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Formulaic, yet fun ‘Bunny’

“Being a centerfold is the highest and most prestigious honor there is,” uber-blond Shelley earnestly declares. “It says, ‘I’m naked in the middle of a magazine. Unfold me!’ ”

Such is the glazed-eyed charm of “The House Bunny,” which is factory made, nothing new . . . and really funny.

The familiar plot finds a misfit sorority about to lose its house unless it can suddenly become popular. Enter Shelley, a sweetly vacant exile from the paradise called the Playboy mansion, who is just spunky and sexy enough to solve everyone’s problems.

The movie benefits from a crisp script by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (“Legally Blonde,” the underrated “She’s the Man”) and a strong supporting cast. But the big rabbit in the room is star Anna Faris, who as the epically ditsy but good-hearted Shelley delivers a flat-out hilarious farce performance.

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Sure, “The House Bunny” adheres to the rally-the-losers schematic of too many other movies. Sure, its tacked-on female-empowerment message is as half-hearted as a cheesy Valentine’s card. But it’s also among the sunnier, funnier films of the year, thanks largely to the zest with which Faris embodies a mental vacuum.

-- Michael Ordona

“The House Bunny.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for sex-related humor, partial nudity and brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In general release.

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Many ‘Dreams’ and many fears

In 1906, eminent novelist Soseki Natsume wrote to a friend saying, “I am an ambitious man who wants the people of 100 years hence to solve my riddle.” A century later, the venerable and venturesome Nikkatsu Studio assembled 11 directors to film Natsume’s “Ten Nights of Dreams.” Each dream has been brought to the screen by a different director, with Yoshitaka Amano and Masaaki Kawahara teaming for the Seventh Dream, a dazzling, shimmering work of animation involving an ocean voyage into the afterlife.

The filmmakers don’t solve any riddles but rather pose them in richly varied ways: “Ten Nights of Dreams” is in the grand, exquisite tradition of the Japanese cinema of the supernatural. Its filmmakers are unified in their stunning sense of the cinematic. Certain motifs run through the sequences, which are all really nightmares, and feature in several instances parents who turn into monsters and children who do the same. They are disquieting yet often amusing expressions of subconscious fears and guilt; sometimes the dreamer turns out to be the villain in his own dream. Sequences vary in the eras in which they take place, and the film has a splendid sense of period, with the everyday and the surreal flowing into each other with ease.

-- Kevin Thomas

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“Ten Nights of Dreams.” MPAA rating: Unrated. In Japanese with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At the ImaginAsian Center, 251 S. Main St., Downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-1033.

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The many sides of Darby Crash

“What We Do Is Secret” doesn’t ask you to like Darby Crash of the seminal L.A. punk band the Germs. Which makes sense. If asked why he mutilated himself onstage or incited riots at shows, he’d probably answer with a gleeful one-fingered salute on his roller coaster to hell.

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First-time writer-director Rodger Grossman bangs out a visceral, energized biopic that captures the vibrant idiocy of punked-out youth and a tortured soul gaining his wish of cult status. The film is far from worshipful of its subject. Grossman allows Crash to be another fool flirting with fascism, an annoying twerp you’d like to strangle but a charismatic one with no inhibitions or fear and a mysterious five-year plan.

Shane West (“E.R.”) conveys Crash’s bristling, undisciplined intellect, his self-loathing and confusion. He enjoys able support, especially from Rick Gonzalez and Bijou Phillips as bandmates Pat Smear (later of Nirvana) and Lorna Doom, respectively. Several stage performances look live, and a muscular sound mix puts the viewer in those sweaty mosh pits.

The last stop of the wild ride is no secret. The reception to Crash’s second band proves the excitement was as much -- or more -- about the scene, the brand-name experience, as anything else. Crash embodies the self-deceiving myth of youthful invulnerability while cultivating the seed of his own supreme vulnerability.

-- Michael Ordona

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“What We Do Is Secret.” MPAA rating: R for drug use, language and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At the NuArt, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223; Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.

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A not-so pretty look at beauty

Well meaning but as hopelessly smeary as a makeup job applied during a bumper-car ride, “America the Beautiful” is writer-director-host Darryl Roberts’ documentary about the pervasiveness of physical ideals, from fashion magazine ads to fragrance production to plastic surgery. But rather than coalesce his large subject into something thought-provoking and pointed, Roberts affects a tone rarely more interesting than low-wattage befuddlement (don’t hate yourselves, ladies), carnival-like fascination (what, designer girl-parts?) and the usual readily available excuse to edit footage of pretty women into music-video-style montages.

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It also doesn’t help that he’s a less-than-stellar interviewer and too enamored of his own “journey” making the film to realize that his experiences auditioning for a website devoted to beautiful people is neither amusing nor revelatory. The tragedy is that “America the Beautiful” actually has a doc-worthy subject in Roberts’ occasional drop-ins on 13-year-old aspiring model Garren Taylor, whose brief hot rise as a lightning rod of is-she-too-young controversy has the makings of a multifaceted story about youthful ambition, parental responsibility and institutionalized danger.

But with so many pointless detours ripping you away, the film feels as lamely digressive as the proverbial one-track guy whose head won’t stop turning as each new temptation walks by.

-- Robert Abele

“America the Beautiful.” MPAA rating: R for some language, including sexual references. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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Sending message that’s too obvious

Based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, “Cthulhu” is repositioned by director Dan Gildark and writer Grant Cogswell from a tale of returning home into an allegory for gay tolerance and acceptance. Having fashioned himself into a respectable big-city college professor, Russell (Jason Cottle) is called back to the small island of his hometown upon his mother’s death. There he finds nearly everyone to be in the grip of an apocalyptic cult led by his father. Somehow Tori Spelling, as a small-town heartbreaker, figures into the mix. “Cthulhu” isn’t awful, but it isn’t particularly compelling either, as Glidark and Cogswell make their message so plain that it robs the story of its broader mysteries.

-- Mark Olsen

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“Cthulhu.” MPAA rating: R for language, some sexuality, nudity and violence. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. At the Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood, (323) 934-4071.


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