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‘Repo Men’ plus more movie reviews, news

“Repo Men”

“Repo Man” (1984) had Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez (what happened to him — repossessed?). It was a cheap, amusing hit. “Repo Men” (2010) has Jude Law as Remy, who hunts down people who cannot make payments on their artificial organs. This could be the year’s best pitch for universal health care, but don’t expect a White House showing.

Remy and other hunters stun the delinquents with taser guns, then slice them open for organs, without benefit of anesthetics or even swabs. It’s a grungy, septic world, and it’s taking a toll on Remy, who just wants to be a good dad despite a failing marriage. Conceptual and visual parts for this trashy vision seem transplanted from “Blade Runner.” There are also analogies to the stage and film show “Repo! The Genetic Opera.”

Remy, buffed and boyishly sincere in the Jude Law way, has an implanted heart but finds his real heart: Beth (Alice Braga, niece of Sonia), a kind of slum siren and nymphet vamp who looks like she weighs about 75 pounds. She first lures Remy by sweetly crooning “Cry Me a River” (surely, in context, that should be “Pry Me a Liver”). Beth says her only original parts are her lips, which is Remy’s cue to ambush her with a massive smooch as they tumble lyrically into trash. Their love drives a wedge between Remy and his repo buddy Jake (Forest Whitaker, who looks as if he has lost 75 pounds).

No wonder Leo DiCaprio dropped out of this; the twisting, murky layers of “Shutter Island” are more coherent. The language of the future seems to be gibberish, and you might suspect that the writers (working from Eric Garcia’s novel “The Repossession Mambo,” which gets a gaudy plug in the movie) had brain implants that failed. Director Miguel Sapochnik oozes and dawdles it along, leaving Law, Braga and Whitaker on the thin, cracking edge of their talent.

As climax, Remy and Beth slaughter about a dozen men in a utility corridor by using knives, hammers and a hacksaw (it’s a narrow corridor but martial arts inevitably occur). That is only foreplay for much worse to come, prompting from the cold, corporate villain (Liev Schreiber) the film’s wisest words: “This is (bleeping) pitiful.” Which pretty well sums up the movie. (Opens Friday; rated R) ★


Mom (Kim Hye-Ja) makes mother love an obsession in "Mother." (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

In “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith exalted “the hand that rocks the cradle,” but he never met the heroine of “Mother.” Often darkly funny, it’s from South Korea’s Bong Soon-ho, who directed “The Host.” Mom (Kim Hye-ja) is a haggard scrape-along in a small town. She endures by making herbal medicines and doing acupuncture, yet lives only for her arrested-development son, Do-joon (Won Bin). They still share a bed, and the son hankers for a young woman despite mental limitations that undermine his rabbity cuteness.

The voyeuristic Do-joon is charged by lazy cops with the murder of the town slut, who kept a candid video diary. But Bong doesn’t salivate over scandal, nor does he crank up violence and horror. He just lets them trickle through the story, as mommie serves her dearest by sleuthing his case. Nobody slows her down for long, this locomotive of “love” who serves such fortune cookies as, “Always eat well after coming back from the police station.”

The plot includes the boy’s one, unlikely friend, who seems on lease from a gangster film, and a twisting of the long arm of plausibility concerning Ma’s acupuncture kit. The art is in Bong’s mastery of pacing and flashbacks, and his great eye for weirdly beautiful mood heighteners (photographer: Kyung-pyo “Alex” Hong). All heart but no valentine, “Mother” has such visions as a nocturnal golf course, an exquisite cemetery, and an elegant view of mom sweetly offering her son soup while he pees on a public wall. (Opens Friday, Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas; rated R) ★★★1/2

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”

Zachary Gordon stars in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Four writers jiggered Jeff Kinney’s popular kids’ book, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” into a movie that sprays plastic gags about a new student (Zachary Gordon) in middle school, his winsomely pudgy pal (Robert Capron) and other cute kids. Even the down moments come in cheerful colors. There are booger jokes, and much plot biz with a slice of moldy cheese. Was Rachael Harris, as perky mom, winner of a Sarah Palin Wannabe Contest? Did daddy Steve Zahn ponder why his excellence in “Management” has led to this? Since everyone performs like a lippy, hectic, Saturday morning cartoon, why do characters briefly become actual stick cartoons? A preview audience largely bought into it. Well, no, they got in for free. (Opens Friday; rated PG) ★1/2

“The Most Dangerous Man in America”

Daniel Ellsberg (left) and wife Patricia (right) in "The Most Dangerous Man in America." (Photo courtesy of First Run Pictures)

Daniel Ellsberg looked good on camera when “the most trusted man in America” (CBS-TV’s Walter Cronkite) interviewed “the most dangerous man in America” (Ellsberg, as described by Henry Kissinger). If Richard Nixon was the great toxic dump of neurotic rage in American politics, then nobody went into that dump with a better shovel than Ellsberg (the late cartoonist David Levine also had a good one).

“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” a documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, tells how Ellsberg woke up. He was a Pentagon insider and rising brain at the ultra-connected Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. The former Marine also relished going on military patrol in Vietnam, still thinking we could win that war. But Ellsberg looked, listened, thought, felt. He broke from the “best and brightest” who loved power. They didn’t want to absorb the 7,000-page investigative history (branded unreleasable) about the ‘Nam scams and lies that circled the oval office of four Presidents.

