Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area

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CURSED (PG-13) Wes Craven's latest creepfest reportedly finds the director in a more conventional, less post-modern mode than Scream, with Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg starring as teens suddenly endowed with mysterious powers that could destroy everyone they touch. Also stars Joshua Jackson and Shannon Elizabeth. Opens February 25 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)


ALONE IN THE DARK (R) All that's missing is Shaggy and Scooby, in this based-on-a-video-game spookfest about a "detective of the paranormal" (Christian Slater) and his cute girlfriend (Tara Reid) investigating zombie shenanigans at - wait for it now - Shadow Island. Also stars Stephen Dorff. (Not Reviewed)

ARE WE THERE YET? (PG) Sweetly moronic comedy with Ice Cube as a dedicated player and confirmed kid-hater who falls for a pretty single mom (Nia Long) and winds up chaperoning her children on what is supposed to be a short trip from Portland to Vancouver.


THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON (R) Forget Jamie Foxx in Ray. The best actor in a film from last year was Sean Penn in this quietly intense portrait of a disillusioned man being pushed farther and farther to the fringes of society. Penn stars as Sam Bicke, a Travis Bickle-like loser unlucky in love and increasingly agitated by the injustices he sees all around him. The film's Taxi Driver connections are unavoidable as The Assassination of Richard Nixon goes about depicting the breakdown and ultimate, tragic transformation of Penn's character, but there's no denying the power of this particular vision. We've seen this subject before, but rarely with the chilling meticulousness or raw emotional edge provided by Penn's astonishing performance. Also stars Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle.


ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (R) Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne star in this competently crafted but otherwise unremarkable remake of John Carpenter's 1976 genre slam dunk (which was itself an homage to Howard Hawks' immortal Rio Bravo from 1959). The movie's premise remains the same - cops and criminals in an old Detroit precinct house band together to stave off an assault from marauding hordes outside - but the film dulls its impact by paying too much attention to its stock characters, while making the predictable move of exchanging the original's main bad guys - urban gangsters and lowlifes - for everybody's new favorite whipping boys, corrupt cops.


THE AVIATOR (PG-13) Martin Scorsese's biopic about Howard Hughes (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio) begins in the 1920s with Hughes' flirtation with Hollywood, segueing into his affairs with the likes of Katherine Hepburn (an uncanny impersonation by Cate Blanchette) and Ava Gardner (a lightweight Kate Beckinsale), his outrageous financial triumphs and his steady surrender to his delusions. The Aviator covers a lot of other ground, too, and the question becomes how could one film do justice to this life. The answer, of course, is that it can't. But Scorsese has given us a big, muscular epic that, while not ranking with his very best work, is at least two films in one, both good enough to ensure that one of those nice, shiny statues will soon be residing on the director's mantelpiece.


BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE (PG) Family fare based on the perennial best seller, featuring an adorable little girl bonding with a cute dog, and a cast that includes Hollywood icons Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint and musician Dave Matthews. You could probably do worse. Also stars Jeff Daniels and AnnaSophia Robb. (Not Reviewed)

BAD EDUCATION (NR) Pedro Almodovar's intricately convoluted noir fantasy is dark, dense, maybe even dangerous stuff, but the film candy-coats its Big Ideas in the outrageous kink of the director's earliest movies as well as the eloquent symmetries of his more recent melodramas, presenting its story-within-a-story as a sort of greatest-hits package from this remarkable Spanish filmmaker. You might even think of Bad Education as Almodovar's 8 1/2, a personal and professional summing-up that, like Fellini's magnum opus, neatly re-states all of the director's pet passions through a labyrinthine fusion of life and art, fantasy and reality. The movie spirals in multiple directions as we watch an autobiographical account of schooldays filled with forbidden passion mutate into a many-headed hydra as it passes through the memories of the film's various narrators. The tale that's spun becomes a sordid but surprisingly poignant web of intrigue, abuse and revenge, of sex, drugs, love and betrayal, and each time the story unfolds, another angle is presented, revealing new information that calls into question everything that's come before. Several of the characters might not even be who they claim to be (or, for that matter, what we imagine them to be), but that's almost to be expected. Almodovar has always been interested in illusions, in people pretending to be something they're not (most magnificently, the men pretending to be women in All About My Mother), and Bad Education looks a lot like the filmmaker's final word on the subject. Stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, and Daniel Gimenez-Cacho.

