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Cafe Setareh; Gray Matters; Nishabd; The Ultimate Gift

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THE HOST
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CAFE SETAREH
Taking his cue from Jafar Panahi's masterful women-in-prison drama The Circle, director Saman Moghadam offers up his own roundelay of Iranian women in lonely or oppressive circumstances—only here, instead of a jailhouse, their lives intersect at the titular coffee shop in an old part of Tehran. In the first story, the shop's proprietress, the weary Fariba, slaves away to support her abusive husband's drug addiction. In the second, the beautiful young Saloomeh prepares to marry the auto mechanic Ebi, who, worried that his job isn't good enough for his bride, turns to crime. On a somewhat lighter note, the spinster landlady Moluk's satellite TV always seems to be on the fritz whenever Fariba's handsome brother Khosro is passing by. A popular (as opposed to "art house") Iranian filmmaker with an elegant visual style and an astute grasp of soap-opera theatrics, Moghadam (Maxx) keeps Café Setareh bouncing along for a while, but as he shifts the story's perspective from one woman to the next, he covers so much of the same narrative ground that we feel like we've seen it all before. By the time the third story comes around, you may crave a shot of espresso to keep you alert. (Scott Foundas) (Cinema City, Anaheim)


GRAY MATTERS
Heather Graham seems resigned to mugging and shrugging out the remainder of her thirties in a series of undercooked romantic comedies. Too old for the edgy ingénue and yet too weirdly youthful to convincingly pull on the mom jeans, Graham, her early potential (and ability to transcend luscious looks) squandered, has strapped on the stilettos and reported for duty in Sue Kramer's execrable New York coming-out film. After admitting to her creepily co-dependent brother (Tom Cavanagh) that she is in love with his new bride (Bridget Moynahan), and being outed to her entire office (including the redoubtable Molly Shannon) in a bit lifted almost directly from Ellen, "Gray" (previously a hopeless singleton despite her fantasy-blonde status), dissolves into hysterics. She'll never get married now! People will stare! Lesbians get no respect, dammit! It's an obstacle course of emoting that would be a stretch even for champion mugger Drew Barrymore. Coming from the strangely vacuous Graham, in a Manhattan this preposterous, the staid social message is almost as ludicrous as its surroundings. (Michelle Orange) (Edwards Westpark, Irvine)


NISHABD
Writer-director Ram Gopal Varma's scandalously anticipated new film was preceded by shrewd tactical whispers to the effect that it was a Bollywood remake of Lolita, with the 64-year-old masculine icon Amitabh Bachchan (think Eastwood or Newman) becoming enamored of a slinky 18-year-old. But Nishabd (The Silence) turns out to be an undeniably stylish, if also dizzyingly uneven mixed bag, deeply affecting one minute and ludicrous the next; the fetishistic slow motion shots of ingénue Jiah Khan cooling herself with a garden hose would not be out of place on a Playboy DVD. The sleek Khan is certainly a von Sternberg-worthy object of obsession, but Varma is locked into presenting her as an emblem of free-spirited modern youth, which for him seems to be synonymous with callow and rude and almost pathologically self-absorbed. For Jia, Bachchan's solid and self-contained Vijay is a prize she's fixed on with a whim of iron, and if Varma had pushed her manipulations a bit further the movie would be more interesting. In fact, our interest picks up considerably after the halfway point, when the movie teeters on turning into a thriller with the arrival of Jia's bouncy young college boyfriend, who hides out on the premises to surprise her unbeknownst to anyone but Vijay. No Hitchcock movie ever had a better set up for a stalk-and-kill finale, but Varma is after a bigger, more slippery fish—the "fear of aging and death" that draws the old man to the young girl. Varma's honesty and seriousness are impressive, if not his showmanship. (David Chute) (Naz 8, Artesia)


300
See "Man on Man Action"(Countywide, including IMAX at Edwards "Big One," Spectrum, Irvine)


THE ULTIMATE GIFT
In the latest release from the faith-based division of 20th Century Fox, an oil-rich billionaire (James Garner) kicks the bucket and leaves a special bequest for his trust-fund-suckling grandson (Drew Fuller)—a gauntlet of hard work and hardship designed to give the boy an appreciation for the true value of a greenback. Among the tasks: toughing it out as a Texas ranch hand; living as a homeless person; and showing some genuine compassion for a debt-addled single mom (Ali Hillis) and her leukemia-stricken daughter (Abigail Breslin). If he succeeds, the "ultimate gift" of the movie's title will be his—which, in case you haven't figured it out, is one of those things you can't buy with a MasterCard. Directed with accomplished impersonality by Michael O. Sajbel (One Night With the King), The Ultimate Gift means well and has a few surprises in store—this is not a movie you expect to climax in a tense jungle stand-off with Eucadorian drug runners—but too often feels like yet another self-flagellating Hollywood lesson in the corrosive power of wealth and the benefits of getting down with the real soul people. It's The Pursuit of Happyness made from the ivory tower looking down instead of from the street looking up. (Scott Foundas) (Countywide)


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