First-time feature director Kat Coiro gives an oft-tread story a snappy new spin in the hip and enjoyable comedy “Life Happens.”
After underdog Kim (an endearing Krysten Ritter) loses out for the last nearby condom to brasher roommate Deena (Kate Bosworth, also fine) during the BFF’s simultaneous one-night stands, Kim ends up a devoted but ill-prepared mother of a baby boy.
With the child’s me-first, surf star dad (Rhys Coiro, Kat’s husband) decidedly absent, Kim must navigate the demands of single motherhood, her thankless job assisting a hellish canine patron (Kristen Johnston) and a budding romance with a near-divorced hunk (Geoff Stults) from whom she reluctantly hides her mommy status.
Although juggling these challenges while also trying to recalibrate her friendship with take-no-prisoners, self-help author Deena comprises most of the L.A.-set action, the film is rarely hijacked by its more familiar themes and sitcom potential. Instead, aided by a nimbly voluble script by Kat Coiro and Ritter, it emerges as an amusing kaleidoscope of contemporary urban angst and romantic aspirations.
As Kim and Deena’s third roommate, a wannabe reality TV star — and proud virgin — Rachel Bilson provides sharp self-awareness. Justin Kirk goes for it as Deena’s goofy, say-anything suitor, but Jason Biggs is underused as an antsy, married lawyer.
“Life Happens.” MPAA rating: R for sexual content including references. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At AMC Loews Broadway 4, Santa Monica; AMC Burbank Town Center 8; AMC 30 at the Block, Orange.
On the trail of his lost self
In “The Hunter,” Willem Dafoe plays a tracker-assassin sent out into the Australian wilderness to find and kill the fabled last of the Tasmanian tigers, an animal that may not even exist, given the job by a shadowy organization that wants the animal’s DNA for possible future cloning.
It soon becomes apparent that what he is really searching for is his own soul, lost long ago.
Directed by Daniel Nettheim, the story is adapted by Alice Addison from the novel by Julia Leigh, who also wrote and directed the recent “Sleeping Beauty” with Emily Browning. Both stories share a sense of isolation and dislocation, as characters navigate uncertain terrain, spatially and emotionally.
Though there are small supporting turns in “The Hunter” by Frances O’Connor and Sam Neill, the film is really Dafoe’s show, and he reminds once again why he is such a tremendous actor and also one so easy to underestimate and take for granted.
The film is at its best when Dafoe is simply going about the ritual tasks of his character’s work, setting up a camp or laying traps in the wilderness. Dafoe conveys everything you need to know about this guy by the way he listens to opera on his iPod while cleaning his gun, or meticulously mapping out where his traps are laid. The small glimpses of family life he views along the way are the reminder of the humanity he has given up, and eventually works to get back.
“The Hunter.” MPAA rating: R for language and brief violence. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. At Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.
Showing its limited hand
“All In: The Poker Movie” is for poker fans only. That said, based on the huge number of worldwide devotees of what’s dubbed here “The Great American Game” (hey, what happened to baseball?), there’s a potentially hefty audience for Douglas Tirola’s energetic, if overly worshipful documentary.
Aided by eclectic archival footage, the film recalls the history of poker from its early gunslinger and riverboat-gambler days to its role as a welcome time-passer for World War II soldiers. Newfound urban — and suburban — popularity for the card game followed and continued to grow until its temporary wane around 1990.
Much of this loosey-goosey picture, however, tracks poker’s later explosion via innovative televised competitions and online gaming sites. A great deal is also made of the 1998 poker-themed movie “Rounders” (star Matt Damon and co-writer Brian Koppelman weigh in extensively), which became a touchstone for the Texas Hold’em set.
A colorful barrage of poker industry folks — and other notable supporters — wax enthusiastic, with Chris Moneymaker (no joke), the Tennessee underdog who trounced the pros at 2003’s World Series of Poker, profiled at length about his game-changing win.
But it’s only when Tirola examines last year’s federal crackdown on Internet poker that this jaunty love letter picks up some actual heft.
“All In: The Poker Movie.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. At Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.
The power of Chinese tradition
Hong Kong stars Deanie Ip and Andy Lau have played mother and son numerous times. They eloquently inhabit a subtle variation on that theme in the assured new work by veteran director Ann Hui. “A Simple Life” is a clear-eyed portrait of the love between a middle-aged man and his amah, the servant who has cared for him since he was born.
Film producer Roger (Lau) has always had a special bond with Ah Tao (Ip), and that connection deepens after she suffers a stroke. Her resulting disability is mild, but she insists on moving to a nursing home so as not to be a burden.
A far cry from the institutional dumping grounds Westerners have come to expect, the no-frills home is a humane place staffed by devoted, compassionate caretakers. Its patients are not hidden away; it sits on a busy street, the city visible through the glass front doors.
