RECENT REVIEWS 

21 Grams
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu; writ. Guillermo Arriaga; feat. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Paul Calderon (R)
21 Grams juggles three main characters who, though they don't know it yet, are involved in one story. We see snippets (very short ones, for much of the film) of their lives and get only the slimmest clues about how each scene relates to another temporarily or logically. What we are certain of is that bad things have happened and will happen to these people; and somewhere in those words "have happened and will happen" may be a good argument for the film's challenging structure. The terrible events, accidental and planned, are meant to seem inevitable and immutable, preordained by God and predictable by mathematics, unseen in each individual's past but looming there nonetheless like a black cloud on the horizon. The film's editing achieves this mood. At the same time, the mental effort involved in putting the pieces together can leave a viewer unable to be moved completely by the very tragedies that cast such a long shadow. It is easy to be ambivalent about the structure, but hard to deny that this cast's performances would survive any number of editing-room tricks. Penn, Watts, Del Toro, and supporting player Melissa Leo do the kind of work awards were made for. JD

50 First Dates
Dir. Peter Segal; writ. George Wing; feat. Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Sean Astin, Rob Schneider, Blake Clark (PG-13)
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray was condemned to go through the same day over and over, the only character conscious of the time warp. Here, Drew Barrymore's Lucy is the oblivious one: Everyone around her knows that time is marching forward, but thanks to a brain injury, Lucy wakes up every morning thinking she is back on her father's birthday, the day a car wreck dented her skull. Lucy's condition isn't conducive to courtship. Chronic womanizer Henry (Sandler), hits it off with her one morning, only to learn that he will have to charm her anew every day if he wants to spend time with her. Sandler delivers reasonably big laughs in two scenes, but most of the small gags springs throughout the film are a waste of time, at odds with what the story needs to do to make us care. It's enough to make you think that every day the director woke up and went to the set thinking he was still making The Nutty Professor II. JD

Big Fish
Dir. Tim Burton; writ. John August, based on a novel by Daniel Wallace; feat. Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito (PG-13)
A journalist in Paris, William (Crudup), exasperated with his father's constitutional aversion to honesty, has not spoken to Edward Bloom (Finney) for three years. According to his son, Edward is "just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined - just as funny and just as fake." The same could be said of Big Fish, except that it is not quite as funny. A Dixie specimen of Magical Realism, the film expects a viewer to swallow it all, hook, line, and sinker. "He's never told me a single true thing," William complains. But when he learns that Edward is dying of cancer, William returns to Ashton, hoping to learn the truths about his father's life before it comes to an end. Big Fish cuts between the fantastic stories Edward tells about himself and the prosaic present in which, at least at first, Edward seems like a sick old salesman with a vivid imagination. The cast manages to pull it all off - though the "it" is the viewer's leg. Big Fish is a piscine piffle, a feel-good film that nevertheless makes a skeptic feel like sludge. "There are some fish that cannot be caught," warns Edward. Director Tim Burton comes back with a charming old shoe. SGK

City of God (Cidade de Deus)
Dir. Katia Lund & Fernando Meirelles; writ. Braulio Montovani, based on a novel by Paulo Lins; feat. Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge (R)
"We came to the City of God hoping to find paradise," recalls a former resident, one of thousands who moved into the new section of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s, in the film City of God. What they found was a ready-made favela, a congested slum lacking electricity, running water, or divinity. The film derives its texture in part from its origins in a novel; a narrator frames the entire story and introduces characters as characters, while sections of the film are designated by chapter titles. City of God offers raw exposure to Rio's savage, youthful street culture, but refracts it through overt and artful cinematography and editing. It this is Candid Camera, the lenses, lighting, and arrangement of the frames are not invisible. SGK

Cold Mountain
Dir. Anthony Minghella; writ. Minghella, based on the novel by Charles Frazier; feat. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Kathy Baker, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ray Winstone, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson (R)
Filmed largely in Romania, whose lovely, lush hills double for North Carolina, Cold Mountain is the latest effort at American introspection. Adapted by director Anthony Minghella from Charles Frazier's ubiquitous novel, the film portrays the arduous odyssey of a Confederate deserter back to the town and woman he loves and the hardships that that woman undergoes as she, a Dixie Penelope, awaits his return. Among the adversities, dangers, and temptations that Inman overcomes during his journey back to Ada, his sojourn with Sara, a lonely widow with a baby, is most memorable. On a dark, stormy night, Inman relies on the kindness of this stranger for a hot meal and a corn crib in which to lay his weary head. In the middle of the night, needy Sara asks Inman to share her bed. When three Union soldiers raid the cabin in the morning, Sara calmly kills one of them, a man no less frightened and starving than Inman was the night before. Amid the cinematic simplicities spread out in Cold Mountain, the complexities of this eloquent sequence might keep a viewer from deserting. SGK

The Cooler
Dir. Wayne Kramer; writ. Frank Hannah, Kramer; feat. William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren (R)
Three wise guys from the East arrive to tell Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin) that he has to change his style of business. Trying to put its sleazy history behind it in order to maximize prosperity, the new Las Vegas has packaged itself as a gaming theme park for the entire family. Shelly's casino, Shangri-La, is a relic of the past, an outpost of thugs and molls and schmaltzy old crooners. Convinced that the old Vegas is the authentic and enduring one, Shelly resists the sterile new ways and rails against the Disneyfication of his racket. Bernie Lootz (Macy) is the film's eponymous Cooler, a geek of ill fortune hired by the Shangri-La casino to poison winning streaks, a limping disaster who stands beside winning gamblers and infects them with his bad vibrations. But Bernie's fate unexpectedly changes after a few torrid sexual encounters with a cocktail waitress who is also on the casino's payroll. The Cooler is the story of Shelly's anxious attempt to cool Bernie back down, to keep him at the casino, and to keep Shangri-La from turning into paradise lost. A portrait of Las Vegas as the arena of general cultural conflict between individuality and the corporation, The Cooler is, in its own mixed style, torn between the Hollywood of gaudy buccaneers and an industry of circumspect accountants. Neither wins. SGK

