13 GOING ON 30 (PG-13) Tempting as it is to call this Big for girls, it's even more accurate to dub the movie Big minus brains. 13 Going on 30 is about an insecure 13-year-old girl who makes a wish in 1987 and wakes up in 2004 as leggy, 30-year-old Jennifer Garner, a successful but emotionally unfulfilled career woman. All the anticipated and all-but obligatory jokes are here ("Wow," says Garner's character, "I've got boobs!"), and the movie does little to disguise its myriad cliches or blatant attempts to manipulate our emotions. Garner is an enormously appealing screen presence, but virtually everything that surrounds her here is a chore to sit through. The director is Gary Winick, whose previous film was the ridiculously overrated but marginally more interesting Tadpole. Also stars Mark Ruffalo, Judy Greer and Andy Serkis. Opens April 23 at local theaters. 1/2
THE ALAMO (PG-13) The new version of Alamo doesn't seem overly interested in glorifying American legends or in debunking them. Instead, it merely plods along from scene to scene, ambivalent toward its characters, and barely glued together in a way that indicates nothing so much as being the product of too many cooks. There are too many characters vying for our attention, and most of them come off so badly or blandly that's it hard to much care about any of them. At first glance, the film even seems a little reactionary, as if the main reason it exists is to chip away at everything about the original movie it's supposedly remaking. Ultimately The Alamo just doesn't seem to have a handle on what sort of movie it wants to be, wavering between traditional period adventure, cynical, revisionist history and meandering, multi-character mini-series. The action scenes aren't very good either. Stars Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patrick, Dennis Quaid, Emilio Echevarria and Patrick Wilson.
THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (R) Madstone's excellent new series Premiere Pics — an ongoing series of film festival favorites never seen before in the Bay area — continues with this delightfully bizarre sci-fi/western/musical/metaphysical murder mystery. The obvious reference point here is David Lynch, but The American Astronaut spins a crazy orbit in other directions as well. The nearly indescribable narrative takes us from a seedy bar on some godforsaken asteroid to an all-male industrial planet, where a 16-year-old boy is taken as a gift to the dainty Southern belles inhabiting the planet Venus. The movie evokes other worlds and the future as simply and effectively as Godard did in Alphaville, and the nut-job surrealism mixes nicely with magnificently proportioned set pieces that resemble mutated versions of rallies from Leni Riefenstahl productions. The movie is built around a series of songs composed and performed by the Billy Nayer Show (whose frontman Cory McAbee directed and stars in American Astronaut), and the band will perform locally this week in conjunction with the film's screening (see Music Menu). Also stars Rocco Sisto and Gregory Russell Cook. 1/2
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (NR) As if further proof of the continuing importance of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 masterpiece were required, it's worth noting that this is the film screened for bigwigs at the Pentagon in the aftermath of the last Gulf War. Employing a documentary-like approach that was nothing less than revolutionary at the time and still looks fresh and convincing, The Battle of Algiers depicts Algerian "freedom fighters" (Terrorists? Militants?) struggling to liberate their Muslim nation from the occupying Western (French) forces. Anyone who misses the parallels to the present situation in Iraq would have to be blind, and the film's ability to draw attention to a multitude of political and moral ambiguities is simply remarkable. In addition to everything else, Pontecorvo's film succeeds beautifully as both full-fleshed drama and thriller. A must-see. Stars Yacef Saadi, Jean Martin and Brahiim Haqqiaq. Postponed. Call Madstone Theaters for opening date. 1/2
CONNIE AND CARLA (PG-13) Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) channels Some Like It Hot and comes up with the story of a pair of dinner theater performers (Vardalos and Toni Collette) on the lam from the mob and forced to disguise their true genders. The, uh, "twist" here is that the performers are women masquerading as men masquerading as women — which is to say, drag queens. Also stars David Duchovny. (Not Reviewed)
DAWN OF THE DEAD (R) One might ponder the reasons for remaking George Romero's nearly perfect horror classic, but, hey — the bottom line is that you can never have too many zombie movies. Actually, the word "zombie" is never even uttered in the 2004 version, and the creatures themselves more closely resemble the shrieking sprinters of 28 Days than the lumbering icons from Romero's original. Also missing in action are the original's famous images of the living dead strolling about the shopping mall where our heroes are trapped, or any other swipes at our happily zombified consumer culture. What we get instead is a competent but much more conventional thrill machine, filled with a steady stream of decent scares and even more flying hunks of bloody flesh than you'll see in Mel's Passion. It's an adequate fright flick but not much more, with a final 20 minutes that degenerates into just another extended and overly chaotic chase scene. Stars Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer and Ty Burrell.