THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON Total communication through Bagism.

School for Scoundrels

dir. Todd Phillips

Very loosely based on a 1960 British film about getting ahead in life by insulting people and exploiting their good breeding—which in turn was based on self-help manuals by midcentury parodist Stephen Potter—School for Scoundrels dispenses with all the middle-class anxiety and gets down to the basics. Losers get kicked in the balls. Winners kick other people in the balls. Hilarious!

Napoleon Dynamite (pardon me, Jon Heder) stars as Napoleon Dynamite (pardon me, Roger), a Manhattan resident so pitifully emasculated he works as a meter maid. After a pathetic incident in which he gets rejected by his Little Brother mentee, Roger decides to take action. He enrolls in a top-secret school that promises to teach him how to be a lion (though we all know he'd rather be a liger).

Then when you might expect the jokes to begin, School for Scoundrels provides instead an array of scrotal injury that would please the worldliest sadist. Paintballs, tennis balls, old-fashioned swift kicks—anything that can be filmed hurtling toward a male crotch quickly finds a place in the film. Marginally more figurative castrations—including swirlies, spankings, unnecessary cardiac defibrillation, and the malicious deflation of tires—are interspersed, for variety's sake. Almost everything that is funny in this film involves the infliction of pain to the male body.

What does it say when a movie released in 2006 is more preoccupied with castration than a self-help parody published in the 1950s? Somebody let the Freud out, and an all-star cast (including Sarah Silverman and David Cross in minor roles) can't even hope to keep up. ANNIE WAGNER

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

dir. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

There's plenty to enjoy in The U.S. vs. John Lennon, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's documentary chronicling the U.S. government's extensive surveillance of John Lennon during the early 1970s. The basic facts are fascinating: After the breakup of the Beatles, the freshly married John Lennon and Yoko Ono relocate to New York City, where they begin an inspired and frequently ridiculous campaign to promote peace in the face of the Vietnam War—conducting press conferences from within a big canvas bag ("total communication through Bagism," proclaim the holy fool and his bride), inviting peace lovers around the globe to grow their hair and become ambassadors for the boundary-free virtual country of Newtopia. Underneath such dubious stunts lay concepts as simple and revolutionary as "She Loves You": peace is better than war, life is better than death. For their efforts, the Lennons were rewarded with worldwide headlines and an orchestrated campaign of harassment by the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Given the richness of the setup, it's sad that Leaf and Scheinfeld's film ultimately feels so flimsy. Armed with dynamite historical footage and some top-notch talking heads (Gore Vidal, Angela Davis), the filmmakers reject the riveting true story of free speech under attack in favor of a disappointingly superficial portrait of a saint besieged by evil and corruption. The film's deification of Lennon is simplistic in a way the man and his art never were, and the end result is a work that feels less like a full-blooded film and more like a particularly good episode of VH1's Behind the Music. For hardcore Lennon lovers (and fans of Behind the Music), the film is a must-see. But those craving a good, challenging documentary should stay home and rewatch Hoop Dreams. DAVID SCHMADER

My Country My Country

dir. Laura Poitras

A more prosaic counterpart to James Longley's intense and humbling Iraq in Fragments (out in Seattle on November 10), My Country My Country is a documentary about the Iraqi elections of January 2005. Against the backdrop of a still-robust insurgency and the overtures of ethnic warfare, Dr. Riyadh (last name withheld) is trying, trying, trying to get himself elected to the Baghdad Provincial Council. He's a member of the Sunni minority, so it's an uphill battle: First he has to persuade his Iraqi Islamic Party not to boycott the elections, then he has to squeeze in some campaigning between (and, more troublingly, during) consultations at a neighborhood free clinic, and then he has to shove his six bourgeois daughters out the door on Election Day to dip their fingers in blue ink and vote dutifully for their dear old dad. (One whines cheekily that she isn't getting paid for her efforts.)

