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MARCH 21, 2008

The Money Pit

By Mark Jenkins

Painting Himself Out of a Corner: Markovics in The Counterfeiters. (Sony Classics)

IT'S NO SCHINDLER'S LIST, but THE COUNTERFEITERS is another example of that problematic genre: the Holocaust survivor's tale. Although not altogether sanitized, Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky's drama invites distrust simply for being the account of someone who deflected the full cruelty of the Nazi death machine. (For its mix of Holocaust-era gravity and hopefulness, the movie also won this year's foreign-film Oscar.)

Based on an actual German operation, the film follows Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (sharp-faced Karl Markovics), who arrives at Mathausen with overlapping stars: yellow for Jewish, green for criminal. He's not a garden-variety thug, but a skilled draftsman and veteran counterfeiter. So he endures by doing portraits and murals, and is eventually transferred to Sachsenhausen, where the very man who arrested Sally, Nazi officer Herzog (Devid Striesow), is supervising an effort to bankrupt Britain and the U.S. with bogus currency. Some of Sally's new cohorts resent working with a felon, or lack the training they claimed in order to join the well-fed and -clothed forgery detail. A leftist printer, Burger (August Diehl), upsets his colleagues by sabotaging the Nazi effort. The consummate crooked professional, Sally tries to keep everyone satisfied — at least long enough for Soviet troops to arrive.

Small incidents illustrate the psychic agonies: One panicked member of the crew is convinced that a genuine shower room is actually a gas chamber, and another collapses when he finds evidence that his children have been sent to Auschwitz. Other moments emphasize the absurdity of the forgers's position: After their British pounds are accepted at a Zurich bank, Herzog rewards them with a ping pong table. Such details are fresh, but much of the tale, and its telling, is overly familiar. The film is not so much a self-contained work as it is another chapter in the canon. Just the sort of picture that wins foreign-film Oscars, The Counterfeiters is worthy and serious, but inevitably unequal to the corrosive bargain it chronicles.

One in a string of earnest new immigration fables (see also the upcoming The Visitor), UNDER THE SAME MOON imagines that a 9-year-old Mexican boy can hop the border, travel from Texas to southern California, and locate his mother — even though he doesn't know her address and she doesn't have a phone. Wide-eyed but street-savvy and bilingual Carlitos (Adrian Alonso) has long been missing his mom (Kate del Castillo), one of L.A.'s two loveliest Chicana cleaning ladies. (Her only rival is Paz Vega's Spanglish character.) When grandma dies — a development that parallels one in the upcoming The Year My Parents Went on Vacation— Carlito hooks up with a pair of Americanized Mexican-Americans (including Ugly Betty's America Ferrera) to sneak into the U.S.A. Once on this side, Carlitos tangles with a junkie, child-sex traffickers, his biological father, and a grown-up illegal who tries (but not hard enough) to abandon the kid. Director Patricia Riggen lightens the mood with some song-and-dance, but actually the film is never dark enough to need such cheering. Carlitos' near-effortless quest recalls the waltz into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan by The Kite Runner's protagonist: It looks so easy, you wonder why everyone didn't do it.

Set in an unidentified small town where the weather is cold and people are killed, SNOW ANGELS must be a serious film. Yet the movie's grim stride to catastrophe has little impact, because its characters don't seem to come from anyplace real, just Amerindie cinema's stock company of doomed losers. The story opens during marching-band practice, which is interrupted by the sound of gunshots. Then writer-director David Gordon Green rewinds to introduce the characters who will be affected by the off-screen deaths, including separated spouses Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell); Annie's friend Barb (Amy Sedaris) and Barb's husband and Annie's lover Nate (Nicky Katt); and teen lovers-to-be Arthur (Michael Angarano) and Lila (Juno's Olivia Thirlby). Nearly everything happens at the high school, the carpet warehouse, or the Chinese restaurant where Annie, Barb, and Arthur all toil. Green has yet to deliver on the promise of his 2000 debut, George Washington, and his adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel takes him even further from the South, his artistic home. The director fails to harmonize the story's goofier elements with its wannabe-Old-Testament climax, or knit his cast into a tight ensemble. If a bit too cute, Arthur and Lila are almost believable. Annie and Glenn, however, would never get together, even in a generic town like this movie's American nowheresville.

A well-intentioned but meager skit posing as a World War II training film, MILITARY INTELLIGENCE AND YOU! uses the Airplane formula to bite the Bushies' ankles. A few contemporary actors, attempting to evoke '40s Hollywood, deliver deadpan war-movie cliches. Occasionally, the set-bound action is interrupted by clips from Hollywood WWII flicks, featuring such actors as William Holden, Alan Ladd, and (hee hee) Ronald Reagan. While their supposed enemy is Nazi Germany, references to "cherry-picked" intelligence, color-coded "threat levels," and "12/7" (that's Dec. 7, 1941) indicate that writer-director Dale Kutzera's real concern is the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Good for him, but too bad about the results. The film is copyright 2006; whichever analyst thought long and hard about dropping this dud into theaters must have been misled by CIA-quality data.