BEING JULIA (NR) "Luminous" is a word that film critics tend to overuse when describing beautiful actresses lighting up the screen, beautifully, but hardly any other word will do for Annette Bening's career-topping performance here. The film itself is lushly mounted but otherwise pretty standard stuff - Bening plays an aging diva in 1930s London, engaged in a clandestine affair with a younger man - but Bening herself is on screen nearly every moment, and it's impossible to take our eyes off her. Director Istvan Szabo (Mephisto, Sunshine) invests the material with an appealingly light touch, lovely visual flourishes and as much wit as we might expect in what is essentially a pretty dull story. Currently playing at Burns Court Cinemas.


BLADE: TRINITY (R) Wesley Snipes returns as the iconic, elaborately tattooed hybrid human-vampire, but this time he's reduced to a minor character in his own movie, overshadowed by a pair of young, vampire-hunting hipsters. One is Jessica Biel, who slinks around exposing her midriff when not kicking vampire butt, and the other is Ryan Reynolds, who engages in incessant, lively banter with Blade and supplies most of the movie's comedic moments. We quickly become numb to all the blood, guts and speed, and there really isn't much spooky stuff to be found, much less atmosphere. Blade: Trinity also features no less a baddie than Dracula himself (now known simply as Drake), although he's a bland, gold-chain-wearing beefcake, shirt unbuttoned to display the bulging pecs where his acting ability apparently resides. Also stars Dominic Purcell.

BOOGEYMAN (PG-13) A young man (Barry Watson) returns home to face the shadowy creature who tormented him as a child. The movie's million-dollar question - is the thingie real or a figment of the imagination? - sounds like an instant retread of any number of other recent horror flicks, but we'll reserve judgment until we see how this one plays out. Also stars Skye McCole Bartusiak and Lucy Lawless. (Not Reviewed)

CLOSER (R) Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen play sexual (and maybe, just maybe, romantic) musical chairs in a raw-boned ballet of what director Mike Nichols probably intends as modern alienation. Law's would-be writer and Portman's off-and-on stripper are Couple No. 1, and Roberts' long-suffering photographer and Owen's rude-and-crude dermatologist are Couple No. 2, although each time the movie jumps forward in time it seems like someone is screaming at someone for screwing someone else. Nichols and writer Patrick Marber give us some moments of genuine, albeit vicious, power here (particularly in the film's later stages), but Closer's basic take on self-destructive relationships often seems like it's been chiseled with a sledgehammer - and it's certainly nothing new.


COACH CARTER (PG-13) Samuel L. Jackson stars in a drama based on the true story of a high school basketball coach who valued grades as much as the ability to win games. Also stars Rob Brown and Vincent Laresca. (Not Reviewed)

DARKNESS (R) Stylish visuals and atmosphere up the yin-yang are all well and good, but do not necessarily a good horror film make, as proven in spades by this swell-looking mess of a creepfest. Spanish filmmaker Jaume Balaguero, who previously gave us the excellent The Nameless, seems like a fish out of water directing a cast of English-speaking actors in a disjointed story about an American family coming apart at the seams while holed up in an isolated home in the Spanish countryside. Stars Anna Paquin, Lena Olin and Iain Glen.