Roger, whose lifelong intimacy with Ah Tao had led him to take her for granted, becomes an active participant in her care. There’s no tension or resentment in the choice, no sense of sacrifice. It’s simply the way it’s done.
Based on the experiences of producer Roger Lee, who co-wrote the script with Susan Chan, the film illustrates the pervasive power of Chinese tradition without turning it into a social-science thesis.
Though overlong, Hui’s valentine never milks the drama for tears, maintaining an unsentimental focus on the central duo’s playful chemistry and the loving way Ah Tao’s attention to detail is repaid.
“A Simple Life.” No MPAA rating; in Cantonese with Mandarin and English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. At the AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, Monterey Park; AMC Puente Hills 20, City of Industry.
A disturbing peek inside
Gangsters and ghosts — and gangsters who are ghosts — stir it up in Guy Maddin’s “Keyhole.” They’ve gathered, in collusion and at cross-purposes, in a creepy old house that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch fantasia.
The Lynchian sensibility is underscored by the involvement of Isabella Rossellini as Hyacinth, who dreads the return of her long-absent husband, Ulysses (Jason Patric), an Odyssean hero as 1930s tough guy.
The atmospherics of unease are strong in the black-and-white “Keyhole,” Maddin’s first fully digital film. But unlike the Winnipeg auteur’s previous melodramas about tortured souls (some of them, like “Brand Upon the Brain!,” exuberantly silent), his latest is more trudge than epiphany.
When Udo Kier is the sanest person around, you know you’re in strangeville. The German actor portrays a soothing doctor who pays a house call to the crowded abode. Its inhabitants, visitors and squatters include a drowned girl (Brooke Palsson), Ulysses’ surviving son, his other son’s killer and Hyacinth’s naked father (Louis Negin), or his spirit, shackled and chained to her bed.
Ulysses makes his way through clanging rooms that are characters in their own right, as are such pre-digital contraptions as a bicycle-powered electric chair.
Stepping away from his usual autobiographical turf, Maddin has fashioned a psychodrama as moodily weird as his earlier work but not as seductive or transporting. Amid the mythical allusions and the climate of decay, “Keyhole” overthinks its exploration of memory and forgiveness. Like Ulysses communicating with Hyacinth through keyholes, viewers might well find themselves on the outside looking in.
“Keyhole.” MPAA rating: R for graphic nudity, sexuality, violent content and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena.
Scientist creates losing formula
If first novels are often thinly veiled autobiography and one of the most basic pieces of advice to writers is “write what you know,” then it should come as no real surprise how frequently first features come along where the filmmaker had some earlier career and then makes a film set in that world. Such is the case with writer-director Valerie Weiss, a former Harvard biophysicist who has made “Losing Control,” a film about a young female scientist at Harvard struggling at work and in love.
As Samantha (Miranda Kent) is unable to duplicate the test results she desperately needs to complete her doctorate, her boyfriend (Reid Scott) leaves for China for his own work after she turns down his marriage proposal. On the advice of her friend (Kathleen Robertson), she tries the dating pool, attempting to create a scientific set of data for potential suitors.
Weiss stretches both credulity and her abilities in eventually trying to intertwine her workplace and romance plots through a corporate espionage twist; it doesn’t quite hold, losing whatever homespun charm the film had built up for storytelling conveniences.
“Losing Control” has a vague cheerfulness but no real snap or insight, with Weiss apparently thinking that using scientific terminology to discuss relationships is witty rather than contrived. Perhaps investigating something new would have better served Weiss than simply looking to her own experiences, exploring rather than settling.
“Losing Control.” MPAA rating: R for some sexual content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.
A potboiler with faith on the fringes
In its story of a couple who uncover secrets about each other in the days immediately following the disappearance of their daughter, “Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day” is really only a sequel to the 2004 film “Woman Thou Art Loosed” in that both stem from the world of influential minister T.D. Jakes.
The first “Woman” was loosed just ahead of the wave of Tyler Perry films and somewhat prefigured Perry’s capacity for tapping into a potential audience underserved by most Hollywood films and even their niche “urban” productions.
In “7th Day,” directed by Neema Barnette from a script credited to Cory Tynan, there is talk of faith and religion sprinkled lightly throughout, largely touching on letting go of past baggage, but the child kidnapping plot is really the main engine, making it more of a crime picture with a faith-based redemption story at its edges.
Blair Underwood and Sharon Leal are credible and engaging as a couple under pressure, grappling with their own issues even as they try to maintain a grasp on the big picture. As a local New Orleans detective, Pam Grier injects a bit of salty fun that helps keep the film from veering into self-righteousness, while Nicole Beharie, recently seen in “Shame,” also has a small but pivotal role.
