Honesty among writers

Russell Brown's hilarious, acutely knowing "The Blue Tooth Virgin" takes its title from a screenplay an aspiring screenwriter, Sam (Austin Peck), has given to his friend David (Bryce Johnson), a successful magazine editor, to read. David finds the script terrible, a murky business about a troubled young woman with an urge to morph. David tries to let Sam down easy, but Sam, who did write a well-received TV series that ran one season, can't take criticism. Returning to his apartment, Sam is further dismayed to discover that his wife (Lauren Stamile) not only has a low opinion of the script but also of him, saying that he's interested only in praise and she is seriously considering leaving him.

Brown, whose 2007 debut feature was the engaging contemporary romance "Race You to the Bottom," clearly knows the ways of Hollywood inside and out. Beyond this, he understands that it is possible to make a movie that has lots -- and lots -- of talk and is still cinematic and smartly paced. "Smart" sums up this movie, with its amusing line-drawing credits featuring an apt myth of Sisyphus image and its inserts of observations on writing from the likes of Samuel Johnson and Albert Camus.

Led by a bravura performance from Karen Black as Sam's expensive script consultant, Brown's people are laughably overly analytical. Yet comedy enables Brown to dig into the art-industry equation that is the eternal Hollywood challenge, as well as questions about values, priorities, standards, goals -- all leading to what is all-important: self-knowledge. It's not too much to hazard that Billy Wilder would have enjoyed "The Blue Tooth Virgin."

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Kevin Thomas --

"The Blue Tooth Virgin." MPAA rating: R for language and brief drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At the Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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Tokyo terrorized by alien invaders

Writer-director Hideaki Anno's dazzling anime "Evangelion: 1.0" will be best understood by those familiar with Anno's 1995 TV series "Neon Genesis Evangelion," which culminated in the 1997 feature film "The End of Evangelion." This new film, a huge hit in Japan, is the first installment of a three-part series, and is said to be a reworking of the TV show rather than a remake of the feature. In any event, "Evangelion: 1.0" is a showcase of superb graphics, technical bravura in its design and operation of weaponry of mass destruction and its use of rich and varied color.

The film is set sometime in the future as Tokyo is threatened by a third attack by a fleet of gigantic alien spacecraft, ironically named Angels, armed with a diabolical array of weaponry and intent on wiping out all mankind, natch. The Japanese government agency NERV knows that this will be its last chance to defeat the Angels. NERV is relying on its immense Evangelion spacecraft, designed by its remote, stern supreme commander Gendo Ikari (voice of John Swasey). He has recruited his 14-year-old son Shinji, who hasn't seen his father in years, to pilot Evangelion 1. Shinji is understandably puzzled and apprehensive at his selection.

At first, the film seems to be aiming at a very youthful audience, but its spiritual and philosophical asides and metaphysical aura suggest that Anno is aiming at the profound. Despite largely effective English dialogue that allows key characters to acquire dimension, the plot is hard to follow, especially early on. Yet the film pulls you in as it explores Shinji's perplexing dilemma and his maturing. The story possesses a true depth of character; there is every reason to hope that Anno's multiple meanings become increasingly clear in the subsequent installments.

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Kevin Thomas --

"Evangelion 1.0." MPAA rating: PG-13 for action violence and some nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood; and University Town Center 6, Irvine.

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A bad boy out

for a good time

The hilarious yet stinging "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell" is not the usual collegiate-males-on-a-wild-spree movie. First of all, its three law students, while immature, are also intelligent and highly articulate. Inspired by the real-life adventures of Tucker Max, who first wrote a bestseller of the same name and has now adapted it to the screen with Nils Parker, "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell" has an edge to it sharper than a Ginsu knife. When it comes to rowdiness and raunch, it's right up there with "Animal House" and "Porky's" -- and beyond -- but the writers and director Bob Gosse know how to turn excess, self-indulgence, selfishness and chauvinism back on itself with blowtorch impact.

