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‘Kissing Frogs’ is more fun than it sounds like

No wonder “Tired of Kissing Frogs” was big box office in Mexico. It’s a delightful romantic comedy, traditional in form but contemporary in feeling. It has a great look, a scintillating cast and a bouncy pace. Its talented star, Ana Serradilla, her distinctive supporting players and her shrewd director, Jorge Colon, and his clutch of writers can catch a viewer by surprise with the film’s deft finish.

Suspense builds as to whether Serradilla’s Martha will lose her chance at true love by a mix of shortsighted attitudes, misunderstandings and just plain bad luck. This heretofore frothy film becomes a reminder that even a person as privileged as Martha is vulnerable to the capriciousness of fate, making it possible to care more about her than one would have imagined.

When Martha confirms her suspicions that her wealthy attorney fiance (Juan Manuel Bernal) may be straying, she signs on to an Internet dating service. The perils are amusingly predictable, but meanwhile her fiance doggedly tries to win her back even as an aspiring young actor (Jose Maria de Tavira), who serves her coffee in a cafe every morning, falls in love with her in silence. To its credit, “Tired of Kissing Frogs” has a zesty, turn-the-tables feminist spirit without weighing itself down with a heavy-handed attack on machismo; it’s possible to imagine Martha ending up with either suitor as a happy ending -- or, sadly, with neither man.

-- Kevin Thomas

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“Tired of Kissing Frogs.” MPAA rating: R for sexual content and some language. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In general release.

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The emperor of the velvet rope

Forever standing outside but acting like he’s inside, the club doorman is a power position that Manhattan night-lifers love to hate -- and a surprisingly ripe subject for a mockumentary about the cruel allure of glittery access. “The Doorman” is filmmaker Wayne Price’s “Borat"-ish attempt at a character comedy in which an arrogant, air-kissing velvet-rope holder named Trevor W. (Lucas Akoskin) wields his gatekeeper prowess -- sifting out the flawed from the flawless at hot spots, Fashion Week and even a rock star’s bus -- until the camera crew following him (led by Price himself) begins to notice the unmistakable sense that Trevor is on his 15th minute. Seemingly most of the cast is played by “Himself” or “Herself” -- club impresarios, doormen, media types and celebrities along for the gag -- but Price keeps the humor believably shallow and the movie from getting too far from the aim of chronicling an exclusivity junkie’s fall. (With only a few forced bits at the end does it betray its roots as an idea for an “SNL"-like skit.)

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Most important, the Argentina-born Akoskin exudes a winningly empty-headed charisma, even managing a trenchant scene of pitiable fame-conscious confusion when, faced with his documentarian’s proof that he’s jobless, our Euro-tragique hero can’t figure out whether the camera should be on him or off him for his most vulnerable moment.

-- Robert Abele

“The Doorman.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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It’s late to the spoof shootout

Cult director Takashi Miike’s English-language “Sukiyaki Western Django” has style to burn but self-destructs like a wildfire as it attempts to spoof spaghetti westerns -- a passe endeavor -- and Sergio Corbucci’s “Django” (1966) in particular. “Sukiyaki” is all but impossible to follow, which means its deliberate use of cliche dialogue -- “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” -- grows tedious, and its extreme violence, meant to be a darkly absurdist put-on, becomes a turnoff. Not even a brief appearance by Quentin Tarantino and a ton of references to other movies enlivens the proceedings much.

Amid a thicket of characters and complications, the film is, for all its inscrutable bravura, an oft-told tale of two clans -- or gangs -- vying to snag a trunk full of gold nuggets hidden in a mountain town. The film’s strongest element is Takashi Sasaki’s inspired production design, which conflates the look of a frontier town in a western with that of a village in a samurai movie in a way that is boldly imaginative and engaging -- qualities seriously lacking in the picture otherwise.

Admirers of such audacious and distinctive Miike films as “Audition” (2000), an unforgettably chilling example of the potency of unspeakable horror completing itself in the viewer’s imagination, or the pitch-black family comedy “The Happiness of the Katakuris” (2002) may well be disappointed. But “Sukiyaki Western Django” cannot be said to be without a point, as familiar as it is: that the machine gun and the pistol are mightier than the sword.

