Amber Humphrey



REVIEW German director Christian Wagner’s Warchild is a captivating and tragic drama about the psychological repercussions of the Bosnian war. Ten years after the fighting has ended, Senada (Labina Mitevska) comes across evidence suggesting that her daughter Aida, who was lost in the melee, might still be alive. She follows lead after lead with a kind of eerie resolve, undaunted by the fact that everyone — including her estranged husband — thinks she’s behaving irrationally. She eventually makes her way into Germany illegally and discovers that Aida, now 12 and renamed Kristina, was adopted by an affluent couple. Although the girl is clearly enjoying a life of privilege and has no recollection of her birth parents, Senada is determined to take her back to Bosnia. Naturally, this desperation is an expression of maternal love. But Senada also seems to believe that in reclaiming Aida, she will be able to reclaim the life that was essentially stolen from her during the war. Mitevska gives an arresting performance as the guarded but obviously broken protagonist; she is simultaneously sympathetic and unsettling.

WARCHILD opens Fri/22 at the Roxie Film Center. See Rep Clock for showtimes.

Shakespeare and sexy Jesus


More in this issue:

>>An interview with Steve Coogan

>>More new movie reviews

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Sundance darling Hamlet 2 has been dubbed by at least one critic as this year’s Napoleon Dynamite; but with an R rating and dialogue like, "I feel like I’ve been raped in the face," the movie isn’t nearly as quirky as that assessment implies. This is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy comedy served with a side of whimsy just as much as any Juno fan; but brazenly puerile movies that lie on the more ribald end of the humor spectrum have their own undeniable charms.

There is an art to making an enjoyable lowbrow comedy, as bizarre as it may seem. It’s the reason why deceptively dumb movies like Team America: World Police (2004) have achieved cult status and obscenely dumb movies like Hot Rod (2007) should never, under any circumstances be viewed — and incidentally, both were scripted (at least in part) by Hamlet 2 cowriter Pam Brady. There may be a fine line between stupid and clever, but the line that separates silly from moronic is just as — if not more — tenuous. Brady’s good name is happily on the road to recovery, though, with this over-the-top farce. To quote Polonius from Hamlet 1, "Though this be madness … there is method in it."

All of the madness, as it were, revolves around Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), an inept but undeniably gung-ho high school drama teacher. You see, Marschz (and every consonant is pronounced in that name) is a failed actor who devotes himself to the two students in his class and the low-budget, sparsely attended stagings of recent Hollywood classics like Erin Brockovich. When the school newspaper’s prepubescent, hyperarticulate drama critic gives his latest production a scathing review, Marschz is distraught, but he flirts with the idea of writing something original. It isn’t until the following school year, when funding for drama is cut, that he’s shocked into action. He begins working on what will become a sort of play-within-a-play — a lewd and ridiculous sequel to Hamlet with a cast of characters that includes Albert Einstein, sexy Jesus, a bi-curious Laertes, and everyone else from the original Shakespearean tragedy, brought back to life via time machine.

Though the tone is overwhelmingly absurd, this is a satire. It isn’t a particularly sophisticated satire, but it’s effective nonetheless — offering a critique of censorship and the ACLU; Amy Poehler plays a sassy, foul-mouth lawyer with no qualms about defending a high school play wherein Jesus gets a hand job. Rounding out the cast is Catherine Keener as Marschz’s crass wife, David Arquette as the Marschzs’ virtually silent boarder, who inexplicably follows them everywhere, and Elisabeth Shue as herself. But make no mistake, this is Coogan’s show. He’s a star in his native England, yet as far as American cinema is concerned, he’s consistently been relegated to supporting roles. Finally he’s allowed to shine here, and the movie ultimately owes its success to his performance. He falls down repeatedly in an intersection while wearing roller skates, he exposes his butt, he moonwalks on water as sexy Jesus — all of it inspired. Shakespearean comedies usually end in a wedding: though no one gets married in Hamlet 2, it’s a hell of a lot funnier than anything the Bard ever wrote. *


Opens Fri/22 at Bay Area theaters



REVIEW "I have the feeling that if you give most people in the world the choice between enough food for their children and shelter and clothing in return for their freedom of speech, that they will go for the food, the shelter, and the necessities," said Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter of Spartacus (1960), Exodus (1960), Papillon (1973), and a number of other films, including Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), that either were written under an assumed name or (at the time) simply went uncredited. Trumbo and the rest of the "Hollywood 10" — screenwriters and directors who, when suspected of being communists, refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee by invoking the First Amendment, not the Fifth, as justification. They were subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood studios. Trumbo director Peter Askin weaves insightful commentary from family, friends, film historians, and actors (Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, and Kirk Douglas make appearances) with vintage footage of the Academy Award–winning writer, giving us an eloquent portrait of a stubborn but nevertheless admirable man. Although the documentary is ostensibly about the impact the blacklisting had on the screenwriter’s life, excerpts from speeches, novels, and letters (read by the likes of Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, and Michael Douglas) are interspersed throughout the film, showing that Trumbo (who died in 1976 at age 70) had a way of making words dance — and that he was deeply invested in everything he wrote.

