Drillbit, Langella and more

What's in movie theaters this week

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THE SAVAGES (R) A tragicomedy about death, dissatisfaction and familial dysfunction, The Savages could easily have turned into the Sundance movie from hell. There's an estranged brother and sister who barely survived a childhood so awful they can't even speak of it. There's an emotionally distant father who becomes even more remote when creeping dementia turns him into a zombie writing on walls with his own feces. And pretty much everyone seems cut from that same depressed, sophisticated, self-absorbed cloth as the characters inhabiting, say, Margot at the Wedding or way too many other films that have been projected on walls in Park City, Utah, over the past few decades. And yet this latest movie from director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills) transcends most of its own potential limitations, neatly sidestepping clichés through smart, unsentimental writing and tasteful direction. Most of all, The Savages succeeds through the knowing, nuanced performances of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who play siblings Wendy and Jon — aging escapees from Neverland who find themselves saddled with an incapacitated parent, even as their own houses are screaming to be put in order. Wendy and Jon transport their rapidly degenerating dad back East with them, where they anguish over making the nasty old coot comfortable, watching him slip away while allowing his impending death to open a floodgate of painful memories and ridiculous old habits. The understated approach and downbeat subject matter of The Savages requires a little patience, but the movie's aim is true. Also stars Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman and Cara Seymour. 3.5 stars

SEMI-PRO (PG-13) The latest in an apparently never-ending line of sports comedies from Will Ferrell. The subject this time is basketball. Also stars Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin, Maura Tierney, Will Arnett and Andy Richter. (Not Reviewed)

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (PG) Freddie Highmore fans will get more than their money's worth watching the young actor doing double duty as twin brothers Simon (the passive, buttoned-up one), and Jared (the rumpled, feisty one), who discover an all-powerful coveted by all manner of fantastical creatures. Some of these creatures are warm and fuzzy constructs, including a porcine Muppet voiced by Seth Rogen and a honey-sucking imp called Thimbletack (Martin Short) who looks like Ben Stein transformed into a 3-inch-tall version of The Hulk. But outside the house lurk swarms of nastier entities in the form of sharp-tooth-and-nailed goblins, commanded by a big-cheese ogre called Mulgrath (Nick Nolte). The special effects and action sequences are nothing to sneeze at, but what really distinguishes The Spiderwick Chronicles is flesh and blood. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the name John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Secret of Roan Inish) listed as one of the movie's screenwriters, and the touchy family dynamics underpinning the film are distinctly his. Also stars Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn and Joan Plowright. 3.5 stars

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (R) Loosely based on Uptown Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, this monumentally ambitious new opus from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) offers up chilly scenes from the life of proto-capitalist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a ruthlessly single-minded entrepreneur who makes a fortune raping the land during the early years of the 20th century. It's not always a pretty picture, but as captured by the camera of Anderson's longtime cinematographer, Robert Elswit, the process takes on its own kind of dirty poetry. Far from some grand oil-empire epic á la Giant, Blood is essentially a spare, almost painfully introspective art film, more driven by details than narrative momentum or life-changing events, and with moments of heroic power compromised by stretches that feel clumsily confrontational, as if the director were more interested in breaking down walls than advancing his story. Anderson's dazzling, convoluted movie is simply too big a meal to digest at one sitting, and I can't wait to watch again to see where it leads next time. Also stars Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciaran Hinds and Dillon Freasier. 4 stars

VANTAGE POINT (PG-13) Calling Vantage Point a Rashomon-lite is both an insult to Kurosawa's enigmatic classic and an awfully lazy way of describing director Pete Travis' silly, amateurish thriller. It's true that Vantage Point, like Rashomon, offers multiple accounts of the same key event (a presidential assassination), each from the perspective of a different participant. But the similarities end where they begin, and Vantage Point's structure quickly reveals itself as an annoyingly transparent gimmick for making a rather run-of-the-mill action flick seem far more intriguing than it actually is. The titular points of view belong to a shell-shocked secret service agent (Dennis Quaid), an American tourist with a camera (Forrest Whitaker), a Spanish cop with romantic problems straight out of a telenovela (Edgar Ramirez), the president himself (William Hurt) and a bunch of slimy Islamic terrorists. For all the points of view and frantic running around, though, there's very little going on here — just the same information tediously replaying numerous times from slightly different perspectives without really adding much that's new. Also stars Matthew Fox and James LeGros. 1 star

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