ELEKTRA (PG-13) Her name is Elektra, "Like the tragedy," as one of the movie's characters puts it, and truer words were never spoken. Slick, loud, stupid and phony down to the marrow, this latest big-screen adaptation of a Marvel comic book is a tough slog. Jennifer Garner reprises the ninja-like superheroine character she played in Daredevil, but lacks the gravitas to pull off the role and comes off about as believable in the part as, say, Pamela Anderson. Frankly, Pam might have been a better choice; at least her presence might have provided this glum project with some much-needed, self-deflating humor or, for that matter, personality.


FINDING NEVERLAND (PG) Finding Neverland depicts the friendship between Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie (an unusually subdued Johnny Depp) and the five young sons of a beautiful young widow (Kate Winslet), giving us a romance, a coming-of-age tale, and an elaborate parlor game in which we're teased with the bits from Barrie's life that served as inspiration for his classic-to-be about a boy who refused to grow up. It's best to put history out of your mind here, since the movie whitewashes several key facts of Barrie's life, but then again Finding Neverland is a movie designed to lift spirits, not dash them. Marc Forster, a talented director previously responsible for the much grittier Monsters Ball, coaches solid performances from the cast and layers Neverland with pleasing symmetries, wit and moments that make good on a clear intention to appear "magical." What we get is pleasant enough but a bit too pre-digested to take completely seriously. Also stars Radha Mitchell, Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman.


HIDE AND SEEK (R) Robert De Niro stars as a distraught father realizing his little girl's imaginary friend might actually be some sort of terrible, unknown entity - and not nearly so imaginary after all. Also stars Dakota Fanning and Famke Janssen. (Not Reviewed)

HOTEL RWANDA (R) The first film about the Rwanda genocide of 1994 - when nearly 1 million Tutsi were slaughtered by Hutu tribesmen in barely 100 days - is earnest, informative and well-meaning, but ultimately just a bit toothless. Don Cheadle gives a nicely understated performance as the manager of an upscale Rwandan hotel secretly transformed into a refuge for those facing extinction, including his own family. The film takes a Schindler's List-lite approach to its tragic topic, focusing on relief efforts and survivors, with little overt violence or gore on display and just a sprinkling of scenes hinting at the real extent of the horror that's occurring. We know the situation is terrible mainly because various characters keep telling us that it is in a series of melodramatic and/or preachy monologues that turn the film into a message movie that's more tearjerker than jaw-dropper. Also stars Nick Nolte and Sophie Okonedo.

THE HOUSE OF FLYNG DAGGERS (NR) With Hero and, now, the immensely entertaining House of Flying Daggers, Chinese director Zhang Yimou morphs from art house auteur to popular entertainer, completing his conquest of the West by beating Hollywood at its own game - sheer, kickass spectacle. Zhang's movie is the latest in a modern cycle of art-fu epics that, at their best, turn swordfights and hand-to-hand combat into acts of transcendental poetry. Simpler and less demanding than any of its immediate predecessors, Flying Daggers offers less characters and fewer sub-plots to keep track of, with a central storyline that simply involves a man and a woman falling in love while making a dangerous journey together in Ninth Century China. There are also some 11th-hour twists where the secrets fall so thick and fast it nearly spoils the movie's effect, but it all resolves itself in a grand finale that's operatic in the best sense of the word, leaving us satisfied and a little excited.


IN GOOD COMPANY (PG-13) Dennis Quaid stars as a middle-aged, old-school (tough but fair) executive who finds himself demoted to being the underling of a brash, twenty-something hotshot (Topher Grace) when his company is bought out by a Mega-Conglomerate run by a Rupert Murdoch-like marauder. Director Tom Weitz does a nice job contrasting the parallel paths of the younger man and the older one, with the private lives of each rising and falling in exact disproportion to what happens in the public arcs of their careers. There's also an amusing subplot that makes the most of Quaid's reactions to his young boss' romance with his daughter (Scarlet Johansson), but much of the movie falls into the realm of the predictable or toothless. Also stars Marg Helgenberger, Selma Blair and Malcom McDowell.


LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (PG) Morbidly witty, imaginatively stylized and with surprisingly little pandering to tiny or otherwise tiny-minded viewers, there's much to enjoy in this dark-but-not-too-dark fantasy about the trials and tribulations of a trio of ingenious orphans. Jim Carrey dons a series of elaborate disguises as the young pups' nemesis, an evil actor who keeps putting the kiddies in a succession of increasingly harrowing predicaments from which they must use all their considerable, McGyver-like resources to escape. The film is a production designer's dream, with wonderfully odd little Edward Gorey-esque flourishes and filigrees loitering about the edges of nearly every frame. Also stars Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Meryl Streep and Jude Law.


LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE (PG-13) Basically a concert film with a little bit extra, Lightning in a Bottle records one night in February of 2003, when a slew of the best living blues musicians gathered at New York City's Radio City Music Hall to do what they do best (hint: they didn't debate quantum physics). The film is nothing less than a celebration of the blues, with typically fine performances from aging icons representing the music's crème de la crème: B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples, Ruth Brown, Buddy Guy and more. Director Antoine Fuqua inserts some backstage banter and snippets of interviews here and there, and we also get to see a bit of archival footage projected up on the big screen at Radio City (a less than intimate spot for a concert like this), but the live event is the focus here, as it should be. It's only when contemporary upstarts like Public Enemy's Chuck D and a particularly moronic David Johansen join the fray (in an apparent effort to show the timelessness of this great American music) that things get fuzzy and the movie loses its way. Also stars Dr. John, Odetta and Bonnie Raitt.


MEET THE FOCKERS (PG-13) If you liked Meet the Parents, odds are you'll love this sequel, which has pretty much everything the original had plus a little something else just to make sure all the bases are covered. Besides the patented oil-and-water dynamic between Ben Stiller and his future in-laws, we get an even more strained (and consequently, in movie logic, wackier) dynamic between those same, uptight WASPy future in-laws and Stiller's own oversexed and way ethnic parents (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand). The main show here is Hoffman and Streisand, who are actually quite funny together, despite being saddled with a script that too often relies on jokes about old people having sex and that apparently thinks the ultimate in hilarity is to simply have someone say anything that pops into their heads in Yiddish. The movie also gets much comedic mileage merely by repeating the word "Focker" again and again, but, fortunately, there's a fair amount here that's genuinely amusing, too. Also stars Blythe Danner and Teri Polo.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY (PG-13) Clint Eastwood is about as old-school a filmmaker as you'll find, and his unfussy expertise and love of genre filmmaking flow sure and true through Million Dollar Baby, a fight movie that's less about fighting and more about the fighters themselves. Eastwood places himself at the very center of the movie in the plum role of the grizzled and guilt-ridden owner of a run-down gym who grudgingly becomes the manager of an aspiring female boxer (Hilary Swank). The movie takes its time, positioning its characters (and us) in that uniquely male world of boxing and boxers - getting the textures, rhythms, language and movement of that world just right, even as its intrinsic maleness is quietly called into account by making the film's principal pugilist a woman. Million Dollar Baby becomes more action-oriented (and a more traditional crowd-pleaser) as it follows the upward-bound, Rocky-esque arc of the young fighter's career, but the film's essence remains reflective and character-driven as it goes about revealing the process by which Eastwood's and Swank's characters become a surrogate family to each other. The story here is a simple one, but it's told with understated honesty and unaffected emotions, with tough, nimble dialogue that quietly speculates on the idea of boxing as something both profound and profoundly unnatural. Like all of Eastwood's best movies, Million Dollar Baby embraces clichés, turns them inside out by thoroughly understanding the power that made them clichés in the first place and, ultimately, transcends them. Also stars Morgan Freeman in one of his finest performances.

PAPER CLIPS (G) A well-meaning but not particularly engaging documentary about a group of high school students from an isolated Tennessee community who, after learning about the horrors of WWII, erect an elaborate memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The movie's heart is clearly in the right place, but the phenomenon of young minds opening up to history and the world would be much better served if the film took a less sentimental and self-congratulatory tone, qualities that aren't helped by music and narration that yank our emotions around like someone trying to train a none-too-bright puppy.


THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (PG-13) Remixed version of the hit Broadway musical, The Phantom of the Opera finds director Joel Schumacher switching scenes around, adding a new song, wrapping the whole thing in a framing story and managing to construct a successful film out of the parts of the stage original. As the chandelier crashes and the opera house burns, it becomes clear that this Phantom, for better or worse, is pumped up with the Hollywood juice. Fans, take heart: even with all the changes, the plot (Phantom tutors girl, loses girl, goes on murderous rampage) and the music manage to stay true to the original. An up-and-coming cast including local boy Patrick Wilson (as the Phantom's enemy, Raoul) and beautiful newcomer Emmy Rossum lend the film energy and heart, and the set design, costumes and staging of the musical numbers are first-rate.


-Joe Bardi

POOH'S HEFFALUMP MOVIE (G) Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and company are back with some more important life lessons about the value of friendship, sharing and buying as many tickets as possible to Disney movies. Featuring the voices of Brenda Blethyn, Jim Cummings, Ken Sansom and David Ogden Stiers. (Not Reviewed)

RACING STRIPES (PG) A young girl adopts a baby zebra, introduces him to a farm full of wacky barnyard animals (all of whom can talk), and dreams of turning him into a champion racer. Featuring the voices of Frankie Muniz, Michael Clarke Duncan, Dustin Hoffman, Jeff Foxworthy and Whoopi Goldberg. (Not Reviewed)

RAY (PG-13) While not quite the modern American classic we were hoping for, Ray is still solid entertainment and a particular joy for Ray Charles fans. The movie presents Charles as a fusion of musical genius, tortured soul and Daredevil/Zatoichi (with an impressively developed hearing sense compensating for his blindness), and then dutifully walks us through the high and low points of his life. The music is glorious, of course (with a heavy concentration on Ray's brilliant mid- to late-'50s period), and Jamie Foxx's performance/impersonation ranks with Jim Carrey's impeccable Andy Kaufman, but Ray is not immune to many of the problems that inevitably plague biopics. As is common with this form, the movie tends to play like a greatest hits (and flops) of Charles' life, with equal weight given to nearly everything, too much crammed in, and too little transitional material. Also stars Kerry Washington and Regina King. 1/2

RED LIGHTS (NR) Based on a novel by Georges Simenon, Red Lights is an austere, oddly gripping blend of mystery, marital drama and psychological thriller that's not quite any of those things. Director Cedric Kahn begins by focusing intently on his two main characters, an alcoholic husband and his somewhat frosty wife (Jean-Pierre Darrousin and Carole Bouquet), placing them in a car together in the middle of the night and simply watching the kinks and cracks in their marriage reveal themselves as their nocturnal ride progresses. The film goes in all sorts of unexpected directions from there, throwing a few more or less traditional scares our way (an escaped prisoner figures prominently in the proceedings), but mostly discovering its suspense in small details, silence, real time and other unlikely places. Kahn cops out with a lackluster final act, but the first two-thirds of Red Lights takes Sartre's "Hell is other people" line and runs with it, creating a delicately shaded atmosphere of tension and unease where all sorts of terrible things are not only possible but deliciously probable. The score by Debussy is a nice touch, too. Also stars Vincent Denlard.


THE SEA INSIDE (PG-13 A much-acclaimed performance by Javier Bardem is the centerpiece of this film by Chilean-born Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others). He plays a man paralyzed in a diving accident as a teenager who, after 26 years confined to his bed, insists on his right to die. (Not reviewed)

SIDEWAYS (R) Alexander Payne's latest film, like the director's previous About Schmidt, is a road movie that easily transcends its own sub-genre, a tragi-comic quest with no clear objectives but lots of priceless detours. There's no real end in sight, but it hardly matters; the fun is all in how we get there (or not). Sideways is also a buddy movie of sorts, a testosterone comedy that serves as a playful, sometimes painful and always spot-on dissection of the male psyche as it lurches toward middle age. The aging male buddies in question are a classic odd couple, depressed wannabe author Miles (Paul Giamatti) and cocky, washed-up actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church), two old pals spending some time together in California's wine country during the week before Jack's wedding. Also stars Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. Currently playing at Burns Court Cinemas.


