The Baxter

Also: Just Like Heaven, Lord of War, Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story, Or: My Treasure, and Reel Paradise.

The Baxter

Runs Fri., Sept. 16–Thurs., Sept. 22, at Varsity

OK already, I take back everything I said about Wedding Crashers. A sit in search of the com, The Baxter confuses the execution of a joke with its mere suggestion. As writer/director/star Michael Showalter's overgrown preppie Elliot says, "Compromise is the key to success." Not this time, fella. In voice-over, Elliot also explains how a "Baxter" is the nice guy/loser who typically gets dumped at the altar when a better option comes along. That option is dashing Bradley (Paul Theroux), who swoops down to nab Caroline (Elizabeth Banks), even if he hasn't quite narrowed down his choice of careers between soccer and medicine. But no matter, he's more than a match for über-dweeb Elliot, a CPA who wears a tweed cap and reads the dictionary for fun—just like that cute new temp in his office, Cecil (Michelle Williams).

At this point, were Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn on hand to rudely crash The Baxter, stealing Banks and Williams away in the process, the movie might've been bearable. But Showalter just keeps grinding away, sharpening his pencil, polishing his apple, intent on his notion that a movie about the other guy—Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday, Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle—is subversive and hilarious. It's the kind of premise without a punch line that Showalter and his Stella TV cohorts could maybe sustain in a sketch for a few minutes, by which time you're grateful for the Mentos commercial that follows.

Slow and laughless, poorly photographed and lit, and with a mincing Peter Dinklage role that's borderline offensive, The Baxter may actually drive down real-estate prices in Brooklyn, where it's mostly set. Elliot says of himself that he's "the kind of guy you settle for." Not so the movie. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Just Like Heaven

Opens Fri., Sept. 16, at Pacific Place and others

This paint-by-numbers romantic fantasia by Mark Waters (Mean Girls) is ostensibly about finding balance in life, which is much easier, it seems, once you've had a near-death experience. (Who knew?) Following a head-on collision with a tractor trailer, workaholic doctor Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) lies comatose in the very San Francisco hospital where she once worked. Her spirit, however, is free to wander the Earth, though it prefers chiding landscape architect David (Mark Ruffalo), who's rented her old apartment, about putting cups down on her mahogany coffee table without coasters. Can these two crazy kids restore Elizabeth's senseless body to perky, fashionable life? More important: Can they find love in a deeply unspiritual age?

It's not a bad premise, but Heaven misplays it in almost every conceivable way. The movie is surprisingly unfun, a businesslike genre exercise whose only hope for salvation is one clever bit of casting. Jon Heder, better known to the world as Napoleon Dynamite, appears all too briefly as a slacker psychic, the Whoopi Goldberg to Ruffalo's Demi Moore. Like every other member of the cast, Heder does and says precisely what's needed in order to advance the plot, yet he's so inessential to it that he actually appears to be having fun. Ruffalo and Witherspoon, on the other hand, spend most of the picture mugging, pouting, and generally overacting, though he's better at reining in the script's slapstick nonsense than she is. About 20 minutes in, however, his charms aren't enough, and you may find yourself wishing, as I was, that she'd just walk toward the goddamn light, already. (PG-13) NEAL SCHINDLER

Lord of War

Opens Fri., Sept. 16, at Pacific Place and others

If you walk out of Lord of War right after the opening sequence, you won't miss anything half as good. It's a bravura biography of a bullet, snappily photographed from its birth in the clattering factory to its destiny, smashing through the forehead of a startled young man in Africa, depicted from the bullet's point of view. The following biography of an arms dealer, Ukrainian immigrant Yuri (Nicolas Cage), is nowhere near as good: Its story line is like a bullet that wanders pokily around in circles, checking out various scenarios without finding its target. The chronic, wearily sardonic voice-over narration by Cage is a confession of narrative incompetence, the hiccupping script a disgrace.

