Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller's inspiring documentary, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," leads us on a journey through some of the major historical events of the 20th century, revealing Zinn to be far more than simply an activist version of Zelig.
The 81-year-old author and historian, who grew up in Depression-era New York, organized shipyard workers at 18, served as a bombardier in World War II, taught at Atlanta's Spelman College during the civil rights movement and at Boston University during the Vietnam War and beyond. He is best known for his popular book, "A People's History of the United States," which tells the untold version of American history through the eyes of Native Americans, slaves and immigrants, among others — those whose voices are not usually found in the history taught in schools.
Vintage photos and clips are punctuated by interviews with colleagues, friends and former students, including Noam Chomsky, Marian Wright Edelman, Alice Walker, Daniel Berrigan and Tom Hayden. Narrator Matt Damon reads excerpts from Zinn's books, including "SNCC: The New Abolitionists" and "Declarations of Independence."
The film is especially strong in its second half, which is dominated by contemporary footage of Zinn, a strong advocate of civil disobedience, addressing students and assemblies. He is a calm yet passionate speaker whose views on war are particularly topical.
"Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle's One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (Union at Fair Oaks), Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.
Braids, beads and some laughs
In the good-natured comedy "Hair Show," an exuberant plus-size Baltimore hairstylist (Mo'Nique) descends upon her elegant, uptight sister (Kellita Smith), workaholic proprietor of a tony Beverly Hills salon, who is less than thrilled to see her but starts thawing out as the West Coast edition of the Bronner Brothers' renowned Hair Battle Royal looms and she could use her sister's styling skills. The plot is slender but serviceable, and under Leslie Small's attentive direction, not only do Mo'Nique and Smith excel, but those playing salon staffers — Taraji Henson, Keiko Agena, Cee Cee Michaela et al — also make lively impressions. So do Gina Torres as Smith's former mentor turned nasty rival, and David Ramsey as a photographer, spurned by Smith, who turns his attentions to Mo'Nique. The Hair Battle Royal also offers an amazing display of things having to do with hair.
"Hair Show," rated PG-13 for sexual content, including dialogue. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Exclusively at the Magic Johnson Theaters, (323) 290-5900; the Universal Studios Cinemas, (818) 508-0588; Long Beach Stadium 26, (800) FANDANGO, Ext. 148. 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Focus on 1970s killers in L.A.
Real-life killers such as Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez are often far more frightening than the cinematic Freddy Kruegers and Michael Myers they inspire. That's not the case, however, with "The Hillside Strangler," a garishly slick piece of exploitation with surprisingly high production values but nary a moment of suspense.
Based on a string of L.A.-area murders in 1978 and 1979 originally attributed to one man, the film details the brutal adventures of low-life cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono. The two were later convicted of serially raping, torturing and killing their young female victims, mostly prostitutes. Director Chuck Parello and co-writer Stephen Johnston err in telling the story from the killers' point of view, painting Bianchi as a police-reject mama's boy and Buono as a misogynistic psychopath with mother troubles of his own.
Too tedious to be enjoyed as camp, the film relies on C. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro to ham it up as Bianchi and Buono, respectably, to give it what little energy it possesses. The movie concludes a trilogy of serial killer bios ("Ed Gein" and "Ted Bundy") from producer Hamish McAlpine.
"The Hillside Strangler," unrated. Violence, nudity, sexual situations, language and drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-4010.
A boy's trip into a strange limbo
Eric Small's "The Dust Factory" is a tedious, precious fantasy about a boy faced with choosing between life and death — an endless existence in limbo is actually more like it. Ryan Flynn (Ryan Kelley), who hasn't spoken since he was 9 when his beloved astronomer father died, and now looks to be 13 or so, is crossing an old railroad trestle with a pal when ancient timbers give way, plunging him into deep water far below. As he looks to be drowning he is transported into a limbo, which in fact resembles his neighborhood, bordering on a wilderness area. But there are some significant differences. His grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl), heretofore deep into Alzheimer's, is restored to his lovable, folksy self, all set to dispense a movie's worth of loving wisdom. Grandpa also seems able to walk through walls.
Also on hand is a stranger, Melanie (Hayden Panettiere), a pretty adolescent swathed in long blond hair who can skate on water and who takes Ryan to a circus tent in the midst of a vast field. In order to return to life one must have the courage to jump off a high trapeze and trust in landing safely back into everyday reality. It's not hard to see where this perfectly innocuous little picture is heading.
"The Dust Factory," rated PG for thematic elements and some scary images. Exclusively at the AMC Media Center 8, 3rd Floor, Media City Center Mall, 3rd Street and Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank, (818) 953-9800; Winnetka Stadium 21, Winnetka and Prairie avenues, Chatsworth, (818) 501-5121.
A trip through a tortured mind
" Stephen King's Riding the Bullet" is a dreary tale of psychological horror set in 1969 about a Maine college student ( Jonathan Jackson) who hitchhikes 120 miles to his hometown, where his mother ( Barbara Hershey) has suffered a stroke. Writer-director Mick Garris, in adapting King's first e-book, has already established the student as so mentally unbalanced that his hallucinations have driven him to attempt suicide.
This basket case hitches rides with a reckless hippie draft dodger, a farmer who may be a ghost ( Cliff Robertson) and a scary tormentor ( David Arquette) who may be either a demon — he insists the student choose between his own life and that of his mother — or a figment of the student's imagination.
For that matter, everything that happens to Jackson's Alan seems to be a figment of his imagination, but the movie is so glum and flat-footed there's no reason to care. That Alan was too scared to ride a roller coaster when he was a kid, apparently, is the source of all his derangement. Only Hershey, as Alan's loving mother, manages to bring any reality to the proceedings.
"Stephen King's Riding the Bullet," rated R for violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and some nudity. In general release.
CAPSULE MOVIE REVIEWS