BUSH'S BRAIN (PG-13, 80 minutes)
If the politics of documentarians Joseph Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob aren't exactly clear from the title of their film (taken from the snickering name of the book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater about Machiavellian White House adviser Karl Rove), they will be a few minutes into the movie. That's when we jump from a clip of George W. Bush's 2001 inauguration to an all-uppercase on-screen title, which asks rhetorically, against a black background, "HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?" Well, Mealey and Shoob are about to tell you. Aided not just by appearances by Moore and Slater, who -- hint, hint -- subtitled their book, "How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential," "Bush's Brain" introduces us to many who have known, worked and tangled with the man some call Bush's "co-president" during his multi-decade involvement in Republican politics. Going back to Rove's college years, "Bush's Brain" details a litany of the dyed-in-the-wool political operative's shady dealings, including the 1986 Texas gubernatorial race between Republican Bill Clements, for whom Rove worked, and Democratic incumbent Mark White. In that now long-forgotten incident, Rove was accused of planting a listening device in his own office in order to smear his opponent's camp as spies. The filmmakers are able to find no shortage of acquaintances, former friends, co-workers and journalistic observers (as well as unabashed enemies) of Rove willing to trot in front of the camera to trash him. From former Texas governor Ann Richards to former senator Max Cleland, both of whom have no love lost for Rove, we listen to one putative back-stabbing victim after another. Rove, of course, declined to defend himself on camera, although he did send the book's authors a detailed rebuttal of their accusations, which the movie takes gleeful pleasure in itemizing (and refuting). Some of Rove's alleged dirty tricks come across as kind of amusing, and a few people who appear in the film to diss him even manage to laugh themselves. But more of his shenanigans are scary rather than funny, especially when they involve allegations of not just character assassination but, worse, war opportunism (in Rove's promotion of 9/11 as a lever for political advantage). Then, the movie is downright chilling. Contains some obscenity. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
EVERGREEN (PG-13, 85 minutes)
"Evergreen" is one of those movies I wanted to like so badly going in that it hurts to have to be mean to it. A quiet family drama by an earnest, unknown, first-time director out of Sundance (Enid Zentelis), with no major stars in it (unless you count Mary Kay Place and Bruce Davison, and, good as they are, who would?), it sounds, at least on paper, like the perfect antidote to loud, slick summer fare. Unfortunately, it's also as trite as they come. Set in a depressed and strangely desolate Pacific Northwest town, whose overcast weather lends a dishwater-dull, gray-green pallor to the film, "Evergreen" is the story of 14-year-old Henri (Addie Land) and her down-on-her-luck mother, Kate (Cara Seymour), who have moved in with Kate's dirt-poor Latvian-immigrant mother (Lynn Cohen) until the two are able to get back on their feet. (Apparently, there was an abusive man in the past somewhere, but little mention of the specific factors that led them to Grandmom's leaky dump is made, except in passing.) Soon, Kate is working in a makeup factory, while Henri has insinuated herself into the family of high-school hunk Chat Turly (Noah Fleiss), whose well-to-do parents (Place and Davison) seem afflicted by the kind of mysterious anomie that will only reveal itself when the movie is about 10 minutes from the closing credits. Despite the warning signs, Henri is all too eager to spend increasing amounts of time there, fooling around on Chat's big bed and helping herself to whatever's in the fridge. Naturally, she's driven by shame at her own poverty, and naturally, she'll come to realize, in the film's forced climax, that -- get this -- there's really no place like home after all. That's right, folks, the piddling payoff is a sentiment straight out of "The Wizard of Oz" -- or an embroidered sampler. There are a couple of good things about the film, chief among which is Land's naturalistic performance. But the overall sense of it, heightened by a folk-guitar score so spare it feels like part of the soundtrack is missing, is not one of poignant minimalism but emptiness. Contains sexual content and an incident of face-slapping. At the AMC Columbia, AMC Hoffman Center and Potomac Mills theaters.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
GOZU (Unrated, 129 minutes)
