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Hannibal Rising; The Last Sin Eater; Norbit; Puccini for Beginners; Traffic Signal

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TRAFFIC SIGNAL
A skillfully woven multi-character drama, Traffic Signal is a methodical depiction of a stratified alternative society cobbled together by the group of Bombay street people who congregate around the towering signal post in the center of a busy four-way intersection. Everyone who subsists there, from the fake beggars to the strutting con artists to the prostitutes (male and female) who take over after dark, seems to have a role to play, and so this microcosmic society looks surprisingly self-sufficient—until, inevitably, its "internal contradictions" are exposed. The director and co-screenwriter, Madhur Bhandarkar, has become one of the leading lights of off-Bollywood "parallel cinema" for his films that anatomize various clearly defined sub-cultures: taxi dancer night clubs in Chandni Bar (2001), gossip rags in Page 3 (2005), corrupt multi-nationals in Corporate (2006). Although his staging is often flat-footed and graceless, Bhandarkar has impeccably correct politics, and the intricate, switchbacks construction of his stories can be engrossing. Traffic Signal is his most enjoyable film so far, largely because its uninhibitedly profane characters are more fun to watch than a bunch of buttoned-down bourgeois back-stabbers. Bhandarkar also allows himself a few more moments than usual of heart-tugging, crowd-pleasing melodrama. Silsila, the "manager" of this intersection—the guy who collects protection money and arranges lucrative traffic jams—is played by former child actor Kunal Khemu, who at thirteen was Aamir Khan's aspiring tough guy sidekick in Raja Hindustani(1996). With his flashing eyes and artfully shaggy hair, Silsila is obviously a romanticized movie version of a sidewalk scam artist, plunked down in a cluttered neo-realist environment. But when his eyes meet those of a willowy, wide-eyed peddler named Rani (Neetu Chandra) and his gift of gab suddenly deserts him, you may not care. Pushed a few steps further, this love story in the midst of squalor could have made a fine Puccini opera. (David Chute) (Naz 8, Artesia)


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HANNIBAL RISING
Once upon a time, before Clarice and the fava beans, Hannibal Lecter was a wee Lithuanian lad orphaned during WWII and left in the wilds of Eastern Europe to fend for himself and his baby sister, Mischa. Until, that is, the day some gauche, gap-toothed army deserters showed up and turned Mischa into mincemeat. From there, this abysmal prequel to the Lecter trilogy—series creator Thomas Harris wrote the novel and the screenplay—follows the adolescent psycho-in-training as he attends medical school in Pairs, engages in an oddly Oedipal courtship with his Japanese aunt (Gong Li, who also teaches Hannibal some kick-ass martial arts moves when he isn't seducing her on her family's ancestral altar) and, finally, embarks on a revenge odyssey so protracted as to make his namesake's crossing of the Alps seem like a walk to the corner store. Hannibal Rising, which was directed by Peter Weber (The Girl with a Pearl Earring), plays that old game of trying to engender sympathy for the devil by making his victims so loathsome that you don't begrudge them a hasty demise. The killings are numbingly brutal, though, with endless close-ups (and sound effects) of bloody bowels and flesh being ripped from bone. And as played by French actor Gaspard Ulliel (who seems to have learned his English from watching one too many Bela Lugosi movies), this Hannibal is a stick-in-the-mud altogether lacking in the wit, gourmet appetites and romantic flair required of any surrogate for Sir Anthony Hopkins. By the end of two full hours, it's only Harris' head you long to see on a plate. (Scott Foundas) (Countywide)


THE LAST SIN EATER
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is arguably the most iconic female villain in film history. The miscasting of Fletcher—still a forbidding screen presence—as a kindly grandmother is only one of many missteps that director Michael Landon Jr. (yes, it's his son) makes in The Last Sin Eater, the tale of a guilt-wracked 10-year-old in mid-19th century Appalachia. Little Cadi (Liana Liberato) is convinced that she caused the death of her younger sister and obsessed with absolving her crime by finding the "sin eater"—a member of the community who allegedly grants redemption to the worldly. Liberato muddles through a heavy-handed Christian agenda and barely legible plot as the film follows Cadi through the woods on various sin-expunging missions, sometimes accompanied by an imaginary sprite or her pseudo-love interest Fagan. Toward the end of the film, Cadi and Fagan stumble on a "Man of God," who teaches them, and the rest of the village, that there are no mortal sin eaters: Only Jesus can nosh on your transgressions. (Jessica Grose) (Countywide)


THE LIVES OF OTHERS
See "The Stasi Who Came in From the Cold" (Edwards Westpark, Irvine)


MERIKA (AMERIKA)
A review will appear ASAP. (Cinema City, Anaheim)


NEW YORK METROPOLITAN OPERA'S BELLINI: I PURITANI
It's an encore performance of this NCM Event. (AMC at the Block, Orange; AMC Downtown Disney, Anaheim; Edwards "Big One" Megaplex, Spectrum, Irvine)


NORBIT
Two Nutty Professormovies and Eddie Murphy still hasn't gotten the split-personality shtick out of his system. Original nut Jerry Lewis would say that comedy is at least half rage, and Norbit, wherein Murphy plays a psychotic, gargantuan wife and the meek, battered husband of the title, is one mean movie. (Murphy's third role is that of Mr. Wong, the tactless owner of a combination orphanage and Chinese restaurant.) Bigger than Martin Lawrence's Big Momma, the violent, bitchy, absurdly abrasive Rasputia floods the bathtub, breaks the marital bed, empties the kiddie pool at a water park, literally squeezes into a purple MG, et cetera. In a movie where everything has its extreme opposite, Norbit's childhood sweetie and true love is Kate (Thandie Newton), an upsettingly thin doll of a woman who may be powerless to prevent her and Norbit's beloved orphanage from being turned by her scheming fiancé (Cuba Gooding Jr.) into a "titty bar" called Nipplopolis. (It's PG-13! Bring the kids!) Aside from the bevy of fat jokes, there are fart jokes, talking-dog jokes, Cadillac license-plate jokes (e.g., "SELLNHOS"), and Baptist church jokes. It's an astonishingly crass and vulgar film: crudely directed on a cut-rate budget by Brian Robbins, never more than almost funny or less than disturbing. (Rob Nelson) (Countywide)

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