Oh, to look like Marilyn Monroe

Alejandro Bellame Palacios' "El Tinte de la Fama" ("The Color of Fame") reveals in "El Tinte" how in becoming swept up in a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest, a beautiful but naive young woman ultimately has a possibility for discovering herself -- if she doesn't destroy herself first. It is an assured, graceful film -- Venezuela's entry into the foreign film competition in the 2008 Oscars -- alternately amusing and unsettling, affectionate yet clear-eyed.

Elaiza Gil's lovely Magaly works at a fast-food restaurant and lives with her handsome husband, Arturo (Alberto Alifa), in a large old apartment house in central Caracas that is slated for demolition. When failed singer Arturo's attempt to be a manager of a Luciano Pavarotti impersonator backfires tragically, he insists that Magaly, much against her will, enter the Monroe competition. Gradually, she becomes caught up in the venture, especially when Arturo enlists as an advisor Hector (Miguel Ferrari), who walks the streets in Marilyn drag and is convinced that he is Monroe's reincarnation.

Arturo is smart enough to realize that because nobody actually looks like Marilyn, it doesn't matter that Magaly resemble her all that closely, but what none of them seem to realize or consider is that Magaly's greatest strength is her natural projection of a crucial Marilyn-like vulnerability that sets her apart from her brassy competitors. Bellame Palacios has visual flair and inspires affection for his emotion-charged characters -- even for Arturo, to whom desperate straits quickly inspire desperate measures yet who comes to discover just how much he loves his wife.

-- Kevin Thomas

"El Tinte de la Fama." MPAA rating: Unrated. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

It's concise but

no less enticing

"Somers Town" is a funny and endearing character comedy whose extra-brief, 70-minute running time proves perfectly adequate for its slender, episodic story. Director Shane Meadows, who's become one of the U.K.'s more intriguing talents, never rushes the scenes or his naturalistic actors yet packs in more memorable moments here than most movies twice this one's length.

The picture follows the spontaneous friendship between a pair of lonely teenage boys who meet in the working-class, central London neighborhood known as Somers Town. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose, who starred in Meadows' strong last film "This Is England") is a cheeky, apparently orphaned runaway who's hopped the train from his Midlands hometown for a London adventure. After arriving in the big city and promptly getting mugged, he gloms on to shutterbug Marek (Piotr Jagiello), a shy Polish immigrant who lives with his genial but hard-drinking construction worker dad (Ireneusz Czop). Marek secretly takes in Tomo, and the odd couple share a string of sweet and goofy escapades, which include a few low-rent money-making schemes, getting thoroughly plastered and lusting after a pretty French waitress (Elisa Lasowski). Thanks to Paul Fraser's quirky, deceptively deep script, it's all richer than it may sound.

Evocative black-and-white photography and a stirring soundtrack further enhance this special journey.

-- Gary Goldstein

"Somers Town." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes. In English and Polish with English subtitles. At Landmark's Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles.

A comedy that has lots of souls

Somewhere between the rabbit-hole absurdist comedy of Charlie Kaufman and a navel-gazing Woody Allen film is the somberly humorous indie "Cold Souls" from writer-director Sophie Barthes. Inspired by Jungian writings, moody sci-fi and today's meta-approach to celebrity, Barthes cast bug-eyed, heroically slumped actor Paul Giamatti as himself, a noted thespian stymied by an inner turmoil that's derailing his rehearsals for "Uncle Vanya," which leads him to a company whose founder (David Strathairn) claims to be able to unburden people by extracting the soul, and/or implanting someone else's. (Not missing a chance for a good sight gag, the film reveals Giamatti's soul to look like a chickpea.)

This quaintly goofy premise makes for pointedly neurotic "Sleeper"-ish fun, not to mention nifty digs at our culture of self-reinvention.

But Barthes has Andrei Tarkovsky in mind too, namely in a parallel storyline involving a trafficker named Nina (a haunting Dina Korzun) who uses her body as a mule to import the black-market-sold souls of poor Russians. Combining elements of naturalism, poetic tragedy and dry wit, Barthes shows a patient intelligence often missing from today's scrappier filmmakers, and she makes wonderful use of the gifted Giamatti, one of our more entertaining depressives, who thankfully avoids a wink-wink turn. Although "Cold Souls" can at times feel like a clever short film too thinly feature-ized, at least its brain isn't the size of a chickpea.

-- Robert Abele

"Cold Souls." MPAA rating: PG-13 for nudity and brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In selected theaters.

Hitting the bottle is a huge problem

There's a not-so-new boogeyman in town and it's the bottled water business, whose troubling tentacles are persuasively exposed by director Stephanie Soechtig in her compact, clear-headed documentary "Tapped."

Given the startling statistic that Americans consume 80 million single-serving bottles of water per day, it's no surprise to learn the product is plagued by a firestorm of corporate, health-related and sociopolitical issues. More shocking is that, while municipal water supplies are highly regulated, bottled water (40% of which, the film states, is simply purified tap product) is subject to little or no oversight, helping give such deep-pocketed bottlers as Nestle, Coca-Cola and Pepsi further license to run roughshod over community, medical and environmental concerns. And, "Tapped" contends, there is much to be concerned about, from the toxins that can exist in pre-packaged water to the dangers lurking within the crude oil-derived plastic bottling itself.

Soechtig's cautionary tale is well supported by interviews with a variety of activists, environmentalists, community leaders and, especially, several small-town residents whose health and welfare have been compromised by the encroachment of the bottled water industry. If their stories don't persuade you to ditch the Dasani, vivid shots of how water bottle refuse is turning our oceans into "plastic soup" should do the trick.

-- Gary Goldstein

"Tapped." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. At the Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood.

A funny four days around the manor

Writer-director John McKenzie admittedly fashioned the dark British farce "12 in a Box" after the understated old Ealing Studios comedies ("Kind Hearts and Coronets," "The Ladykillers") rather than take the more typically wacky -- and often tedious -- "slamming doors" approach.

The somewhat familiar premise finds a dozen folks showing up at an opulent (and, yes, boxy-looking) country manor expecting to attend a school reunion, only to discover, via a videotaped message, that they've been randomly chosen by the mansion's dying, heirless owner -- one of the school's elder alumni -- to receive a million pounds apiece, provided they don't leave the grounds for 96 hours. That last bit is, of course, easier said than done as a host of unexpected hurdles -- heart failure, sexual indiscretion, marital discord, an ill-timed robbery and more -- conspire to keep this suddenly greedy bunch from their payday.

McKenzie's smart, if riskier approach forced the filmmaker to concoct spontaneous, character-driven complications to pay off the movie's loaded setup rather than jerry-rigging the plot with some pre-ordained maze of obstacles. The result is a nicely calibrated romp peppered with more than a few genuinely funny moments.

The large cast performs with comic aplomb as McKenzie slowly ratchets up the stakes before going for broke in the final reel. It's jolly good fun.

-- Gary Goldstein

"12 in a Box." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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