“Woman” is in essence an earnestly competent, slightly overcooked B-movie potboiler, with ideas of faith occasionally added to frame the story as parable.
“Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, violence, sexuality, drug and alcohol content, and language. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In limited release.
Documenting a 9/11 fraud
In the opening moments of Angelo J. Guglielmo Jr.'s documentary “The Woman Who Wasn’t There,” we see a 2006 interview Guglielmo got with a bespectacled, stocky, energetic woman named Tania Head, in which she recounts her emotional journey as a 9/11 survivor: being in one of the towers, losing her husband, the carnage, the injuries, the fear, the rescue.
Keeping in mind the title, you won’t be fooled by where his story is going: Head was eventually revealed to be a wildly imaginative liar who was never at the World Trade Center on 9/11, something nobody knew when Guglielmo’s camera captured her getting ready for the fifth anniversary.
In looking back on Head’s brief star turn as a publicity-ready face for survivors’ concerns, her increasingly unnerved behavior that preceded exposure as a fraud in 2007, and its effect on her colleagues (many of whom have fascinating reactions to Head), Guglielmo steers clear of a broader look at what drives someone to this kind of elaborate, emotionally turbulent lie. Instead we get psychological-thriller portraiture more satisfied with the kick of unanswered questions than the potentially mood-killing patter of diagnosis.
It’s still a fascinating story of fakery, however, even when it occasionally overreaches, as in the final TMZ-ish where-is-she-now shot, a moment better suited to a horror film than a thought-provoking documentary.
“The Woman Who Wasn’t There.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.
A college student’s eye-opener
An enticing fish-out-of-water concept gets lost in the shuffle in “Blue Like Jazz,” an ill-conceived head-scratcher about an evangelical Texan who transfers from a pious local junior college to Portland, Ore.'s free-thinking Reed College to “spend a year trying to ditch God.” The result is an overlong mishmash of coming-of-age comedy, social satire and spiritual think-piece whose ultimate stance on religion feels awfully fuzzy.
Adapted from the memoir by Donald Miller, the clunkily constructed, at times surreal script by Miller, Ben Pearson and director Steve Taylor renders most of its themes, characters and situations far less credibly than might be expected considering the largely real-life source material. There’s also a distinctly retrograde vibe here to the high jinks-heavy life on Reed campus. Accoutrements aside, blink and it could be 1970.
Playing Miller’s aged-down proxy (the writer was actually in his early 30s when he attended Reed), Marshall Allman leaps into his wobbly role as the rubelike Don and proves a nerdily appealing lead. Unfortunately, his Alice-in-Liberal-Land is given such a gentle, speedy learning curve that, given his insulated background, he seems ridiculously prepared for change.
As for the title, it’s a nod to the jazz music that Don’s off-the-grid dad shares with his more buttoned-up son. But, like most everything else here, it feels more contrived than authentic.
“Blue Like Jazz.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexuality, drug content and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. In general release.
A huckster’s lessons not really learned
“It’s easy to say you’ll never cross the line,” reflects Mark Dreier, who sold $400 million in bogus debt to hedge funds at the height of the financial boom, in Marc Simon’s first-person portrait, “Unraveled.” “But the line is presented to very few people.”
A successful — but never successful enough — Manhattan attorney with decades of accrued credibility, Dreier quit his partnership to start a solo firm, taking out massive short-term loans in his clients’ names and using the money to outfit himself with the trappings of success: Warhol canvases, a sprawling house in the Hamptons, an $18-million yacht. He exploited not only his clients’ assets but also their office space, using vacant conference rooms to misrepresent his identity in a series of frauds that went from recklessness to self-immolating audacity.
Simon, who was an associate at Dreier’s firm for six years, picks up the story in Dreier’s denuded Upper East Side penthouse as he awaits sentencing. (He is serving 20 years.) The movie sticks close to its subject’s point of view, which can be maddeningly circumscribed; one moment Dreier is proclaiming his regret, the next he’s drawing a bankrupt analogy between fictional bank robbers and the crimes he committed in “so-called reality.”
But if Simon’s hands-off approach precludes a thorough stock-taking of Dreier’s misdeeds — numbers alone hardly tell the full story — the movie’s subject obligingly avails himself of the ample rope. While the security guard surveying his house arrest watches a “Daily Show” guest call for moral accountability in the financial sector, Dreier sits with his back turned, availing himself of the only privilege that remains.
“Unraveled.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.
Coming up with cliches on ‘Deadline’
The murder of a poetry-quoting, sweet-faced, college-bound African American teen in rural Alabama that kicks off the race-relations mystery “Deadline” takes place in 1993. The fact that it gets investigated 19 years later by a bunch of white characters is — in our movie universe — irritatingly timeless.
