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‘Explicit’ is too obvious

A painterly eye clashes with thematic preachiness in actor-turned-filmmaker Mark Webber’s earnest indie drama “Explicit Ills,” set among inner-city Philadelphians of many colors and ages, and in various stages of tension and release. A 7-year-old asthmatic boy (Francisco Burgos) being raised by a single mom (Rosario Dawson) seems weighed down by world ills as much as his breathing condition. Another family, meanwhile, espouse the virtues of colonics, yoga and vegan living while also agonizing over starting a produce business. And is the drug-fueled romance between the pot dealer (Lou Taylor Pucci) and his cool-chick client (Frankie Shaw) the real thing, or are they falling in love with getting lost?

Initially tuned to an unhurried rhythm not unlike a soulful stroll through a detail-rich neighborhood -- with gifted cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet’s camera in thrall of dilapidated houses and attractive faces alike -- “Explicit Ills” is undone by a deadly twofer: lack of trust in characterization coupled with single-minded faith in spelled-out messages. (Literally too, since the film leads up to a protest march.) As much as the scourge of poverty and inadequate healthcare demand our attention, a movie that too often feels comprised of arty public service announcements can only be considered a lost opportunity.

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-- Robert Abele

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“Explicit Ills.” MPAA rating: R for language and some drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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Soviet ex-pat ina different world

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In 1982, Russian emigre writer-director Slava Tsukerman made a controversial feature debut with “Liquid Sky,” a venturesome and original pitch-dark comedy-fantasy centering on the sex- and drugs-saturated new wave scene in Lower Manhattan. The film’s amusing conceit is that an alien, arriving via a flying saucer, is neither friend nor foe -- he’s just looking for a heroin high.

Tsukerman’s new film, “Perestroika,” is about a man who feels like an alien when he returns to Russia in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Internationally renowned astrophysicist Sasha Greenberg (Sam Robards) had fled Russia in 1975 with the help of an American physicist (Ally Sheedy), who became his wife. Having left a “traitor” who did not want to aid the military -- and who was also fed up with Soviet anti-Semitism -- he returns a hero confronted with a society in chaos yet is expected to expound upon his theory about the coherence of the universe.

He is also experiencing a midlife crisis -- surrounded by his estranged wife; his brilliant, pragmatic former mentor (F. Murray Abraham); his current lover (Jicky Schnee), a documentary filmmaker; and a former flame and colleague (Oksana Stashenko), a single mother with a beautiful daughter (Maria Andreyeva) he might well have fathered.

In this highly personal film, Tsukerman bristles with insights and ideas, pondering even whether it’s God’s plan that man should destroy all life -- yet manages to work his way rigorously toward a note of spirituality. “Perestroika” asks, with a philosophical shrug of the shoulders: Why not try to be optimistic?

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-- Kevin Thomas

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“Perestroika.” MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500.

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‘Super’ is anything but

At one point in the painful spoof “Super Capers,” someone says, “It’s not funny, Ed, not funny at all.” While the speaker is criticizing the movie’s klutzy main character, would-be superhero Ed Gruberman (Justin Whalin), she could just as well be describing the film itself.

Written, produced and directed by Ray Griggs (who appears in it as well), “Super Capers” begins as a campy tribute to comic book heroes and their 1960s and ‘70s TV incarnations, but quickly descends into an ineptly paced, toothless lampoon of sci-fi and fantasy films, particularly those of Mssrs. Spielberg and Lucas. They should sue. (So should Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that’s another story.)

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“Super Capers,” in a curious use of grammar, is actually the name of a halfway house for superheroes in training, where the power-free Gruberman lands alongside a motley crew of equally hapless crime fighters. They eventually tangle with such baddies as the two-faced Dark Winged Vesper (Michael Rooker), the scheming Captain Sludge (Jon Polito) and crooked lawyer Roger Cheatem (Tom Sizemore, in a career low).

Griggs chucks everything against the wall here, but even a cameo by Adam West playing a former caped crusader called Man Bat (get it?) doesn’t stick. This is one filmmaker who needs a super lesson in comic timing.

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-- Gary Goldstein

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“Super Capers.” MPAA rating: PG for mild language, rude humor and brief smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Mann’s Chinese 6, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood (323) 777-3456; AMC’S Loews Broadway 4, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 458-6232.

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Tokyo through three sets of eyes

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The anthology/omnibus film, in which a group of directors make shorts on the same topic or theme, was a popular idea during the golden age of European art cinema, spurring odd little films from the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Fellini and others. The idea has been resurgent again recently, and so it is that filmmakers Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho all made a short work for “Tokyo!” with the city as both a location and centering presence.

For Gondry, who turns in a piece called “Interior Design,” he dials back his trademark whimsy, giving his tender story of Japanese slackers a naturalistic, lived-in feel until a surreal twist. Carax, director of the transcendently indulgent “The Lovers on the Bridge” and making his first film since the inscrutable “Pola X,” creates a work with a rude title (in French anyway) that shall not be printed here. His jape on monster movies and immigration panic stars the wonderful Denis Lavant as a creature who emerges from the sewers.

In the final installment, Korean filmmaker Joon-ho creates “Shaking Tokyo,” an apocalyptic romance about a man afraid to go outside who falls in love with a pizza delivery girl.

By turns playful and melancholy, provocative and sentimental, all three of the shorts that make up “Tokyo!” seem like direct responses to the city itself as well as being jumping-off points for each director’s personal quirks. A fun jaunt around the city and a quick tour of the preoccupations of three leading directors? Now there’s a bargain.

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-- Mark Olsen

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“Tokyo!” MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles. At the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.

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What if Kennedy hadn’t been shot?

“Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived” lives up to its provocative title, even if it’s actually more a look at “what was” than an exercise in “what if?” The brisk documentary posits that, given JFK’s six-time avoidance of war while in office, he likely wouldn’t have embroiled the U.S. in Vietnam had an assassin’s bullet not intervened. In broader terms, it maintains a president’s personality ultimately determines what gets us into -- and out of -- war. Clearly, it’s a timely theory to revisit.

Director Koji Masutani has masterfully assembled a wealth of archival footage, photos and audiotapes, some of which has been recently declassified. A captivating array of speeches, news conferences and high-level conversations reconfirm JFK’s status as one of our nation’s soundest leaders, yet one not without his detractors. As the movie lays out Kennedy’s mettle-testing string of political and military challenges, including potentially disastrous conflicts in Cuba, Berlin and Southeast Asia, it also provides a compelling lesson in 1960s world politics.

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Potent clips of such Kennedy-era notables as Fidel Castro, Andrei Gromyko, Robert S. McNamara and beleaguered hawk Lyndon Johnson, along with on-camera commentary by Brown University professor and historian James G. Blight, round out this stirring treat- ise.

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-- Gary Goldstein

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“Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived.” MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.


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