And yet, you will miss some striking scenes if you do walk out. Cage's sleepy-eyed hipster shuffle is good for his conflicted character, sort of a combination of his action-movie numb strut and Leo DiCaprio's gleeful Catch Me If You Can dance. Cage and his kid brother (gorgeously ice-irised Jared Leto) make a mint hawking ammo and AK-47s, rising from their humble roots in Brooklyn's Little Odessa to challenge smooth, bespoke- suited elder dealer Ian Holm. Holm is simmeringly sinister and criminally underused. As the Keystone cop/Inspector Javert on Cage's trail, Ethan Hawke is criminally overused, forever arriving to bust him seconds after a big deal. It's all stylishly lensed and edited, mostly fun to watch scene by scene, but it illustrates the difference between speed and momentum.

Cage eventually graduates to the $32 billion heist of Ukraine's armory, for the benefit of African warlords. There are horribly irrelevant subplots involving Cage's courtship of his teenage crush (the flavorless dish Bridget Moynihan) and Leto's cocaine habit. His performance is like a coke buzz—a couple minutes' thrill followed by prolonged depression.

The point of Lord of War is that international arms merchants are cold, bad men to whom marketing death is no different than marketing Coca-Cola. (When the machine gun strobes, the soundtrack supplies a cash-register sound.) Mostly, it's a snooze-inducing sermon, illuminating only to those who walk in thinking the arms race is a good thing. (R) TIM APPELO

Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story

Runs Fri., Sept. 16–Sun., Sept. 18, at Northwest Film Forum

I used to buy lattes most days from two future grunge gods, Jeff Ament and Andy Wood, then supporting their habits by pulling espresso at Raison d'Être. Ament's habits were music and sports; Wood's were music and heroin. After Wood became the first grunge OD at 24 in 1990, the Mother Love Bone bandmates with whom he scored the first six-figure grunge contract, Ament and Stone Gossard, helped launch Pearl Jam and also teamed with Chris Cornell to record the tribute album Temple of the Dog.

Now there's a cinematic tribute to Wood, Scot Barbour's moving, sometimes rocking documentary Malfunkshun, named after the dysfunctional singer's first band, born in his parents' Bainbridge Island basement. It captures the spirit that distinguished Wood from Ament: Ament had some ambition, but he ducked fame when he later scored artistic success. Wood wanted the spotlight, then, now, and forever. This kid was a one-man Seattle Scene, even when the audience at the Central was six people.

In Malfunkshun, Ament, Gossard, Cornell, Kim Thayil, and MLB/Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis, now reflective middle-aged rich men, muse fondly and thoughtfully on Wood's personal magnetism and mystifying demons. Wood also gets to testify in old interview clips—hiding behind a big frog doll and an inadequately self-protective carapace of off-center humor.

Performance clips show how utterly he lacked the curious anti-fame puritanism that afflicted so many Seattle musicians. Malfunkshun nicely captures his punkish, puckish, Kiss-ified dandyism and the dreamy, wandering-in-the-melodic- wilderness quality of his imagination. Instead of Eddie Vedder's simply guttural growl, he had a glammier persona and a voice slightly like Cornell's—soaring, with a sob. The "Crown of Thorns" he sang of in his great song, immortalized on Cameron Crowe's Singles soundtrack, was subtler than his successor Vedder's infectious angst. Not simply the Australopithecus Eddie Vedder, he was grunge's lost genius, its Thomas Chatterton, the symbol of sensitivity and infinite promise snuffed in its first bloom. The film helps conveys why he inspired Seattle's scene.

