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Cashback
Magnolia

Possibly the nadir of that post-Trainspotting, British pseudo-hipness category, Cashback feels like a kinetically stylized memoir but with none of the distinction. We're supposed to feel sorry for Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff, a porno actor's pseudonym if there ever was one), an amateur artist who's just been dumped by his girlfriend and is going through a withdrawal period that Nick Hornby could script better in his sleep. He gets a late-night supermarket job, and in between picturing all the hot customers with their clothes off, he falls for the check-out girl. Despite the film's tedious length and the presence of obnoxious voice-over narration, there's not a single three-dimensional character in it. But we are treated to lots and lots of naked breasts and vaginas, with nearly every female character treated as a fetishized sex object for the protagonist's (read: director's) perverse pleasure. Oh, but it's OK, because Willis is looking at the bodies from an "artistic" perspective, and this sensitive dreamer is trying to getting over a bad breakup. Boo-effing-hoo. Vile, patronizing and without an original joke to call its own, Cashback ends, pitifully enough, with the kind of deus ex machina that would insult a 10-year-old. —John Thomason

 

Borderline Cult
Lionsgate

Ulli Lommel seems bent on becoming the world's most reprehensible filmmaker. His specialty is gore movies that reinterpret real-life serial killers like the Zodiac and the BTK guy, thus eliminating anything that resembles narrative, facts, motive or craft. Instead he concentrates long and slow on the murders. You get the feeling that if Lommel ever gets around to making a 9/11 movie, he'd skip the planes and just let terrorists run amok in the World Trade Center killing people one at a time with box-cutters.

So women continue to get abducted, raped and killed along the U.S.-Mexican border ("Juarez ... 420 victims and counting," reads the cover hyperbole like a proud selling point), and people are really angry about illegals getting into our country, right? Why not exploit their deaths and cash in on a Republican's animosity toward immigration by making all the deaths the work of a fictitious three-member serial killing crew. The attractive female in the posse lures gullible women into chicken coops, then a Drew Carey clone takes over, chokes or knocks them unconscious before tying them up and disfiguring their corpses with something from the tool shed. Then it's up to some black dude in a Billy Jack hat to bury them and put a bloodied article of clothing on their white cross marker. Each videotapes the other talking between kills and you get a direct-to-camera rationale for their unspeakable atrocities. I won't give any of them away, but they are of the "Mommy didn't love me, I don't like Monday" school of thought. And yet I still find the female decoy desirable date material. Is that, like, wrong? —Serene Dominic

 

Whole New Thing
Picture This Entertainment

It's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Emerson Thorsen (Aaron Webber), the 13-year-old antagonist of Whole New Thing. For one, the kid's an articulate, intelligent smartass. It's not his fault he's been raised and home-schooled in an eco-friendly abode by hippie parents. He's been a blank canvas for his parent's ideals but now Mom worries about his social and academic preparedness for the real world. So she sends him to a public junior high school where his shaggy hair, androgynous looks and witty sarcasm make him an easy target. Were this just another tween comedy, Emerson would win his dream girl at the dance, everyone would learn a lesson about acceptance and the end credits would roll. But this isn't so obvious; instead, it diverts into some potentially dicey, if not real-world, subject matter — Emerson develops a crush on his 42-year-old lovelorn male teacher and pursues him with dogged determination. And director-co-writer Amon Buchbinder goes deeper than tabloid headlines about teacher-student sex and what develops is a keen narrative about differences between intellectual and emotional maturity, particularly when it comes to love. Shot in 15 days, Whole New Thing ends rather abruptly and isn't wholly successful in exploring the inner turmoil of all the characters. Minor faults considering the telling and darkly comic path it travels. —Paul Knoll

 

Film Noir Collection, Vol. 4
Warner Bros.

