Short Takes 

BEER FOR MY HORSES Pay to see this video-caliber Toby Keith vehicle, and you'll feel like you got one of those Larry Mahan colonoscopies Keith prescribed for the Taliban. The problem isn't Keith, a wooden but likable, comfortable-in-his-own-skin hunk who'd fit seamlessly into a John Carpenter he-man ensemble; it's the decision to turn Keith's 2002 pro-vigilante anthem into a clunky hybrid of Mayberry small-town cop comedy, crime drama and action-hero theatrics. Keith and doughy country comic Rodney Carrington (who co-wrote the script) play dawdling deputies who manage to bust a Mexican meth lord's brother; when the kingpin retaliates by swiping Keith's beloved (Claire Forlani), they kidnap the brother from the local hoosegow and mount an invasion of Mexico fortified with bow-hunter Ted Nugent (cast against type as a mute) and a pooch who fights crime with his premonitive farts. Directed by CMT video whiz Michael Salomon with no feel for feature pacing, danger or comic nuance, it starts as amiable hanging-out horseplay, like a dirt-road spin on one of Ice Cube's Friday movies; ends with a body count that's as unseemly as Andy and Barney popping a cap in a speeder; and dings its Ford-truck chassis on every cliché in between without hitting a single surprise—except for Carrington's impromptu rest-stop rendition of "Shout" and a Fellini-esque carnival interlude that'll have viewers checking their popcorn for peyote. (And that's even before David Allen Coe materializes.) Those moments only show up the fatal lack of imagination elsewhere. You'd never guess, but when Willie Nelson pulls up for a cameo, smoke pours out of his vehicle. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday)

SAVAGE GRACE A lip-smacking episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Depraved, designed more for trainwreck gawkery than psychological illumination, Tom Kalin's garish melodrama applies icehouse style to hothouse material: the 1972 murder of socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland, former wife of the heir to the Bakelite fortune, by the grown son she'd taken to fucking to cure his homosexuality. Through the life-preserver clinging of his culture-vulture mom (Julianne Moore) and the contempt of his aloof playboy dad (Stephen Dillane), young Antony Baekeland was molded from birth into a sexually confused, neurotic mama's boy (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne). His standing as mother's de-facto husband led inevitably to incest, violence and a grimly redundant self-suffocation. In Kalin and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman's hands, his downfall becomes a glossy travelogue with stops in Paris (where mom has the boy favor guests with a reading from De Sade), Majorca (where he and mom wake up on either side of her polymorphous walker, Hugh Dancy), and London (where a fateful kitchen knife awaits). This marks Kalin's first feature in the 15 years since his queer-cinema landmark Swoon, a grave, provocative retelling of the Leopold-Loeb case that refused to explain the killers away as victims of mass gay panic. This, by contrast, is tawdry nighttime soap that marvels without insight at its characters' despicable behavior: it squanders a major performance by Moore, who rips into Barbara's confrontational mania, maternal perversity and all-consuming need with nail-clawing fury. And no small amount of malicious humor—as when she tries to quiet her increasingly agitated son (and occasional handjob recipient) with a schoolmarmish, "Inside voice!" —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday at The Belcourt)

ROMAN DE GARE Starting with a title that mocks the movie's flighty ambitions—it translates roughly as "airport novel," something you'd buy, consume and leave in an overhead compartment between Orly and JFK—Claude Lelouch riffs on his reputation as the master of cinematic beach reading with this goofily contrived romantic thriller, a joyride made up entirely of wrong turns. It opens in black-and-white, with a best-selling author (Truffaut's late-career muse Fanny Ardant) under suspicion by the gendarmes; like a relay baton, the plot passes to an enigmatic motorist (Dominique Pinon) eyeing a stranded woman (Audrey Dana) at an interstate convenience stop. Is he the author's ghostwriter? A runaway husband whose wife pines back in Paris? The ruthless serial killer known as "the Magician?" (The last strand, which Lelouch prankishly revives and smothers, may be a joke aimed at France's current pop-culture vogue for virulent splatter movies.) The metafictional games here, which include looped plots, literary puns, shout-outs to classic French noirs like the 1947 Quai des Orfevres, and even a nod to Lelouch's 1978 speeding-through-Paris short "Rendezvous," are as diverting as working a crossword puzzle, and ultimately they're about as memorable: in the movie's terms, the entertainer's art is to keep the fibs flying and the twists coming, even if the end result is that the characters (and the viewer) get yanked around like puppets. But Lelouch, who remains best known here for gooey arthouse confections such as A Man and a Woman and And Now My Love, mashes up locked-room mystery and domestic farce with slick confidence. His coup is the casting of Pinon, perpetually used as an oddity in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's contraptions, who has quirky romantic-hero charisma to spare even if he resembles a trash-compacted Steven Spielberg. In French with subtitles. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday at Green Hills)

BRICK LANE Bracket the fact that it's an adaptation of Monica Ali's great big treat of a 2003 novel about displacement and feminine emancipation, and British director Sarah Gavron's tale of a young Bangladeshi woman unwillingly transplanted to London's East End is absorbing enough, moving enough and visually attractive enough to provide a perfectly acceptable night out at the movies. Schooled in silent endurance, Nazneen is estranged from her rural home, beloved sister, and much-older bear of a husband. As the rapidly changing post-9/11 racial politics of England take shape around her dingy housing estate, Nazneen tries to accept her fate—until she meets a handsome young convert to radical Islam (Christopher Simpson) who rocks her world at every level. With a limited budget, Gavron had no choice but to prune Ali's huge cast of Dickensian supporting characters, but in the process, she's also replaced the novel's teeming vitality and tragicomic drive with a prettified lyricism that drags the story down. As Nazneen, the exquisite Indian actress Tannishtha Chatterjee is too inert to express the untapped reserves of strength, passion and defiance that will transform this quiescent village girl—which leaves the excellent Indian actor Satish Kaushik, as her Micawberish husband, to carry the weight of the difficult balance between tradition and modernity that lies at the heart of every great migrant journey of the soul. —Ella Taylor (Opens Friday at the Belcourt)

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