Monster movie sendup
You’ve probably never seen anything like “Big Man Japan” (“Dai-Nipponjin,” literally “Great Japanese”). It’s a mockumentary following an ordinary schmo who goes to work as a skyscraper-size Japanese superhero, the kind who takes on mammoth insects in ‘50s monster movies.
The brainchild of renowned Japanese comedy figure Hitoshi Matsumoto, the film presents the hero in his normal, human size as a profoundly lonely figure, as Dai-Nipponjin is severely underappreciated by the public he protects. Touching details dot the characterization, such as his gentleness toward a neighborhood cat and the presence of a child’s play-set engulfed by his overgrown yard.
In the computer-animated battle scenes, the filmmakers convey the miniature-set look of Toho monster movies. The clashes make savvy use of genre cliches, but are bizarre, confused affairs that seem as verite as the mockumentary’s interviews.
The film has slow sections that test the viewer’s patience. But it also touches on themes of family, heroism and nationalism, and the finale, which has plenty of surprises and rewarding references for fans of the genre, is worth the wait.
Michael Ordona --
“Big Man Japan.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action and crude humor. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles. Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.
Making peace with warrior sibs
“Brothers at War” follows actor-turned-filmmaker Jake Rademacher’s personal journey to bond with his brothers Isaac and Joe, two U.S. Army officers. The documentary, which was shot at home and “over there,” touches on many truths about military service but, despite its big heart, never finds a satisfying enough structure or viewpoint to give it an actual center.
In addition, for a film tied to Iraq war (Rademacher embeds with four active combat units, the first while visiting Isaac and Joe), it lacks context. It’s fine, even admirable, that the movie is decidedly nonpartisan -- the soldiers seen here are mainly “duty first” types -- but that can also make things seem a bit generic.
The picture also loses steam in its latter third during Rademacher’s perilous return trip to Iraq to, essentially, prove his mettle to the skeptical Joe.
Still, Rademacher’s vigorous commitment to making the documentary, as well as to his large, close-knit family, deserves respect.
Gary Goldstein --
“Brothers at War.” MPAA rating: R for language and a brief war image. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. AMC’s Loews Broadway 4, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 458-6232.
Love triangle in Germany
Christian Petzold’s engrossing “Jerichow” plays like an inspired contemporary variation on “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with fresh complexities and bleak irony. The setting is rural Northeastern Germany, a region as rich in natural settings as it is impoverished economically.
Turk emigre, Ali (Hilmi Sozer), through hard work, has become the owner of 45 lucrative snack stands scattered across the countryside. A German woman with a troubled past, Laura (Nina Hoss) has married him for convenience rather than love but proves to be an industrious helpmate.
When Ali, who tends to mix drinking and driving, has his driver’s license rescinded, he hires a driver, Thomas (Benno Furmann), a former soldier who is deep in debt. But soon, Thomas and the pretty Laura develop an intense attraction to one another.
Petzold, who has a crisp style and sharp sense of the visual, is too talented and imaginative to allow his film to become predictable. Rather, “Jerichow” offers implicit, sardonic social comment as well as a compelling playing out of the eternal triangle. He gives the film’s best line to Laura, who remarks to Thomas, “You can’t love if you don’t have money -- that’s what I know.”
Kevin Thomas --
“Jerichow.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In German with English subtitles. Laemmle’s Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710; Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.
Boxer’s touching journey home
In the opening moments of Kief Davidson’s beautifully shot “Kassim the Dream,” the Uganda-born former light middleweight boxing champion Ouma explains that “boxing is my therapy . . . it has gotten me through a lot of stuff that’s happened in my life.”
As is the case for most of the film’s first hour, Ouma is understating matters. Kidnapped and forced to be a child soldier at the age of 6, Ouma murdered and tortured to avoid being murdered himself.
He eventually escaped to the United States and put to use the skills he learned while a member of the army’s boxing team. Cheerful and possessing a wit as quick as his jab, Ouma became a fan favorite here and in his homeland. But because he defected, he can’t return to Uganda. That removal -- and the atrocities of his childhood -- clearly torment him underneath his upbeat facade.
