The Battle of Shaker Heights
Dir. Efram Potelle & Kyle Rankin; writ. Erica Beeney; feat. Shia LaBeouf, Elden Henson, Amy Smart, Billy Kay, Kathleen Quinlan, Shiri Appleby (PG-13)

Shia LaBeouf in The Battle of Shaker Heights (courtesy photo)

The Battle of Shaker Heights begins with a trompe l'oeil illusion - fierce combat between German and American soldiers that is abruptly halted by the ringing of a cell phone and our realization that we have been witnessing World War II reenactors pursuing their hobby in the Ohio woods. One of them, Kelly Ernswiler (LaBeouf), is a sassy 17-year-old who, though obsessed with military history, recognizes that he has no future as a soldier. "I never met a rule I didn't want to break," he tells Bart Bowland (Henson), a rich kid he meets during mock battle. Kelly dons khaki not out of any sense of patriotic duty but because he is convinced that: "Ladies love a man in uniform."

Both Kelly and Bart live in Shaker Heights, the posh Cleveland suburb, though Kelly's family lives as shabby bourgeois, on account of his father's drug problems. A high school senior, Kelly works the graveyard shift at a local grocery, where he rejects the attentions of a pretty cashier. To the extent that The Battle of Shaker Heights has a plot, it centers on Operation Mince Meat, the stratagem by Kelly to wreak revenge on a local bully. Enlisting Brad and other reenactors, he stages an early-morning raid that leaves the scared lad with a vacant bladder. The film contains echoes of The Graduate, in Kelly's determination to keep Brad's beautiful, classy sister from marrying a cad, and in Kelly's own lack of ambition. Although The Battle of Shaker Heights lacks depths, it is a successful sortie with a bright and cheeky adolescent who learns to plant his banner on the right side of the border between fantasy and reality. — Steven G. Kellman

Dir. Andrew Molina; writ. Eishy Hayata; feat. Hayata, Eva Varella, Luis Velasco, Juan Pablo Shuk (NR)

Esmeraldero's problems are numerous, but they revolve around a central mistake: Eishy Hayata, a Japanese-born Columbian emerald baron, wrote, produced, and stars in his autobiography, resulting in a two-dimensional picture of a morally ambiguous business and man. The 10-year emerald war and Columbia's troubled history pale in the bright light used to flatter Hayata as a modern-day cowboy living large in a lawless land. Three decades of harsh reexamination of the American West myth apparently hasn't debunked much.

Esmeraldero is not unlike Blow, the also "true story" of drug dealer George Jung, who began his career as a naïve, small-time pot dealer and became a major conduit for American-bound Columbian snuff. The film's dubious claim was that Jung never grasped nor participated in the seamiest parts of the trade.

But Blow was entertaining. Esmeraldero blurs the line between documentary and fiction, losing the energy of both. The actors and real people are believable about 50 percent of the time. There are no unscripted moments, so we never get to know the subjects. Hayata drew himself as a Judge Roy Bean of the Columbian mine fields, making him slightly ridiculous when he is posturing in front of government agents or guerillas.

One of Hayata's themes is that he is Columbian by choice, and like his fellow citizens, he views the government with contempt except when it is doing his bidding - the appropriate comparison might be John D. Rockefeller. Esmeraldero paints the Emerald Union as irredeemably evil, despite earlier scenes in which Hayata dickers local emerald miners down to rock-bottom prices.

When a former partner offers Hayata a cut of drug cartel business if he will provide distribution, Hayata refuses. The spurned partner retorts that, legal or illegal, it's all the same in Columbia. A government investigator echoes this theme later, comparing Hayata's well-armed bodyguards to the paramilitaries. But these troubling similarities to the Old West are unintentional. Esmeraldero wants us to admire Hayata's ball-busting business acumen and his nifty handling of a pistol. Myth or truth, it's all the same in this film. Elaine Wolff

Dir. James Cox; writ. Cox, Captain Mauzner; feat. Val Kilmer, Lisa Kudrow, Kate Bosworth, Dylan McDermott, Eric Bogosian (R)

Val Kilmer in Wonderland (courtesy photo)

Remember Boogie Nights? That flashy, seedy slice of the sex industry in which a kid with an enormous, um, talent makes it big in porn movies, only to fall from grace - the movie you could hardly pull your eyes away from, even when the nice pornographers started doing stupid, horrible things?

This ain't Boogie Nights.

P.T. Anderson's sleazy masterpiece wasn't a biopic of John Holmes, but it was inspired by his story, and the depths to which "Dirk Diggler" eventually descended were compelling both because of Anderson's narrative flair and because we had enjoyed some of the high living that led to Diggler's crash. Wonderland, on the other hand (which is explicitly about Holmes), begins long after the fun stopped, when the prodigiously penised actor was a drug-addicted lowlife caught up in a murder mystery. The filmmakers don't know any more about the case than what is in the press record, so they turn their tale into a raunchy Rashomon, pitting Holmes' account of a revenge killing against that of another junkie crook, this one played by Dylan McDermott (a likeable actor who is horribly miscast as a thug).

The plot hinges on interactions with a nightclub baron played by Eric Bogosian. As McDermott's version unfolds, we realize that we've met this man already - right down to the open bathrobe with bikini briefs underneath - in Boogie Nights. Anderson's fiction was clearly inspired by this factual anecdote, and Cox shoots himself in the foot by letting his production design echo the earlier film so closely - because once you start comparing the two, it's obvious how unengaging, dreary, and tedious this supposed Wonderland is.

Kilmer has redeemed troubled films before, but can't do much here. Again: If we had seen Holmes in a broader context, Kilmer might have had a better chance to make us care about him. As it is, the down-and-out porn star is a one-trick pony - whose one trick stays firmly tucked in his trousers throughout the film. John DeFore

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