★ 1/2 out of four stars

Rating: R; drug use, language and brief sexuality. Theater: Lagoon.

"Are you guys bored?" Darby Crash, the suicidal lead singer of the Germs, asked the audience at a performance in 1979. His prescription: "Hit the person next to you."

That's either 20th-century German history in a nutshell or the manic raving of a drug-addled punk rocker. Crash, who died of a drug overdose in 1980 at age 22, read Nietzsche, admired fascism, expressed interest in Hitler, fancied himself an artist and somehow willed his way into substantial influence on the L.A. punk-rock scene. His short, crazy trajectory is the subject of the long-awaited "What We Do Is Secret," a bio-pic starring Shane West as Crash.

Punk-rock fans can parse the film's fidelity to the Germs' music and to whatever adolescent philosophy propelled them to the heights of musical infamy (their mayhem-filled concerts eventually got them banned from L.A.'s clubs). The rest of the movie-going public will want to think twice before submitting to Rodger Grossman's retelling of a familiar and pathetic story of rock-star dreams and substance abuse.

The film is not expository enough to be useful as history, and despite what appears to be attempts at the wry, megalomaniacal tone of rockumentary, it isn't very funny. West is convincingly troubled, but he fails to make the foul-mouthed, modestly talented and generally intemperate Crash sympathetic. (That may be impossible.) You are left with the feeling that either Grossman hasn't done justice to the Germs or the justice they deserved was to spend eternity as a historical footnote.



★★ 1/2 out of four stars

Rating: R, graphic sex, strong language, substance abuse, violence.

Victor Mancini works as a Colonial village theme-park re-enactor. Also as a con artist who scams people out of money by making himself nearly choke to death in restaurants.

Victor is a devoted son who keeps his mother in an expensive mental hospital. Also a sex addict who never goes to meetings because he always picks up somebody along the way.

Victor is a little conflicted.

So is "Choke." The raunchy new comedy is based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, author of the cult hit "Fight Club" -- and, like "Fight Club," "Choke" has a bunch of devices and a few themes.

These include family loyalty, addiction (and its treatments) and physical and emotional love. The devices include short scenes, a smart-aleck narrator and anything-goes provocations.

But it's not so provocative the second time around.

Director Clark Gregg -- a busy character actor whom you'll recognize the moment you see him in the Colonial village scenes as the officious boss -- has assembled a good cast, with Sam Rockwell as Victor and the always marvelous Anjelica Huston as his mad mother.

Their scenes together at the asylum are fresh and inventive. So, too, is the idea of Victor's scam (too smart to sue the restaurants, he simply hits up his "saviors" for donations). That could have made a whole movie.

But then there's the whole sex-addiction stuff, which is needlessly graphic, and the 12-step scenes, which feel like leftovers from "Fight Club." There are some good jokes and some fleeting pleasures. But an absurd second-act gimmick -- in which Victor becomes convinced that he's actually the product of a mad Vatican plot -- isn't the daring blasphemy Palahniuk seems to be going for. The mistaken-identity twist and pull-the-rug-out finale feel fatally warmed-over, a bad feeling for a supposedly cutting-edge film.

Because the first rule of fight club may be that you do not talk about fight club. But the first rule of "Fight Club" is, you do not repeat "Fight Club."




★★ out of four stars

Rating: R; strong disturbing sexual content and abuse involving a young teen, and language.

Can you laugh in a movie that includes two statutory rapes of a 13-year-old girl? Can you get past the camera playing peekaboo with her (almost) bared breasts?

These are just some of the questions posed by "Towelhead," Alan Ball's smart but visually troubling adaptation of Alicia Erian's 2005 novel of the same name, which portrays a young Lebanese-American girl growing up in a soulless Houston suburb.

I think I liked it, or most of it. It's clever and original with an excellent cast. Ball's script catches a lot of the novel's pop, often word for word. I laughed a lot.

But there's that teasing camera work and the film's obsession with a young girl's sexuality. A little goes a long way in portraying a 13-year-old's physical awakening, particularly when much of it has to do with Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), a married Army reservist next door who at one point asks her to strip for him.

Such is life for Jesira (newcomer Summer Bishil in a nice turn), who is sent to live with her dad after her mother blames her for a twisted escapade that involves her mother's boyfriend shaving Jesira's just-developing body hair.

Dad is Rifat Maroun (Peter Macdissi), a NASA engineer so tightly wound he wears a tie around the house. One minute he's smacking Jesira for the indecency of wearing shorts and a tank top to breakfast, the next he's leaving her so he can frolic with his sweetie.

The kids at school insult her, and she falls for Thomas (Eugene Jones), the first boy who is even vaguely polite. He's black, and you can guess what Daddy dearest is going to think about that.

The main problem stares you in the face in almost every scene: Bishil was 18 when this movie was filmed. It doesn't really register that she's supposed to be 13 until someone mentions it. Visually we're seeing a late-teen-age girl experiment with sex, which is hardly shocking. But the story is that we're watching a child be exploited, ignored or abused. It's jarring, which might be the best single word for this dark little foray into teen sex in the suburbs.


all roads lead home

★ out of four stars

Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief language.

Too cloying even for the "My Little Pony" set, "All Roads Lead Home" yanks at the heartstrings until it rips them right off the ventricle. Filmed with a generous budget but not much craft, it's a kitschy childhood dream of horse and doggie love intermingled with soap opera romance and family conflict among the story's adults. One can't be sure what the filmmakers intended, but they plainly miss their target.

The plot points never grow organically; every idea snaps into the structure like Lego blocks. When 12-year-old Belle (Vivien Cardone) loses her angelic mother in an automobile accident, she turns sullen as if fate flipped a switch. Her father Cody (Jason London) can't cope with her pouts and rages, and sends the girl to live with her crochety, all-wise grandfather (Peter Coyote). Granddad runs his successful horse-breeding operation on logical business principles and Darwinism. Any animal that doesn't promise a good return on investment is put down, but tenderhearted Belle cannot handle the thought of any life being cut short, and begins her own clandestine animal rescue operation.

The movie, which hammers away at obvious points to make sure we don't miss a single detail, is a pretty leaden affair. None of the cast provide the high spirits that could have redeemed the gloppy story. Coyote slits his eyes and speaks tonelessly to express emotion, London beams as if his dialog was high wit and inspired silliness, and Cardone is all too clearly a professional ingénue, well-rehearsed and ready with her lines. The most likable character, a humane animal control officer played by Patton Oswalt, gets the least screen time. This is a prime example of the sort of inoffensive, vapid kiddie pulp that publicists pass off as a "family film." It's a film, I guess, but just barely.