When a movie is based on an unsolved murder, it's tough to avoid an anticlimactic ending. After all, there's a reason mysteries are also called whodunits. That's why "The Alphabet Killer," inspired by the 1970s slayings of three Rochester, N.Y., schoolgirls -- all with double initials -- is ultimately so unsatisfying.
Although it offers an intriguing main character in Megan Paige (Eliza Dushku), a police detective whose inability to solve a young girl's brutal rape and murder leads to a mental breakdown, the perpetrator concocted here is too predictable to come off like anything more than the token conjecture he, in fact, is.
It's too bad there was no way around the story's inherent deficit since this effectively unsettling film, directed by Rob Schmidt ("Wrong Turn"), chugs along quite well for a while, at least until Megan's emotional baggage overtakes the clearly dead-end investigation.
Dushku and supporting players Timothy Hutton, Cary Elwes and Tom Malloy (who also scripted) turn in proficient performances, as do Melissa Leo and Martin Donovan in brief cameos.
-- Gary Goldstein
"The Alphabet Killer." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.
Sexual escapades with no feeling
In regard to gay themes, Israeli cinema has long been one of the most progressive in the world. It typically treats sex, gay or straight, with a matter-of-fact candor. When it comes to sex, Yair Hochner's "Antarctica" pushes the envelope to just this side of hard core.
Its key character Omer (Tomer Ilan) is facing 30, which causes him to realize his life lacks purpose, but then he is distracted, as are his many friends, by a never-ending series of sexual encounters with men as young and good-looking as he is. Meanwhile, his sister (Lucy Dubinchik) has decided to break off an engagement to marry and pursue her feelings for her employer (Liat Ekta), proprietor of a trendy coffeehouse. The pleasure-seeking world of Omer is much the same as that of "The Bubble," but in that superb film the realities of the chronic Israeli-Palestinian conflict intruded in an inspired manner. The best that Hochner can come up with to give a little substance to his romantic comedy is to invent a ditzy novelist (Rivka Neuman) with very bad hair who insists that aliens are going to land in central Tel Aviv.
Alas, "Antarctica" is as silly as it is sexy. Hochner is terrific at staging intimate encounters, and he gets his story off to a lively start -- only to run out of ideas and momentum.
-- Kevin Thomas
"Antarctica." MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, including graphic dialogue, nudity and language. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In Hebrew, with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 934-2944.
Boys will be boys, even on duty
"B.O.H.I.C.A." (that's military-speak for "Bend Over, Here It Comes Again") makes the most of its single setting and small, well-chosen cast, but otherwise never gels into the stirring antiwar statement it clearly aspires to be.
The film covers 24 hours in the lives of four U.S. Army reservists stuck on an inexplicable mission in the American-occupied Afghanistan desert (actually shot in rugged Agua Dulce, Calif). Bored to death, the quartet, which includes the laid-back Lt. Busche (Matthew Del Negro), devout Rivera (Nicholas Gonzalez), high-strung Dean (Jaime McAdams) and the loquacious Fish (Brendan Sexton III), spend their time talking trash, bickering, smoking the local weed, "taking turns" with the communal porn stack and debating everything from religion to blood diamonds.
Unfortunately, it takes director D.J. Paul a while to lend shape to this chatty, free-form material -- it would really make a better stage play -- and to distinguish writer Joseph "Bo" Colen's authentic-sounding but unevenly drawn characters.
Things pick up with the arrival of an airdropped beer keg and, later, a dubious pair of sidetracked soldiers (Kevin Weisman, Adam Rodriguez), but it's mostly more yakking and macho posturing until a third-act skirmish that's unconvincing despite its obvious importance.
-- Gary Goldstein
"B.O.H.I.C.A." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Exclusively at the Regency Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 655-4010.
Jewish legacy on basketball court
Long before Dr. J laced up his first pair of Chuck Taylors, basketball had stars like Sonny Hertzberg and Barney Sedran, players who honed their skills at the Jewish settlement houses of New York's Lower East Side.
The children of immigrants gravitated toward the game because it was cheap and easy to play; Jerry Fleishman, who spent five seasons with the Philadelphia Warriors, recalls chucking a balled-up newspaper through the bottom rung of a fire-escape ladder when proper equipment was too dear to come by.
David Vyorst's documentary, "The First Basket," reminiscences about the old days with players like Ossie Schectman, who sank the NBA's first two-pointer, and charts the dwindling Jewish presence on the hardwood as prospering families moved out of the cities and a desegregated NBA admitted its first African Americans.
Narrated by Peter Riegert, "The First Basket" doesn't get far beyond the surface of its subject, apart from a brief discussion of whether a devotion to athletics conflicts with the Jewish intellectual ideal. But it uncovers a fascinating and largely forgotten chapter of the game's history that is well worth revisiting.
-- Sam Adams
"The First Basket." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.
Stage to screen, ineffectively
No self-respecting Metallica fan can forget the band's video for "One," with its excerpts from Dalton Trumbo's 1971 adaptation of his novel "Johnny Got His Gun." In flat black and white, a blind, deaf and mute quadruple amputee screams silently for mercy from a hospital bed, his spasming body attended by a flotilla of diffident doctors.
There's nothing half so memorable in Rowan Joseph's film, whose source is Bradley Rand Smith's stage play. Ben McKenzie plays the central, and in this version, only character, a battlefield casualty of World War I whose injuries have severed every link with the outside world. Interior monologue is all he has left, and monologue he does, at increasingly strident and rapidly exhausting length.
Joseph, a longtime theater director, deploys a few nifty effects to enliven his black-box staging, like a blue-tinged dry-ice fog that envelops McKenzie as he recalls going fishing with his father. But he has no idea how to scale down a performance for the screen.
Trumbo's aim was a kind of proletarian poetry, but McKenzie's broad emoting has the deadly earnestness of a school play. All that survives of Trumbo's original is his hysteria, a shrieking broadside against the inhumanity of combat originally published on the eve of World War II.
-- Sam Adams
"Johnny Got His Gun." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.