Reviews: ‘American Casino,’ ‘Jennifer’s Body’ and more

"American Casino," a documentary directed by Leslie cockburn, examines the effects of the subprime mortgage crisis and the banking meltdown.
(Rock Table Films / Argot Pictures)

Though there’s likely a stronger documentary than “American Casino” to be made about the recent Wall Street collapse and subprime mortgage disaster, it’s still hard not to be shocked by this stranger-than-fiction look at how a toxic mix of unbridled greed, mass financial manipulation and the probable effect of a 2000 government deregulation act upended our nation’s entire economy.

Director Leslie Cockburn, who wrote and produced the film with her journalist husband, Andrew, reportedly shot as the housing market meltdown and megabuck bank and insurance company bailouts were literally unfolding. While this lends the project a kind of you-are-there timeliness, the movie also feels as if the Cockburns created its structure as they went along. The result is a lopsided, visually uninspired film that works best when it eschews the complex numbers-crunching of its financial industry pundits and whistle-blowers to profile the everyday victims of the crisis.

These include primarily several Baltimore-area African Americans who were among the many minority home buyers targeted for exploitive, high-rate, wildly confusing subprime loans. These hard-working folks’ emotionally charged stories of losing their houses, life savings and dignity because of predatory lending practices (an extended tour of a teacher’s up-for-auction home is especially heartbreaking) could have, and perhaps should have, filled their very own documentary.

-- Gary Goldstein “American Casino.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

What’s slang for ‘not very scary’?

What the horror genre gained in pop rejuvenation when the “Scream” movies peppered in added humor -- the referential laughs as unexpected as the shocks -- it has since lost in so many wink-wink copycats. Oscar-winning “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody does her slanguage-laden best to make “Jennifer’s Body” -- about a high school hottie (Megan Fox) turned boy-chomping demon -- into a femme-tastic anti-"Carrie,” but her glib teen-hip dialogue mostly feels like self-conscious splatter over a sorely lackluster scare flick.

It’s a bloody shame because there are glimmers of something more emotionally interesting in the increasingly fraught relationship between mean-queen Jennifer and plain-Jane best pal Needy. Fox is almost too well cast as Jennifer -- her Boop-ishly snarky line readings hardly surprising -- but thankfully the part of Needy has been tasked to the appealing Amanda Seyfried, an actress able to reach past Cody’s tone-busting one-liners and connect on a basic what-the-hell-happened-to-my-friend level.

Director Karyn Kusama, meanwhile, having moved from “Girlfight” to girlfright, does manage the nifty task of giving her lead characters’ one-night-only dalliance an old-fashioned same-sexploitative zing, but she can’t muster up a modicum of suspense elsewhere.

“Jennifer’s Body” held promise, but it’s decidedly more self-possessed than possessed.

-- Robert Abele “Jennifer’s Body.” MPAA rating: R for sexuality, bloody violence, language and brief drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In general release.

Absurd life in the West Bank

The taxi driver behind the wheel for the 71-minute duration of Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi’s absurdist tragicomedy “Laila’s Birthday” is categorically unfit for the job. Taking fares around the West Bank city of Ramallah, the prickly and proper Abu Laila (Arab actor Mohammed Bakri) refuses to drive to checkpoints and won’t pick up anyone carrying weapons.

“You are robbing yourself, man,” one customer complains, when Abu Laila points to a sign in his ride reading “No AK47s.” “Half of the country wears arms; the other half can’t afford to take a taxi.”

Masharawi’s film revels in the irrational, beginning with the notion that Abu Laila is forced to drive a cab in the first place. He is in fact a judge, but the government has run out of money, so Abu Laila is stuck enforcing his own law of the land while motoring around Ramallah in his brother-in-law’s cab.

“Laila’s Birthday” presents a particularly demented day in the life of this woebegone hero, methodically laying out the corruption, chaos and small, gnawing frustrations that characterize life in the West Bank. The girl in the title is Abu Laila’s daughter (Nour Zoubi), and, yes, she’s celebrating her seventh birthday, so her father needs to be home to deliver the cake.

Masharawi saves his fist-shaking until the very end, but he needn’t have bothered. His camera captures the senselessness of life in this city under siege in a way that words cannot.

-- Glenn Whipp “Laila’s Birthday.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. In Arabic with English subtitles. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

50 tableaux about life and death

“You, the Living” is not as surreal or apocalyptic as Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s 2002 film, “Songs From the Second Floor,” which envisions no less than the collapse of Western civilization from some kind of mysterious implosion. This time out, Andersson delves into the comic aspect of everyday human miseries and frustrations. His film is composed of more than 50 tableaux, most of them filmed in large, drab sets, shot in wide angle with minimal camera movement and soft, shadowless lighting -- so that, in Andersson’s words, “nobody has a place to hide.”

Vignettes proceed from one to another in random fashion, and although the film develops a measured, even majestic rhythm, its structure makes it demanding, even wearying in less involving moments. Attention, however, is rewarded with episodes that are worthy of comparison with those of the silent-era masters, Buster Keaton in particular. Especially delicious is a nightmare sequence in which a man dreams he is at a family dinner party and is determined to demonstrate that he can pull out a tablecloth without disturbing the 200-plus-year-old china sitting upon it. The poor guy meets disaster and faces the electric chair. A kindly executioner actually counsels the distraught man by saying, “Try thinking of something else.”

The film opens with a hefty young couple sitting in a park, and the woman is so miserable she breaks into song, expressing her longing for a motorcycle that will “take her away from it all.” After all the woe-is-me routine, she adds, “I might come along later” to her boyfriend, despite her earlier extravagant rejection of him.

Perhaps the most significant sequence involves a psychiatrist who addresses the camera saying that after 27 years he is worn out trying to make patients happy who are mean because they are so selfish and egocentric. “You, the Living” suggests that we would do well to discover the joy we find in each other that so often goes along with the pain.

-- Kevin Thomas “You, the Living.” MPAA rating: Unrated. In Swedish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

Seeing another side of Paris

In his bittersweet valentine to the City of Light, Cedric Klapisch crisscrosses an array of mostly working-class Parisians whose lives intersect. The setup is a common one for contemporary filmmakers; what lifts “Paris” from the subgenre pack is a fine ensemble, in particular the emotional chemistry between two of the screen’s most magnetic actors, Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris.

Duris’ dancer faces a life-threatening heart ailment. He remains eager for life, even if he must experience it from his balcony or at the corner boulangerie, run by a comically chirpy martinet (the superb Karin Viard). Taking care of him, his sister (Binoche) comes to a new understanding of the joking remark that opens the film: “The universe is everywhere.”

There are fine moments throughout. A history professor (Fabrice Luchini) text-stalks a beautiful student (Mélanie Laurent) and, in a terrific scene, visits a psychotherapist (Maurice Benichou), all but begging for his defenses to be torn down. But as good as the cast is, the multiple stories dilute the film’s effect, and authorial string-pulling is often evident.

If the idea of interconnectedness feels secondhand, what’s fresh and affecting is the way Binoche’s and Duris’ characters navigate life and death. From the catacombs to the city’s heights, “Paris” turns an unblinking gaze on the beauty of melancholy and the daring leap toward joy.

-- Sheri Linden “Paris.” MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual references. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes. In selected theaters.