Director Laura Poitras spent eight months alone in Iraq shooting her film, but the intimacy she's able to communicate never seems to match the level of access she obviously achieved. Perhaps the problem is that she simply prefers speeches to characters. In My Country My Country, U.S. Army representatives deliver seminar-style addresses, U.N. personnel give lengthy statements, and Dr. Riyadh speaks in hortatory paragraphs—even when he's at home with his family. The result is educational, even indispensable (especially since the situation in Baghdad has deteriorated to the point where few foreign journalists, let alone conspicuous documentarians, venture outside of the Green Zone), but it feels sadly distant. Let me put it this way: If I were a Sunni voter in Baghdad, I can't say I would get particularly worked up about checking the box for Dr. Riyadh. ANNIE WAGNER

The Guardian

dir. Andrew Davis

The United States Coast Guard is awesome. The Army is a bureaucratic joke, the Navy is pretty cush, and the Air Force is all thrill jockeys with expensive toys. The Marine Corps may be tough, but the Coast Guard is the only one of the armed services with a robust peacetime mission. They've been involved in every U.S. war since 1812, and in between they enforce fishing quotas (totally awesome), clean up oil spills (totally awesome), repair buoys (totally necessary), and bust drug smugglers (not so awesome, but they don't write the drug policy—and shootouts and chases on the high seas are definitely exciting). Best of all, the Coast Guard are intrepid sailors and swimmers—they go out in the world's worst storms, from the Bering Sea to the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, to save fishermen, recreational boaters, refugees, and anyone else who happens to be in a sinking ship.

The Guardian (not even remotely awesome) is about rescue swimmers, the hearty souls who jump out of helicopters in said storms and save the drowning. Kevin Costner is a rescue swimmer in Kodiak, Alaska, and a grizzled old military cliché—stoic, brooding, haunted by a bad thing in his past. He winds up indignantly assigned as lead instructor at the rescue swimmer's school in the lower 48, where he meets Ashton Kutcher, a new recruit and hotshot cliché—cocky, capable, and also haunted by a bad thing in his past. When the two clichés meet, clichéd things happen. They lock clichéd horns. They shed manly, clichéd tears. In the end, one of them—guess which?—sacrifices something big for the other one. It would be moving, if it wasn't so goddamned cliché.

The badasses in the Coast Guard deserve their own action movie. It's just too bad that this is what they got. BRENDAN KILEY

Keeping Mum

dir. Niall Johnson

Patrick Swayze should never be cast in a movie again. I don't care if he's playing a lecherous golf instructor. No, no, no. I don't care if the vinyl thong he's wearing is supposed to be funny. I don't want to see it. A thousand times NO!

Initially set in the U.S. and then transposed to the UK during preproduction (for reasons unexplained in the press materials)—not so difficult a leap, really: get the prop department to gather up a bunch of teakettles, insert a leathery American who should never be cast in a movie again into the slot labeled "British golf instructor," come up with a British-sounding title—Keeping Mum is good when Maggie Smith is bopping people on the head, and pretty effing horrible the rest of the time.

Rowan Atkinson, playing it utterly straight-faced as a Vicar Walter Goodfellow in the parish of Little Wallop (get it? wallop?), has a number of problems. First of all, he has to address a vicar convention on the subject of "God's Mysterious Ways." Secondly, his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is being instructed by vinyl-thong-wearing Patrick Swayze in the art of golf. Plus, his son is a wimp, and his daughter is a slut. What is a mild-mannered vicar to do? He gets an elderly housekeeper named Grace (Dame Maggie Smith, who's surprisingly upstaged by her younger incarnation, the radiant Emilia Fox), and his problems start dropping like flies.

The problem with this whole enterprise (aside from the fact that it's littered with single entendres) is that none of Grace's solutions are particularly plausible. To take a mild example, leading a vicar to a trough of internet jokes isn't going to transform him into a star public speaker. In an ideal world, Keeping Mum would strike a giddy balance between Mary Poppins and Genet's The Maids. Instead, it makes cold-blooded murder seem as dull as a game of cards. ANNIE WAGNER

Queens

dir. Manuel Gómez Pereira

With a few exceptions (Hedwig and the Angry Inch comes to mind, as does Jackass), American gay comedies are not funny. The good news is that this gay comedy is not American, it's Spanish—which, yes, means that to enjoy it you're going to have to know how to read. Your efforts will be rewarded by a movie with a non-mawkish approach to the struggle for marriage equality, a postmodern regard for the rainbow's possibilities as a graphic motif, a shaggy dog in a necktie, tons of well-dressed straight characters who are far more slutty and confused than the gay characters, and a sort of shifting, sliding, Rubik's Cube–like structure. It's possible I'm overselling Queens. It's a gay comedy, for chrissakes.

