Bad Money?

Reviews of new and recent releases

OPENING THIS WEEK

CASSANDRA'S DREAM (PG-13) We've lost count of how many movies Woody Allen has made, but obviously buoyed by the success of Match Point, this is the third consecutive one the director has shot in England. It might be time for Woody to come home, however, as advance reviews of this latest U.K.-shot production have been extremely unkind. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell star as brothers caught up in a terribly inconvenient murder. Also stars Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins and Tom Wilkinson. Opens Jan. 18 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

CLOVERFIELD (PG-13) Everybody's seen the trailer, but the only thing that's certain about this shrouded-in-secret project from producer J.J. Abrams (Lost) is what we've learned from that already famous money shot — the one where we see that something has lopped the head off of the Statue of Liberty. A giant Godzilla-like monster apparently figures large into the equation here, and lots of cute but terrified New Yorkers scurry about the edges. Stars Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan and Jessica Lucas. Opens Jan. 18 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

MAD MONEY (PG-13) A feeble yuk-fest for The Great Depression II, Mad Money stars Diane Keaton as an over-educated, under-skilled yuppie who takes up crime when her husband is the victim of downsizing. Callie Khouri (screenwriter of Thelma and Louise) is the director here, so there's plenty of warmed-over girl power going on, as Keaton hooks up with an African-American single mom (Queen Latifah) and a cute space cadet (Katie Holmes) to stick it to the man, take the money and run. The movie tests our credulity at every step, with friendships forged in perfunctory fashion between its paper-thin characters, gaping plot holes you could do laps in and a heist that's straight out of a Scooby Doo cartoon. By the movie's midpoint, the women are all bumpin' heinies in the bedroom to golden oldies, and the shrinking middle class is just a shot away. The brand of humor here is supposed to get funnier in direct proportion to the bleakness of the times, but even with the New Dark Ages breathing down on our necks, Mad Money is just a drag. Also stars Ted Danson and Stephen Root. Opens Jan 18 at local theaters. 2.5 stars

RECENT RELEASES

THE BUCKET LIST (PG-13) Director Rob Reiner layers on the schmaltz, and Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman supply the star power in a meathead's delight that might just have well been called Grumpy Old Terminally Ill Men. Freeman's obligatory opening voice-over sets the tone, cramming in the words "love," "fate" and "folks" in under a minute, as dying roommates Carter (Freeman) and Edward (Nicholson) decide to spend their final months, and a sizeable chunk of the latter's fortune, doing all the things they never got around to doing. Endless footage ensues of the old coots skydiving, getting tattoos, driving fast cars, and popping up in a virtual travelogue encompassing the Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. Freeman's wise but slightly prickly character periodically pontificates on the nature of the world, eventually teaching the meaning of life to the considerably richer but far more cynical Nicholson, and it all feels like the spitting image of a made-for-TV movie. Also stars Sean Hayes and Beverly Todd. 2 stars

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR (R) Based on true events from the Reagan years, Mike Nichol's new film stars Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, a hard-partying Texas congressman who sets monumental forces in motion, almost without realizing it, when he begins lobbying to supply Afghanistan's Mujahideen in their struggle against Russian invaders. Urging Wilson on is his occasional lover, a rich, ultra-right-wing dragon lady played by Julia Roberts. The individual players are fairly engaging, but Charlie Wilson's War never manages to muster up much dramatic momentum. The movie's tone is all over the place, veering from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's trademark sitcom style to quasi-screwball satire to something approaching sentimental mush, and then straight into agitprop, with tears welling up in Hanks' eyes in the midst of multitudes of mistreated Afghan orphans. Charlie Wilson's War starts out strong and then slowly fizzles out just as it should be getting interesting. The covert war waged by Hanks' congressman results in the Soviet empire crumbling just as the film is ending, all but ignoring the more interesting twists that followed (specifically, how Afghan "freedom fighters" transformed into the legions of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, using American weapons and training against their so-called benefactors). The movie opens with a dreamily stylized image of a Muslim praying beneath a starry sky, then picking up his rocket launcher and aiming at squarely at the camera — which is to say, at us — but that's about as close as Nichols gets to that particular can of worms. Stars Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Amy Adams. 2.5 stars

THE GREAT DEBATERS (PG-13) Denzel Washington stars and serves as director in this inspirational drama about the unexpected triumphs of a debate team from a small black college during the Depression. Based on a true story, as if you didn't know. Also stars Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett. (Not Reviewed)

I'M NOT THERE (PG-13) A Bob Dylan biopic in which the name "Bob Dylan" is never once uttered, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There is essentially five or six biopics crammed together and fighting it out to see what rises to the surface. Much like Dylan himself, Haynes' enormously unconventional movie revels in contradictions and disguises, offering up no less than half a dozen Dylans played by multiple actors — a concept that's a near-perfect fit with an escape artist who's successfully re-invented himself more often than anyone this side of Bowie. The mini-army of quasi/crypto/ersatz Bobs weave around and through each other's lives, as images from Dylan's extensive mythology, both real and fabricated, pile up and smash into each other. The movie barrages us with densely layered, competing accounts, until the true lies reach critical mass, and separating the truth from legend eventually begins to seem completely beside the point. I'm Not There is as faithless to the particulars of Dylan's life as it is faithful, but the film's elegantly fractured narrative absolutely nails the essence of its subject. Stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bruce Greenwood and Julianne Moore. 4 stars

