Movies in Brief

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Unrated, 75 minutes

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (1932–2001) invented everything that mattered in the 20th century. And if he didn’t, he could have. That’s the vibe you get from “Tales of the Rat Fink,” Canadian documentarian Ron Mann’s latest pop-culture celebration. This suitably speedy entertainment recounts the life and times of Roth, whose wigged-out automotive designs gave the hot-rod underground a full tank of inspiration in the 1950s and ’60s.

The hipster innovator who caused Tom Wolfe to marvel in the classic “The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby,” Roth was a genius of American vernacular design. He turned his hand to custom T-shirts, skateboards, toy model kits of his supersonic cars — like the Orbitron — and the invention of Rat Fink, a stinky, drooling, fly-ridden “anti-Mickey Mouse” whose toxic green skin and bloodshot eyes helped make it an icon for would-be “weirdos” nationwide.

Mr. Mann, whose subjects have included underground cartoonists (“Comic Book Confidential”) and avant-garde jazz musicians (“Imagine the Sound”), takes a light, zippy approach to his material. His main conceit is to have much of the story told by the hot rods themselves, voiced by sympathetic celebs like Jay Leno (a car and motorcycle hobbyist), the Smothers Brothers, and “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, with John Goodman as the disembodied voice of Big Daddy himself, speaking to us from the great body shop beyond.

The effect is way too cute, and makes the 75-minute film feel like a Saturday morning kid’s show. That’s not entirely off base, since Roth was a huge cult hero for members of the lunchbox set in the ’60s (who could net a small fortune on eBay now if they had kept their Rat Fink models). The problem is that it looks as if Mr. Mann is padding out the film. He doesn’t have much actual footage of Roth, who died in 2000. It’s a bit superficial, certainly compared to Mr. Mann’s previous efforts, which lavished screen time on artistic outsiders telling their stories first-hand. Still, “Rat Fink” is fun to watch – an illuminating primer about a custom car commando whose influence is far more pervasive than you’d fink — er, think.

— Steve Dollar

Unrated, 69 minutes

Thirteen years in the making, you’d be a cad if you called Christiane Cegavske’s “Blood Tea and Red String” anything less than a major accomplishment in animation. Hand crafted, and owing more than a little to the works of the master Czech animator, Jan Svankmayer, Ms. Cegavske’s movie is one of those surrealist fables that animators seem to find themselves helplessly drawn to.

A gaggle of fox ravens in striped socks live under an oak tree and cavort around in nature until some nasty, upper-class Tudor mice come along and commission them to make them a lady doll. Why? Dunno. The fox ravens fall in love with their own creation and refuse to sell her, so the mean little mice steal her away in a tortoise-drawn carriage and then sit around their posh digs drinking blood tea and playing cards. The fox ravens hitch up their striped socks and set out on an epic quest to retrieve their dolly, running across hallucinogenic fruit, frog sorcerers, and snippy spiders along the way.

Dialogue-free and unfolding on elaborate sets that Ms. Cegavske constructed herself in a warehouse she shared with an auto garage, “Blood Tea and Red String” has a hypnotic watchability, but there’s not much more to it than its craft. The animation and sets are perfect, but the story is devoid of anything beyond the filmmaker’s own weird “and then this happened next” pace. Scenes drag on for no other reason than to show off the wonderful animation.

With credits on Asia Argento’s “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” already under her belt, there is no doubt Ms. Cegavske is a major talent in animation. Unfortunately, she needs to find someone with a compatible major talent in scriptwriting.

— Grady Hendrix

PG-13, 103 minutes

Dane Cook, who looks like a less intense version of Johnny Knoxville, built his career as a stand-up comic largely through force of will and the expert use of his MySpace page to get butts into seats at his gigs. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see his first real motion picture, “Employee of the Month,” and discover that he’s actually a natural screen presence. Whether he’s trading barbs, falling in love, or uttering the kind of homilies about What Really Matters that screenwriters seem to think are so important, he comes across as relaxed and natural. This is vital since his co-star, Jessica Simpson, is so wooden and stiff that she comes across as a large-breasted female android throughout.

Set in a Sam’s Club super shopping paradise (called SuperClub), “Employee” chronicles an epic battle between box boy, Zack (Mr. Cook) and the number one cashier and eternal employee of the month, Vince (Dax Shepard) over Amy (Ms. Simpson), a new cashier rumored to put out for the employee of the month.

Before you can say “family friendly comedy,” the simmering resentment between the two turns into a volcanic eruption of jousting male hormones. Surprisingly watchable, and much funnier than “Beerfest,” this flick is completely stolen by Mr. Shepard and his evil henchman, Jorge (Efren Ramirez from “Napoleon Dynamite”).

What’s most off-putting, however, is the total acceptance of SuperClub and its values. This is no “The Office” or “Nine to Five,” dissecting workplace dissatisfaction, but a movie that completely and totally accepts SuperClub as just one more place to work, and one more location for a romantic comedy with a side helping of life lessons.

— Grady Hendrix

The Sun Recommends

Wondering what else is in theaters this weekend? Here are six films recommended by The New York Sun’s critics that you can still catch around town.

PG-13, 97 minutes

In all the decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) dutiful, conscientious, and tenacious reign, there has only really been one brief, bizarre period, of just about a week, when there was the slightest danger that the Windsors might, like so many of their less fortunate relatives in so many less fortunate countries, be asked to pack their bags. It’s that interlude, the disturbing, slightly frightening days that followed the death of Princess Diana that is the focus of “The Queen.”

