Reviews from recently released movies

Flushed Away, Night at the Museum, Rocky Balboa

click to enlarge Night at the Museum - 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
Night at the Museum


APOCALYPTO (R) For those of you completely over Mel Gibson after his recent tirades, and wondering if there might be any possible reason to be interested in yet another foray into subtitled, gore-soaked sadism from this controversial celebrity, I urge you to give Mel another chance. Although it's just a chase movie at its stripped-down core (think The Most Dangerous Game by way of John Woo's Hard Target), Apocalypto does what it does exceedingly well. The film's exotic flourishes are as intoxicating as they are omnipresent, even as Apocalypto plows ahead with the energy and compelling forward momentum of a Mad Max popcorn epic. It begins in a small jungle village, explodes into the head-spinning chaos and terrible beauty of a full-blown Mayan city, then resolves itself in a final burst of speed and motion, as the protagonist races to elude his murderous pursuers and make it home alive. Apocalypto is no masterpiece, but it's a more-than-respectable effort from a director who, at his best, produces some of the most visceral moviemaking Hollywood has to offer — no small feat in these blandest of times. Perhaps most important, Apocalypto reminds us that worthwhile art can issue from even the most flawed human beings, and that alone might be worth the price of admission. Stars Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Raoul Trujillo and Rodolfo Palacios. 3.5 stars

BABEL (R) Many tongues are spoken and many stories interwoven in Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu's Babel, but, like those blind men feeling up the elephant, each of the movie's characters has only the foggiest notion of the big picture of which they're a part. Babel continues the patented blend of interlocking narratives and scrambled time frames that Innaritu and screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga dished out in Amores Perros and 21 Grams, a method that links its characters' lives by a series of coincidences rendered cosmic in the unbearable randomness of being. In Babel's version of chaos theory, a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere and a Japanese businessman on vacation gives his hunting rifle to a Moroccan guide, eventually resulting in the guide's youngster accidentally putting a bullet in Brad Pitt's wife (Cate Blanchette). This in turn causes Pitt's and Blanchette's housekeeper, on the other side of the world, to risk missing her son's wedding unless she brings the couple's kids with her to Mexico, where beautiful and dangerous things await. And so on and so on. There are some painfully potent moments here, but the filmmakers' grasp sometimes exceeds their reach; simply put, we too often feel the movie straining to supply the connections necessary for making sense of the chaos. Still, Babel is bound and determined to pull off its cosmic hat trick and, even with all the metaphysical doodling and contrived rearranging of structure, the film gives us slabs of emotion that ring raw and true, with an English Patient-esque mix of ingenious editing, seductive cinematography and solid performances that goes a long way toward winning us over. Also stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi and Elle Fanning. 3.5 stars

BORAT (R) A subversive mockumentary after the style of Christopher Guest (but pound-for-pound funnier), Borat is a road trip across America in which many of the key players appear bizarrely unaware that they're participants in a massive hoax. Our guide is British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, adopting the persona of clueless Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdivev (a recurring character from his Da Ali G Show), who travels coast to coast in a feces-smeared ice cream truck, ostensibly in an effort to see what makes this country tick. A typical Kazakh (which is to say, Cohen's lampooning of otherness manifested as a "typical" Kazakh), Borat is a sweetly contemptible, hygienically-challenged moron, a product of a decimated, inbred environment with a rabid fear of Jews, independent women, homosexuals and virtually anything else that moves. Borat plays into just about every conceivable stereotype, and half the fun of the movie is watching the reactions of the people he encounters, many of them presumably ignorant of the fact that he's an actor playing a part. Some of these people react to Borat's wildly inappropriate words and deeds in stunned revulsion, others with disturbing affection, but either way the way the results are as spontaneous as they are hilarious. Also stars Ken Davitian, Pamela Anderson, Pat Haggerty and Alan Keyes. 4.5 stars

