate camera crews. Columbia Pictures provided an “unlimited budget,” much of which was spent on visual experiments involving superimpositions, dappled light patterns, fun-house mirror distortions and color inversion meant to convey a deranged consciousness. But rather than communicating his protagonist's madness, Clouzot appears to be documenting his own. Who knows how these fantastic shots of Schneider lying naked in the path of an onrushing locomotive or covered with glitter and smoking a cigarette in reverse would have played in the finished film? Who cares? For all the irrationality that fueled Clouzot's project, it's reasonable to assume that the finished Inferno would never have been any better than this arrangement of its shards. (J. Hoberman)


HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST AND REBEL Dirtbag Gene Simmons opens the film, flatly stating that every man envies Hugh Hefner. Is that what I was feeling, watching photo ops with frail old Hefner's orange young girlfriends obligingly “keeping him young”? Many young people know only that Hef, an easy-grinning senior in leisure wear, floating on a silicone sea that empties into eternity. Brigitte Berman's premature-eulogy puff-piece documentary resurrects the younger, charismatically aloof Chicago-boy-made-rich in stock footage, while Hefner narrates along through a lifetime of scrapbooks. The putative subject is Hefner's place on the balance sheet: exploiter, or liberator? The peddler of mass-market decadence with a history of editorial stances — pro-integrationist, antisodomy laws — salubrious to the Republic is a worthy topic, but it's bypassed for a familiar culture-wars narrative, with jowly HUAC goons under every bed in the 1950s, as Americans wait for the discovery of female orgasm. Pat Boone, conservative radio host Dennis Prager and feminist Susan Brownmiller are there to blow against the wind of the film's conviction that “the new morality,” introduced, in part by Hefner, is an improvement. But Berman is mostly interested in calling hypocrisy on the other side, making an example of onetime antismut crusader Charles Keating, among Hef's other vanquished foes. Playboy “gave us some of the best literature of our time,” opines noted literary critic Tony Bennett, among a cast of mostly ridiculous and redundant talking heads. Hefner, the old psych major, wrote the script they're reciting. “Repression” takes a beating, along with abstracted “Puritanism.” The inner life of the film's subject, however, is only tactfully skimmed in passing. (Nick Pinkerton) (Nuart)

GO  LIFE DURING WARTIME Daring the discomfited viewer to laugh at shame and suffering, and then wonder why we're laughing, Todd Solondz is back. Life During Wartime shows the misanthropic moralizer as confounding and trigger-happy as ever, his big clown thumb poised over a garish assortment of hot buttons — race, suicide, autism, sexual misery, self-hatred, Israel and, his old favorite, pedophilia. Life During Wartime is both sequel and remake to Solondz's Happiness (1998). The three Jordan sisters — banal Trish, high-strung Helen and hapless Joy — are back, albeit played by an alternate trio of actresses (Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, and Shirley Henderson, respectively). Trish has relocated from New Jersey to Florida, where fragile little Joy arrives for a visit. Newly separated from her husband, Joy is increasingly disassociated. Trish, however, is only a smidge chastened — even though Happiness ended with her model husband, Bill, en route to prison for drugging and raping several of his son Billy's fifth-grade classmates. Now, Bill (Ciarán Hinds) is about to be released just as younger son Timmy (Dylan Snyder), who's been told his father is dead, is preparing to become a man with a bar mitzvah speech full of quasi-religious masochistic imagery. Does the filmmaker have compassion or contempt for his characters? Is it possible to feel both? Solondz's sensibility has obvious affinities to such masters of cruelty as Neil LaBute or the Coen brothers — but he is less smugly punitive and more obviously tormented. A humanist he's not, but he does seem allergic to hypocrisy. (J. Hoberman) (Monica, Playhouse, Sunset 5)

SPOKEN WORD Scarcely heard from since he helmed two mid-1990s indie hits (Ruby in Paradise, Ulee's Gold), Victor Nuñez has a new family drama that plays like a musty holdover from that era. In Spoken Word, poetry slams still pose as the new punk rock, and the fact that men don't talk enough about their feelings remains a very fresh discovery. Cruz Montoya (Kuno Becker) is a stud on the West Coast poetry scene, trading on street cred (“I want to get shot,” goes his signature refrain) and living with a foxy painter. But when he hears that his father, Senior (Rubén Blades), is dying, he returns to his sleepy New Mexico hometown to reckon with his Chicano roots and dance with personal demons. Like the promise of a gun, introducing a father's vintage Impala in the first act guarantees that the son will crash it in the third. Though crudely constructed (the lighting and framing are strictly soap opera), unevenly acted (Becker is a bundle of distracting tics) and bluntly scripted, the film does have an honest integrity — at least whenever Blades is on-screen. He's not a clichéd curmudgeon but rather a quietly resigned melancholic who delivers lines like they've come to him in unpredictable waves, and, in the film's best scene, weeps as he saws through a sheath of saltines. Spoken Word remains Cruz's story, but there's enough of Senior to salvage something out of all that pop psych and bad poetry. (Eric Hynes) (Playhouse, Sunset 5)

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