The last time I talked to Wood, I was complaining about a Helmut Newton book about bound women. How snottily egomaniacal, how loud, how nasty this guy Newton's pictures are, I said. "Yeah, but you're looking at 'em," Wood snapped. He would be utterly delighted that people are still looking at him now. (NR) TIM APPELO

Or: My Treasure

Runs Fri., Sept. 16–Thurs., Sept. 22, at Grand Illusion

Whatever Hollywood's real experience with hookers (Heidi Fleiss, Divine Brown, etc.), most movies cling to clichés about fallen women and hearts of gold. Even in something supposedly brutal and realistic, like Leaving Las Vegas, Elizabeth Shue's call girl still wears an aura of glamour and humanity. From Israel, Or: My Treasure takes a decidedly grimmer view of the world's oldest profession. Teenage Or (Dana Ivgy) is the daughter of haggard street whore Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz), and the movie starts out like a redemption story: Their roles reversed, Or is the responsible one, working sundry jobs to pay the rent and keep her mother off the street. She even lands Ruthie a housecleaning gig—perhaps, at last, an entry to the respectable world.

We wouldn't be surprised if Ruthie rejects this upright path. With her bad teeth, sagging belly, and wobbly legs, she wears the look of a woman who doesn't expect anything better in life than servicing winos in the alley. All her hopes she reserves for Or, whose only vices seem to be a few cigarettes and letting the boys who provide them steal a few kisses in return. When doughy neighbor boy Ido takes an interest in her, who can object when the two spend the night together? Kids grow up fast, and Ruthie is thrilled to watch the lovebirds walk hand in hand on their way to high school. Or also happens to work in Ido's father's restaurant—this could even be a match. A mother can dream, right?

Well, director Karen Yedaya isn't selling easy dreams, and she has some sharp surprises in store—provided you have the patience to wait for them. Her still camera simply lets scenes play out with the unhurried rhythms of daily life: Or dyes her mother's hair, the two strip to shower, and Or does the laundry in the tub while she bathes. None of this is particularly dramatic; it's more a slow accumulation of force from the details and inexorable circumstances—like the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, La Promesse), only with more squalor and less art. Yedaya's long-take naturalism can be tedious; after a while, you wish Or and Ruthie would have a real fight, throw shoes, something to relieve the misery. Absent any such tantrums, you have to watch carefully for the tipping points that steer the film in its bleak and unsparing direction. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Reel Paradise

Runs Fri., Sept. 16–Thurs., Sept. 22, at Varsity

If you came of age during the indie era, I suppose there's something heartwarming about film-geek parents in a dinner-table debate with their cynical teenage kids about what movies are worth seeing. The generational tensions are obvious. Gangs of New York (boring! says the son) or Jackass? Rabbit-Proof Fence or Cradle 2 the Grave? Anything versus The Hot Chick? No contest. And they're not being screened on the flat-screen home entertainment center, either. For a year, film-world maven John Pierson and family decamped to a small island in Fiji to show free movies to the natives in a decrepit, 50-year-old cinema powered by an electric generator. There, in this pleasant, familiar tag-along documentary by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Pierson quickly runs up against the limits of his own downtown tastes. He who was instrumental in advancing the careers of Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and others discovers that the Fijian audience has more reverence for gods like the Three Stooges and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

It's the Sullivan's Travels axiom, as Pierson well knows: People facing real hardship in their lives crave laughter, not art; action, not moral uplift. "I'm the guy in Mosquito Coast," says the perfectly self-aware Pierson, on "a midlife crisis slash mission" to bring Hollywood entertainments to the deserving poor. (In Paradise's less-than-comprehensive colonial history, we learn that Indo-Fijians, brought over by the old English rulers, now dominate the economy.)

The Piersons—including sensible mother Janet, surly son Wyatt, and rebellious older daughter Georgia—are like a much higher-functioning and more articulate version of the Osbournes. Only they've seen way, way too many movies, documentaries, and TV shows about families resembling their own. Janet reproaches Georgia, "You're just acting for the camera," and it's true for them all—especially John, who hosted the IFC cable show Split Screen. Given such a canny cast of self-editors, director James tries to find a little vérité, but subplots about a mysterious burglary and Georgia supposedly running wild are no more surprising than Pierson's own midlife mission. You like him and his family as much at the beginning of their adventure as at the end—and are left wanting to know more about their new Fijian friends, who don't have the luxury of leaving when the marquee finally goes dark. (R) BRIAN MILLER

 
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