CASINO ROYALE (PG-13) As with Batman Begins, Casino Royale reinvents its iconic hero, bringing him back to square one by stripping him of excess camp and clichés. The movie follows the exploits of a leaner, meaner, younger Bond (Daniel Craig) as he embarks upon his first big case, charting its hero's Anakin Skywalker-like course as he works his way past human emotions to become the smooth super-assassin we all know and love. Most of the 007 must-haves are here — a charismatic villain (this one weeps blood), cool credit sequence, beautiful girls, exotic locations (Madagascar, Nassau, Venice, among others), spectacular action set-pieces — but the movie is so determined to be taken seriously that much of the pure, outsized fun so crucial to the Bond experience winds up M.I.A. And although Daniel Craig is a more than interesting choice to play Bond (he's probably the best actor to step into 007's shoes since Sean Connery), I'm not quite convinced. Even if you get past the reality of a blonde Bond, Craig comes off too much like an unnaturally buff method actor; he inhabits the inside of his character fine, but doesn't seem nearly as comfortable communicating the flashy, iconic exterior. It's quite possible the actor and the filmmakers will get the mix down in future projects, but Casino Royale is more interesting than genuinely enjoyable, a 007 project mostly valuable for testing the waters. Also stars Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright and Caterina Murino. 3 stars

DÉJÀ VU (PG-13) ADD-challenged director Tony Scott, back from the dead after Domino, manages to impress with what amounts to a virtual remake of Otto Preminger's classic film noir Laura, re-envisioned here as a post-9/11 sci-fi action flick. Denzel Washington stars as ATF agent Doug Carlin, whose investigation of a terrorist bombing becomes linked to the murder of a beautiful girl whom Carlin, shades of Laura, begins to obsess upon. (This being 2006, though, and Scott being Scott, instead of the elegant femme specter of Laura, Déjà Vu's dead girl is first introduced to us as a mutilated — but still beautiful — corpse.) The movie works backwards and forwards simultaneously, beginning basically as a mystery, with fantasy elements mostly taking the form of high-tech toys, Then, about an hour in, Déjà Vu morphs into full-blown sci-fi, treading deep into time travel territory (albeit with one foot firmly placed in adrenaline-goosing car chase scenes and monster explosions) and, against all odds, makes the fusion work. The scientific basis of the movie's sci-fi is pretty dodgy if you think about it for longer than a few seconds, but Déjà Vu is well worth its admission price as a tightly constructed and well played action-thriller. The film was shot on location in New Orleans, and the local flavor is a major perk. Also stars Val Kilmer, Paula Patton, Adam Goldberg and Jim Caviezel. 3.5 stars

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (R) As in Unforgiven and other key Clint Eastwood films, Flags of our Fathers is about mythmaking and heroes who are not really heroes. There will be those who hail Flags of our Fathers as Eastwood's most "important" movie for addressing this favorite subject in such an epic and obvious way, but it is for exactly those same reasons that the director's new film feels so turgid. The movie's main characters are the three surviving soldiers from the famous photograph of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach), recruited for a nationwide publicity campaign to beef up the war effort. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding that photograph are considerably fuzzier and less heroic than they seem, and the three soldiers spend most of the movie trying to keep it together while selling an illusion to the public. For 132 rather long minutes, Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis (master of the ham-fist from Crash) lurch back and forth between scenes showing us the chaos and cruelty of war and scenes showing us how that same war is packaged and sold, sanitized into something curiously bloodless. The battle scenes are plenty graphic but the storytelling sputters and sprawls so badly that it's hard to get emotionally involved. The movie's rhythm is all fits and starts, with several characters appearing out of thin air to briefly take center stage (particularly in the last act) and others so sketchily developed that there's an awful lot of agonizing going on here about people we barely know. The production (by Spielberg) screams class and the material begs to be taken seriously, but Eastwood makes his points in the film's first 15 minutes and then essentially just repeats himself. Also stars Barry Pepper, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell and John Benjamin Hickey. 2.5 stars