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-- Kevin Thomas

“Sukiyaki Western Django.” MPAA rating: R for strong violence, including a rape. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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Portraiture talent runs in the family

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Exploring the life and work of his grandmother, the esteemed portrait painter Alice Neel (1900-84), filmmaker Andrew Neel might have leaned toward hagiography or cathartic expose. But his documentary is as nuanced and complex as its subject, as compelling as her piercingly intense canvases. The finely crafted “Alice Neel” is at once tribute, investigative journalism and messy family drama.

Fellow painters, friends and art historians offer clear-eyed recollections of Neel, who inspires awe -- some of it uneasy -- but never sentimentality. The most fascinating witnesses are Neel’s two sons: the director’s father, Hartley, and his older half-brother, Richard, raised in material poverty and bohemian riches by a single mother who had already experienced devastating losses. Despite the adversities they faced as kids -- especially Richard, whom Neel failed to protect from her violent lover -- they hold no grudges and defend her right to shun conformity and pursue her muse.

It was an obsessive pursuit. Turning her back on Greenwich Village hipsterism, Neel worked for years in relative obscurity. Her adamantly psychological portraits couldn’t have been more unfashionable during the postwar ascendance of Abstract Expressionism. She was “an open nerve,” the filmmaker conjectures. Tapping straight into that restless passion, he doesn’t attempt to allay troubling questions about the artist’s life, and his film is all the more moving as a result.

-- Sheri Linden

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“Alice Neel.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. At the Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Regency’s South Coast, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 557-5701.

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A sex comedy that fails at both

“Young People . . . " Generic title, generic movie. Four couples and one threesome make for a cross-cut quintet of bedroom sketches in director and co-writer Martin Gero’s coitus-in-the-round, divided up further into parts labeled “Prelude,” “Foreplay,” etc. All the compartmentalization and quickie characterization mask an insight-less, unerotic romp, however: young people talking raunch but not saying anything interesting. Experimentation seems to be a theme: the close friends (Carly Pope, co-writer Aaron Abrams) trying out sex, the womanizer (Callum Blue) testing out honesty with a first date (Diora Baird), the joyless marrieds (Kristin Booth, Josh Dean) whipping out a sex toy, the exes (Sonja Bennett, Josh Cooke) looking to reconnect and the dude (Ennis Esmer) letting his nerdy roommate (Peter Oldring) in on action with his girlfriend (Natalie Lisinska). So much experimenting and yet this “Love American Style"-deep exercise is straight, white and model-hot all the way, with a Penthouse Forum mind-set of women being sexually voracious and men fumbling to catch up (and ultimately loving it). Ugh. The cast tries but rarely achieves an authenticity of emotional intimacy, as if everyone knows they’re going to be cut away from -- how else to say it? -- prematurely.

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-- Robert Abele

“Young People. . .” MPAA rating: Unrated. Runing time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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Patriotic survey of the nation

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As our presidential election season gets prickly and nasty, those looking for a pro-USA movie to hit you over the head so strongly with inspirational drama that you’ll see stars and stripes might want to seek out “Proud American.” Cynics, however, should stay away from all the nuance-free, idealized sincerity washing over the screen.

An overdose of uplift scored for maximum symphonic sweep with love-this-country pop songs, filmmaker Fred Ashman’s effort is an achingly positive hodgepodge of Imax-ready homeland vistas, first-person accounts of bootstrap success and dramatized vignettes of hardscrabble lives rewarded by Hard Work.

But aside from a few, thankfully, professionally acted performances, it too often carries the preachy, stilted aura of something you’d see in civics class or at a trade show. (Ashman’s background, what do you know, is in corporate media.)

Sussing out this sell-job’s politics is tricky. The film lovingly shows immigrants becoming U.S. citizens but reserves a lecture on personal responsibility for a scene in a black church. War memorials come in for a montage but so do houses of worship from every major religion. Perhaps most suspiciously, it kneels at the altar of free enterprise and small business but was “sponsored” by megachurches Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Wal-Mart and American Airlines. Logo, meet flag pin.

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-- Robert Abele

“Proud American.” MPAA rating: PG for some mild thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. In general release.


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