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Muscling in on noir, but weakly

“Break” contains all the elements you’d expect from a hard-boiled Quentin Tarantino knockoff: the complicated hit men, the fetishes, the blood baths, not to mention the presence of Michael Madsen and David Carradine.

There are enough small touches to sporadically hold your interest through the scant running time of this flashback-laden thriller, which manages to include a folkie chanteuse, a little person on a leash and a bodyguard named Haiku (Matthew Jones) who -- you guessed it -- speaks only in 5-7-5-syllable verse form.

The bare-bones plot revolves around a dying crime boss (Chad Everett) who hires favorite assassin Frank (Frank Krueger) to murder him and the Woman (Sarah Thompson) he loves. Frank is the only character sporting an actual name (in addition to the Woman, there’s the Associate, the Bishop and the China Man, among many others) and he also owns a secret that will complicate his latest assignment.

Just as it isn’t difficult to guess the particulars of Frank’s past, it’s not too hard to figure out exactly where “Break” is heading. Nor is it all that interesting, thanks to Krueger’s bland blankness in the lead role. Writer-director Marc Clebanoff does sneak in the occasional change-up, shifting the movie from noir to kung-fu slapstick, demonstrating, I suppose, that he has seen the “Kill Bill” movies as well as “Reservoir Dogs.”

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To which Haiku might say:

Mr. Blond now Gray

Tarantino a shadow

He has my number

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Glenn Whipp --

“Break.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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An armchair tour of one man’s mind

In filmmaker Daniel Burman’s psychoanalytical comedy-drama “Empty Nest,” a celebrated middle-aged Argentine playwright (Oscar Martinez) takes to his beloved armchair after an exasperating dinner party and a fight with his wife, Martha (Cecilia Roth), only to embark on a quasi-surreal version of his life that makes his greatest fears and desires more palpable than anything else.

Mixed in with Leonardo’s escalating preoccupations -- his wife and grown children drifting from him, writer’s ennui, a sexy orthodontist -- are moments of surreality: flying toy planes with his daughter, an ever-present neurologist commenting on his situation, even a musical sequence with a marching band. Burman may not be Fellini but he has an enjoyably frisky eye for comic detail and never takes his protagonist’s dilemma so seriously that we lose the playfulness of his mind-over-memory construct.

The winning performances from Martinez and Roth, and a percussively bumpy, jazzy score, help in that regard. But in the end, it all can’t help feeling a little slight, more a pleasant wade into a writer’s neurotic playground than a satisfyingly deep dip.

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Robert Abele --

“Empty Nest.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.

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Crime trumps its human potential

Less is famously said to be more, but sometimes it’s simply not enough. That’s the case with writer-director Josh Evans’ “Everybody Dies.” Evans’ first two films, “Inside the Goldmine” (1994) and “Glam” (1997), were harrowingly personal and at the same time engaging, but “The Price of Air” (2000) ventured from a strong core relationship to a conventional crime plot. “Everybody Dies” is so minimalist that it barely exists in any aspect.

Sergio D’Amato’s Jake is a lean, craggy, raspy-voiced hit man hired to eliminate Charis Michelsen’s Nina, a tough-chick type, who says she went to a Hollywood motel to give a guy a massage and ended up killing him in self-defense. Whoever the dead man was, his cohorts want Nina rubbed out. However, mutual attraction sparks between the moody Jake and the sullen Nina, and they swiftly end up on the run. They and those they encounter are so relentlessly obscure that the film offers little reason to even watch it play out.

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Kevin Thomas --

“Everybody Dies.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes. At the Regency Fairfax Theater, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 655-4010.

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Heady thoughts, eye-candy venues

It won’t be everybody’s idea of entertainment but the heady documentary “Examined Life” provides a sound forum for an influential cross-section of professional thinkers to theorize on such weighty topics as life and death, politics, the environment and disabilities. Director-writer Astra Taylor wisely avoids turning this talk fest into a talking heads fest by filming these effusive intellectuals in a variety of visually diverting, real-world environments. So, when such high-minded matters as cosmopolitanism, social contracting and conspicuous consumption become too ponderous, you can zone out to the bustle of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and Times Square, the beauty of Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive or the bohemian vibrancy of San Francisco’s Mission District.

