NEW THIS WEEK:
HOUSE OF D (PG-13) David Duchovny's directorial debut is bad on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin. Awkwardly written, over-earnest and utterly unoriginal, the former X-Files icon's coming-of-age tale often feels as if it was constructed according to some unspeakable how-to manual for hack directors. Duchovny himself appears in the opening sequence as an expatriate artist recounting the story of his life to his estranged wife and child, at which point the movie dissolves into an extended flashback of early '70s Manhattan, and a generic voice-over takes over. Anton Yelchin is passable as the narrator's 13-year-old self, but surrounding him is a stable of insufferable stereotypes from a pill-popping single mom (Tea Leoni) to a streetwise, advise-dispensing hooker (Erykah Badu) to - brace yourselves now - a sweet-natured, mentally disabled janitor played by Robin Williams. If Williams' Gump-ish man-child doesn't drive you right over the edge, the obligatory classic rock soundtrack or regular infusions of tear jerking clichés just might. Also stars Frank Langella. Opens April 29 at local theaters. 1/2
WALK ON WATER (NR) Although it's essentially what you'd call a cloak-and-dagger thriller, Walk on Water piles on so many disparate thematic elements that you can almost hear it groaning beneath the weight. But better too much than too little, I suppose, and there's a lot of bang for your buck here. This is the new film from Israeli director Eytan Fox, whose Yossi & Jagger became a staple at recent gay film festivals with its same-sex romance between two Israeli soldiers, and Walk on Water also dips its toes, briefly, into queer territory. Israeli superstar Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage) stars as a grieving secret service agent dealing with his wife's recent suicide, and assigned to root out a Nazi war criminal by becoming friendly with the man's adult grandchildren. The female grandchild becomes a bit of a romantic diversion, the male grandkid turns out to be gay and forces the macho Mossad to confront his homophobia, and other plot thickenings touch on Israeli-Palestinian animosity and German guilt vs. Jewish paranoia regarding the Holocaust. Director Fox juggles all of these elements and, against all odds, keeps them aloft much of the time, although we can frequently feel the film straining to do so. Ashkenazi is compelling in the lead role, but suffers somewhat when he's speaking English (the film is in Hebrew, German and English), as do the other actors when navigating dialogue not in their native language. Also stars Knut Berger and Caroline Peters. Opens April 29 at Sunrise Cinemas in Tampa. Call to confirm.
WINTER SOLSTICE (NR) So understated it nearly evaporates into thin air, this intimate, indie drama follows a working class New Jersey family quietly reeling from the untimely death of the brood's wife and mother. Each member of the all-male household sublimates his emotional turmoil in a different way - dad (Anthony LaPaglia) through stoicism, one teenage son (Mark Webber) through slacker-dom and mild rebellion, the other, elder son (Aaron Stanford) through an overload of work and, ultimately, escape. There are no huge dramatic turning points, no explosive narrative hooks here, but the film manages to engage by exhibiting a sure, steady power through its attention to detail, natural rhythms and solid performances. Also stars Allison Janney. Opens April 29 at Sunrise Cinemas in Tampa. Call to confirm. 1/2
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (R) A remake of the much-loved but not very good haunted house flick from 1979, this new Amityville hails from the team responsible for the recent revisiting of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which undoubtedly accounts for the copious amounts of gore, grisly sadism and generally messed-up atmosphere. The remake begins with creepy noises and quickly escalates into squabbles and open rifts between the various family members inhabiting a malignant house that's clearly seeking to possess and destroy them. Shortly thereafter, Amityville '05 tips its hand and then peaks way too early - less than half an hour in, the house is dripping blood all over the place and ghostly, ghoulish visions are leering over every shoulder - all but deflating the movie's more subtle, psychological side, particularly its Shining-lite proposition that true horror is what lurks beneath the surface of the All-American Happy Family. Still, Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George turn in serviceable performances as the besieged leads, and there's no denying that the movie produces a handful of solid albeit uninspired scares. Also stars Philip Baker Hall and Jesse James. 1/2
THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE (R) Daniel Day-Lewis was coaxed out of semi-retirement to act in this new project by his director-wife Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity), making it all the more disappointing that the film turns out to be not particularly good. Basically shapeless and heavy-handed at all the wrong moments, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is about, among other things, the fading dreams and perhaps too-intimate relationship of a terminally ill, hippie-dippie dad and his precocious, nearly-grown daughter. Day-Lewis plays the dad, Jack, a chain-smoking environmentalist living in something approaching total isolation with his beautiful, budding daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle). It all feels rather airless; the characters' "lively" quirks are supposed to keep us engaged, but even the good performances here can't disguise the rambling self-consciousness of what amounts to a seriously flawed script. The film opens up, briefly, when Jack brings a woman into the house to act as a surrogate wife-mother (a pair of teenaged boys are attached, providing some amusing interactions), but Day-Lewis' central character remains too vaguely drawn and unsympathetic, and the movie's core father-daughter dynamic is a mess. Also stars Catherine Keener and Jena Malone.