Actually, it's an urban farce. Twenty gay couples are getting married in Madrid on the first day of legalized same-sex marriage. The mother of one of the grooms happens to be the judge officiating the weddings. One of her associates, another judge, has a heart attack, and one of the paramedics who tries to resuscitate him is another one of the guys who's getting married. And so on. But the filmmakers make a million great decisions: for example, giving most of the attention not to the men but to their mothers. At first it may strike you as strange to have a bunch of lustful, headstrong straight women (and one lustful, headstrong straight man) walking around in a gay movie—having dilemmas of some depth and talking about them—but gradually you figure out what the director is doing, which is why you feel at ease, even if, okay, you're not rolling in the aisles: He's treating everyone as equals. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

Vajra Sky Over Tibet

dir. John Bush

Of all the critiques that can be aimed at a documentarian, lack of enthusiasm is potentially the most damning. Maintain too much distance from your material, no matter how inherently fascinating, and you run the risk of coming off as dry and clinical.

Vajra Sky Over Tibet, director John Bush's third exploration of all things Buddhist, proves that the opposite tack can also, weirdly, produce the exact same results. Bush's passion for his subject matter is palpable, yet it somehow fails to involve the viewer. Shot on smeary digital video, the movie explores the temples, statues, and artwork of Tibet, to which pilgrims still flock even since the Dalai Lama's forced exile. As his camera explores (often breathtaking) nooks and crannies, Bush holds dryly forth on the history of the religion—a lecture that comes off as unfortunate gobbledygook to the uninitiated.

Only in the final moments does the constant information stream turn compelling, when a description of the Chinese government's attempt to meddle in the sacred reincarnation process raises some compelling issues about the future of the religion. Unfortunately, the topic proves fleeting (to be saved for the fourth film, maybe?), in favor of more awestruck gazing. Such a one-sided view is perhaps unavoidable, given Bush's refusal to interview any passersby, based on the very real fear that they might be subject to reprisals. The director's concern for his fellow devotees is admirable, but the lack of other perspectives further narrows the film. However honorable the intent, Bush's epic journey carries all the raw, visceral excitement of watching someone else's holiday slides. ANDREW WRIGHT

Open Season

dir. Roger Allers, Jill Culton, Anthony Stacchi

First of all, porcupines aren't fucking blue. Where do the Sony Pictures animators get off making the porcupine blue!? They're not blue! They are gray and brown and black and sometimes a little silverish, but no way, not ever, are porcupines BLUE. For the most part, everything else in the movie is the appropriate color. The beavers are brown, the skunks are black and white, the buck is tan, and the ducks are all green and brown and white and shit—so WHY IS THE PORCUPINE BLUE?!

This really bugged me. The sugar-high 8-year-old next to me didn't seem to care, though. She laughed at everything he did. And I guess, despite being the absolutely wrong color, the dumb little porcupine is sorta cute. He just bounces around, shoots needles at things, and says one word the whole movie ("Buddy!").

The part that's awesome, though, is when the fat lady's wiener dog breaks free from his domesticated and sweater-wearing ways and becomes a wild animal like the rest of his newfound forest friends. "I've been living a lie!" he shouts as he tears off the stupid striped shit the stupid fat lady made him wear. Man, all dogs should do that!

I also quite liked the Irish squirrel with the anger management problem (who is brown and white, as squirrels are supposed to be).

The point is, children and their sugar-drenched brains will laugh at almost anything so long as it's in cartoon form. Even (and in some cases especially) if it's the WRONG COLOR. Open Season knows it, and that's all Open Season gives you—man vs. beast. Not in the depressing Steve Irwin vs. stingray kind of way, though. In the Bugs Bunny vs. Elmer Fudd kind of way. MEGAN SELING