It's clear from the opening scene of "Gozu" that there's something not quite right about the mobster Ozaki (Sho Aikawa). At a meeting with his fellow hoods, he leans in close across the restaurant booth to warn the boss (Renji Ishibashi) that the tiny white lap dog a woman is holding out on the sidewalk is actually a specially trained "yakuza attack dog." Calmly, deliberately, Ozaki walks outside, whereupon he proceeds to repeatedly slam the pooch into a bloody pulp against the pavement and the side of the building. Have I mentioned that this is a comedy? I'd tell you some of the other things I laughed at in this dark, disturbing tale of perverted loyalty among thieves, but most of those descriptions would necessitate going to such great lengths to avoid using words inappropriate to a family newspaper that I'd run out of space. Suffice it to say this: "Gozu," which centers on the efforts of yakuza underling Minami (Hideki Sone) to dispose of his former mentor Ozaki in a remote trash dump on boss's orders -- and then to retrieve Ozaki's body after the unconscious would-be victim disappears from the back seat of Minami's convertible Mustang -- is a profane, hallucinatory cross between "After Hours" and the heroic quests of ancient Greek mythology. In his contemporary obstacle course, Minami undergoes a series of ever more surreal encounters with such weirdos as a forgetful transvestite waiter and his moronic hick customers, a profusely lactating middle-aged innkeeper, an underwear-clad man with the head of a cow (although this may, in fact, be a dream), a blond American grocer speaking broken Japanese and a mobster who reluctantly agrees to help Minami in his search if he can answer a sphinx-like riddle. Directed by Takashi Miike (who made the wonderfully creepy horror film "Audition") from a script by Sakichi Sato, "Gozu" operates on a kind of nightmare logic. Starting gradually before it revs up to full-bore strangeness, yet grounded at every step of the journey by Sone's believable performance as the increasingly bemused Everyman hero, "Gozu" makes little sense on paper. As a film, however, it somehow feels richly, hilariously real, even -- at its most bizarre -- familiar. Contains obscenity, violence and lots of surreal sexual content. In Japanese with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (R, 93 minutes)
Less a sequel to 2002's $100 million-grossing "prequel" to the wildly popular video game than a next game level, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" returns everyone's favorite biochemical warrior Alice (buff Milla Jovovich) to Raccoon City to battle persistent-though-undead corpses and the evil Umbrella Corps. This time, a biogenetically enhanced Alice gets help from two popular "Resident Evil 2" and "3" characters -- tough-cop-who-looks-like-a-hooker Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and S.T.A.R.S. leader Carlos Oliveira (Oded Fehr) -- and confronts the hulking, over-armed genetic freak Nemesis, as well as nasty Lickers and those funky Dobermans from Hell. Plot and narrative? Minimal. Confrontations? Endless. Surprises? None. If only something could reanimate the dead brain cells of scripter Paul W.S. Anderson, who leaves the directing to first-time helmer Alexander Witt. Contains nonstop violence, obscenity and nudity. Area theaters.
-- Richard Harrington
WHAT THE #$*! DO WE KNOW!? (Unrated, 108 minutes)
Here's a better question: "What the #$*! Were They Thinking!?" This strange -- and strangely inept -- little film, made by first-time feature directors Mark Vicente, William Arntz and Betty Chasse, aims to, in the movie's own words, take the viewer down a "rabbit hole of mysteriousness." So far so good. And its subject (correction: make that subjects) are interesting enough to provide the raw material for at least a half-dozen separate films. Quantum physics, psychiatry, spirituality, addiction, human emotions, the nature of consciousness, time and matter . . . what's not to like? Plenty, as it turns out. Part talking-head documentary, part live-action narrative featurette and part goofy computer animation, "What the #$*!" (pronounced "What the Bleep") fails on all three levels. The documentary part, for starters -- featuring a parade of New Age thinkers who, annoyingly, remain unidentified until the film's end -- attempts to tackle way too many ideas. Consequently, the film never gets any deeper into any single theme than one might expect from such nice-sounding but shallow sound bites as the following: "The real trick is not to be in the know but to be in the mystery." Thanks, but I can get that kind of enlightenment from reruns of "Kung Fu." The dramatic part, featuring Marlee Matlin as a lovelorn photographer with migraines and a spouse she just caught cheating on her, is stiffly written, badly acted, choppily edited and awkwardly redundant (rather than illustrative) of the themes raised by the movie's pundits. As for the computer-generated cartoons that occasionally crop up -- alternating between acid-trippy representations of the inside of someone's head and flubber-like characters standing in for, say, the human sex drive -- the less said about them, the better. Their intrusive tonal shifts undercut the film's attempt to be taken seriously, and they don't work as comic relief. On the whole, it feels like a cross between a PBS special hosted by a series of low-rent Deepak Chopras and an infomercial for self-help audio tapes. Bleep, indeed. Contains obscenity and sexual content. At Loews Georgetown.
-- Michael O'Sullivan