BORN INTO BROTHELS (NR) Academy Award-winning documentary about the children of Calcutta prostitutes and the efforts of filmmaker Zana Briski to get the kids out of their Red Light Hell and into some better place. Briski, a photojournalist by trade, equips the children with simple point-and-shoot cameras, teaches them the basics of photography, and we watch as the budding young artists use their newfound ability to document their world as a means of rising above it. It's a fascinating process, all captured in this film, and even though it's a foregone conclusion that not all of the kids will be somehow magically empowered (their environment is simply too overwhelming and too awful for that to happen), there's a substantial amount of hopefulness to be found in Born Into Brothels. Briski is nothing if not a dedicated humanitarian, so much so that the film suffers a bit by having the filmmaker inject so much of herself into the proceedings (by necessity, some might argue), but there's no denying that this is finally the kids' show all the way. It's also, at root, a moving testimony to the transformative power of art. Co-directed by Ross Kauffman. 1/2
THE BOYS AND GIRL OF COUNTY CLARE (NR) Colm Meaney and Bernard Hill deliver strong performances as a pair of estranged Irish brothers who meet after 20 years to face off in a national music competition. Fans of Irish ceili music will find much of interest here, and there are more than a few moments of grand local color and fine Irish charm. The film itself is a mixed bag, though, with a steady infusion of foul language and some graphic gross-out humor (notably, a scene involving vomit and dentures), making it a little difficult to take the sweet-natured whimsy all that seriously. The movie begins in fine style, with some amusingly drawn characters engaging in various bits of drollery and borderline slapstick, but The Boys and Girl of County Clare eventually bogs down in soap, as the film's various familial tensions, secrets and lies boil over into the predictable. Also stars Andrea Corr and Charlotte Bradley.
DEAR FRANKIE (PG-13) Emily Mortimer stars as a young Scottish woman on the run from an abusive husband and distraught over having to pretend to her deaf 9-year-old son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), that his M.I.A. dad's a heroic naval officer perpetually away at sea. When Frankie notices that dad's ship has docked in their town, Mortimer resorts to hiring a handsome stranger to play the paternal part, and, from there, sparks fly in all the expected directions. Dear Frankie boasts some strong performances (particularly from Mortimer) and handsome cinematography, but that doesn't quite compensate for the predictable plotting, sappy soundtrack or general air of shameless sentimentality. Also stars Gerald Butler, Sharon Small and Mary Riggans.