SON OF THE MASK (PG) This sequel to the popular Jim Carrey special effects extravaganza doesn't seem to have been able to make up its mind about where to put its central narrative focus, so it wound up putting it everywhere. The movie zips around like an ADD kid, with a maximum of noise and a minimum of effectiveness, generating an uncomfortable fusion of kid-friendly fare (cute dogs, snot and pee-pee jokes) and more adult material ("hip" cameos by the likes of Stephen Wright and Ben Stiller, a story stuffed with raging oedipal complexes, and, despite the PG rating, a darker, meaner feel than the original). The movie is most successful in its middle sections, when it's aping Chuck Jones and Tex Avery with some outrageously cartoonish dog vs. baby battles, but the rest is mostly just sound and fury lite. And I'm sorry, but the movie's main special effect - a digitized dancing baby apparently scavanged from old Ally McBeal reruns - is just plain creepy. Also stars Alan Cumming and Traylor Howard.

SPANGLISH (PG-13) James L. Brooks' new movie is terrible because it's long-winded, pointless, shamelessly manipulative and not particularly funny, but it's also something new and even more terrible: a mean-spirited feel-good movie. The basic scenario here is pure sitcom - mildly eccentric yuppie couple hires beautiful, fiery Mexican housekeeper and mayhem ensues - but the execution is flat and extremely unpleasant, with a 130-minute running time that leaves little doubt that Brooks feels he's doing something important here. The characters are, without exception, either underdeveloped or drawn in ridiculously broad strokes, particularly Tea Leoni's hardbodied queen bitch of a hausfrau, who crosses the line from quirky to just plain cruel early on and leaves the movie with a big, fat hole in its emotional center. Brooks was apparently going through a messy divorce while he was directing Spanglish and was trying to "work something out" in the film, but the result is far and away his worst movie. Also stars Adam Sandler, Paz Vega, Cloris Leachman and Sarah Steele.

STRAIGHT JACKET (NR) Not to be confused with the old Joan Crawford camp classic about the battle-axe with the axe. This contemporary Straight Jacket lacks Mommie Dearest and has nothing to do with murderous psychos, be they carrying large sharp tools or otherwise - although it might well have benefited from some. Directed by Richard Day, creator of the wonderfully raunchy Girls Will Be Girls, this bright-eyed but not very funny comedy stars Matt Letscher as a Rock Hudson-esque '50s matinee idol attempting to hide his gayness from the rest of Hollywood and the general public by getting hitched to a ditzy blonde bimbette (Carrie Preston). The ruse marriage is in trouble from the get-go, of course, but major complications set in when our hero falls for a cute male co-worker (Adam Greer). It's all pretty much as sitcom-like as it sounds, and the campy attitude and candy-colored sets don't begin to make up for the lame jokes and terrible acting. Also stars Veronica Cartwright.

TESTOSTERONE (NR) The tone lurches blindly from sunny comedy to unpleasant psychodrama in this sloppily scripted tale of a gay comic book illustrator (oops, I mean "graphic novelist") who travels to Buenos Aires in search of his hunky Latino lover and winds up embroiled in a convoluted mystery that makes very little sense. David Sutcliffe (Rory's dad from The Gilmore Girls) is passable in the lead role, and Sonia Braga turns in a nice cameo, but virtually everyone and everything else in this mess misses the mark. Even the exotic Buenos Aires locations aren't utilized to full advantage. Also stars Antonio Sabato.