Steve Talley is the striving Nashville big city daily reporter suffering in the shadow of his dying famous-journalist father (songwriter JD Souther), forced to join forces with the paper’s grizzled, gun-toting veteran (Eric Roberts) when the comely liberal daughter (Lauren Jenkins) of a racist plantation owner whose black maid is the mother of the murdered boy … yeah, it’s tied up in knots like that.
Ex-newspaperman Mark Ethridge wrote the righteously corny screenplay, which though ostensibly about racial injustice feels only tangentially about black people (think “Mississippi Burning”), and which in the hands of director Curt Hahn has all the dramatic punch of a community theater production. Plodding, predictable, amateurishly staged and with wild swings in acting quality — sometimes within the same person (Roberts) — this is the kind of well-meaning, homemade concoction hopelessly enamored of the kind of clichéd potboilers that don’t get made anymore. And with good reason.
“Deadline.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. At Rave Cinemas 15, Baldwin Hills.
Outcasts, slasher and prom make mess
Exhausting before its first few minutes of whip-pans, smash cuts, coarsely self-referential jokes and on-screen text visuals is over, the teen horror-spoof “Detention” is a patience-trying exercise first, energetic genre-jumble comedy second.
Josh Hutcherson and the appealing Shanley Caswell play high school outcasts (and flirty friends) who must contend with a prom-queen-outfitted serial killer copycatting the villain from a popular slasher movie franchise. After a malevolent principal (Dane Cook) tosses all the potential suspects into detention on prom day, director and co-writer Joseph Kahn goes into plot overdrive with swerves through the conceptual terrain of “Back to the Future,” “Scream,” “Freaky Friday” and “The Breakfast Club.”
Had Kahn bothered to get us to care about anybody, his “look ma, all hands” approach to filmmaking — where camera tricks, pop-culture braininess (Kahn even makes fun of his own cult biker movie “Torque”) and attention-deficit story logic trump artfulness — might have amounted to more than just proof that he’s supremely confident in all aspects of moviemaking.
“Detention.” MPAA rating: R for bloody violence, crude and sexual content, nudity, language, some teen drinking and drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At AMC Burbank.
Going beyond their exteriors
A pioneer of industrial music’s hard-hitting throb and a key figure in linking the streams of underground art, music and literature going back to the late 1960s, Genesis P-Orridge has most recently been undertaking his most radical project under the thesis/label “pandrogeny.”
P-Orridge met a dominatrix known as Lady Jaye in New York in the 1990s and, having fallen very much in love, the pair began having a series of surgeries to look more alike, with his transformation being the more noticeable and extreme. Wanting to remake themselves into “a third being,” something beyond traditional ideas of gender, they saw their new lives together as part art project, part physical expression of their emotional bond.
Filmmaker Marie Losier threads together her own footage of Jaye and P-Orridge with home movies and archival footage to take viewers deeply into the lives of the pair, making what from the outside might seem strange into something touchingly commonplace, as the shopping gets done, meals get made and casual strolls are taken, all as couples do.
Though the film flirts with being in a sense too intimately drawn from Jaye and P-Orridge themselves — more context from those who knew P-Orridge before the couple got together would have been useful — the sense of intimacy created by Losier is remarkable. In particular, in dealing with Jaye’s sudden passing in 2007, the film takes the viewer not just into the world of Genesis and Lady Jaye, but somehow, as a true ballad should, into their hearts.
“The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes. At the Nuart, West L.A.
Striving to overcome tragedy
The story of Roosevelt (Robbie Tate-Brickle), an African American high school student trying to keep his life on track after his mother and younger brother are killed in a car accident, writer-director Noel Calloway’s debut “Life, Love, Soul” has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, nothing else is.
Roundly amateurish despite supporting turns from a few experienced actors — notably Chad Coleman and Jamie Hector, both of “The Wire” — the film is haphazardly shot and edited, with invasive music cues that seem to drift in and out at random. Even the underlying message about the importance of education feels secondhand, divorced by artlessness from whatever sincerity inspired it.
The son of a self-made single mother who worked her way through law school, Roosevelt is a burgeoning writer of uncommon promise, but his academics slip when he’s sent to live with the father (Coleman) he’s never known, an emotionally illiterate construction worker who consoles his orphaned son with the words, “I know you’re hurting — depressed or something.”
Roosevelt finds solace with a female classmate (Egypt Sherrod), but their relationship eventually threatens to derail his college plans, setting the stage for a confrontation whose outcome is never in doubt.
Calloway throws his weight behind the notion that achieving one’s dreams is merely a matter of sufficient willpower, a motto whose generic uplift would resonate more powerfully were the movie not so vague on the details.
“Life, Love, Soul.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Info on theaters TK.