The movie has a lovely image of D.C.’s Vietnam War Memorial, and some dippy little animations. But let’s not crit-quibble this one. It’s the story of a man who won his wife by changing his mind about war, and who steeled himself to go beyond soldiering to “speak truth to power.” That meant stealing information the world needed, and getting it published. As newspapers now shrink, this is an anthem for the power of newsprint when honorably employed.

Ellsberg rallied behind what the Constitution is meant to mean (he didn’t stop or slow the war, which ground on until after Nixon’s fall). Look at the evidence, and you discern a remarkable loop: Ellsberg’s actions detonated Nixon’s paranoia to a new level, which cooked the Watergate mess in which Ellsberg was a target, and then that scandal (because the White House tried to bribe the judge in Ellsberg’s case) led to his release from prosecution. This is the necessary story of a patriot armed by his conscience. (Opens Friday, Landmark Ken Cinema; unrated) ★★★

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”

Even eunuchs might feel male guilt after “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (original title: “Men Who Hate Women”). Unfazed would be fascistic sado-rapists bunkered in wealth. They figure prominently in the Swedish film directed by Niels Arden Oplev from the first of three “Millennium” novels by the late journalist Stieg Larsson. It was not just Sweden’s but Europe’s biggest non-American hit last year, so a movie trilogy is guaranteed.

Appealing Michael Nyquist, who even has charismatic skin blemishes, plays Blomkvist, a crusading, anti-elitist reporter convicted in a rigged libel suit. In the months before he enters prison (which looks furnished by Ikea), he repairs his battered pride by tracking the fate of the lovely niece of an old billionaire. She disappeared in 1966, and in a very cold, rustic town Blomkvist begins to unearth clues about many female victims. The stuffy family at the plot hub harbors enough secrets, including lingering fascism, to outfit a major mini-series.

To Blomkvist’s aid comes goth punkette Lisbeth, an aggressive computer hacker. The story almost faints under the stark, vengeful gaze of Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth, an abuse victim keen for payback. The big dragon tattooed above her spine prowls the back alleys of her damaged personality (still, she’s a figure of pathos, almost a Little Nell in leather).

Too frequently seen are lap-top screens, used as narrative turbos. Plot kink? Confusion? Bring on the cyber cavalry! More offensive, yet perhaps now sadly obligatory for some viewers (the ghoul droolers), are morgue photos, rape, torture, even anti-Semitic misogyny. How did Ingmar Bergman miss all this?

A never quite justified bonus is Lisbeth’s vile probation officer, the worst such legalized scum since M. Emmet Walsh tormented Dustin Hoffman in “Straight Time.” The film is a smorgasbord in hell: crisp, chill and Nordically nasty. (Opens Friday, Landmark Hillcrest and La Jolla Village; unrated) ★★

STARS: FOUR (ace), THREE (worthy), TWO (involving), ONE (dud), ZERO (nil)

RECOMMENDED (and Current): “Avatar,” “Crazy Heart,” “An Education,” “Fish Tank,” “The Ghost Writer,” “Green Zone,” “Mother,” “Shutter Island”


La Abbondanza: Small but abundant, the San Diego Italian Film Festival takes four classics north to the UltraStar Flower Hill plex in Del Mar (5 Via de la Valle, just east of I-5). The 7:30 p.m. Thursday shows begin March 18 with Roberto Rossellini’s “Il Generale della Rovere,” with Vittorio de Sica’s great performance as a con man who fakes being a general during the fall of fascism (the ending is greatly memorable). Next are “Il Posto” (March 25), Ermanno Olmi’s austerely elegant and moving film about a young Milanese man’s first job; “Seduced and Abandoned” (April 1), Pietro Germi’s harsh comedy of Sicilian sexual mischief, starring Stefania Sandrelli, and Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” (April 8), a lushly nostalgic, funny fantasy of his young years in coastal Rimini. Tickets are $7.50, less for students, seniors; go to www.sandiegoitalianfilmfestival.com

Gaslamp lures: Films of note keep slipping into the Reading Gaslamp 15 Cinemas. Kristian Frage’s documentary “Severe Clear” opened March 12, a view of the early Iraqi war using mini-DV footage shot by First Lt. Mike Scotti, of his unit in action, plus his diaries and letters. It’s said to be as intense as “The Hurt Locker” and less political than “Green Zone.” March 19 brings “The Red Baron,” a lavish German treatment of long-gone but seemingly deathless WWI ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen (remember Carl Schell as the biplane hero, in 1966’s “The Blue Max”?). Matthias Schweighofer is the Red Baron, Joseph Fiennes his top RAF opponent and Lena Headey his loving nurse. The plex is at 5th and G, downtown San Diego.

At the library: Two strong entries arrive in the public library’s free film series. “State of Siege” (2 p.m. Sunday, March 21) is Costa-Gavras’ 1973 movie shot in Chile, about the 1970 hostage murder of U.S. aid administrator Dan Mitrone in Uruguay; Yves Montand is compelling in the lead, if not particularly American. The adrenalized drama nails some truths, so it drew fire from left and right. “Football Undercover” (6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 24) is a 2007 documentary or “soccumentary” about a pioneering soccer match in Tehran between Iranian and German female teams. Examining also the political aspects, it sounds like a companion for Jafar Panahi’s great “Offside,” about Iranian girls hooked on the game. The central library is at 820 E St., downtown; call (619) 236-5800.

A QUOTE (not a blurb!): “We’re going to knock that big, fat cigar out of Mr. Churchill’s mouth and make him say ‘Heil!’ five times.”– Gen. Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), enjoying a fine Nazi moment in Billy Wilder’s “Five Graves to Cairo” (1943).

David Elliott is the SDNN movie critic.