UNCLE NINO (PG) Sub-moronic corn about a wise old Italian peasant (Pierrino Mascarino) who comes to visit his suburban American relatives and turns everyone's unhappy lives into pure sweetness and light. Joe Mantegna stars as the workaholic dad who doesn't have time for his wife and kids until kindly Uncle Nino teaches him the value of smiling, listening, puppy dogs and making pizza from scratch. The movie's attempts to charm us are transparently by-the-numbers and clumsy throughout, and the whole thing is as poorly written and acted as it is conceived. Also stars Anne Archer and Gina Mantegna. Currently playing at Burns Court Cinemas.

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (R) Like all of the films of Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie), A Very Long Engagement is a love story. But it's also a war movie, directly descended from hard-hitting humanist classics like Paths of Glory. Amelie's Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde, a simple provincial lass who spends virtually every one of Engagement's 134 minutes searching for her lost soulmate, a missing French army recruit. Her investigation yields some interesting results as conflicting versions of reality emerge, weaving a richly confounding, Rashomon-like tapestry of the truth. The film becomes a maze of loose ends and detours, all rendered in typically stunning visual form by Jeunet. Even the most inventive visuals can't completely redeem an earthbound script, though, and the later sections of the film occasionally forget that this director's movies are best when they're allowed to fly. Jeunet seems to have created the epic he felt was demanded of him, but the filmmaker didn't quite give us the movie either he or we deserve.


THE WEDDING DATE (PG-13) A romantic comedy that's really neither, starring Debra Messing as a single gal who hires a male escort to be her pretend boyfriend at her younger sister's wedding. This is one of those My Big Fat Best Friend's Wedding movies that seems to think anytime you give an audience a celebration attended by lots of neurotic friends and family, instant hilarity will ensue, but that's anything but the case here. Awful does not necessarily mean adorable (or interesting), and The Wedding Date features some of the more brutally miscalculated so-icky-they're-supposed-to-be-endearing relatives since Spanglish, including a couple of oblivious airheads who instantaneously gain 60 IQ points and break character just in time for their big, character-defining speeches, and then go right back to being drooling idiots again. Messing and her fake boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) fall for each other, of course, but the movie is so flabby and unconvincing that we wouldn't even have been aware of the falling sparks if the horribly manipulative soundtrack hadn't already announced it as a fait accompli. Also stars Holland Taylor.


WHITE NOISE (PG-13) Sounds like a supernatural thriller of the week, in which a dead person and a surviving spouse attempt to communicate with each other across the void. A long missing-in-action Michael Keaton stars, but don't expect too much. Also stars Deborah Unger. (Not Reviewed)

THE WOODSMAN (NR) There are no easy answers, no suggestions of some miraculous cure waiting in the wings for the guilt-ridden pedophile at the heart of The Woodsman - a brave artistic decision that's bound to frustrate even the most sophisticated viewers and possibly enrage others. In its mostly quiet, deliberately paced way, the movie simply observes its recently paroled subject, Walter (a slow-burning and almost painfully intense Kevin Bacon), struggling to overcome his nature as he begins the process of picking up the pieces of what might loosely be called his life. There are a handful of minor characters here and some non-essential sub-plots, but The Woodsman is at its best when nothing much is really happening, in a strict, story-driven sense - when the movie is simply recording Walter wrestling with his considerable demons. The Woodsman admirably refrains from passing judgment, but it's not beyond stretching metaphors to encourage us to see Walter as a kind of Holy/Unholy Trinity all wrapped up in one tightly wound bundle of nerves - he's rescuer, wolf and Red Riding Hood, a conflicted hero who has to slay his own big, bad self in order to free the innocent lamb waiting inside. As human goods go, Walter's about as damaged as they come, but the last thing The Woodsman wants is for us to see him as a demon; even if his nature repels us, the film makes it surprisingly easy to be moved by the efforts of this tortured and confused man to understand himself, by his desire for transformation. Also stars Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt and Eve.


Reviewed entries by Lance Goldenberg unless otherwise noted.

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