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On Screen

DON'T COME KNOCKING

* *

FI_ONSCRBOX_0420Starring Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange. Written by Sam Shepard. Directed by Wim Wenders. (14A) 110 min. Opens April 21. See JASON ANDERSON's interview with Wenders and Shepard at www.eye.net.

The last time Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard got together, they made Paris, Texas (1984), a movie that ranks with the best work in either man's long, fabled career. It would've been hard for any follow-up to compete with the beauty, wonder and sheer strangeness of that film but Don't Come Knocking misses the mark by many miles.

Shepard plays Howard Spence, an aging bad-boy actor who deserts the set of his latest western to begin an unlikely quest. After reuniting with his mother (Eva Marie Saint, the first in a trio of strong performances by the film's women), Howard learns that he has a son from a long-abandoned lover in Montana. He travels to Butte but the reunions with Doreen (Jessica Lange) and sonny boy Earl (Gabriel Mann) go nowhere near as smoothly as Howard might've hoped. Meanwhile, Howard's whereabouts are of great interest to an oddly fastidious investigator (Tim Roth) and a serene young woman (Sarah Polley).

Fifteen minutes have been cut from the version that laid an egg at Cannes last year but Don't Come Knocking is still messy and meandering, the filmmakers' observations about manhood, mortality and the movies too often seeming trite and obvious. The fact that some scenes punch their weight -- especially a final-act monologue by Polley's character and a harangue by Doreen that's a potent reminder of Lange's acting prowess -- adds to the sense of frustration this woolly-headed western provokes. JASON ANDERSON

AMERICAN DREAMZ one star

Starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid. Written and directed by Paul Weitz. (PG) 107 min. Opens April 21.

What could compel Paul Weitz, the guy behind such slick, assured commercial entertainments as About a Boy and In Good Company, to challenge Cameron Crowe in the star-studded fiasco sweepstakes? Alas, the culprit is a desire to "say something." Or scream it.

Weitz's new monstrosity American Dreamz is not subtle in its provocations. It's a sprawling narrative about a sweetly moronic US president (Dennis Quaid) who gets roped into appearing on an American Idol-type TV show by its smarmy British host (Hugh Grant). One of the contestants (Mandy Moore) is a grain-fed diva with delusions of Spears-ian stardom; another is Omer (Sam Golzari), an affable Iraqi teenager with ties to terrorists who want the president assassinated -- on air.

This stuff might work on an episode of South Park, a show where nothing is ever thinly veiled and bad taste means never having to say you're sorry. But this atonal pop-political satire wants to be all things to all people (the left will chuckle at the hillbilly caricatures and limp Bush-baiting, while the right can jeer the stereotyped Arab characters and know that Quaid's Dubya manqué is a sweetie at heart). Skewering sacred cows is a worthwhile pastime, but one's aim must be true: there's a difference between cutting to the quick and eviscerating some poor, defenceless creature beyond recognition. American Dreamz is the kind of bloody mess that inspires slack-jawed awe.

ADAM NAYMAN

KINKY BOOTS two stars

Starring Joel Edgerton, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Written by Geoff Deane, Tim Firth. Directed by Julian Jarrold. (PG) 106 min. Opens April 21.

Benny Hill was right all along: the English are a bunch of pervs. What else are we to surmise from Britain's predominant form of movie export: the cheeky, sentimental, post-Full Monty comedy? These films offer a disgusting array of dope-smokers (Saving Grace), exhibitionists (Mrs. Henderson Presents, Calendar Girls) and homosexualist hairdressers (The Big Tease).

The latest affront to decent people everywhere, Kinky Boots applies the formula to an almost-true-life tale of working-class woes intersecting with the needs of burly transvestites. Saddled with his late father's failing shoe factory in Northamptonshire, Charlie (Joel Edgerton) is in bad shape until a chance meeting with a drag queen named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) inspires him to address the shortage of man-sized go-go boots. Cue the inevitable scenes of Lola asserting his/her fabulousness in the face of bigotry from sallow homophobes (including Shaun of the Dead's Nick Frost) as well as the straitlaced Charlie.

Ejiofor vamps it up with great gusto but he and the cast are let down by the shabby sitcom script and the timid, dated nature of the humour. It's as if the filmmakers believed that the sheer notion of blokes in frocks would instantly provoke gales of laughter. Oh, please. Even Benny understood the need to speed up the film and add some saucy theme music. JA

3 NEEDLES three stars

Starring Lucy Liu, Chloë Sevigny. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald. (18A) 123 min. Opens April 21.

With so many films starting strong and then sputtering out, 3 Needles is that rare wobbler worth hanging in there for. Three sad stories about the spread of HIV on three continents are interwoven awkwardly, but Canadian Thom Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden) builds towards scenes of great power, moral complexity and stunning natural beauty.