Tucker Max's (Matt Czuchry) smiling boy-next-door look masks a snake-like, devil-may-care deviousness. With a bizarre ulterior motive, he easily persuades his pal Dan (Geoff Stults), a tall, handsome innocent, to celebrate the imminent end of his bachelorhood by taking off to a strip club. Along for the ride is their friend Drew (Jesse Bradford), a brilliant, darkly good-looking young man who is savagely bitter over a recent breakup. At the club, Drew finally meets his match in Lara (Marika Dominczyk), who's as smart and assured as she is gorgeous, while Tucker scores his ulterior motive -- which leaves Dan wide open for very big trouble, endangering his upcoming marriage. Tucker's bold encounter with Traci Lords has an outrageous gross-out payoff.

The idea is that the guys' adventure proves transformative, but Tucker's dramatic I've-seen-the-light speech is charged with just the right degree of glibness to leave one skeptical -- and the door open for a sequel.

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Kevin Thomas --

"I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell." MPAA rating: R for nudity, strong sexual content, including graphic dialogue throughout, language and some crude material. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In general release.

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A love letter to pen pals' power

Australian animator Adam Elliot, whose "Harvie Krumpet" won the Oscar for animated short in 2003, returns with his first feature-length film, the remarkable and poignant "Mary and Max," a stop-motion work in what he calls "clayography," a painstaking process of much whimsical detail.

Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore and, later, Toni Collette) is a homely 8-year-old living in a drab Australian suburb who, picking a name out of a Manhattan phone book, writes to one Max Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an even homelier 300-pound-plus ex-mental patient living in a dingy but spacious old apartment with a variety of pets and a collection of figurines he calls Noblitts.

It is the beginning of a 20-year correspondence of two lonely people. As time goes by, Max, buoyed by his pen pal, develops his inner resources, even calmly accepting his Asperger's syndrome diagnosis. But when Mary learns of the diagnosis, she is transformed, finding purpose in becoming an Asperger's expert, determined to find a cure for her friend's disease. But does Max want to be cured?

Elliot, who has carried on a 20-year correspondence with a New York pen pal who has Asperger's, is dedicated to enlightening people about the affliction, and in "Mary and Max" creates a film noir world of blacks, whites and grays for Max and a sepia suburbia for Mary. What Elliot concludes is that all worlds are imperfect and so are the people who inhabit them, which includes Mary's eccentric parents and grandfather and a street person who drives Max nearly mad by littering the sidewalk with stubbed cigarettes. "Mary and Max's" jauntiness fades into a sadness that culminates on a note of self-acceptance -- and a great gratitude for the sustaining, redemptive power of friendship.

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Kevin Thomas --

"Mary and Max." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At the Town Center 5, Encino.

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Restless youth in the Soviet Union

Interminable class lectures on Lenin's worker-rousing triumphs don't exactly stir the Moscow students at the heart of Russian filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov's episodic character drama "The Vanished Empire." It's 1973, and what animates brash 18-year-old Sergey (Alexander Lyapin) and his friends are those other global unifiers of disaffected youth: pretty girls, fashionable jeans, a friend with wheels, music clubs, and Stones and Pink Floyd albums (which in this case carry the forbidden tinge of being contraband).

The relentless search for pleasurable distraction is, in Shakhnazarov's view, the real stealth bomb in a liberty-stifling society. But the movie's quieter concerns -- Sergey's careless handling of a promising relationship, growing apart from his friends, stumbling into responsibility at home with his younger brother, the disapproving mother and archaeologist grandfather -- are what work most effectively here. But even then, Shakhnazarov and screenwriters Sergey Rokotov and Evgeny Nikishov manage to bring Sergey's history-shunning, future-ignorant escapades full circle when he's spurred to visit a barren stretch of what is now Uzbekistan that once marked a thriving civilization.

It's a bitterly poetic conclusion to a nicely turned film about the crushing inevitability of change.

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Robert Abele --

"The Vanished Empire." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. At Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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