Watch Her Majesty carefully enough and it’s just possible to detect that the smile, the wave, the small talk, and all the rest of it are acts of will, the work of an actress, a pro, trapped in a role that will last a lifetime. Dame Helen Mirren catches this perfectly.

— Andrew Stuttaford

NC-17, 95 minutes

With humor and fearless gusto, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” the new documentary by Kirby Dick, takes square aim at the surprisingly secretive organization that minds our PG’s and R’s. The Motion Picture Association of America may be best known as moderator of the moviegoing public’s intake of sex and violence, but Mr. Dick uncovers an organization rather less savory than its family image.

The film initially concerns itself more with the organization’s questionable practices as ratings arbiter than with its business role, but it ultimately shows how the two are inextricable. It also sets about identifying the mysterious faces of the members of the appeals board of the MPAA.

— Nicolas Rapold

R, 96 minutes

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the title character, and just like Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich,” she sets out on a scantily clad expedition to exceed preconceived notions about herself. But “Sherrybaby” is everything that “Erin Brockovich” was not. Thanks mostly to Ms. Gyllenhaal’s tumultuous performance, it is a much more realistic portrayal of someone struggling against the constraints of low expectation.

Though an ex-con and former heroin addict, Sherry is determined to straighten out her life. She returns home after three years, expecting to rehabilitate her relationship with her daughter. While it is endearing to watch someone turn her life around for the sake of a child, it is nevertheless difficult to watch someone who, despite a strong desire to do right, just can’t cut it.

— Meghan Keane

R, 98 minutes

The director Dito Montiel uses what he knows, namely the streets of New York and its residents, to make a film that proves how painful even the most inevitable of changes can sometimes be.

Mr. Montiel grew up in Astoria, Queens, roaming the streets with his friends and observing the weird jumble of 1980s New York. They had free reign of the city at night, meeting its strange inhabitants, finding wayward locations to take over, girls to chase, and occasionally laws to break.

The film tells the story of an adult Mr. Montiel, played by Robert Downey Jr., making a long overdue visit back home after achieving literary success, as he recounts his not so glory days back in Astoria. Shia LeBoeuf, playing the young Dito, puts in a nuanced and moving performance.

— Meghan Keane

PG-13, 86 minutes

Following the work of the children’s preacher, Becky Fischer, “Jesus Camp” coolly observes the lives of the combustible kids who attend her “Kids on Fire” Christian camp. Expect discomfort as 10-year-old Tory talks about her unfortunate tendency to dance “from the flesh” rather than from the spirit, and expect to be disturbed as you see children lambasted by adults for being sinners and hypocrites until they burst into tears, fall on the floor, and speak in tongues.

Guaranteed to terrify liberals, “Jesus Camp” shows where the religious right is coming from. They don’t want religion to co-opt political issues; to them, politics is a religious issue. Thank God these evangelists come across as humorless nerds; otherwise all their talk of indoctrinating their children into an army to return America to Christ would be truly scary.

— Grady Hendrix

R, 92 minutes

If your morals and maturity are malleable, or if you’re a fan of Johnny Knoxville and his posse of pain-proof morons, then “Jackass: Number Two” will serve as a blessed distraction from the box office’s more polished, responsible offerings.

The comedic fashion of today is detached irony, smarty-pants sarcasm that comments on society’s folly with aloof reserve. In that light, “Jackass” thunders back onto the scene, a celebration of pain and bodily fluids upending the polite snark wielded by those who try to make us see our world differently. The sheer audacity on display during this movie, which is nothing more than a relentless tidal wave of hand-over-eyes horror, makes one think that if the Academy presented awards for Best Use of Gravity and Best Use of Poisonous Snakes, J2 would sweep.

— John Devore

Also Opening This Weekend

Unrated, 82 minutes

Multinational coffee companies now rule our shopping malls and supermarkets and dominate the industry worth over $80 billion, making coffee the most valuable trading commodity in the world after oil. But while we continue to pay for our lattes and cappuccinos, the price paid to coffee farmers remains so low that many have been forced to abandon their coffee fields. Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. Tadesse Meskela is one man on a mission to save his 74,000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy.

PG, 87 minutes

In this western drama directed by Michael Landon, Jr., and based on the novel by Janette Oke, two grandparents are reunited with their daughter and her family. Their hope and faith are tested, however, by an unforeseen tragedy.

PG-13, 101 minutes

Well-intentioned Marsha and David hire a foreign housekeeper, Sophia, to care for their new baby and put some “sanity” back in their lives. What follows is a situation that spirals out of control. In a frenzy to find an American husband before her visa expires, Sophia manipulates the poor couple into caring for her 10-year-old daughter while she goes on a dating marathon. Pretty soon, who is employing whom becomes the question.

Unrated, 101 minutes

During the year of turmoil in Punjab, an Army officer falls in love with a local village girl. Their romance leads into a marriage in dramatic circumstances. But due to unfortunate incidents the girl dies after giving birth to a baby girl. Another woman who is desperate to become a mother steals the child. From here the misery of the Army officer begins.

PG, 105 minutes

In this film from 1972, which begins a oneweek engagement at Film Forum, six highly cultivated people gather for a dinner party but never manage to sit down to eat. Their efforts are obstructed first by a simple misunderstanding — guests arrive to find their host still in her dressing gown — and then by a series of surreal occurrences involving international drug smuggling, surprise military exercises, and bizarre dreams.

— Staff Reporter of the Sun

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