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Short Takes

This week in local theaters

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FAMILIAR STRANGERS A disarming indie sleeper that could become the IFC alternative to holiday showings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, this slice-of-life comedy-drama about a technical writer (Shawn Hatosy) returning home for Thanksgiving and getting sucked back into his family's goofy crises and rituals has a pleasant, evocative pokiness. As the prodigal son renews his prickly camaraderie with his smart-ass brother (Nashville native DJ Qualls), tries to engage his taciturn dad (Tom Bower) and ponders putting down the decrepit family dog, the director, Zackary Taylor, and writer John Bell don't hype the situations into sitcom mayhem or screechy bathos. Instead, the scenes unfold at a dawdling pace that lets pretty much every character make an impression, and much of the banter and bickering among the siblings (including Cameron Richardson's sulky single-mom divorcée) sounds convincingly familiar, flecked with the emotional shorthand of people who know each other only too well. The engagingly acted movie's modesty is both a drawback and blessing: Its seasonal affability virtually mandates a pat ending, and some of the details feel a little off (an outdoor fair in Virginia in late November?). But the movie seems to have a bellyful of tryptophan, in the nicest possible way: If nothing else, it's likely to be the best movie ever to start with a high-stakes game of donkey basketball. Nashville native Matt Parker, who's gaining some traction as an indie producer (Flow, Loggerheads), notches up another notable entry on his résumé. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday at Green Hills)

CADILLAC RECORDS For a film "based on a true story"—that of Leonard and Phil Chess' eponymous record label, featuring the likes of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles, whose purr never comes close to capturing James' growl)—there doesn't seem to be a single fact contained within writer-director Darnell Martin's ham-fisted fiction, which renders pre-rock musical history as yet another downer soap opera bloated with smack and sex and premature corpses. For all its copious flaws, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story perfectly nailed the trajectory of every single rockudrama that has tarnished a legend's legend—the big bang turned sad whimper. In this version—told in flashback, no less, with overwrought narration provided by Cedric the Entertainer as Chess producer, session musician and house songwriter Willie Dixon—there is no Phil Chess, only Leonard, played by an actor, Adrien Brody, who, with his anachronistically tousled hair and Forever Fonzie wardrobe, looks as much like Leonard Chess as he does, well, Howlin' Wolf. Fabrications in the name of movie mythmaking are to be expected from a genre that demands condensing a life into a handful of Defining Episodes; all biopics reduce and trivialize. But so egregious are the deficiencies and distortions here—in this universe, the Rolling Stones came to the U.S. and the Beach Boys ripped off Chuck Berry long before anyone had ever heard of Elvis Presley—that it's almost impossible to discern whether there's anything decent about the moviemaking itself. With everything so wrong, how can there be anything right about Cadillac Records? —Robert Wilonsky (Opens Friday)

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE It really shouldn't have been so hard to make a decent Punisher movie; after all, the character is basically just Death Wish's Paul Kersey on steroids, in spandex. How come it took Hollywood so long to figure that out? Following a direct-to-video '80s version starring Dolph Lundgren, and an unfortunately campy 2004 reboot with Thomas Jane, Lionsgate has gotten back to basics with Punisher: War Zone. Rome's Ray Stevenson plays the skull-clad Frank Castle like a cross between Steven Seagal and Jason Voorhees. Early on, he fixes his own broken nose by jamming a pencil up his nostril; nobody else in the movie gets off quite so easily, as blood, brains, intestines and chunks of flayed skin fly. (It's not technically a horror movie, but nobody told the effects guys that.) The plot, such as it is, involves Castle second-guessing his life as a vigilante after accidentally killing an undercover fed, while fighting off a mobster (Dominic West) who has fallen into a giant glass-crusher and been recycled as a lethal Leatherface lookalike called Jigsaw. But the script isn't what matters here. Let's be very clear about what kind of movie this is: the kind where Frank Castle shooting a parkour runner out of the sky in midair with a shoulder-launched missile is played for laughs; the kind where a dreadlocked black man with an Irish accent who's on a constant meth high is one of the least bizarre characters; and the kind where torture and graphic murder are the answers to everything. This is a slasher movie with guns—or as I prefer to call it, awesome sauce. —Luke Y. Thompson (Opens Friday)

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