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Down and out in L.A.

Two destitute teens cohabit in the bowels of Los Angeles, subsist on hot dog dinners (that is, when they’re not dumpster diving), become drug messengers to pay the rent on their junky digs, and the movie of their totally grim tale is called “A Beautiful Life.” Oh, the irony.

Actually, this cheesy melodrama is based on Wendy Hammond’s play “Jersey City,” which, no surprise, did not take place in L.A. The film version, written by Hammond and producer Deborah Calla, may have relocated its down-and-outers, but it failed to leave behind its theatrical roots; the whole thing plays like a bad Equity-waiver one-act.

The tedious plot involves saucer-eyed waif Maggie (an off-putting Angela Sarafyan), who’s run away from her abusive father (Jonathan LaPaglia) and ineffective mother (Dana Delany), only to land stranded in downtown L.A. without a proverbial vessel to you-know-what in. Maggie meets -- and soon crashes with -- David (Jesse Garcia), an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant who swabs floors in a seedy strip club.

Because it must, romance blossoms between them. But under Alejandro Chomski’s weak direction, the zero-chemistry Sarafyan and Garcia make thoroughly unconvincing lovers. Bai Ling, as a helpful but misguided stripper named Esther, fares no better.

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Gary Goldstein --

“A Beautiful Life.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

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A promising start from ‘Office’ guy

The interviews are indeed brief, and the men -- played by an impressive array of character actors, including Chris Messina, Bobby Cannavale and Will Arnett -- are often hideous. But how much of a selling point, really, is “brutish and short”?

“Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” is largely a series of confessional monologues baring the ugliness of men. A researcher, Sara (Julianne Nicholson), records subjects’ litanies of insecurities and petty revenges that confirm the worst suspicions of misandrists. These are intercut with vignettes from Sara’s life, eventually explaining her interest and her general coldness.

In his debut as screenwriter and director, John Krasinski (“The Office”) shows promise. Adapting the writings of David Foster Wallace, he moves the piece sharply along and finds interesting theatrical presentations for talky, intellectual material. However, there’s an imperviousness to Sara in and out of the sessions that promotes viewer detachment. Even when her motivation is revealed (in one of only two emotionally keyed scenes in the piece), it doesn’t provide the empathetic charge needed to power the rest of the film.

Possibly in deference to the late Foster’s words, the dialogue comes in too many thick, literary mouthfuls. There’s an on-the-page quality that further distances the viewer. The film is intelligent, well crafted and often funny, but it may not sufficiently reward even the brief time it asks one to spend with such hideous men.

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Michael Ordona --

“Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

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A spiritual trek across America

The documentary “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” is a well-intentioned inquiry into “Why the Gospel of Love is dividing America,” but it glosses over more puzzling wounds for those more easily salved.

Evangelical writer-director Dan Merchant relies on humor and a light, “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” touch. But while his approach is spirited, his journalism is weak. Various voices are heard calling America a “Christian nation” or not so (including Al Franken’s), some referring to constitutional mandates, but there’s no analysis. Is faith inextricable from the founding principles of America? Or does religion in our laws lean toward an un-American theocracy? Or are both true?

There are interviews with experts, politicians and people on the street, but none is explored in depth. Among the nuggets yielded by an all-too-brief visit with sociologist Tony Campolo: “A movement can exist without a god, but never without a devil.” Meanwhile, Ann Coulter cites, unchallenged, the Bible as proof that Christ would approve of her hatred of liberals, and Rick “man-on-dog” Santorum is allowed to come across as a paragon of tolerance.

The sunny Merchant trots out a few gimmicks, finding something interesting in a “Family Feud"-style game show testing liberals’ and conservatives’ knowledge of each other’s mind-sets -- an effective call for greater understanding. The heartfelt film ends with the declaration that “the conversation begins now,” but deeper investigation might have yielded more to talk about.

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Michael Ordona --

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“Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. At the Edwards West Park 8 in Irvine and the Edwards Canyon Country 10, Canyon Country.

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An ode to joy for Beethoven fans

With “In Search of Beethoven,” documentarian Phil Grabsky has created a splendid work that will be a revelation to the uninitiated and a joy to music lovers. As with his previous “In Search of Mozart,” Grabsky has gathered an array of major musicians and scholars to explore the dynamic relationship between Beethoven’s life and art. Excerpts of key Beethoven works are performed by various European orchestras, punctuating the narrative of the composer’s tumultuous life, which was expressed so boldly and passionately in his music.

Described as being a “rude, forthright, impatient” young man, Beethoven soon concluded that he could be better than reigning composers Mozart, whom he may or may not have met, and Haydn, who became a mentor. Beethoven enjoyed acclaim and even financial security. But by age 30, he had begun to lose his hearing, which would eventually become total. He fought back suicidal despair, crediting his urge to compose for saving his life. His health would fail and he would sink into poverty, yet he continued to compose, no matter what.

Every source Grabsky interviews for his film enlarges both the viewer’s appreciation of Beethoven’s genius -- his soaring originality, complexity and variety -- and how his music so richly reveals his ideas, thoughts and state of mind at the time of its composition. The range and influence of his work were so great it is completely understandable why one of Grabsky’s commentators proclaims, “Beethoven is the greatest composer who ever lived.”

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Kevin Thomas --

“In Search of Beethoven.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. At the Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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Was he really

the first in space?

“Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy” takes itself very seriously, which sometimes makes this documentary feel as propaganda-driven as the former Soviet spin machine it decries. Still, the film, directed with a heavy hand by Denny Hooten and Sam Oldham, presents a persuasive enough case that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin was not -- as history has written -- the first man in outer space but a victim of what a political analyst here calls “probably one of the biggest cover-ups and conspiracies in history.”

Gagarin became a Soviet national hero after orbiting the Earth in April 1961. But what the Kremlin (along with, the movie contends, the KGB, the U.S. Air Force and the CIA) allegedly suppressed was that five days earlier, another Soviet cosmonaut was launched into space only to crash-land and suffer severe injuries. Failure was not an option -- at least publicly -- for the secretive Soviets, so Gagarin was thrust into the limelight instead. However, by 1968, the troubled Gagarin apparently had become a political liability and, the filmmakers posit, was killed in a KGB-engineered plane crash. True or not, it’s one of the movie’s many intriguing “what ifs.”

Unfortunately, repetitive archival footage, Elliott Gould’s dull narration, a lack of stirring punditry and several incongruous reenactments diminish the film’s impact and veracity.

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Gary Goldstein --

“Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.

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calendar@latimes.com


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