TRUMBO opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.

Predictably good


REVIEW The year is 1976, the American Bicentennial, and snooty British wine seller Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) decides to organize a blind taste test, pitting French wine against the then-fledgling California wine. While in Napa he meets Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a perfectionist, and his long-haired surf bum son Bo (Chris Pine). Impressed by Barrett’s Château Montelena chardonnay, Spurrier hopes to include it in the competition. It isn’t too difficult to see where all of this is headed, not only because the outcome of the 1976 blind taste test is obvious every time we drink wine produced in the Napa Valley, but also because Bottle Shock isn’t exactly blazing any new territory. The characters are all familiar: an earnest father, his slacker son, and a budding Mexican vintnerready to get out from under the thumb of his white boss. The subplots are equally familiar: a strained father-son relationship and a love triangle. Nevertheless, there is something warm and charming about Bottle Shock. It’s one of those based-on-a-true-story, America-as-underdog movies that are as predictable as they are hard to resist.

BOTTLE SHOCK opens Wed/6 in Bay Area theaters.

“Elsa and Fred”


REVIEW Bombshell Anita Ekberg embodies spontaneity as she playfully wades through the Trevi Fountain in that classic moment from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Inspired by this scene, spry octogenarian Elsa (China Zorilla) has a photo of Ekberg hanging on her wall and confronts each day with the exuberance of a woman a quarter of her age. She speaks her mind and lives with reckless abandon — but not necessarily wreck-less abandon: a fender-bender just outside her apartment building eventually gives her reason to pay a visit to her new neighbor Alfredo (Manuel Alexandre), a recent widower. Aside from focusing on a pair of late-in-life lovers, this Spanish romantic dramedy rarely veers from the expected: Elsa inevitably encourages cautious Alfredo (or "Fred") to make the decision to truly live. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find anything quite as adorable as Elsa and Fred. Whether they’re kissing sweetly or pulling a dine-and-ditch at a swanky restaurant, these elderly lovebirds are an irresistible pair. Both actors deliver delightful performances, but Zorilla in particular is a much appreciated treat as Elsa, breathing life into some of the film’s flatter moments. Director Marcos Carnevale’s recreation of the Trevi Fountain scene is beautiful and heartwarming.

ELSA AND FRED opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.



REVIEW This summer’s obligatory Will Smith blockbuster has the ever-bankable star playing the titular role in Hancock — a foul-mouthed antihero apt to fly into action while clenching a bottle of whiskey. Though this reluctant superman of unclear origins consistently puts bad guys behind bars, the citizens of Los Angeles are none too thrilled when he arrives on the scene; Hancock’s chaotic brand of crime fighting has been taking a devastating toll on the city’s roads, buildings, ice cream trucks, and beached whales. That is, of course, until he saves the life of Ray (Jason Bateman), an idealistic public relations executive who decides to help Hancock revamp his image. Smith has the kind of charisma that can make even the most poorly-written shlock at least somewhat bearable. This time around, he doesn’t have to work as hard; Hancock is teeming with the fast-paced action and destruction that we seem to crave during the summer months. Plus, it’s surprisingly funny. As you might expect, Smith brings the bulk of the laughter but Bateman exceeds his straight-man role with his playfully wry delivery. Yes, the story is predictable and there is an annoyingly telegraphed "twist" involving Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron), but Smith’s foray into superhero movies manages to entertain. For those keeping track, Hancock is no Men in Black (1997). Thankfully, though, it’s no Wild Wild West (1999) either.

HANCOCK opens Wed/2 in Bay Area theaters.

Daddy issues


REVIEW Stuffy writer Blake Morrison (Colin Firth) struggles to come to terms with his father’s imminent death, hoping that, in their last days together, that they can finally make peace. A dying father? I know the premise is more than a little grim, but what When Did You Last See Your Father? lacks in levity it makes up for in heartfelt storytelling and powerful performances — trusty Jim Broadbent shines as Arthur, the overbearing, attention-seeking (possibly philandering) paterfamilias. We first encounter this force of nature as the film, set in the late 1950s, opens. Blake is eight, and his family is stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But not for long: Arthur breaks ranks and rides the shoulder, zooming past the long line of cars, waving a stethoscope in the air to justify the blatantly arrogant maneuver. This devil-may-care attitude inspires admiration in young Blake and animosity in slightly older Blake, when he grows into a surly, socially inept teenager. Adapted from an award-winning memoir and directed by Anand Tucker (Shopgirl, 2005), the film flows seamlessly in and out of flashbacks, fleshing out Blake and Arthur’s complex dynamic. Any film centered around a father-son relationship, especially when the father is terminally ill, pretty much lends itself to schmaltzy sentimentality. But When Did You Last See Your Father? avoids slipping down that syrupy slope. Instead, it is a poignant, sincere, occasionally funny — Arthur’s frank discussion of gonorrhea and masturbation during a camping trip had me chuckling — exploration of a man’s complicated history with his often uncouth but always larger-than-life father.

WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER? opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.