There were so many good film noirs in the '40s and '50s that Warner Bros., in its fourth installment of noir classics, still hasn't run out of deceitful floozies and street-lit hoodlums to (re)explore. If anything, the interest in packaging these heretofore dismissed genre quickies seems to be growing; this collection is Warners' heftiest, including 10 films on five DVDs.

It's only fitting that many of the pictures in this set aren't archetypal noirs. Warner has come to use the word "noir" liberally, for better or worse, encompassing several genre mash-ups with uncharacteristic noir themes. Some of the material chosen for this collection is a stretch from such pulp-fiction cornerstones as Out of the Past, The Asphalt Jungle and Murder, My Sweet, which made Vol. 1 such an essential purchase. By branching out the definition of noir, this set proves to be an even more enriching experience because it shows that there's more to this dark, vital movement than femmes fatales, hard-boiled detectives and sleazy sax scores.

The shiniest gem in the assemblage is Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1948), which should be ranked among Citizen Kane and Breathless as one of the greatest debuts in film history. A truthful and emotionally transcendent B-picture, this film about two lovers trying to flee a life of crime has long been sold in lousy bootlegs but here gets Warners' typically glorious treatment.

Another underrated classic is Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence (1948), with Robert Ryan as a vengeful, club-legged World War II veteran and Van Heflin as the seemingly angelic community leader harboring a deplorable secret. This multilayered, gripping story poses countless moral questions about guilt, redemption and justice, and you never feel like you're being lectured. Then there's Crime Wave (1954), shot with claustrophobic intensity by genre maven André De Toth. Unadorned and grisly, this brutal noir about an ex-con trying to stay straight was based on a Saturday Evening Post short story, and lurid truth shines through the film's humanism. Sterling Hayden is particularly memorable as an obsessive detective who, told by his doctor to stop smoking, chain-chews toothpicks instead.

Another title long circulated in shoddy bootlegs is Don Siegel's The Big Steal (1949), a three-car chase and road movie shot in Mexico with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer falling in love as part of the plot. This is an interesting case of a screwball comedy — complete with a classic "meet-cute" — hoodwinking us into believing it's a noir. You could also make the case for Mystery Street (1950), with its atypical noir setting and lack of suspense, as more of a straight-up police procedural than a noir. Likewise, the later-period Illegal (1955) — starring Edward G. Robinson as an alcoholic, guilt-drenched prosecutor who sells his morality to the mob — should really be dubbed a legal drama.

As for the purest of noir films, some of the best are here — Anthony Mann's suffocating Side Street and the psychological disturbia of John Farrow's Where Danger Lives, both from 1950. Overall, there are three masterpieces, two near-masterpieces, three interesting noir excursions, one mediocrity (the well-made but standard boilerplate, jealousy thriller Tension) and one clunker (the flatly directed Decoy). Unlike most genre-specific sets, there might actually be something for everyone here. —John Thomason

 

The Uninvited
Panik House Entertainment

Finally, a movie for people who hate kids! How else do you explain the six different little ones who meet their brutal demise in Korean import The Uninvited? Hell is for children all right — as we see a mother poison her two daughters and leave them on a subway to die. Jung-won (Shin-yang Park) is an interior designer who notices the ailing girls at his last stop but doesn't come to their aid, and the ensuing guilt haunts him. He then flees his home, which starts him on a pointless journey involving a forgotten abusive childhood, a psychic who's also narcoleptic, a postpartum baby-killer, some religious banter and yes, more murdered kids. Aside from obvious shock value, the kiddie deaths don't propel the story forward; rather, they're merely ugly plot props on which to hang a half-dozen other cryptic ideas. The Uninvited can't decide what it wants to be — disease-of-the-week flick, supernatural ghost story or docudrama about, um, childhood difficulties. At 96 minutes this flick feels long. Though, there's a handy DVD extra should your morbid curiosity rise. Abridged: The Uninvited Condensed is a painless 15-minute version of the movie. Now, who said DVD extras never offer much? Huh? —Paul Knoll

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