Looking back at our folly

It could be the end of the world as we know it, at least according to U.K. filmmaker Franny Armstrong's inventive documentary "The Age of Stupid," which adds a futuristic, sci-fi twist to the vital issue of climate change. Think "An Inconvenient Truth" but with a personality, numerous ones actually, as Armstrong hops the globe interviewing an intriguing cross section of folks -- a Hurricane Katrina victim, a British wind farm developer, an aspiring Nigerian doctor, an elderly French mountain guide, a wealthy Indian entrepreneur and an 8-year-old Iraq war refugee -- whose lives have all been affected by some aspect of the global warming phenomenon. Their stories vividly highlight the various tentacles of the climate change problem and, in some cases, its potential solutions.

At the same time, actor Pete Postlethwaite plays a fictional "last man on Earth" circa 2055, who's holed up in an arctic storage facility looking back, via a giant transparent touch screen, at archival clips and footage of Armstrong's real-people profiles, in an attempt to reconcile how ignoring climate change led to the Earth's "total devastation." Though this narrative device can feel a bit gimmicky and grandiose, it also provides a visual and emotional power that drives home this absorbing film's crucial cautionary message.

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Gary Goldstein --

"The Age of Stupid." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.

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'Homecoming'

is a brutal time

"Misery" loves company, in this case a youth-skewing B-grade redo of that hostage chiller called "Homecoming" that replaces Stephen King's homicidal author fan with an I-will-not-be-denied ex-girlfriend. When college freshman Mike (Matt Long) returns to his blue-collar Pennsylvania hometown over the titular-themed break to see his high school football jersey retired, he brings pretty, rich new squeeze Elizabeth (Jessica Stroup) to introduce everywhere. Mike's old flame Shelby (sad-eyed looker Mischa Barton), who now runs the town bowling alley and harbors rekindling fantasies, is not amused. A late-night road accident puts an injured Elizabeth in Shelby's care, which involves treatment surely missing from the nursing handbook. Director Morgan J. Freeman keeps an appropriately jangly clip at times, and in Barton puts forward a surprisingly funky villainess, in that her stilted line readings and awkwardness as an ax wielder give her whack-job trajectory a nervy kick. (So beautiful! So screwy!) Stroup makes for a strongly sympathetic victim too, her eyes always on the lookout for an escape, even when the ramifications prove violent. But ultimately "Homecoming" feels a little thin for date night heartbeat-racing, neither trashy nor self-consciously funny enough to make its genre-trapped ludicrousness sing.

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Robert Abele --

"Homecoming." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

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Vikings stranded in 1007 America

Tony Stone's "Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America" is not a documentary but an ambitious imagining of events drawn from the Vinland Sagas, the mythic story of the Norse exploration of America. Stone's admirable and persuasive evocation is unfortunately marred by his self-defeating resort to flurries of claustrophobic, fragmented hand-held shots that obfuscate just about every crucial plot development in the film. Reviewers are lucky, for Stone has provided an excellent synopsis of his film, but without it one could surely never be certain as to what was actually happening in this inherently demanding and austere film's most crucial moments.

It's a shame Stone didn't trust in straightforward clarity because the story he tells is solidly constructed and psychologically acute. The year is 1007 and members of a Viking expedition have been left slaughtered on a North American beach by Abenaki Indians -- called the Skraeling by the Vikings. Two Viking scouts, Orn (Stone), who has long, flaming red hair, and the dark, bearded Volnard (Fiore Tedesco), having already gone deeper inland, are left stranded. Their slim hope for survival is to head north at all costs, where another Viking expedition just might come along to rescue them. They are skilled at living off the unspoiled land, but their destinies are shaped by encounters with two Irish priests enslaved by the Norse and inadvertent survivors of a shipwreck, and with the Abenaki.

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Kevin Thomas --

"Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America." MPAA: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. In Old Norse and Abenaki with English subtitles. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

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A queen and a rebel in exile

Nahid Persson Sarvestani's "The Queen and I" represents a remarkable collaboration between two Iranian women of radically different backgrounds who, in the making of this captivating, unexpected documentary, discover more common ground than either might ever have imagined. As a teen, Sarvestani, of a large, impoverished family, became a Communist protester calling for the overthrow of the shah, only to then become disillusioned with the repressive theocratic Islamic Revolution, which summarily executed her 17-year-old brother.

