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‘The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond’

There’s a plucky ambition to the title of the horror flick “The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond,” a suggestion of atmospheric malevolence that isn’t matched by the hyper silly bloodbath on display.

After a laughable 1920s-era prologue featuring craven archaeologists and the unearthing of Greek god Pan’s love of chaotic evil, cut to the gore genre’s standard-operating prep work: a present-day cluster of attractive hedonists on a spooky island, a crusty caretaker (Robert Patrick), then a trigger for sexual shenanigans and intra-group slaughter. In this case, the catalyst is the gang’s playing of an ancient board game whose truth-or-dare-style questions -- “Who in the room doth thou secretly covet?” -- reveal Pan’s previously unknown role as the Milton Bradley of mud-stirring.

Director/co-screenwriter Gabriel Bologna, working vigorously at hokey predictability, wastes little time getting us to wish his obnoxious characters (why do people who seemingly hate each other always vacation together?) would find their inner maniacs already. Maybe he’s thinking of a core audience’s hunger for carnage, but for the rest of us, there’s relief in this type of poorly acted claptrap’s adherence to movie mathematics, since each slain character is a sign that the movie is that much closer to a credit roll.

-- Robert Abele “The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond.” MPAA rating: R for bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. In general release.

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Faith healing in the wilderness

In director Robert Saitzyk’s ethereally grim slice of low-budget filmmaking “Godspeed,” healing and retribution meet like participants in a western-style showdown.

Set in an unforgiving, harshly beautiful Alaskan wilderness (and filmed around Anchorage and Wasilla), it lays out the fated convergence of three disturbed souls: Charlie, a compromised faith healer (Joseph McKelheer) for whom an unspeakable tragedy has led him to drink; an alluring stranger named Sarah (Courtney Halverson) who’s drawn emotionally and sexually to Charlie’s pain; and her apocalyptic-minded brother Luke (Cory Knauf, also the co-screenwriter), who has his own ideas of biblical deliverance.

Cinematographer Michael Hardwick’s poetically assured use of the RED One digital camera gives Saitzyk’s Terrence Malick-ish ambitions a compelling visual orientation in spiritual uneasiness -- and eventually brutally violent resolution -- but what keeps “Godspeed” from lasting power are its melodramatic swerves and less-than-revelatory acting. But despite its fissures in tone and technique, “Godspeed” occasionally plays like a sturdy indie outpost of revenge cinema.

-- Robert Abele “Godspeed.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Playing at Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Identity and family in S.F.

The teen coming-out story gets a fresh take in “La Mission,” a heartfelt drama about family bonds, cultural tradition and violence set in San Francisco’s largely Latino Mission district. As Che Rivera, a macho ex-con and single father appalled by the discovery that his beloved son is gay, Benjamin Bratt brings his A-game to a difficult, potentially clichéd role.

Written and directed by the actor’s brother, Peter Bratt, the film oozes with authenticity -- sometimes a bit too much so -- and a genuine passion for the gritty, colorful, proud neighborhood that’s still a few steps behind the progressive city it calls home (the Bratts grew up in and around the Mission). Though the filmmaker could have stayed more specifically focused on the painfully fractured relationship between volatile bus driver Che and diligent, UCLA-bound son Jes (a wonderful Jeremy Ray Valdez), the movie remains a highly involving, often poignant tale of a people and place.

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-- Gary Goldstein “La Mission.” MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.

A marriage not made in heaven

It’s no wonder that filmmaker Cindy Kleine had to wait until her father’s death before she could complete and release “Phyllis and Harold,” her comprehensive, wrenching yet luminous portrait of her parents’ 59-year marriage. Harold would never know how deeply unhappy Phyllis had often been in the marriage that he regarded as successful as his dental practice -- or that she had been unfaithful to him with the man she truly loved.

Twelve years in the making, “Phyllis and Harold” has extraordinary breadth and depth and has been made with wit, compassion and imagination, and it reflects the complexity of life itself. Although an experienced documentarian, Kleine was lucky that her father was a skilled, dedicated photographer, whose images could be more revealing than surely he intended, and a grandfather who loved to shoot home movies.

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The film chronicles the passing of time and evokes the transitory nature of life itself.

It is also multi-dimensional, for it reveals not only how the Kleines felt about their marriage but also how their daughters did as well. It also becomes the filmmaker’s tribute to the mother who let her housekeeper raise her daughters but who gradually wins Kleine’s understanding, respect and affection.

-- Kevin Thomas “Phyllis and Harold.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. Playing at the Music Hall, Beverly Hills and Town Center 5, Encino.

An affair, a crime and the results

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It’s called “The Square,” but it’s really a spiral.

Ordinary, middle-aged, married guy Ray (David Roberts) has somehow gotten into an affair with beautiful young neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom), who has a shady boyfriend, Smithy (Anthony Hayes). She’s quite a femme, but is she fatale? If that sounds like a noir setup, it is. When Carla decides to lift Smithy’s ill-gotten gains to fund the illicit couple’s getaway, the scheme eventually requires Ray’s help and just a bit of arson.

The strongest sides of “The Square,” nominated for seven Australian Film Institute awards, are its “Tell-Tale Heart"-like twists. In for a penny, in for a pounding, and Ray’s mental health is certainly treated roughly as he’s drawn in deeper and deeper. But the angles don’t quite meet in the key relationship between Ray and Carla. We’re not sure what’s between them -- love, lust, both or neither. That may be the filmmaker’s intent, but it lowers the stakes. As one might expect from stuntman-turned-director Nash Edgerton, the action is well staged.

-- Michael Ordona “The Square.” MPAA Rating: R, for violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Playing at the Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles.

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Women, power and the Shah

“Women Without Men,” directed by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat (who also co-scripted with Shoja Azari, inspired by the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur), is a hypnotic look at four very different women in 1953 Iran whose lives intersect against the CIA-led, British-backed coup that restored the Shah to power.

The suicide of Munis (Shabnam Tolouei), a politically aware 30-year-old desperate to escape her domineering brother, sets the often-dreamlike story into motion.

Despite being buried in the family backyard, Munis is unearthed by her more traditional friend, Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni) and, it seems, comes back to life. The “resurrected” Munis brings Faezeh to a bucolic orchard recently purchased by Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), an attractive, middle-aged woman who has just left her loveless marriage and reconnected with an old flame. Munis then returns to Tehran, where she and a handsome communist protest the coup, while Fakhri and Faezeh, along with Zarin (Orsi Tóth), a troubled prostitute who also finds her way to the orchard, fleetingly form a symbolic family.

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Though the narrative could use more depth and detail, the film generally absorbs with its strong performances, stirring emotions and vivid imagery.

-- Gary Goldstein “Women Without Men.” MPAA Rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. In Farsi with English subtitles. Playing at Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino; Regal’s Westpark 8, Irvine.


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