THE HOUSE OF SAND
Set in the Maranho desert of northern Brazil and spanning six decades (from 1910), Andrucha Waddington's admirably pretentious epic of woman in nature makes the rare attempt to impart a purely visual experience: Sensual shots of gargantuan sand dunes appear at least as important in storytelling terms as the faces of three women—mother, daughter, and granddaughter (Fernanda Montenegro plays all three in old age)—who are forced to traverse this barren landscape in search of somewhere to settle. Waddington, a veteran of 200 TV commercials (and the ho-hum Me You Them), delivers no shortage of trailer-ready images (major elements include sun, sky, wind, rain, and hair), which in succession do become hypnotic. The movie naturally works best without dialogue, although the presence of one or two men in Waddington's forbidding landscape compels some verbal foreplay en route to the universal language of softcore. The current scarcity of art-house cinema that favors poeticism over plausibility works to the great advantage of a film that's old-fashioned even in its thematic concerns, including what it means to come and go when one's house is not a home, but the earth itself. (Rob Nelson) (Edwards University, Irvine)
ANOTHER GAY MOVIE
A blow-by-blow remake of American Pie, albeit with more gerbil sex play, Todd Stephens' Another Gay Movie follows four strapping guys from San Torum High School trying to lose their (anal) cherry. The film boasts a Scary Movie rate of scatological jokes-per-minute, but fails to match that franchise's low yield of guffaws. Even with shit, timing is everything, and Another Gay Movie jumps from emission to emission with exhausting alacrity. Offering some respite is Scott Thompson in the Eugene Levy role. (His character discusses butt plugs with his son in scientific detail and builds awkward silences that elicit screw-faced reaction shots from the boys.) As with its hetero template, the gags slow down for sentiment, and the likable cast is allowed a few moments sans fluids. Jonah Blechman proves especially game as the Hollywood-obsessed queen with a killer Paul Lynde impression. (R. Emmet Sweeney) (Edwards University, Irvine)
If only testy U.S.-Iran relations could be as neatly resolved as the strife between a husband and wife in Tahmineh Milani's Cease Fire, in which Iran's most consistently and aggressively feminist filmmaker puts the entire concept of wedlock on the therapy couch. Anyone who has been following Milani's rather colorful career (which includes being arrested and threatened with execution by Iran's Supreme Council for "counterrevolutionary" sentiments in her film Two Women) might infer that Cease Fire is another of the writer-director's serious-minded melodramas. But whether as a peace offering to authorities or as a needed artistic change of pace, Milani has made a comedy, her first since 1992's charming What Else Is New?. The film is so much a comedy, in fact, that it's fair to call it "Hawksian," especially in those scenes where Mahnaz Afshar's Sayeh and Mohammad Reza Golzar's Yousef engage in rapid-fire verbal jousting. The tone is extremely mannered and exaggerated, though, with Milani and her actors never seeming fully comfortable with the idea of going for laughs. The surest sign of this unease is the way the yuks too often backslide into the easy out of pure sitcom. Weighing things down is an underlying polemic provided by the book that Milani credits onscreen as her inspiration—Lucia Capacchione's widely read Recovery of Your Inner Child. To Capacchione, emotional health starts with acknowledging and "absorbing," rather than being controlled by, one's inner 5-year-old. The message is delivered here, Western Union–style, to both Sayeh and Yousef care of a family therapist (Atila Pesiani). Milani has never been one for subtlety, but although her feminism remains refreshingly vital, Cease Fire comes down like a blunt instrument, hammering out the couple's kinks and flaws much too easily. (Robert Koehler) (Cinema City Cinemas, Anaheim)
The J-horror remake wheel spins again, spitting out this pathetic Americanization of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's apocalyptic fable about a literal ghost in the machine. In Kurosawa's version (released briefly in the U.S. last fall and recently issued on DVD), a mysterious website functioned as a portal by which the dead could re-enter the world of the living, with unsavory consequences for all who logged on. In director Jim Sonzero's update (from a script co-written by Wes Craven), more or less the same thing happens—only, instead of a band of smart, resourceful computer geeks, the victims are an assortment of vacant boy- and girl-toys (including Veronica Mars' Kristen Bell and actor-model Ian Somerhalder) who spend most of the film lounging about in skimpy attire. Kurosawa's Pulse was as terrifying for its sense of loneliness and communication breakdown in the technology age as for any ectoplasmic apparitions. Here, the computer-generated effects are plentiful, but the scare factor rarely rises above the level of a viral e-mail, and the desaturated color scheme makes every frame look as though it was developed in a solution of vomit and ash. The spirits in Pulse don't kill you outright; they drain you of your life-giving energy first. So does the movie. (Scott Foundas) (Countywide)
Thin storytelling married to thin bodies of extreme physical grace, this clunky but moderately charming descendant of Saturday Night Fever and Fame covers the usual territory of boy meets girl from across the tracks and finds love and rapid upward mobility through the arts. Directed with more verve than skill by Anne Fletcher, who can't resist choreographing every scene whether there's dancing in it or not, Step Up has one really good actor, Channing Tatum, who's also a great street dancer and soon to distinguish himself in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Tatum plays Tyler, a white homeboy who discovers dance and romance (with Jenna Dewan, no actress but a lithe and lovely mover) while doing community service at a high school for the arts headed by Rachel Griffiths (working at half steam). By way of plot, obstacles pop up and are hurdled with clockwork regularity, but notwithstanding a tacked-on foray into gang violence—a quick bone thrown to the lad audience—the movie serves up a pleasant, if unsurprising, confluence of classic ballet with street dance, not to mention a seamless collusion of polite racial integration with savvy niche marketing. (Ella Taylor) (Countywide)
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WORLD TRADE CENTER
See Film feature. (Countywide)
A sick feeling starts to set in the moment the opening credits announce "Songs by Smash Mouth," and it doesn't ease up much during the sub-superheroic antics that follow. Sky High already used the principal idea from Jason Lethcoe's Zoom's Academy books—a Harry Potter–like school for superheroes located above the clouds—so the movie proceeds to ignore the source material almost completely, relocating the action to a secret military installation known as Area 52 (that's about as funny as it gets, folks). Tim Allen gamely brings some humanity to the role of the retired, powerless hero Captain Zoom, but is thwarted at every turn by bad special effects, slapdash editing, interminable pop-song montages, and a goofy performance by Courteney Cox. Zoom's goal is to train four kids (Spencer Breslin, Kate Mara, Michael Cassidy, and Ryan Newman) to develop their powers in time to fight an oncoming supervillain, but the bad guy doesn't even show up until the very end. Meanwhile, there's product placement so egregious that one of the characters is actually named Mr. Pibb. (Luke Y. Thompson) (Countywide)
SNAKES ON A PLANE
Opens Thurs., Aug. 17, at 10 p.m. and midnight. (Countywide)