New reviews: ‘Bab’Aziz,’ ‘CJ7,’ ‘Never Back Down’ and ‘Tall as Trees’

babazizpic.jpgNot a lot to speak of as far as my film reviews go this week. In other words, I got the dregs of a pretty weak line-up.

Most interesting of the films is Nacer Khemir’s Bab’Aziz, an allegorical odyssey set in the deserts of Iran and Tunisia. The film never pulled me in to its gentle world of stories and magic, but I was intrigued by the mix of past and present in a timeless, endless desert where characters existed outside of social definitions.

If you can lose yourself in the weave of crisscrossing stories, it’s a lovely, lazy dream movie of marvelous textures and rhythms. If not, the travelogue through Sufi mysticism doesn’t really go anywhere, but at least the music and dance and cultural storytelling make the journey interesting, if not always compelling.

Read the entire capsule review here.

I’m a fan of Stephen Chow, one of the biggest movie stars in Asia – and by extension the world – thanks to his energetic mixing of slapstick comedy, martial arts and rapid-fire wordplay. The latter has been lost in translation when imported into the U.S., but the crazy comic kinetics and loony sight gags of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle survived the trip just fine. But I was frankly confounded by CJ7, his a kid comedy by way of a knockabout “E.T.” spoof, featuring a chirpy little Furby from outer space with a squishy green doll body apparently made of Flubber.cj7pic.jpg

Chow’s comedy jerks through some rather extreme shifts in tone. At its best, the cartoonish action is wacky and absurd — as in Dicky’s fantasy adventures with his magical alien buddy or the epic martial-arts showdowns of adolescent giants (were they raised on a diet of human growth hormones?) between classes. At other times, it’s downright off-key: Father and son play Whack-A-Mole with the cockroaches skittering across the slum walls, and then swap insect guts in spirited high-fives. Ain’t poverty grand?

Bright, bouncy, kooky and comically tone deaf, “CJ7” is the most bizarre kids movie I’ve ever seen. Kids probably will enjoy the elastic excess and adolescent humor (Chow pushes poop jokes into rapid-fire ordnance, complete with machine-gun soundtrack), but the rest feels lost in translation.

Read the complete review here.

neverbackpic.jpgNever Back Down is ostensibly a high school version of all those Jean Claude Van Damme movies about underground kickboxing matches that filled video store shelves in the eighties and nineties. The clichés are the same but the dynamic moves of world-class martial artists are missing. his is more like a teenage fight club, where the kids stage their own “totally sanctioned brawls.” The spectacle is not in the dynamic moves of world-class martial artists but the blunt brawling of athletic actors making their best effort as mixed martial arts.

The rest of the film veers into “The Karate Kid” territory (with Djimon Hounsou as an African Miyagi teaching self-discipline and emotional control through mixed-martial arts training) by way of a Kenny Rogers song: sometimes you have to fight to be a man. The social currency is just a side benefit.

While too bland and stupid to be offensive, “Never Back Down” spouts a hollow message of nonviolence while celebrating the brutal satisfaction of beating the crap out of someone. This punishment would cripple lesser beings, but in this skewed teen gladiator fantasy, they walk away with little more than bruises and scuffs. It’s all just harmless fun and games, until someone gets hurt. Then it’s high drama that can only be solved with a public pummeling.

Read the complete review here.

tallposter1_thumb.jpgFinally, Seattle hosts the world premiere of Tall as Trees, the first film by longtime Seattle resident Gil Ponce, who finally made his dream of making his own feature film come true. You really want to find something to like in project like this, but whatever good intentions went into his dream project, about homeless kids lost to the indifference of the mean streets of Manilla, were lost in the mess of his haphazard script and fumbling filmmaking.

Ponce may aspire to the street realism of a film like “Bicycle Thief” or “Rome, Open City” but his instincts are second-rate Hollywood melodrama. The slapdash story of corrupt cops and petty bureaucrats rings emotionally false and the script never rises above the level of explanation and exposition (“But, mama, if I go to school I can make things better for us,” pleads a little beggar girl).

Dad can’t even muster up righteous indignation, let alone a convincing expression of panic and rage, when his family fails to arrive and the airline refuses even to look into the matter. You can’t accuse Ponce of going for the obvious: Where most anxious fathers would demand to speak to a manager, this guy just sighs and walks away in a fit of indifference.

Read the complete review here.

The film’s official website is here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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