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‘Cowslip’ is an odd flower

Director and co-writer Mark David’s “American Cowslip” is an ambitious but misfired comedy about an agoraphobic junkie, Ethan Inglebrink (Ronnie Gene Blevins, also the film’s co-writer), who hasn’t left his yard in the desert community of Blythe for nine years. Pitch-dark-humor would seem the only possible way to go with such a hero, yet David piles thick layers of sentimentality and kookiness on top of broad, crude humor. David surrounds screen newcomer Blevins, who is longer on energy than charisma, with a formidable array of accomplished veterans, but the garish and over-the-top “American Cowslip” is consistently strained and artificial.

Creating some strong moments, Diane Ladd is cast as Ethan’s doting surrogate mother. She and her friends (Cloris Leachman, Lin Shaye) play poker with him regularly and are under the impression that he’s a diabetic rather than a junkie. His next-door neighbor and landlord is a bombastic old football coach (Rip Torn) who is about to evict him, and Ethan, an unlikely passionate gardener, pins his hopes on raising a rare flower, the American Cowslip, that he believes will win him the $10,000 first prize in the local Garden of the Year contest.

Unaccountably, the 17-year-old girl (Hanna Hall) who lives across the street with her abusive father (Bruce Dern), is drawn to the unkempt, sleazy-looking Ethan, a wistful poseur. Meanwhile, Ethan’s devoutly religious sheriff brother (Val Kilmer) becomes driven to enlist a local priest (Peter Falk, as droll as ever) to perform an exorcism on Ethan.

Although Ethan seems to represent the universal human urge to achieve at least one accomplishment in life, the unfocused “American Cowslip” is far from accomplished itself.

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Kevin Thomas

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“American Cowslip.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. At the Fairfax Cinemas 3, Los Angeles.

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‘Highwater’ rides a beaut of a wave

If there’s such a thing as too much beauty in a film, the surfing documentary “Highwater” is guilty of it. Director-writer-narrator Dana Brown (“Step Into Liquid”), working with cinematographer Steve Matzinger, has crafted a compelling, thoroughly gorgeous look at late 2005’s Triple Crown of Surfing, the granddaddy of big wave championships, which is held yearly on Oahu’s famed North Shore.

Brown (son of “The Endless Summer” helmer Bruce Brown) passionately covers the 55-day, three-tiered event in all its athletic glory, incorporating awesome surfing footage, casual interviews with the contest’s many competitors (including top pros such as Kelly Slater, Sunny Garcia, Chelsea Georgeson and teen sensation Jon-Jon Florence), plus an ample overview of the surfing lifestyle and the North Shore zeitgeist into one vivid, impressively edited package.

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There are no great emotional revelations about the fearless, free-spirited athletes profiled in the film, but these tanned-and-toned folks’ deep love of surfing and mostly cheerful demeanors prove enjoyably infectious (a few disabled surfers seen here couldn’t be more inspiring). On the other hand, though the sport’s darker aspects go generally unexplored, the drowning death of pro surfer Malik Joyeux, which occurred during this Triple Crown, offers a sobering reminder of the enormous risk lurking inside those powerful, captivating waves.

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Gary Goldstein --

“Highwater.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At Regency’s Lido Theatre, Newport Beach.

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‘Orphan’ is stuck between homes

Midway through the loopy horror yarn “Orphan,” the adoptive parents of little 9-year-old Esther are told that “trouble has a way of finding” their little Russian moppet.

This shouldn’t come as a news flash since Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the sole survivor of a house fire that killed the members of her previous family, has already nearly murdered a neighborhood kid and displayed powers of persuasion that would indicate there’s some KGB in her DNA.

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“Orphan,” a product of Joel Silver’s Dark Castle production house, falls squarely into the creepy-kid horror subgenre, though it does offer an envelope-pushing twist that takes it far afield from the usual spawn-of-Satan trappings. Clocking in at more than two hours, the movie teeters between psychological horror and violent blood-letting and, as such, probably won’t completely satisfy fans in either camp.

The film does boast fine, slumming performances from Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, playing Kate and John, the couple coping with Esther’s alarming antics. Fresh off a stillbirth and dealing with Kate’s crippling alcoholism and John’s wandering eye, these folks probably aren’t ideal candidates for adoption. But St. Mariana’s Home for Girls doesn’t seem to be big on background checks -- for prospective parents or its own charges -- so it’s best not to get hung up on such details.

Farmiga’s involvement is curious, since she just went down the mother-of-a-monster-child route two years ago with the superior “Joshua.” More curious is Fuhrman’s participation. Is the inevitable therapy worth the title role?

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Glenn Whipp --

“Orphan.” MPAA rating: R for disturbing violent content, sex and language. In general release.

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Seems to ‘Shrink’ from reality

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Ironically for a film revolving around psychotherapy, “Shrink” doesn’t stand up to analysis.

Director Jonas Pate and screenwriter Thomas Moffett have turned this strongly cast, potentially smart tale of personal intersection among a mostly rarefied group of Los Angelenos into an irritating and unconvincing slog.

It’s bad enough that Moffett paints his overly familiar characters with such a broad brush (along with creating one of the least professional shrinks ever), but Pate pushes the wobbly material too hard, as if relying on grand gestures and unglamorous close-ups will somehow make the film’s damaged folks more believable or involving.

Instead, grieving, widowed, pot-dependent therapist Henry Carter (Kevin Spacey) and his stuck-in-Hollywood-hell clients -- an aging iconic actress (Saffron Burrows); a blocked screenwriter (Mark Webber); an addictive veteran actor (Robin Williams, uncredited); and a hyper-obnoxious agent with OCD (Dallas Roberts), whose own troubled clients include a tortured Irish movie star (Jack Huston) -- simply come off more cringe-worthy than engaging.

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Only Carter’s pro bono patient Jemma (Keke Palmer), a teenage movie buff haunted by loss, and Daisy (Pell James), the agent’s saintly assistant, feel real, but they too are undermined by the film’s egregious contrivances and emotional leap-frogging.

Nice use of L.A. locales, though.

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Gary Goldstein --

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“Shrink.” MPAA rating: R for drug content throughout, and pervasive language including some sexual references. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At the Landmark, West Los Angeles.

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Mrs. Goldberg is on-screen again

Though most may consider Lucille Ball the “First Lady of Television,” that title actually belongs to Gertrude Berg, a talented and tenacious actor-writer-producer who created and starred on “The Goldbergs,” an influential, highly successful TV show about a tight-knit Jewish family in the Bronx. The series, which originated on the radio in 1929, had its small-screen debut in 1949 and firmly established the domestic sitcom as a TV staple. Berg’s warm and earthy performance as matriarch Molly Goldberg captivated Jews and non-Jews alike, and won her the first best actress Emmy Award. Along the way, Berg boldly navigated such minefields as anti-Semitism and the Hollywood blacklist.

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Her life and achievements are lovingly chronicled by filmmaker Aviva Kempner in the entertaining, nostalgic and well-organized documentary “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.”

Utilizing vast archival (and some fictional) period footage; photos, sound bites and film clips from “The Goldbergs’ ” radio and TV incarnations; interviews with Berg’s surviving family members, acquaintances, costars and (often famous) fans, Kempner creates a poignant reminder of one of the most influential, if now largely forgotten, great ladies of entertainment.

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Gary Goldstein --

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“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino; Edwards’ Westpark 8, Irvine.

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calendar@latimes.com


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