DUST TO GLORY (NR) With his acclaimed surfing documentary Step into Liquid, and now this look at off-track racing, filmmaker Dana Brown seems to be positioning himself as the American cinema's resident chronicler of extreme sports, if not its poet laureate. Dust To Glory introduces us to the Baja 1000, an annual competition in which dune buggies, dirt bikes, monster trucks and anything else that moves take it to the limit along a long, treacherous desert track. The movie was reportedly shot with small, lightweight digital cameras in order to get right in there with the drivers and really pump up the sense of speed and danger. For anyone suffering from motion sickness: Caveat Emptor. Featuring Mario Andretti, Rick Johnson and Mike McCoy. (Not Reviewed)
FEVER PITCH (PG-13) Without looking at the credits of Fever Pitch, you'd probably never know this was directed by gross-out kings Bobby and Peter Farrelly (There's Something about Mary, Kingpin, et al). There are a handful of gags involving Farrellian fave topics like vomit and testicles, but this is otherwise a surprisingly conventional and sweet-natured romantic comedy, all but devoid of the shock tactics, low humor and high concepts of most of the brothers' output. Former SNL funnyman Jimmy Fallon stars as a mild-mannered Boston schoolteacher, whose seasonal transformation into a rabid Red Sox fan threatens his budding relationship with a pretty young professional (Drew Barrymore). It's all fairly predictable stuff but it goes down fairly easy, thanks largely to some brisk direction by the Farrellys, who imbue the proceedings with their typical respect for working class authenticity and pepper the script with just enough clever dialogue and amusing jokes. The main problem here is Fallon, who's far better than he was in Taxi but still looks like someone who simply can't carry a movie. Fallon is both funny and likeable in Fever Pitch, but with such a limited emotional range and so lacking in depth that it's hard to believe anything we watch him going through. Also stars Jason Spevack, Jack Kehler and Ione Skye. 1/2
FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY (R) Maybe the most extravagantly brutal live-action cartoon ever made, Robert Rodriguez's new movie boasts a ravishing look, an all-consuming attitude, and, most of all, a devotion to excess. This is the sort of movie where even the good guys are bad, where characters are shot dozens of times before they finally die, and where faces are beaten to a bloody pulp, all captured in loving close-up as if to demonstrate the true meaning of pulp fiction. Rodriguez is officially the director here (with pal Quentin Tarantino listed as "guest director"), but, as the movie's full title more than implies, this is Frank Miller's show all the way. Miller is the designer and guiding light of the graphic novels on which Sin City is based, and virtually every frame of the film is a stunning ode to the monochromatic artistic sensibility that permeates Miller's work. For all but the most insatiable gorehound, Sin City inevitably begs the question of why watching something so purely nasty should be so much fun, but with designer sensationalism this tasty, this fit-to-bursting with energy and imagination, it's nearly impossible to just say No. Sin City won't open up the doors of perception, but it takes no prisoners, generates one of the wildest rides in recent memory, and it doesn't apologize for anything. Stars Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro and Rosario Dawson.
GUNNER PALACE (PG-13) A rambling and pleasantly chaotic documentary whose very shapelessness seems nicely suited to its subject matter - the day-to-day life of American soldiers stationed in Iraq. In September 2003, four months after Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech, filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein hooked up with a U.S. Field Artillery Unit headquartered in one of Uday's bombed-out pleasure palaces, and then proceeded to document what they saw. Gunner Palace gives us a grunts'-eye view of life on the mean streets of Baghdad, as we follow the soldiers on what they mockingly refer to as "minor combat" missions ("major combat" having been officially declared over some months back). In between the scary night patrols, tussles with hostile natives and false alarms, Tucker and Epperlein turn the cameras on the G.I.s in more relaxed moments as they float around in Uday's pool or engage in a little frank talk about the blessing and curse of trying to save the Arab-Islamic World from its own follies. The movie lurches about in lots of different directions, resulting in numerous loose ends and a shifting central focus, but the nearly unmediated sense of authenticity alone makes Gunner Palace a valuable experience. There's a soundtrack of sorts, a homegrown blend of hip-hop and metal supplied by the soldiers themselves that makes the whole thing even more engaging. 1/2
IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL (NR) Jessica Yu's film begins by acknowledging the fundamental mystery being addressed - the life and work of outsider artist Henry Darger - and then steps back and luxuriates in its contradictions. The result is one of the most hypnotic and, in its way, most satisfying movies you may ever experience about that curious process by which human beings are compelled to create what we call art. In the Realms of the Unreal doesn't attempt to fill in the blanks by explaining the man or analyzing his art, but rather lets both speak for themselves. We get a handful of interviews with Henry's neighbors and his longtime landlady, but Yu's film mostly chooses to immerse us in Darger's world as seen through The Work - a brightly colored landscape populated by eerily perfect little girls (many of whom inexplicably sprout male genitalia), ferocious twisters with human faces, strange chimerical creatures who fly through the air or cavort in the fields, and horrifying apocalyptic battles flowing with the blood of child martyrs and the all-consuming Glory of God. It's a place both innocently beautiful and utterly terrifying, filled with ridiculous contradictions and, as the film seems to indicate, most likely a mirror reflection of Henry Darger's mind. Accompanying the images are excerpts from Henry's autobiographical notes that, thanks to Yu's skillful editing, hint at the rich connections between Darger's cloistered life and the fantastic mythology of The Work. The effect is both teasing and mesmerizing, providing a fascinating sort of connect-the-dots that allows us to piece together our very own personalized portrait of this most curious and private of artists. Featuring the voices of Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine. 1/2
THE INTERPRETER (PG-13) Glossy production, political relevancy and an A-List of names behind and in front of the cameras can't save director Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter, a suspense thriller with very little suspense and even fewer thrills. Nicole Kidman stars as a U.N. translator who accidentally overhears a plot to assassinate an African dictator and then finds herself locking horns with and (you guessed it) eventually drawn to the secret service agent (Sean Penn) handling the case. At root, the plot is simple - a race against time to stop foreign terrorists from making a spectacular kill on American soil - but the movie is so concerned with making us think it's smarter than it is that it endlessly and needlessly complicates itself with Maguffins involving the various competing (and imaginary) African factions who may or may not be part of the conspiracy. Nothing too terribly interesting results from any of this, and the movie's topical touchstones, such as global terrorism and ethnic cleansing, aren't explored so much as they're used as texture and background scenery. (The film would probably have been far more compelling had Pollack dived right into the whole ideological morass of terrorism and jettisoned his movie's African orientation for a less PC but infinitely more applicable Islamist one.) There are some exciting individual sequences in The Interpreter but they don't hang together or add up, and the simmering but basically dull romance between Kidman's and Penn's characters is a cliché of the worst sort. It's hard to shake the feeling that the movie's script was pieced together from the suggestions of too many cooks, with the only unifying element being director Pollack's proudly liberal faith in the grand and glorious possibilities of the United Nations - a sensibility that's sure to go over big with megaplex audiences across America. Also stars Catherine Keener.
KING'S RANSOM (PG-13) In the final stages of his divorce settlement, marketing mogul Malcolm King (Anthony Anderson of Kangaroo Jack) decides to kidnap himself to avoid negotiating the split of his multi-million dollar firm with his greedy wife (Kellita Smith). In the meantime, three other plans to kidnap King are hatched, and he ends up in the basement of a home owned by Corey (Jay Mohr), a recently jobless fast food employee. Hilarity almost ensues. The plot's predictability leaves obvious room for improvisation but all the actors seem to be channeling other comedians; Anderson misuses the sarcasm of Bernie Mac and Chris Rock, while Jay Mohr, in his funniest moments, suggests Adam Sandler's Water Boy persona. The highlight of the film is Donald Faison of Scrubs fame, who plays a valet service attendant mistakenly kidnapped after being confused for King. Compared to the rest of the cast, Faison is a comic genius, inciting laughs with nothing more than a well-timed grin. A film like King's Ransom should never pretend that it's more than a vehicle for comedic personalities. It's the sort of comedy that relies more on performances than plot, and when those performances don't deliver, the movie is nothing but a train wreck of actors possessing no real comic identity. Also stars Regina Hall and Loretta Devine. 1/2