Taylor spends about 10 minutes apiece with seven notable philosophers, including Slavoj Zizek, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt and Judith Butler (who appears in the film’s most effective portion with Taylor’s disabled sister, Sunaura), as they walk, wander and, in one case, row through the movie’s various settings. It’s just enough time to sample their thought processes, digest their arcane musings and pluck out one or two memorable quotes. However, Taylor’s choice to hand over three such segments to her eighth “star” -- academic, allusion-heavy bloviator Cornel West -- needed rethinking.

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Gary Goldstein --

“Examined Life.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. At Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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A conflict bitter at its root

A tale of encroachment and entrenchment -- and, perhaps, the perils of undernourishment -- Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis’ drama “Lemon Tree” pits Salma, a lonely Palestinian widow (Hiam Abbass) tending a family lemon grove in her West Bank village, against a slick Israeli defense minister (Doron Tavory) building his new house on the green line border that abuts her property.

When his security forces declare her shade-giving trees a threat, he orders them uprooted, spurring a court fight from Salma. Riklis, turning once again to boundary issues after his wedding saga “The Syrian Bride,” runs with his geopolitical metaphor, fashioning a battle of wills both bitter -- the demise of an occupied woman’s livelihood, an arrogant neighbor’s thoughtlessness -- and sweet, as when Salma finds romantic camaraderie with her young, worldly Palestinian attorney (Ali Suliman).

Despite Riklis’ sometimes clunky thematic restlessness -- veering from media satire to patriarchal drama to jokes about clueless security guards -- “Lemon Tree” is in its best moments a sober-hearted take on the righteous blowback from whittled-away souls, and a movie that invariably rights itself with each return to the beautifully steely gaze of Abbass. A ship’s prow figure of melancholy fortitude, Abbass can suggest more about the weight of the world with each tying of a head scarf than many actors armed with reams of dialogue.

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Robert Abele --

“Lemon Tree.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 106 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; and Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

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Where porn takes the prize

Though ultimately an 80-minute promo for his coffee-table book about the adult film world, Michael Grecco’s “Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look at an X-rated Industry” is an entertaining, adeptly crafted documentary that treats its provocative subject matter with refreshing respect. Top celebrity portrait photographer Grecco turned his cameras on the 2006 and 2007 Adult Video News Awards -- “The Oscars of Porn” -- and their accompanying conventions, during which he held a dizzying number of photo shoots with the events’ anything-goes participants.

Grecco vividly captures an eclectic array of newer and veteran porn stars (with an emphasis on the ladies), along with the various fans, fetishists and sex gear vendors who descend upon Las Vegas for these four-day extravaganzas. In order to “take pictures that tell a story” for an eventual fine art companion book, Grecco attempts to dig beneath the shapely surfaces of such adult movie actresses as Sunny Lane, Joanna Angel, Nautica Thorn and Janine Lindemulder as he expertly snaps away. The emotions he unearths aren’t terribly deep, but these candid conversations and backstage glimpses help frame these self-described exhibitionists as real people filled with ambition, savvy and, most of all, pride in their work -- things the talented Grecco clearly has as well.

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Gary Goldstein --

“Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look at an X-rated Industry.” MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.

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Riding a wave to maturity

Writer-director Dan Castle’s captivating “Newcastle” is that rarity, a surfer film in which its story and its people count for more than its surfing sequences, exciting as they are. “Newcastle” takes its title from a spacious and sunny seaside town that is a surfers’ paradise, yet tousle-haired, blue-eyed Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan) realizes that winning the upcoming Junior Surf Pro final is his only escape from working on a dry dock with his father (Shane Jacobson). A week before the final contest, Jesse and his buddies take off -- with a couple of girls and plenty of beer -- for a weekend of surfing and carousing at spectacular nearby Stockton Dunes. Tagging along is Jesse’s dark-haired fraternal twin brother, Fergus (Xavier Samuel), who is considered a nerd by his twin because he’s not a surfer.

When Fergus runs off after Jesse lashes out at him with a homosexual slur, Jesse’s key surfing rival, Andy (Kirk Jenkins), follows to comfort him. Fergus is clearly drawn to the handsome Andy, who has no trouble accepting Fergus. They become friends, though the relationship is not further explored. In the meantime, Fergus finally rides a wave and an older half-brother enters the picture to cause trouble.

“Newcastle” darkens but, in the process, Jesse commences maturing from boy to man. The film’s photogenic setting inspired the story that Castle tells with such vigor and passion, and the result is a beautiful film, charged with energy and sensitivity.

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Kevin Thomas --

“Newcastle.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.


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