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See Film feature. (Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana)

From the early image of an American flag flapping from an RV traveling through the badlands of the American Southwest to the climactic moment in which a self-proclaimed pacifist employs Old Glory as an eye-gouging spear before going ape-shit with a pickax, French director Alexandre Aja wants to make sure we know that his remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes is saying something about life in the land of the free. What it's saying hardly matters. And to think that the French wonder why we hate them! Released in 1977, the original Hills was itself a sociopolitical allegory, pitting a God-fearing suburban family against a clan of radioactive cannibal mutants who, depending on how you interpreted them, were either a reactionary portrait of hippiedom run amok or stand-ins for the collateral victims (blacks, Indians, et al.) of America's manifest destiny. In the remake, the glib aspersions never cease—in one choice moment, one of the ghouls even sings "The Star-Spangled Banner"—but in the hands of Aja and co-writer Gregory Levasseur (together responsible for that earlier charnel house of displeasure known as High Tension), they amount to little more than a smoke screen for an orgy of bloodletting and dismemberment that's more monotonous than shocking. Aja and Levasseur are to splatter what Liberace was to rhinestones: practitioners of gaud. By the time the movie's reluctant young hero (Aaron Stanford) finds himself trapped in a storage freezer, alongside a couple of decomposing corpses, and struggles to break free, we know exactly how he feels. (Scott Foundas) (Countywide)

As the various filmizations of Sade clearly demonstrate, maximum-velocity hedonism is as difficult to capture on celluloid as creative process or spiritual awakening—especially if you are not in fact making nihilistic pornography but a middle-class, pseudo-literate period draught for the likes of the Weinstein brothers. Laurence Dunmore's The Libertine, taken from the play of Stephen Jeffreys, falls into every baited trap: tippled goblets, shouts of "More wine!," harlots' cleavage ogled, phallic theatrics, dirty puns, bountiful Chaucerian proclamations of "cunt!" What it is is the cheesed-up life and times of one John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp, again with the half-hearted Masterpiece Theatre accent), who was doubly famous during the Restoration for writing scathingly obscene plays and for his misanthropic party habits. John and his sundry pleasure-seeking cohorts (Jack Davenport, Johnny Vegas) talk shit behind royalty's back, drink, dally at brothels, and go to the theater—which John, in a rare moment of forthrightness, admits to being "my drug," in reply to the shapeless misery of life outside. This begins to matter, as does the film itself for a spell, once the Earl espies actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), falls for her, and decides to retrain her in her craft. Never mind that the "lessons" are essentially Strasberg-style Method tricks employed three centuries too early—Morton typically installs herself at center stage and takes over, in a surprisingly fierce and unpredictable role. Depp hardly seems motivated; you get the idea the Earl was just lazy, but an omitted bit of biography, in which he kidnapped a teenaged heiress and then married her after being apprehended and jailed in the Tower of London, suggests more of a 17th-century Keith Moon. Finally, Dunmore's movie becomes a kind of Al-Anon epic; the Earl's hooch-fueled dissolution resembles the eons' impact on Dorian Gray so entirely that you wonder if he had contracted leprosy along the way. Despite the sniffly closure, his fate registers as less than a tragedy. (Michael Atkinson) (Countywide)
In this serviceable remake of the fondly remembered 1959 Disney comedy (which starred Fred MacMurray), an impressively dexterous Tim Allen plays Dave Douglas, an L.A. deputy D.A. who's bitten by a Tibetan-born bearded collie, the magic blood of which turns man into beast. Soon, Dave is transforming back and forth between his human and canine bodies, and if hilarity doesn't exactly ensue, director Brian Robbins (Varsity Blues) and his five (five!) screenwriters keep the kid-friendly cat chases coming. The film drags in the homestretch, as the filmmakers needlessly shuffle characters around the city—time that would have been better spent on the movie's band of wittily conceived, computer-animated animal hybrids, including a king cobra with a furry tail that Dave springs from the lab of a mad scientist (Robert Downey Jr). Since the film doesn't exactly inspire profound thought, let's exit with a little-known fact about its origins: The 1959 Shaggy Dog was based on The Hound of Florence, a 1923 novel by Hungarian writer Felix Salten, who published another book that same year that the Nazis would later ban but which Thomas Mann loved and passed along to an American friend named Walt Disney. That book? Bambi: A Life in the Woods. (Chuck Wilson) (Countywide)

Previews on Thurs., March 16, at 10 & 11:59 p.m. (Countywide)


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