KUNG FU HUSTLE (PG-13) Even though they share a lot of the same cultural baggage, Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle is worlds apart from the highly poeticized elegance of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Silly, sloppy, sometimes gleefully crude, Chow's movie is a hoot, pure and simple, a goofy throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio, sort of like Kill Bill minus all the blood and attitude. Think of it as an old school martial-arts action-comedy melding classic Jackie Chan with the concentrated surrealism of a Roadrunner cartoon. Kung Fu Hustle sends up the whole martial arts genre even as it proves immensely satisfying as the very thing it spoofs - a kick-ass kung-fu flick. The plot, which constantly winks at its own silliness, revolves around a colorfully seedy neighborhood called Pig Sty Alley, whose residents attempt to fend off various super-assassins sent out by a gang of thugs they've managed to offend. There's not much more to it than that, but it's enough - more than enough, actually. Kung Fu Hustle essentially becomes a series of increasingly outrageous battles, mostly played as hyper-exaggerated physical comedy, and with each "ultimate" encounter one-upping the one that's come before. The movie's humor is an unapologetically broad mix of slapstick and low-brow wackiness: exposed butt cracks and bugged-out eyeballs are the order of the day, and politically incorrect stereotypes run rampant (an effeminate gay character is particularly trying of our patience). Still, there's a lot of pleasure to be had here, at least for anyone willing to suspend disbelief and get in touch with their inner Three Stooges fan. Also stars Lam Tze Chung, Yuen Qui, Leung Siu Lung and Huang Sheng Yi. Held over at Sunrise Cinemas in Tampa. Call to confirm. 1/2
A LOT LIKE LOVE (PG-13) Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet star in a romantic comedy following two friends as they slide in and out of each other's lives over the course of seven years, only to eventually look deep into each other's eyes and arrive at the conclusion that, after all those years of looking for love in the wrong places, the two of them are actually? Aw, but that would be giving it away (as if you didn't already know). Also stars Kathryn Hahn and Kal Penn. (Not Reviewed)
MELINDA AND MELINDA (PG-13) Woody Allen's latest film offers what purports to be two versions of a single story, as a pair of playwrights sit around a dinner table spinning alternate takes, one comic and one tragic, on the same basic scenario. This would appear to be an ideal framework for Allen, whose best work has always skillfully balanced those twin poles and whose entire career has often been reductively framed as a battle between the "funny/good" early Woody and the "serious/boring" later Woody. Unfortunately, the movie never lives up to its intriguing premise, with neither of the stories featured in Melinda and Melinda amounting to much or dovetailing with the other in particularly interesting ways. Probably to no one's surprise, it all takes place in Woody's beloved Upper East Side, a place exclusively inhabited by clean, cultured and deeply neurotic New Yorkers, and a feeling of deja vu is inescapable. A game try, but definitely minor Allen. Also stars Radha Mitchell, Amanda Peet, Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller.
MILLIONS (PG) Millions is a fairytale and proud of it, a sweet, heartfelt story of children navigating the adult world, and of the perils and pleasures of lost and found treasure. Our heroes are 7-year-old Damian (Alexander Etel) and his slightly older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), two Liverpool lads who, the week before the UK's conversion to the Euro, find a bag of soon-to-be-worthless English pound notes that must be spent in a very short period of time. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) finds both humor and emotional resonance in the boys' mostly bungled attempts to satisfy their materialist fantasies, even as they're unable to resist throwing pizza parties for the homeless or stuffing wads of cash through the mail slots of neighbors. And then, of course, there's the shifty-eyed creep with his own claim to the money, an ominous Big Bad Wolf who comes calling at the most inopportune times, turning the kids' dreams to nightmares and the movie, briefly, into a retooled Night of the Hunter. Despite some artsy flourishes, Millions never seems like it's condescending to its own simple, storybook logic, and the movie almost always connects on the most basic levels. It's all good fun and, by the final act, the mad rush to spend the money takes on a life of its own. Also stars James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan and Christopher Fulford. 1/2
NOBODY KNOWS (PG-13) Based on a true story that shocked Japan in the late '80s, Nobody Knows offers a refreshingly unsentimental and unsensationalized account of four young brothers and sisters getting by more or less or their own. Twelve-year-old Akira (Yagira Yuya) is the man of the house, while a flaky, promiscuous mom flits in and out of the kids' lives, disappearing from the scene altogether by the film's mid-point. Abandoned and unschooled, both formally and in the ways of the world, the kids create their own insular community, and Nobody Knows takes place almost entirely within that private world of the children's apartment, with only occasional forays into the outside world. Director Kore-eda Hirokazu (After Life, Mabarosi) coaxes some amazingly rich and natural performances from his young, non-professional actors, adding to the documentary-like effect created by Yutaka Yamazaki's supple but never slick, handheld camerawork. Also stars Kitauru Ayu, Kimura Hiei, Shimizu Momoko and Japanese pop star You (yep, that's her name) as the mother.
