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A woman’s sacrifice

If Adrian Lyne directed a racy Lifetime movie, then asked Danielle Steel what to call it, you’d pretty much have “Never Forever,” a sudsy chamber piece that’s engrossing despite its many plot holes and contrivances.

The film’s chief calling card is star Vera Farmiga (“Down to the Bone,” “Breaking and Entering”). Her Sophie Lee is a buttoned-up suburban housewife whose inability to conceive with her sterile, Korean American lawyer husband, Andrew (David L. McInnis), drives her to commit a daring act of self-sacrifice. It’s a quietly effective portrayal that uniquely balances restraint and abandon -- often at the same moment.

But it’s Sophie’s shame at hiring a job-juggling, Korean immigrant named Jihah (Jung-woo Ha) to secretly father the child Andrew can’t -- and thereby save both her marriage and her depressed husband’s life -- that truly informs Farmiga’s work here. She makes the humiliation Sophie feels during her business-only liaisons with Jihah in his Lower Manhattan hovel so achingly tangible all that’s missing is the scarlet “A.”

Writer-director Gina Kim eventually throws in an unexpected twist that adds welcome energy to this low-key melodrama and almost makes you believe Sophie’s choice is worth the journey.

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-- Gary Goldstein

“Never Forever.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In English and Korean with English subtitles. At the ImaginAsian Center, 251 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 617-1033.

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An ode to ‘70s sexploitation

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Those swinging, cocktailing, shag-carpeted days of the early 1970s are re-created with near-fetishistic precision in “Viva,” a kooky homage to the era’s if-it-feels-good-do-it sexploitation films. While writer-director-star Anna Biller often strikes an uneasy balance between camp and spoof, milks the jokes either too much or too little, and isn’t a good enough actress to play a bad one (the performances here are purposely arch or vacuous), she’s concocted a curio that’s as watchable for its intended awfulness as for the morbid curiosity it prompts about what will come next.

Biller, an epic multitasker (she also produced and edited, plus designed the film’s kicky sets, costumes and music), plays Barbi, an itchy L.A. housewife circa 1972 who dives headfirst into the sexual revolution after her Ken-doll hubby (Chad England) flies the coop. Barbi reinvents herself as the wildly liberated “Viva” and, along with game gal pal Sheila (a spot-on Bridget Brno), ricochets from man to badly wigged man, stopping for the occasional orgy, drug trip and bisexual toe-dip. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

With its copious nudity and zipless hedonism, “Viva,” though unduly long, is a crafty reminder of a time when the X rating was flaunted, not feared.

-- G.G.

“Viva.” Unrated. Running time: 2 hours. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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Too close for a good perspective

With its conspiracy theories, international intrigue, juicy array of bad guys and famed political martyr at its core, the documentary “Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File” contains enough explosive material to launch Jason Bourne’s next big-screen assignment. Sadly, Andrei Nekrasov’s investigative take on 2006’s fatal polonium-210 poisoning of dissident former KGB (and post-Communism FSB) agent Alexander Litvinenko by, allegedly, minions of Russian President Vladmir V. Putin, is no crackerjack action flick but rather a dizzying, unfocused and, frankly, dull assemblage of revelations and denials.

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Perhaps Nekrasov, a filmmaker, playwright and actor whose friendship with Litvinenko inspired the movie, was simply too close to this alarming chapter of recent Russian history to find a truly objective, much less engrossing way to present the complex story. Ultimately, his approach is too eager and sensationalistic (let’s start with that title!) to feel wholly credible, even when presenting generally accepted facts about Putin’s repressive regime.

Nekrasov shuffles a vast amount of video diary footage, archival film and news reportage here, but it’s the overlong, unusually flat interview clips with Litvinenko, his wife, Marina, and other connected observers that exhaust what could have been a fascinating chronicle of governmental corruption and retribution.

-- G.G.

“Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. In Russian, English, German and French with English subtitles. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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Royal intrigue in Swaziland

As Michael Skolnik’s documentary “Without the King” shows with patient force, if it’s good to be the king in the tiny African country of Swaziland, it’s bad to be a subject.

Beset by crushing poverty, political oppression and an unconscionable AIDS prevalence rate of 42.2%, Swaziland’s people suffer while its leader of two decades, King Mswati III, enjoys a life of brazen opulence -- many wives, palaces, luxury cars, a jet -- under the justification that a tradition of absolute monarchy preserves the country’s culture. Mswati ratified a new constitution two years ago, but it kept in place a long-standing ban on political parties and gives him near total power, and as a handful of interviewed activists shows, the seeds of civil war are never far from sprouting. What could save Swaziland, however, is the king’s oldest daughter, the pretty, vivacious Princess Sikhanyiso, who Skolnik documents attending her first year at evangelical Biola University in La Mirada.

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It’s when she returns to her homeland and sparks to the grim realities of life outside the palace, and wrestles with acknowledging the ineffectiveness of her father’s rule, that “Without the King” transitions nicely from standard operating crisis report to a portrait of a hopeful political awakening.

-- Robert Abele

“Without the King.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.


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