FLUSHED AWAY (PG) The latest project from those ever-reliable genius types at Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) is the animated tale of two mice — posh urban rodent Rodney (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and his scruffy female counterpart Rita (Kate Winslet) — sharing an amazing adventure in London. More accurately, the movie situates itself in a miniaturized clone of London located in the sewers below the real city, and populated by a wonderfully eccentric menagerie of mice, frogs and slugs of indeterminate origin (the later being the movie's biggest scene stealers who break out in song at the most bizarre moments). The Anglo-centric humor may occasionally drift over the heads of younger viewers (there's wordplay here on distinctly British patter such as "diverting" and "smashing," and at one point a cockroach can be seen reading Kafka), but the movie is basically good, silly fun for everyone. The characters all have personality to spare, elements of slapstick, adventure and romance are expertly fused and paced, and the classy CGI animation skillfully emulates the charming stop-motion style for which Aardman is so well known. Also featuring the voices of Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis. 3.5 stars

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (PG-13) A worm's-eye view of Hollywood, For Your Consideration should have been Christopher Guest's ready-made masterpiece. Guest and his collaborators are some very funny people, and they know this terrain as well as anybody does, but For Your Consideration rarely offers much beyond some pretty mild amusements, and the level of satirical insight on display here is a notch or two below even the filmmaker's recent A Mighty Wind. The new film revolves around a little independent film (an unintentionally kitschy item called Home for Purim) that's inexplicably managed to generate some Oscar buzz, but, to no one's surprise, Guest and cowriter Eugene Levy use the storyline as a jumping-off point for a series of sketches skewering actors, agents, publicists, critics and various other sundry members of the movie industry. Curiously, though, much of the humor comes off as flat, toothless this time around, and even weirdly dated (jokes about out-of-touch agents exploring the "world Interweb," anyone?), to the point where even a standout performance by Guest regular Catherine O'Hara can't quite turn it all around. Also stars Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge. 2.5 stars

A GOOD YEAR (PG-13) It's nice to see the Gladiator dream team of Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott trying something different — and the breezy romantic comedy of A Good Year is certainly a change from the elaborately produced seriousness we expect from this pair. But while we welcome Crowe and Scott letting their hair down to toss off some silly, throwaway moments, A Good Year often appears to be nothing but throwaway moments. Based on Peter Mayle's book, this uninspired retread of A Year in Tuscany stars Crowe as icy stock trader Max Skinner, a self-described "famously callous" type who flees dreary London for the vineyard he's just inherited in Southern France. Provence turns out to be charming beyond words, of course, the residents are lovably eccentric, and romance quickly rears its head in the form of a comely local restaurateur, as Scott charts Max's predictable transformation from soulless bastard to sensitive bon vivant. The problem here isn't so much that the movie is all complete fluff; it's that Crowe and Scott just don't seem comfortable working in this vein. The goal may well have been to channel the great French humorist Jacques Tati (there's even a cute little dog here by that name), but the comedy on display generally amounts to a fairly vapid mix of sexual innuendo and awkward slapstick. Crowe wears large glasses, falls in swimming pools, and drives around in a funny little yellow car (to the strains of French pop songs and vintage Nilsson), and we can literally see him and Scott straining to drum up the requisite amount of fun. Also stars Albert Finney, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish, Didier Bourdon, Tom Hollander and Freddie Highmore. 2.5 stars

THE HISTORY BOYS (R) Adapted from Alan Bennett's play of the same name, Nicholas Hytner's new film follows a group of very bright and very precocious English schoolboys trying to figure out how to get into Oxford. Stars Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Frances de la Tour, Dominic Cooper and Samuel Barnett. (Not Reviewed)

