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REVIEW: Lower City


(Lazaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura), two small-time
Brazilian hustlers with a boat, hook up with Karinna (Alice
Braga), a stripper who needs a ride and is willing to pay
for it by having sex with the two of them. Fate intervenes,
and the three of them keep crossing paths. Soon, they begin
to live as a threesome. This, of course, can’t end well:
Driven mad with lust and love, the two lifelong friends part
ways — Deco starts boxing, Naldinho turns to petty
thievery, and Karinna bounces between them when she’s not
too busy whoring and stripping in what look to be the nastiest
joints on the planet.

    If this sounds a bit too much like Red Shoe Diaries
Goes to the Favelas
, then take heart: director Sergio Machado has
a unique feel for the violent, sleazy underworld of Brazil, and he’s assembled
a cast that gets his story’s pained longing right. The intoxicating
Braga invests what could have been a cardboard object of lust with more
humanity and passion than might be expected of a mere mortal actress. (It is
duly noted that she also seems more comfortable with nudity than most mortal
actresses.) And Ramos, who made quite an impression several years ago in Madame
(which Machado co-wrote), brings an uncommon intensity to his part.
True, the love triangle is often steeped in cliché, and it’s not hard
to stay a few paces ahead of these characters. But thanks to this cast, when Lower City works,
it works better than you’d think. — Bilge Ebiri

REVIEW: Wordplay
the future, Andy Warhol once wryly noted, every American
subculture will get its own breezy, self-validating feature
documentary. Or something like that. In any case, Wordplay,
an amiable, sometimes aggressively ass-kissing portrait of
New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, plumbs the nation’s
apparently bottomless fascination with arrangements of letters,
doing for vertical and horizontal grids what Word Wars did
for small plastic tiles and Spellbound did for "i
before e except after c." Though
charming and articulate (and ambitious enough to have invented
his own college major, which he dubbed "enigmatology"),
Shortz isn’t nearly charismatic enough to hold the screen for 90
minutes, so the film’s focus shifts to the usual
assortment of endearingly geeky obsessives, all of whom converge
upon Stamford, Connecticut, for Shortz’s annual American Crossword
Puzzle Tournament. And as ever, admiration and trepidation
fight a pitched battle in your brain, as you reflect upon
the millions of man-hours expended upon becoming so expert
at something so trivial.

    By now, you know whether you belong to Wordplay‘s
target audience; anyone who routinely buys a PennyPress volume at the
airport won’t want to miss it (I plead guilty, though I’m more
of an acrostic man myself). Trouble is, director Patrick Creadon desperately
wants his film to appeal to the uninitiated, folks who couldn’t come up with
an eight-letter word for "unconsciousness" beginning with ‘n’ if you
held a three-letter word for "weapon" beginning with ‘g’ to their heads.
This calculated ingratiation includes wasting nearly a third of the movie on
interviews with random celebrity puzzleheads: Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Mike
Mussina, the freakin’ Indigo Girls. (Two words: Who cares?) Plus, of course,
there’s the wee problem of puzzle-solving’s inherently uncinematic nature — few things are less exciting to watch than people alternately scribbing on sheets
of paper and staring into space. But Wordplay rallies strong with the
climactic tourney, which in 2005 happened to hinge on a truly catastrophic error
by arguably the most sympathetic finalist. If nothing else, it’ll kill some time
while we await the inevitable Risk doc, I’ll Take Kamchatka. P.S.: "Narcosis." — Mike
REVIEW: Nacho Libre
Nacho LibreSay
what you will about the success of Napoleon Dynamite, but the film demonstrated how deadpan comic
timing can turn even the most frivolous non sequitur into
a national catchphrase. Part Sixteen Candles, part
hayseed Dada, Jared Hess’ comic debut disarmed plenty of
viewers with its casual buoyancy and oddball lingo. If you
(like many critics) didn’t like it, well, your mom goes to

    But whimsical alchemy is a one-shot deal,
and Hess’ follow-up, Nacho Libre, sacrifices
unpredictability for a Nickelodeon-sanctioned sports-movie arc. Jack Black stars as Ignacio — later "Nacho" — a
friar at a Mexican orphanage who secretly ditches his holy
garb for the stretch pants of luchador wrestling. Spouting
a faintly offensive strain of Spanglish (peppered with the odd "buttload" or "so,
anyways"), Black tries to wade through a PG-rated morass
of fart and diarrhea jokes.

     Nacho Libre‘s only aesthetic distinction is
a repeated tribute to the Wes Anderson montage, only without the auteur’s fastidiousness. (The movie’s soundtrack follows suit with a cut-rate Mark Mothersbaugh
tone.) Hess, a practicing Mormon committed to family-friendly quirk, even wastes
the opportunity to form a coherent — or at least funny — statement about faith.
Ignacio’s wrestling partner (Héctor Jiménez) believes in science,
not God, and also (by extension?) claims he hates all orphans. But that’s
as far as the debate goes. Replete with the kind of faux-authentic irony
that Napoleon Dynamite‘s detractors called its lifeblood, Nacho
is little more than a backup Halloween-costume idea. — Akiva Gottlieb
REVIEW: A/K/A Tommy Chong
A/K/A Tommy ChongWhen
it was first announced that the US government had arrested
comedian Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong fame) for selling
glass bongs over the Internet, most people probably regarded
it as another strange moment in the increasingly absurdist
War on Drugs. Director Josh Gilbert sees it as something a
bit more ominous: an example of a post-9/11 police state
gone mad. A/K/A Tommy Chong argues that the comedian
was targeted at least in part because of who he was — that
his comic routines about marijuana use were deemed too dangerous
by a government waging war on the leftist legacy of the ’60s.

