GO  DEATH DEFYING ACTS This impeccably well-made bonbon from Australian director Gillian Armstrong belongs to that camp of whimsical “what if?” movies that imagine what might have happened if Sigmund Freud gave counsel to Sherlock Holmes, or if Shakespeare came down with a really bad case of writer’s block. In Death Defying Acts, the central figure is the illusionist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce), who, in the wake of his mother’s death, offers a generous cash prize to any alleged psychic who can put him in contact with his mother’s spirit, while mercilessly exposing as frauds all those who can’t. That quest (which has its basis in fact) ultimately brings Houdini to Scotland and into the lives of a brash, down-at-heel music hall mystic (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her precocious teenage daughter (Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan) — and, before you can say “presto changeo,” a delicate romance blooms amid the Edinburgh gloom. A resourceful actor, Pearce doesn’t fully get his head around Houdini’s multitudinous contradictions, but Zeta-Jones is very touching as this forthright but fragile woman, who still believes in girlish dreams of glamour and passion. Those seeking a Houdini biopic or a smoke-and-mirrors thriller on the order of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige will inevitably go home disappointed. Taken on its own terms, though, Death Defying Acts makes the slight but charming case that even Houdini’s most perilous stage feats pale in comparison to the things men and women do in the name of love. This won’t be remembered as one of the prodigiously talented Armstrong’s great films (My Brilliant Career, High Tide, Little Women), but it’s still 90 percent better than everything else out there, which makes it especially puzzling that the film’s U.S. distributor, The Weinstein Company, is dumping the movie into theaters so unceremoniously that, by the time you get around to reading this, it may already have pulled a faster disappearing act than Houdini himself. (Mann Chinese 6) (Scott Foundas)

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Death Defying Acts

The Weinstein Company

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My Father, My Lord

ELSA & FRED Seventy-seven-year-old Elsa (Uruguayan actress China Zorrilla) has what might charitably be called “an outsized personality.” Exuberant, garrulous, completely self-absorbed, she has the conscience of a teenager who claims a death in the family in order to get out of a math test. When Alfredo (veteran Spanish actor Manuel Alexandre), a quiet, reserved, almost rigidly honest widower, moves into her apartment building, Elsa sets her sights on him. Clearly, Spanish director and co-writer Marcos Carnevale wants his romantic comedy to be viewed as a funny, sad, heartwarming affirmation of life and love — but that requires excusing Elsa’s narcissism and constant lying as charming eccentricities when, in fact, they are off-putting enough to sour the whole film. The problem isn’t the acting; both leads are superb. It’s Elsa’s character that is so difficult to take. Only the hopelessly romantic will be able to tolerate her. (Fallbrook 7; The Landmark; One Colorado) (Jean Oppenheimer)

GARDEN PARTY A gaggle of unblemished Los Angeles transplants face a squeaky-clean fantasy version of “struggling” in Jason Freeland’s trivial, commercially calculated ensemble drama (porn! pot! rock music!), which plays like a nonmusical Rent, or a faux-edgy Shortbus for kids raised on American Pie. There’s the Avril Lavigne–looking ingénue who has escaped her lecherous stepfather, only to wind up posing for an Internet pornographer; the sexually confused (oh, please — gay) male assistant to a pot-farming real estate maven who also posed nude a decade prior; the unhappily married artist who has lusted for that real estate maven ever since seeing those photos online; and the wimpy emo singer, so spotless that nobody would guess he’s secretly homeless. Each character’s through line relies on preposterous coincidences (nearly every cast member meets one another in a more-than-fleeting capacity) and frustratingly unrealistic behavior (who would let a street kid stay alone at their boss' grow house after meeting once?). If we’re meant to take these threads as a tapestry of L.A., then Freeland clearly needs to stop watching Robert Altman DVDs and go outside to see what the real world is actually like. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Aaron Hillis)

HAROLD The long stretches of dead air that, it can only be assumed, laughter was supposed to fill provide ample time for pondering what audience Harold, T. Sean Shannon’s strenuously stale comedy, was designed to find. Harold (Spencer Breslin) is a young fogey whose crustiness is as premature as his male pattern baldness. Seemingly above and beyond the adolescent desire to fit in, the 13-year-old crank alienates the people around him in the most unappetizing, unfunny way possible — with Bueller-esque to-the-camera narration, toilet humor, plunky dialogue, lame laugh cues (actual crickets sound over a shot of a teenage boy at a loss), and decent actors whose slumming would be merely embarrassing in a less ignoble film. (Chris Parnell, Rachel Dratch, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Ally Sheedy and her wiry, killer guns all appear.) As Harold moves through some jerry-rigged paces to get a girl, make a friend, and win the big go-kart race at his new school, the question of who might find Harold even mildly entertaining looms large: Its sub-Nickelodeon sophistication will leave the junior high hordes groaning (or twittering their groans), and the Matlock and Murder, She Wrote references will be lost on everyone younger than yours truly. And I refused to get them on principle. (Monica 4-Plex) (Michelle Orange)