Ouma’s eventual homecoming provides the movie with its emotional knock-out punch, a six-day journey that ends his exile and reunites him with family and the country he still loves. Davidson builds to the moment with an expert touch, delivering a nuanced survivor’s story that memorably transcends its genre.
Glenn Whipp --
“Kassim the Dream.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500.
Young friends rise to challenges
Thirty is “The New Twenty” in Chris Mason Johnson’s engaging film that centers on a group of college friends who remain close as they make their way in Manhattan.
Nicole Bilderback’s Julie and Ryan Locke’s Andrew have just announced their engagement. Julie, the most successful of the group, presents a challenge to the ambitious and aggressive Andrew, who gets the crass, burly Louie (Terry Serpico) to back him in an undefined business venture.
Key in the couple’s circle are Tony (Andrew Wei Lin), Julie’s gay brother; Colin Fickes’ Ben, a hefty gay man having trouble finding a lover and a career, and Thomas Sadoski’s very bright Felix, who copes with what he calls “a touch of existential malaise courtesy of late capitalism” with escalating substance abuse.
The ensemble performances are on the money, and the members of this multiethnic, sexually diverse group are credibly comfortable with each other. Of course, homophobia still can surface, and Johnson deftly suggests that as these young people attempt to cope with the stresses of modern life they may outgrow the close ties of their college years.
Johnson provides them with plenty of challenges and reasons to question their values, priorities and goals.
Kevin Thomas --
“The New Twenty.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
Muddled, south of the border
There are plenty of twists and turns in the nothing-is-what-it-seems thriller “Not Forgotten,” but they result in a movie that’s more convoluted than satisfying. To his credit, director Dror Soref, working from a script he wrote with Tomas Romero, conjures up some atmospheric moments and a few effective surprises. Unfortunately, he allows the film to turn uglier and more malevolent than it needs to.
Simon Baker (TV’s “The Mentalist”) plays Jack Bishop, a seemingly upright banker living with his wife, Amaya (Paz Vega), and 11-year-old daughter Toby (Chloe Moretz) in a Texas border town. But when Toby disappears, daddy goes-a-hunting, looking for clues in Mexico City’s crime-and-grime underbelly, where his sinister past soon resurfaces.
The controversial cult La Santa Muerte factors into Jack’s violent pursuit, but its nightmarish rituals and murky beliefs are diminished by the film’s various red herrings (including a suspect named Redd), bloody metaphors and religious symbolism, as well as by Jack’s encounters with a so-called “witch,” several strip-club staffers and an assortment of prostitutes. Where’s “The Mentalist” when you really need him?
Gary Goldstein --
“Not Forgotten.” MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence, sexual content/nudity and language. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Mann’s Chinese 6, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 777-3456; Mann’s Plant 16, 7876 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 779-0323.
Snoresville, despite the ghosts
“The Skeptic” spends most of its running time detailing the ways that lead character, lawyer Bryan (Tim Daly), has committed his life to doubt. Writer-director Tennyson Bardwell harps on it so much and so obviously, it’s a wonder he didn’t just name the character Thomas and get it over with.
Old-fashioned in the worst sense, Bardwell’s ghost story is heavy on Freud, light on fear. While there might be a market for supernatural thrillers that keep a lid on the blood buckets, there probably isn’t much call for one that spotlights gabfests between Daly and Tom Arnold on the nature of belief.
Bryan’s skepticism is challenged when he moves into his late aunt’s Victorian mansion shortly after her death. Bump-in-the-night sounds and spectral visions begin occurring amid the home’s crucifix-accented decor, indicating that someone in Bryan’s family might not be resting in peace.
A psychic (Zoe Saldana, currently in much better form as Uhura in “Star Trek”) leads Bryan through a journey into his past, suggesting reasons for Bryan’s insomnia but offering no cures for the drowsiness enveloping the movie’s audience.
Glenn Whipp --
“The Skeptic.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 274-6869.