NATIVITY STORY (PG) The bizarre synchronicity of its teenaged star's real-life pregnancy aside, Nativity Story takes its place in the culture as an irony-free affirmation of faith, a surprisingly stodgy but absolutely sincere love letter to Mary, the Mother of God. The film gains a degree of authenticity from its out-of-the-way location shooting in Morocco and Italy (including the village where Mel Gibson filmed Passion of the Christ) to brief snatches of biblical Aramaic sprinkling the English dialogue (although the cast displays a mish-mash of accents that range from Zorba the Greek to Yiddish Borsht Belt to Count Chocula). Digital effects aren't overly pronounced, and the movie has that by-now requisite bleached-out, semi-sepia look that screams "authenticity" and "taste." Otherwise it's pretty much business as usual, a better-than-average Davy and Goliath episode with slightly more animated characters and competent but curiously bland filmmaking chops. Looking at this as the beginning to a contemporary trilogy on the life of Jesus, Hollywood style (with Gibson providing the end, and Scorsese the much maligned middle), then Nativity Story might just be the most moderate of the lot, with a gentleness that approaches colorlessness (think of it as the anti-Passion). What we have here is a carefully faithful reading of material that's all about faith but decidedly lacking in vision. Also stars Oscar Isaac, Hiam Abbas, Shaun Toub, Ciaran Hinds, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stanley Townsend and Alexander Siddiq. 2.5 stars

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (PG) It's a toss up who's the real star here — Ben Stiller or the special effects — in a comedy-adventure about a hapless security guard who discovers all the exhibits in the Museum of Natural History are coming to life. Also stars Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Dick Van Dyke and Carla Gugino. (Not Reviewed)

ROCKY BALBOA (PG) Three decades after the original Rocky and 16 years after the franchise's last hurrah, Sylvester Stallone's most iconic character returns to the big screen for yet another bout of head-bashing and obstacle overcoming. Also stars Burt Young, Antonio Tarver and Milo Ventimiglia. (Not Reviewed)

STRANGER THAN FICTION (PG-13) Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) discovers that he's the main character in a novel-in-process and that his death is imminent unless he can actually locate the mysterious author and somehow change the book's ending. Needless to say, this revelation causes our terribly uptight hero to loosen up, find love, learn to play guitar and discover the true meaning of life. The obvious references here are Groundhog Day, Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation and, for all its flaws, I (Heart) Huckabees — but while there are plenty of amusing moments to enjoy in Stranger Than Fiction, art and reality collide here in ways more cute than clever. There's nothing in Zach Hem's script that's remotely as thought-provoking as even the least of Kaufman's projects, nor anything as genuinely profound as the lessons learned in Groundhog Day, and metaphysics here serve as window dressing for what is basically just a moderately engaging romantic comedy. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah. 2.5 stars

TENACIOUS D: THE PICK OF DESTINY (R) Tenacious D is pretty much a love-it-or-hate-it proposition and, from where I'm sitting, there's not much to love about Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny. This is stoner retro-comedy, pure and brain-cell-decimated simple, a notch above Half Baked (but several notches below Cheech and Chong), and the movie's gleeful wallowing in its own stupidity doesn't make it any more appealing. There are no distinctions drawn here between heroes and losers, and both functions are filled by Jack Black and Kyle Gass, two ordinary schlubs charged with the divine mission of becoming the "greatest rock band of all time." This band turns out to be Tenacious D, natch, and director Liam Lynch (Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic) follows Black and Gass, performers of very limited range (putting it mildly), as they rehearse their boring, hard rock ditties, endure a series of humiliations, and do an awful lot of standing around while repeating various catchphrases. There are a few worthwhile bits here — an opening homage to Tommy is inspired, a cameo by Tim Robbins is a treat, and a Sid-and-Marty-Kroft-esque mushroom trip isn't bad either — but the rest is often excruciating. Tenacious D is probably best experienced in small doses, and this 98-minute dose can be painful. Also stars JR Reed, Troy Gentile, Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller. 2 stars

WE ARE MARSHALL (PG) Despite a fairly strong start and the best of intentions, this inspirational sports opus ultimately falls victim to most of the pitfalls of its genre. Taking as its starting point one of the most horrific moments in American sports history — the 1970 plane crash that killed the entire football team of Marshall, West Virginia — We Are Marshall begins with a melancholy and moving first act that focuses on the grieving survivors of the community. Director McG changes course quickly enough, though, when an earnest new coach (Matthew McConaughey) is brought in to rebuild the team, and montages, period music and speech-making take over in a blatant effort to tug at those old heartstrings. Also stars Matthew Fox, Ian McShane, Anthony Mackie, Kate Mara and David Strathairn. 2.5 stars

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