HOMO ERECTUS Once a reliable indicator of quality laughs, the National Lampoon brand nowadays is as ubiquitous and meaningless as a positive review quote from Larry King, which makes it strange to see a movie written and directed by Adam Rifkin thrown into the mix. Best known for his cult comedies (Detroit Rock City, The Dark Backward) and dark, critically acclaimed indie dramas (Night at the Golden Eagle, Look), Rifkin’s not the sort of guy you'd expect to see billed under the same banner that brought us Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj. Alas … the opening credits titteringly read “Adam Rifkin is a Homo” before spelling out the entire title, and that, sadly, is the funniest joke in the whole movie. In an apparent attempt to create a Woody Allen-like persona, Rifkin casts himself front and center as reluctant caveman Ishbo — the lone nerd among his tribe and an aspiring inventor (having created glasses, a chair and a bicycle). Ishbo pines for his beautiful childhood friend Fardart (Ali Larter), while she only has eyes for his dense brother Thudnik (Hayes MacArthur); when an enemy tribe led by a demented sorcerer (Gary Busey) attacks, Ishbo finally has the chance to prove himself. None of this is especially funny, though Rifkin has somehow managed to persuade a whole lot of women to get topless and vaguely hold our attention. That, plus the presence of Ron Jeremy, suggests Rifkin would have been better off just making a porno instead. (Music Hall; Rolling Hills 20) (Luke Y. Thompson)

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH Let’s be clear about one thing: Journey to the Center of the Earth is more a demo reel than a narrative feature. It’s a decent, if overly familiar and yawningly obvious compendium of look-at-me moments intended to show off the latest and greatest in stereo 3-D filmmaking, in which the same thing’s shot twice, more or less merged into a blurry single image and rendered almost-kinda-sorta-not-really lifelike through the polarized shades of the RealD glasses you get to wear (and keep!). Brendan Fraser, who’s played against green screens for so long he’s forgotten how to relate to people, is Trevor Anderson, a disheveled science professor nursing an invisible ache for a brother who died looking for the center of the Earth. Fraser marches from one scene to the next till, whoops, that’s a mighty deep hole. Directed by Eric Brevig, the movie takes its time arriving at the Earth’s core and then rushes to escape from it, almost in embarrassment. There’s good reason not to linger downtown: All the filmmakers summon from their collective imagination is a dingier version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory; episodes of Land of the Lost were more inspired. The mine-train ride, nicked almost rail for rail from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, provides a bit of a mid-movie kick, but Journey pretty much climaxes before it even penetrates. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

GO  KABLUEY From the film appearances of the San Diego Chicken to the penguin-suited thug who gave Jean-Claude Van Damme a flipper-smacking in Sudden Death, I can’t think of a single instance in film history where a giant padded suit hasn’t been funny — and in his plangently comic feature debut, writer-director-star Scott Prendergast extends the streak. Prendergast plays Salman, the ne’er-do-well sibling of a National Guardsman on extended stay in Iraq. With his sister-in-law Leslie (Lisa Kudrow) at wit’s end juggling her household of hellions and an unstable corporate job, Salman takes on child-care duties with his usual aplomb — leaving her sulking kids to crash in a den carpeted with breakfast cereal. In desperation, Leslie sets up Salman with the mother of all crappy temp gigs — and soon he’s passing out flyers in the sweltering costume of her company’s mascot, a foam-rubber stick figure with a bulbous blue head. The movie’s absurdist yuks and Chaplinesque sentiment don’t always mesh with the realistic agony of wage slavery and suburban turmoil. But the ingeniously designed suit (kudos to Geppetto Studios) offers plentiful possibilities for humor both high and low, and Prendergast takes advantage of every unfortunate hand portal, restricted movement and disastrous bathroom break. At the same time — thanks mostly to Kudrow’s stunning performance — the Austin-shot movie catches the nation’s mood of economic anxiety and workplace exploitation more pungently than anything else in theaters. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)