Lucy Liu stands out as a blood collector in rural China. Chloë Sevigny gets progressively more interesting as a nun who combats apathy and superstition in South Africa. However, the story of a Montreal porn actor (Shawn Ashmore) fails to take flight, while other big names are either miscast (why import Stockard Channing to play a Québécoise?) or underutilized (Sandra Oh gets to make little mischief in her nun's habit). KIM LINEKIN

VA, VIS ET DEVIENS (LIVE AND BECOME) three stars

Starring Yaël Abecassis, Roschdy Zem. Written by Alain Michel-Blanc, Radu Mihaileanu. Directed by Radu Mihaileanu. (14A) 140 min. Opens April 21.

Va, vis et deviens would make a pretty good miniseries. Romanian-French director Radu Mihaileanu's ambitious coming-of-age fable is episodic and finally too eventful for its own good. But there is still plenty to admire. The film tells the story of Schlomo, an orphaned Ethiopian child passed off as a Falasha Jew during the exodus of the country's Jewish population in 1985. After arriving in Israel, Schlomo (played by three different actors as he moves from childhood to adolescence to adulthood) is adopted by a pair of hip, secular left-wingers (Yaël Abecassis and Roschdy Zem). They're faultlessly nice and well-dressed, but their affection for their new son does little to quell his burgeoning identity crisis, or the intolerant attitudes of their own countrymen.

Moshe Agazi, who plays Schlomo at age 9, contributes an intense, unmannered performance, and the scenes describing his culture shock are expertly directed. Once Schlomo hits puberty and develops a political consciousness, he becomes prone to making speeches about his feelings of dislocation and the film becomes bluntly didactic. The film speeds through its third act, offering regularly scheduled upheavals (college, war, marriage, fatherhood, homecoming) in lieu of the thoughtful character development that marked the superb early passages. AN

COME AND SEE four stars one star

Starring Alexi Kravchenko, Olga Mironova. Written by Elem Klimov, Ales Adamovich. Directed by Elem Klimov. (STC) 142 min. Screens at Cinematheque Ontario on April 21 at 8pm.

The film is called Come and See, but at first, it's as if the characters are watching you. The first 20 minutes of Russian director Elem Klimov's 1985 masterwork about the 1942 German invasion of Belorussia (now Belarus, officially) feature a number of unnerving head-on close-ups. The key visage belongs to 12-year-old Florya (Alexi Kravchenko), whose fondest desire is to join his countrymen in the battle against the fascists. His enthusiasm is written all over his face: in the opening scenes, which describe Florya's recruitment by partisan soldiers, he wears the blissed-out smile of a hopeful child, staring just past us, towards the future.

Shortly thereafter, he is abandoned in the woods by his compatriots and begins the journey back to his village. His grin is long gone, in its place is a blank, uncomprehending stare that meets our own. This psychic ruin is earned: the atrocities to which Florya bears witness upon his homecoming may be unmatched in the annals of cinema.

Come and See is hellish, guiding its protagonist through a series of unrelentingly grim episodes that, while based in historical fact, play out impressionistically, as swirling fantasias of blood, dirt and fragile bodies. In Klimov's unshakable vision, death is casual, safety is impossible and beauty is backwards: this is peerlessly gorgeous filmmaking about absolute ugliness. AN

PURE two stars

Starring Laura Jordan, Robert Crooks. Written by Eugene Garcia. Directed by Jim Donovan. (14A) 80 min. Opens April 21.

Club kids aren't great company unless you're as high as they are. Even then, it can make for a long night full of inane chatter, trance music and glowsticks. Such is the case with Pure, a Montreal indie that goes for cheerful decadence but is undone by its pretensions, its poor storytelling and the absence of a character with anything to say.

A twentysomething veteran of Montreal's party scene, Misha (Laura Jordan) has come to a crossroads. Should she keep living at night or use those daylight hours to attend some university classes? Much more pressing is her decision about which guy to be with -- sweet, cerebral Josh (Gianpaolo Venuta) or her dog of an ex-boyfriend, Sam (Tim Rozon)?

Misha's voice-over narration makes her seem so solipsistic it's hard to care what (or who) she does. Pure strives in its darker moments to be a portrait of young people raving their way into oblivion but it lacks the savvy of such similarly inspired films as Go and Morvern Callar. Director Jim Donovan's kinetic visual style invigorates things, but the ending is the mother of all buzz kills. JA

Also out Friday, April 21.

SILENT HILL Lookee! A scary video game remake! Dir Christophe Gans w/ Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean. (STC) 120 min. See review April 21 at www.eye.net.

Torstar Corporation Torstar Digital