OFF THE MAP (PG-13) Off the Map is one of those movies that critics like to describe as a "small gem," and that's exactly what it is. The film takes the shape of a memory piece, a reeling-in of the years by a grown woman inviting us along as she revisits her childhood in the wilds of New Mexico, circa 1974. In the most broadly described sense, this is a coming-of-age tale - almost inevitably so, since our 12-year-old guide, Bo Groden (Valentina de Angelis), is at an age when new discoveries wait around every corner - but Off the Map is also much more: a grown-up romance, a mystical adventure, a cheerfully dysfunctional comedy, a wistful family drama. There's not a story per se so much as a series of anecdotes, an accumulation of tiny but telling details that gradually flesh out the characters and allow us to enter their world to a degree not commonly allowed for in most motion pictures. Joan Allen delivers yet another astonishing performance as the eccentric earth mama holding the Groden family together, and the character of Bo is as memorably self-possessed and old-beyond-her-years as the young protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, another movie that filtered its world to fine effect through the eyes of childhood. Off the Map makes us genuinely happy to spend time with its characters and that's something worth celebrating. Also stars Sam Elliot, J.K. Simmons and Jim True-Frost.
SAHARA (PG-13) A bland, by-the-numbers action-adventure project mostly notable for being the directorial debut of someone named Breck Eisner, who just happens to be the son of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Sahara is based on one of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt books, with an artificially tanned and carefully rumpled Matthew McConaughey playing Pitt as a cocky, carefree Indiana Jones-lite. The plot is a mishmash that brings together a search for a lost civil war battleship, a deadly virus, corrupt Euro-industrialists and African warlords, with some faux-007 music slapped on the ostensibly suspenseful parts, and classic rock chestnuts by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steppenwolf liberally and gratuitously applied elsewhere. On the upside, there's nothing too terribly awful or pretentious here, but everyone seems to be sleepwalking through their non-demanding roles, from Steve Zahn as the obligatory comic relief sidekick to Penelope Cruz as the love interest. You might just find yourself dosing off, too. Also stars William H. Macy. 1/2
THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (R) Another take on middle-aged romance and the gender wars, among other things, that tackles territory previously staked out by As Good as It Gets and, more often than not, gets it right. As the title suggests, this is a movie that's ostensibly about angry or otherwise disappointed people, two of whom are aging alcoholics - but against all odds, The Upside of Anger turns that daunting subject matter into what is sometimes very funny material. This movie is far from perfect, but it's still a must-see, if only to see Joan Allen in a career-topping performance as a suburban housewife dealing with four grown (and nearly-grown) children, as well as a washed-up baseball player (Kevin Costner) who comes sniffing around and winds up staying for the long run. Costner's no slouch either as the boozing, aging good-time boy getting by on the fumes of fame and fortune. All the expected bases are covered here, but the film manages to take us to a few unexpected places, too. Also stars Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell and Mike Binder (who also directs). Currently at Beach Theatre Cinemas in St. Pete Beach. 1/2
Reviewed entries by Lance Goldenberg unless otherwise noted.