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'Big Man' Japan' deftly sends up 1950s monster movies

Also reviewed: 'Brothers at War'; 'Jerichow'; 'Kassim the Dream'; 'The New Twenty'; 'Not Forgotten' and 'The Skeptic.'

May 15, 2009|Michael Ordona; Gary Goldstein; Kevin Thomas; Glenn Whipp

You've probably never seen anything like "Big Man Japan" ("Dai-Nipponjin," literally "Great Japanese"). It's a mockumentary following an ordinary schmo who goes to work as a skyscraper-size Japanese superhero, the kind who takes on mammoth insects in '50s monster movies.

The brainchild of renowned Japanese comedy figure Hitoshi Matsumoto, the film presents the hero in his normal, human size as a profoundly lonely figure, as Dai-Nipponjin is severely underappreciated by the public he protects. Touching details dot the characterization, such as his gentleness toward a neighborhood cat and the presence of a child's play-set engulfed by his overgrown yard.

In the computer-animated battle scenes, the filmmakers convey the miniature-set look of Toho monster movies. The clashes make savvy use of genre cliches, but are bizarre, confused affairs that seem as verite as the mockumentary's interviews.

The film has slow sections that test the viewer's patience. But it also touches on themes of family, heroism and nationalism, and the finale, which has plenty of surprises and rewarding references for fans of the genre, is worth the wait.


Michael Ordona --

"Big Man Japan." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action and crude humor. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles. Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.


Making peace with warrior sibs

"Brothers at War" follows actor-turned-filmmaker Jake Rademacher's personal journey to bond with his brothers Isaac and Joe, two U.S. Army officers. The documentary, which was shot at home and "over there," touches on many truths about military service but, despite its big heart, never finds a satisfying enough structure or viewpoint to give it an actual center.

In addition, for a film tied to Iraq war (Rademacher embeds with four active combat units, the first while visiting Isaac and Joe), it lacks context. It's fine, even admirable, that the movie is decidedly nonpartisan -- the soldiers seen here are mainly "duty first" types -- but that can also make things seem a bit generic.

The picture also loses steam in its latter third during Rademacher's perilous return trip to Iraq to, essentially, prove his mettle to the skeptical Joe.

Still, Rademacher's vigorous commitment to making the documentary, as well as to his large, close-knit family, deserves respect.


Gary Goldstein --

"Brothers at War." MPAA rating: R for language and a brief war image. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. AMC's Loews Broadway 4, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 458-6232.


Love triangle in Germany

Christian Petzold's engrossing "Jerichow" plays like an inspired contemporary variation on "The Postman Always Rings Twice" with fresh complexities and bleak irony. The setting is rural Northeastern Germany, a region as rich in natural settings as it is impoverished economically.

Turk emigre, Ali (Hilmi Sozer), through hard work, has become the owner of 45 lucrative snack stands scattered across the countryside. A German woman with a troubled past, Laura (Nina Hoss) has married him for convenience rather than love but proves to be an industrious helpmate.

When Ali, who tends to mix drinking and driving, has his driver's license rescinded, he hires a driver, Thomas (Benno Furmann), a former soldier who is deep in debt. But soon, Thomas and the pretty Laura develop an intense attraction to one another.

Petzold, who has a crisp style and sharp sense of the visual, is too talented and imaginative to allow his film to become predictable. Rather, "Jerichow" offers implicit, sardonic social comment as well as a compelling playing out of the eternal triangle. He gives the film's best line to Laura, who remarks to Thomas, "You can't love if you don't have money -- that's what I know."


Kevin Thomas --

"Jerichow." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In German with English subtitles. Laemmle's Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710; Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.


Boxer's touching journey home

In the opening moments of Kief Davidson's beautifully shot "Kassim the Dream," the Uganda-born former light middleweight boxing champion Ouma explains that "boxing is my therapy . . . it has gotten me through a lot of stuff that's happened in my life."

As is the case for most of the film's first hour, Ouma is understating matters. Kidnapped and forced to be a child soldier at the age of 6, Ouma murdered and tortured to avoid being murdered himself.

He eventually escaped to the United States and put to use the skills he learned while a member of the army's boxing team. Cheerful and possessing a wit as quick as his jab, Ouma became a fan favorite here and in his homeland. But because he defected, he can't return to Uganda. That removal -- and the atrocities of his childhood -- clearly torment him underneath his upbeat facade.

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