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.