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Making art to survive

Any remembrance of Holocaust victims is, of course, a worthy endeavor and a historical priority. Thus, “As Seen Through These Eyes,” Hilary Helstein’s brief documentary, serves as another critical reminder of one of the world’s most horrific periods, even if, cinematically, it’s an affecting collection of stories and images in search of an actual center.

Over the last decade, Helstein interviewed various Holocaust survivors (some of whom have since died) who recounted how they created art and music as a form of expression, control and diversion. The movie presents a vast array of sketches and paintings by the featured survivors that are remarkable not only because they’re so adept and evocative but also because art supplies were so scarce in the camps. These works are often stirringly presented along with archival photos and footage of the real-life places and events they depict.

Interviewed artists include famed “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal; Ela Weissberger, who survived Terezin, the Nazis’ deceptive “model ghetto,” by performing in a children’s opera; Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt, who, at Auschwitz, painted portraits of Gypsies for Dr. Josef Mengele; and Henry Rosmarin, whose harmonica playing for the SS kept him alive.

Maya Angelou’s sporadic narration is a bit florid but otherwise consistent with this dignified project.

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Gary Goldstein --

“As Seen Through These Eyes.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills; and Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino.

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Roughing it in the Grand Canyon

If well-meaning people didn’t make stupid choices -- and if cellphones worked everywhere -- way fewer vacation-from-hell thrillers would probably be made. That would include “The Canyon,” a middling tale of survival about a honeymooning couple whose impulse to follow an eccentric guide into the Grand Canyon has dreadful consequences. And since, true to form, it’s tough to get cell service in the depths of the gaping canyon, that’s where the just-eloped Nick (Eion Bailey) and Lori (Yvonne Strahovski) end up stranded for days after guide Henry (Will Patton, reliable as always) succumbs to a deadly snake bite.

The film, directed by Richard Harrah, becomes an often-meandering two-hander as the newlyweds creep across the canyon (strikingly shot by Nelson Cragg), battling the elements and struggling to stay alive without food or water. Their crisis is compounded by a nasty climbing accident that befalls Nick, forcing Lori to do something wildly unlikely -- and thoroughly unwatchable. The increasingly resourceful Lori becomes quite handy with a hunting knife, which, in the movie’s tensest moments, she also uses to fend off the canyon’s hungry wolves.

Movie-star handsome Bailey and Strahovski, a pretty Aussie in the Naomi Watts mold, work hard here and are generally convincing despite scripter Steve Allrich’s thin characterizations and improbable scenario.

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Gary Goldstein --

“The Canyon.” MPAA rating: R for brief disturbing content. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

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Lovers divided against their will

“Hannah Free” affords a terrific role for Sharon Gless, who runs with it gloriously, playing a salty, blunt elderly lesbian confined to a wheelchair in a convalescent home but still possessed of a hearty spirit that in her need for “life to surprise her” led her to roam the world. Hannah, however, always returned to her small Midwest town, eventually settling down with Rachel, the woman who had been her lifelong lover.

It took years for the two women to come to terms with their mutual grand passion, with Rachel as traditional a woman as Hannah has always been unconventional. Rachel even married for appearance’s sake, becoming a young widow with twins, but now Rachel (Maureen Gallagher), having suffered a severe stroke, lies in a coma in a room not far from Hannah’s. Rachel’s daughter Marge (Taylor Miller), a dim, homophobic, religious conservative, refuses to let Hannah visit her mother on the grounds that it would upset Rachel -- nevermind that she is unconscious.

Then Rachel’s great-granddaughter Greta (Jacqui Jackson) pays a visit, setting in motion Hannah and Rachel’s love story, which unfolds in flashbacks. It is a story, beautifully told, of love enduring the obstacles that have always challenged gay people -- and still do. Now Hannah faces her greatest challenge -- simply in getting to bid her lover goodbye.

Claudia Allen has skillfully adapted her play to the screen, opening it up without destroying its intimacy and cohesiveness. Wendy Jo Carlton has directed “Hannah Free” with a simplicity and cinematic fluidity that serves Allen’s often tart, amusing dialogue well. The exceptional cast includes Kelli Strickland as the younger Hannah and Ann Hagemann as the younger Rachel. The film goes for an ending scene that would surely smack of the improbable were it not so well-played by Gless, Jackson and especially Miller -- but in the end, the movie belongs to Sharon Gless.

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Kevin Thomas --

“Hannah Free.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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Scratch this one off the to-do list

Uma Thurman’s beleaguered West Village mom is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in “Motherhood” -- and it’s no picnic for us, either. Whiny and self-involved, Thurman’s mother of two sees judgment around every corner and believes the universe has conspired against her because the bakery misspelled her daughter’s name on a birthday cake. Meanwhile, she can’t get in touch with her long-suffering husband (Anthony Edwards), believing he has intentionally silenced his cellphone.

Gee . . . you think?

Katherine Dieckmann’s canonization comedy aims to depict the jingle-jangle jumble facing smart women in the early 21st century, mothers trying to hold on to some semblance of self-identity as they plow through yard-long to-do lists.

But Eliza’s (Thurman) 24-hour journey invites the kind of judgment it condemns, presenting its character’s “plight” with a self-important insularity that will genuinely offend women who don’t have two adjoining apartments, loving husbands with flexible schedules and the ability to indulge in midday shopping sprees.

We see Eliza mightily multi-task her way through planning her daughter’s sixth birthday party (are goody bags really that imposing?) and find the time to write a 500-word essay on motherhood.

Eliza is also a blogger, which means Thurman spends much of the movie in voice-over mode, prattling on while betraying the trust of a friend (poor Minnie Driver), failing to pick up after her incontinent dog and making you wish that movies, like cellphones, could be silenced.

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Glenn Whipp --

“Motherhood.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, sexual references and a brief drug comment. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In selected theaters.

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Horror spoof’s comedy is horror

“Stan Helsing,” 90 interminable, sour and aggressively tasteless minutes of supposed comedy, has only one power: to foment existential doom in anyone expecting a funny spoof of horror flicks.

It’s set up as a reluctant hero story in which a pea-brained video store clerk (a vacant-eyed Steve Howey) accepts his legacy as a descendant of the famed monster hunter Van Helsing to save a haunted town (cue the lame Freddy / Chucky / Michael Myers gags).

But this ill-assembled mess is mostly a horror show of toilet noises, genitalia references, cheap shots, creepy sex gags (I hope scantily clad hotties Diora Baird and Desi Lydic were paid well), and a rainbow of career-shame colors on “Saturday Night Live” performer Kenan Thompson’s face.

Dumb humor is an art like any other, but writer-director Bo Zenga’s way with jokes is no different than that of a 5-year-old pointing at dog poop, who grows into a teenager tittering at underwear, who becomes a middle-aged, raincoated misogynist.

Like garlic, holy water and silver bullets for our mythic evildoers, “Stan Helsing” is a surefire repellent to any good time.

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Robert Abele --

“Stan Helsing.” MPAA rating: R for crude and sexual content, some drug use and language. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Mann Chinese 6, Hollywood.

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calendar@latimes.com


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