    Unfortunately, Gilbert buries his lede. Chong
was clearly set up: FDA agents tried repeatedly (and, by the
looks of it, often hilariously) to get his company to ship bongs
to Pennsylvania, so that they could catch him breaking the law — PA
being one of only two states where bongs are illegal. The story
of this elaborate entrapment is here, to be sure, but it’s nearly lost in a sea of obligatory talking heads (Eric Schlosser,
Bill Maher, et al.) bemoaning the Bush-Ashcroft Police State.

    It’s easy to get riled up over this nice, harmless man’s
incarceration for something so trivial: Chong makes for an engaging and charming
guide, and the film’s most touching moments depict the comedian and his wife on
the day before he goes to prison. At the same time, one can’t help but think
that a better film — a more powerful, damning, and effective one — could have
been made with the cold, hard facts of this case. — Bilge Ebiri
REVIEW: Loverboy
being a talented, prolific actor (and subject of a fun movie-trivia game) just isn’t enough. Like so many before him,
Kevin Bacon can’t be content with just acting, or even acting/producing.
No, he has to start a band (The Bacon Brothers), then direct
a Showtime movie (Losing Chase) and a theatrical film.
Because talent can’t possibly be limited to just one artistic
arena, right? After Bacon’s big-screen
directorial debut, Loverboy, the answer is clear:
yes, yes it can.

    Adapted from the Victoria Redel novel
of the same name, the film follows Emily Stoll (showily played by Bacon’s
wife, Kyra Sedgwick), a woman whose only goal in life is to have a child out of wedlock. Why? So she can go on “magical journeys” with her son and
generally be the most annoying, smothering mother imaginable. As we learn through
a series of comically stylized flashbacks, Emily’s parents (Marisa Tomei and
a mustachioed Bacon) were too infatuated with each other to care for their only
daughter, and Emily is determined to make up for the childhood-she-lost/parents-she-never-had
by having her own perfect child, a boy named Paul whom she insists on calling “Loverboy.”

    Basically, Emily is crazy. But Bacon is so busy playing with the soft-focus button
on the AVID suite, or cueing up the next loud, inappropriate song, that he never
offers a satisfying account of how or why she got that way. Ultimately
her character never resonates at all. The patchy, stilted script (by — seriously — Hannah
Shakespeare) doesn’t help matters. The resulting tone is not just uneven but ridiculous.
During a particularly dramatic scene involving Emily and a sperm donor,
you can practically see the writer’s hand and hear a pencil digging deep into
paper — leaving a palpable longing for the beautiful sound of
furious erasing. But the next thing you hear is "Two Princes" by
the Spin Doctors. — Amelie Gillette
REVIEW: Going Under
Going UnderRoger
Rees is a good actor with an expressive face, a rich voice
and a shitty agent. The past couple of months have brought
two deeply mediocre films starring Rees: the exceedingly corny Crazy
Like a Fox
and this BDSM drama, which is not so much corny
as uneventful. When Rees’ dominatrix leaves the biz, they start
dating outside the confines of her dungeon. It doesn’t really
work out, but he’s still way into it. This minimal plot is
decently acted and pretty tasteful, despite containing more
of Roger Rees’ penis than the MPAA might like. In fact, it
may be too tasteful, and too private to really engage. One
pitfall for a movie about a sexual practice is that if you’re
not into the practice, you’re missing a big part of the emotional
content. For someone into BDSM, Rees’ encounters with costar Geno
Lechner might be tinged with the sublime; otherwise, they just
feel like watching a stranger’s life. Going Under is
like watching someone you don’t know very well talking mildly
about a failed relationship. Though plausible and heartfelt,
it never grabs you or makes you listen. In the audience-film
relationship, it’s definitely the submissive. — Peter
DATE DVD: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Kiss Kiss, Bang BangIf
your date has a shelf full of Dashiell Hammett paperbacks and
a thing for Robert Downey, Jr., then she just might love Kiss
Kiss, Bang Bang
as much as I do — but I doubt it. It’s
a brilliant, wordy, amped-up neo-noir comedy that taps most
of dime-novel fiction’s most enduring tropes and blasts
away your resistance with the funniest script I’ve seen in years. It makes Bruce
Willis’s Lucky Number Slevin look not just like its
poor cousin but some distant amoebic ancestor. As a New York thief-turned-actor-turned-accidental-private-eye,
Downey’s got
his stuttering, skittering patter down pat, and Val Kilmer is hysterically dry as the not-so-straight man
Gay Paree. The two team up for, say, seven of the funniest
scenes of last year (I’m partial to the corpse gag, but the
Russian Roulette scene runs a close second, followed by Downey’s
fingertip being eaten by a dog). Obviously, a laugh-your-ass-off
comedy is the only sure bet on a date (unless your date doesn’t
like dog-eating-finger jokes, in which case I think you should
break it off), but it’s also worth noting that this isn’t some
Austin Powers of noir. It’s funny, yes,
but it’s the real deal, consumed with detective fiction’s darkest,
most perennial obsession: the secret histories of sex. When all
the laughs have finally died down, Kilmer drives this home
in a terrifying monologue that hits like a femme fatale’s vicious
slap. — Logan Hill


©2006 Nerve.com.