MEET DAVE If you’re an 8-year-old boy who’s never heard of E.T. or Liar Liar, then Meet Dave may be your new favoritest movie of all time. On a mission to save his dying planet of miniature aliens, the captain of a human-shaped spaceship (both played by Eddie Murphy) flies to Earth, befriending perky widow Gina (Elizabeth Banks) and her meek son Josh (Austyn Lind Myers). As directed by the none-too-subtle Brian Robbins (Norbit, The Shaggy Dog), Meet Dave is aimed squarely at prepubescent boys — the mixture of sci-fi, broad physical comedy and absent-father sentiment will prove irresistible, although they may gag at the schmaltzy love story. What keeps the film surprisingly likable is a game cast led by Murphy, who sustains more laughs from the moth-eaten Starman conceit than it deserves. Murphy’s questionable recent career choices notwithstanding, the guy remains a gifted comedian, and his performance as the spaceship “Dave” — his body a foreign vessel awkwardly trying to interact with jaded Manhattanites — possesses the sort of inspired glee he hasn’t demonstrated since Bowfinger. Still, Meet Dave feels a little too cuddly and familiar to be more than a programmatic summer kids’ movie — better than average, but not worth phoning home about. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

GO  MY FATHER, MY LORD Like Amos Gitai’s 1999 Kadosh, Israeli writer-director David Volach’s first feature has scores to settle with Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, especially as dominated by literal-minded men. Unlike Gitai’s strident screed, however, My Father, My Lord (unfortunately retitled from the more aptly elliptical Summer Holiday) is a subtly discriminating view from within one family’s agonizing spiritual crisis by a secularized filmmaker who grew up one of 20 children in the separatist Haredi community of Jerusalem. An only child, little Menahem Eidelman (Ilan Griff) soaks up the protectiveness of his gentle mother (Sharon Hacohen-Bar) but pushes back passively against his father (Assi Dayan), a respected but dogmatic rabbi who unwittingly does violence to the boy’s instinctive curiosity with cumulative prohibitions and a moment of neglect that brings tragedy. Lifting equally from the secular religiosity of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue and the aesthetics of Jewish ritual, this moving drama draws its power from the dialectic between its silences and its elegiac score. Though Volach over-idealizes nurturing femininity while demonizing heedless masculinity, his deceptively simple plot supports a nuanced voice raised more in sorrow than in anger — a cry of anguish not against Judaism itself but against fundamentalist adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of living well by doing good. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

PASSING POSTON Bearing the loaded subtitle “An American Story,” directors Joe Fox and James Nubile’s earnest, TV-style, talking-heads documentary revisits the 1940s forced “relocation” of Japanese-American citizens through the prism of the Poston, Arizona, internment camp that, for maximum ironic value, was constructed on the grounds of a Native American reservation: hence, one relocated community right on top of another. Comprised of jingoist Office of War Information newsreel footage and testimonials from surviving internees, Passing Poston makes its affecting if not especially memorable way through a catalog of familiar camp-life hardships and scattered moments of grace. In the considerably more involving second half, the focus shifts to the various ways in which camp survivors have — or haven’t — managed to move on with their lives and contend with the lingering stigma of being dark-skinned in America. Curiously, for all Fox and Nubile’s efforts to draw a through line from the persecution of Poston’s Native American residents to that of their Japanese neighbors, the most obvious contemporary analogue, Guantanamo Bay, goes entirely unmentioned. (ImaginAsian Center) (Scott Foundas)

THE STONE ANGEL A stubbornly affecting drama that’s strongest in its quieter moments, writer-director Kari Skogland’s adaptation of the late Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence’s 1964 novel would have benefited from a tougher, steely-eyed approach. On the eve of being shipped to a nursing home, irascible, ailing octogenarian Hagar Shipley (Ellen Burstyn) runs out on her adult son (Dylan Baker) and escapes into her past, seen through flashbacks as her younger self (Christine Horne) experiences love, betrayal, heartbreak, and every other emotion one could expect to encounter in the Cliffs Notes version of adulthood. The Stone Angel makes no bones about its intentions: This is a soppy film about the tangled feelings that come from our bonds with parents, then lovers, then children, and how the first relationship impacts the next, and so on. Admittedly, this isn’t profound stuff, so it’s a shame Skogland emphasizes the melodramatic, tear-jerking extremes of Hagar’s life, until every incident feels burdened with meaning. But despite its cutesy comic-relief digressions and overdone solemnity, The Stone Angel finds its way past tonal inconsistencies to a moving conclusion that doesn’t romanticize death but rather judges it to be one more marker on the road to figuring ourselves out. (The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5)(Tim Grierson)

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