Now living in Sweden, Sarvestani returned to Iran to make two documentaries highly critical of the current regime, for which she was detained by authorities for several months. She then set her sights on attempting a documentary on the widow of the shah of Iran, Empress Farah Diba, who has lived in exile for three decades, mainly in Paris, where she lives in a magnificent town house. She also has a country estate outside Washington, D.C.

After much consideration, Farah Diba gave Sarvestani extraordinary access, telling her in detail of the royal family's flight from Iran, the difficulty in finding refuge abroad, the shah's terminal cancer and the loss of her daughter. When asked about the lack of freedom of expression under the shah, who, when it was too late, promised his people to end "lawlessness, cruelty and corruption," Farah Diba does not flinch and acknowledges the failures of her husband's regime while putting them in the context of the times -- mainly, tremendous pressure from the Soviet Union, which coveted Iranian oil. By the end, the two women realize they share an equal love of their country and long to return to it. "Despite the tragedies and the hardships," says Farah Diba, "I am still laughing and looking to the future."

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Kevin Thomas --

"The Queen and I." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In Farsi with English subtitles. At the Downtown Independent Theater, Los Angeles.

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Her home life

is full of strife

Lori Petty's harrowing "The Poker House" opens with the familiar statement, "Based upon a true story," and ends with the routine disclaimer that "the characters and the events depicted in this photoplay are fictitious" -- which is immediately preceded by a suggestion that actress-artist Petty, as a first-time feature filmmaker, may be drawing upon personal experiences. Regardless of whether the film is all fiction or all true or a mix, it has a ring of truth about it strong enough to sustain a defy-all-odds finish.

"The Poker House" works because its indomitable 14-year-old heroine, Agnes, is so acutely well-drawn and so beautifully played by Jennifer Lawrence. Agnes has had to grow up fast. It's 1976 and she's living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in a small, rundown house with her two younger sisters and their mother Sarah (Selma Blair), a coked-up, alcoholic hooker. Sarah is completely dependent upon her smooth but brutal pimp (Bokeem Woodbine), who runs a poker game in Sarah's living room while she services johns in her bedroom.

Petty focuses on Agnes, steeped in a thirst for knowledge, a stellar basketball player and determined to make a good life for herself and to protect her sisters. The film hinges upon the reality that for all her resilience and wry realism, Agnes is inescapably still only 14 and innocent in ways hidden to herself by the tough-mindedness she has developed simply to survive. Lawrence's shining portrayal is ably supported by a fine cast in this vital, stirring film.

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Kevin Thomas --

"The Poker House." Rated R for language and disturbing content involving a minor, including rape, sexual content and drug/alcohol abuse. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At the Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica; and the Westpark 8, Irvine.

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Dead set on a fevered dream

Pablo Larrain's provocative and original "Tony Manero" is a stinging allegory on the corrosive effects of the Pinochet regime in Chile. It stars formidable Alfredo Castro (also one of the film's writers) as Raul, a 52-year-old dancer who is part of a small troupe who perform numbers from "Saturday Night Fever." The setting is the seedy outskirts of Santiago, Chile, the year, 1978.

Raul is obsessed with "Saturday Night Fever" and John Travolta's iconic Tony Manero. When a popular TV show announces a competition for the best Manero imitator, Raul sees it as the chance of a lifetime -- to win recognition and a cash prize that offers an escape from poverty. Raul's determination to win turns him ruthless, brutal, even criminal.

Larrain evokes the bleakness and oppressiveness of life in a police state with much subtlety even as he poses a much larger question about cultural imperialism. As he indicts the Pinochet regime for creating a climate of fear and poverty that is conducive to escapism, Larrain is also highly critical of those Chileans who so eagerly embrace a foreign -- read U.S. -- pop culture and forsake their own roots.

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Kevin Thomas --

"Tony Manero." MPAA rating: Unrated. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At the Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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