JUNO (PG-13) Director Jason Reitman's second film is loopy in a more conventional way than his first, Thank You For Smoking, but it's equally clever and, even more crucially, just as much fun. The deliciously baroque plot twists of Smoking are almost entirely absent in Juno, but Reitman makes good use of this new-found, off-kilter minimalism, focusing his often static camera on characters whose endearing qualities rarely get in the way of their monumental oddness. Ellen Page is extremely appealing as the title character, a self-described "freaky girl" who gets pregnant, opts not to abort, and agrees to hand the infant over to a barren couple advertising in the local penny-saver flyer. Things start out impossibly light and bouncy, with everyone speaking in bursts of such glibly stylized strangeness (think Rory Gilmore meets Kevin Smith) that it's sometimes hard to take the characters seriously — but Juno eventually allows just enough cold reality to seep in to get our attention. Still, even when our heroine's water breaks and she's rushed to the delivery room, Juno has time for one last kitsch clarion cry, hollering "Thunderbirds are go!" It's that kind of a movie. Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody seem to be having a ball referencing all the hippest bands and grooviest horror movie directors, and they fill their movie with music by Cat Power, Belle and Sebastian, and whimsical pop tunes a la The Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking With You," which are so simple and achingly sincere they seem to cross the line into pomo irony. Just like the movie. Also stars Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons. 3.5 stars

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (R) Much has been made of No Country for Old Men being some sort of contemporary Western, but when the filmmakers are Joel and Ethan Coen, you can bet the "Western" in question is going to scream for quotation marks. An expertly crafted nail-biter steeped in the beloved noir the filmmakers have repeatedly tinkered with, the Coen Brothers' new film takes place in a dusty Texas wasteland as redolent with alienation as a vintage Antonioni landscape. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a certified piece of trailer trash who happens upon a drug deal gone south and winds up fleeing the scene of the crime with a briefcase filled with cash. This inevitably puts some very bad people on Llewelyn's trail — chief among them a soulless super-psycho named Anton Chigurh (an exquisitely chilling Javier Bardem) — and right behind is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a small-town lawman resigned to the nasty ways of the world. No Country is a beautifully modulated film, folding intense bursts of periodic violence into a carefully orchestrated atmosphere of mounting tension that is both eerily poetic and a bit melancholy. In its elegantly world-weary way, this is as iconic a chase film as The Night of the Hunter, as deeply mysterious as the Coens' masterpiece, Barton Fink, and not without perverse grace notes all its own. Also stars Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper and Woody Harrelson. 4.5 stars

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (R) Unfolding in a perpetual moment just before the light gives out entirely, Tim Burton's new film is a velvety noir boasting more nuances of black than the Eskimos have names for snow. It's also a musical, based on Stephen Sondheim's popular 1979 stage production, although Burton eschews all but the faintest trace of Broadway glitz, giving the movie an exquisitely morbid look and an intimate, even claustrophobic feel. The director plays it close to the bone here, toning down personal ticks while letting his unmistakable style shine through the darkness, so that Sweeney Todd emerges as a blood-rare slice of Broadway for people who normally can't stand the stuff. Johnny Depp inhabits the title character with heartbreaking intensity and a hint of self-mockery, while the film layers on style in luxuriously decaying heaps, its cleverly devised color scheme — an essentially monochromatic palette with tasteful splashes of blood-red — a distillation of everything Burton's done to date. As elegant as it all is, be warned that Sweeney Todd doesn't spare the blood, and throats are slit with gleeful abandon, in abundant and graphic detail. Also stars Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen. 4.5 stars

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (R) John O'Reilly makes the leap from second banana to top fruit in this appealingly ridiculous comedy from director Jake Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow. The movie is basically framed as a spoof of Ray (which was itself an unintentional spoof of the whole musical bio-pic genre), but it's also a Forrest Gump-like trip through time, with O'Reilly's title character morphing from '50s crooner to Dylanesque poet to Brian Wilson-esque acid casualty and recluse. Some gags tend to go on too long and repeat themselves too often, but most of what happens here is unabashedly outrageous and very funny. The cameos alone are worth the price of admission, with Jack White showing up as Elvis, Frankie (Malcolm in the Middle) Muniz turning up as Buddy Holly, Jack Black and Paul Rudd as squabbling Beatles, a whole bunch of faces from Tina Fey's SNL/30 Rock inner circle and Eddie Vedder as himself. Also stars Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows, Kristen Wiig and Raymond J. Barry. 3.5 stars

THE WATER HORSE (PG) A charming coming-of-age fantasy filled with local color, The Water Horse is the legend of the Loch Ness monster recast as E.T. in the Scottish countryside during World War II. Wee Angus (Alex Etel), an overly serious lad pining for his departed dad, brings home a magical egg that promptly hatches a mythical beastie resembling a slightly cuter version of the mutant baby from Eraserhead. The creature soon evolves into a playful puppy-like thing with flippers, and boy and beastie bond as battalions of soldiers station themselves around the area, and chaos ensues within the household. The adults with guns predictably freak out as the titular creature eventually grows to terrifying proportions, momentarily transforming the movie into a dark Iron Giant-esque allegory about death and war, but The Water Horse just misses the mark for that sort of substance. Also stars Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin and David Morrissey. 3 stars

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