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Dir. Peter Webber; writ. Olivia Hetreed, based on a novel by Tracy Chevalier; feat. Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis (PG-13)
The opening images, both domestic and sensual, of a woman chopping onions immediately evoke the luscious Dutch interiors of Johannes Vermeer. The year is 1665, the city Delft, and a decline in family fortunes forces 17-year-old Griet (Johansson) to take a job as a scullery maid in the Vermeer residence. In addition to doing the marketing, washing the windows, scrubbing the floors, and laundering the dirty clothes, Griet must learn to maneuver her way through a stranger's messy household politics. Griet, who is so laconic that a viewer might conclude she and the others resent a script that requires they speak English rather than their native Dutch, gradually gains the trust of the man of the house, and the jealousy of his wife. Vermeer initiates her into the arcane intricacies of preparing paints and of using the camera oscura. He agrees to paint a secret solo portrait of his beautiful young servant for Van Ruijven's private, pornographic delectation. Vermeer pierces the virgin Griet's ears and places his wife's precious baubles on them. Eventually, the film Girl With a Pearl Earring provides us with the privileged illusion of being present at the creation of the painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring." Girl With a Pearl Earring is a cinematic tableau vivant, except that the picture does not exactly come alive. Like Masterpiece Theater, it comes to make us feel like connoisseurs, not just consumers. SGK

House of Sand and Fog
Dir. Vadim Perelman; writ. Perelman, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III; feat. Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonthan Ahdout (R)
House of Sand and Fog tells the story of desires that collide over ownership of a house. Kathy (Connelly), a recovering alcoholic whose husband left her eight months ago, is evicted from the property her late father purchased more than 30 years before. The action is erroneous, based on Kathy's failure to pay taxes she in fact never owed, but before her rights can be restored, the house is sold at auction to an Iranian immigrant family, the Behranis. Kathy is soon reduced to transience, sleeping in her Bonneville and spying on the strangers who have appropriated her bedroom. "They're already more at home there than I ever was," she says of the Iranian invaders. Rich in textures of mist and murk, House of Sand and Fog, which itself deserves packed houses, is a graphic reminder of how brittle are the bricks with which we try to build our lives. Our deeds can always be contested. SGK

The Last Samurai
Dir. Edward Zwick; writ. John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz, Zwick; feat. Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall, Shin Koyamada, Koyuki, Tony Goldwyn (R)
A veteran of the Civil War and the Indian campaigns, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is hired to turn raw Japanese conscripts into an efficient fighting force adept in using the latest battlefield equipment. But in the first skirmish, against a band of rebel samurai, Algren's pupils are routed, and he is taken prisoner. Forced to winter with the insurgents in a picturesque mountain village, Algren goes native. Within a few months, he is fluent in Japanese and fluid in his use of traditional swords, knives, and sticks. By springtime, he is fighting beside Katsumoto (Watanabe), the charismatic leader of the samurai, in violent confrontation with regiments that by now have leaned to use their bayonets and howitzers. Katsumoto and his allies, including Algren, apply their admirable ideals of discipline and concentration to the business of butchery. They behead their captured enemies and, when defeated, disembowel themselves. These last samurai, who follow orders without question, are the ancestors of kamikaze pilots and Aum Shinrikyo terrorists. The Last Samurai is an elegantly realized epic, but it is also a training film for Hamas and Al Qaeda. SGK

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Dir. Peter Jackson; writ. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens; feat. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Johy Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving (PG-13)
The movie is often thrilling beyond words, both on the battlefield and in the highly charged discussions that turn out to be Middle Earth history-in-the-making. For all the spectacle and grandeur, though, it's tempting to argue that the one thing to be cherished most in the series is Sean Astin's simple, unassuming Samwise Gamgee. Sam is so indispensable to the quest that even Frodo's sweetest praise seems offensively meager; he is the humblest, bravest, most loyal, and most selfless person on screen (which is high praise considering the noble crew Tolkien created), and Astin as an actor brings all those virtues to his performance. If Sam doesn't make you cry a little, you may be an orc. JD

Mona Lisa Smile
Dir. Mike Newell; writ. Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal; feat. Julie Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson (PG-13)
Although she has always longed to teach there, Katherine Watson (Roberts), a 31-year-old novice art historian, terms Wellesley "a finishing school disguised as a college." She arrives on the campus in the fall of 1953 determined to "make a difference." Departing from the standard syllabus, which her bright students have already mastered anyway, Katherine introduces them to unsettling modern paintings. But the biggest difference the academic interloper makes is in persuading her privileged young charges to think about their roles in a society that has bred them to be matrons. It is not merely makeup that sets Julia Roberts apart from the pretty women of Wellesley, or Erin Brockovich. Her own Mona Lisa smile is not a simper of submission. It is a sovereign grin, worn by Wellesley students who endure art history with Katherine Watson. SGK

Monster
Dir. & writ. Patty Jenkins; feat. Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley (R)
Desperate to persuade Selby Wall (Ricci), a lonely gamine she meets in a bar, to spend a week with her, Aileen Wournos (Theron) insists: "You'll never meet someone like me again." She is right, and, instead of returning to her father in Ohio, Wall joins Wournos at a seedy motel in Daytona Beach. Monster is a horror show, its horror intensified by an opening announcement that it is based on a true story: a spiteful woman's homicidal spree. Between 1989 and 1990, Wournos, a 33-year-old hooker who worked the roads of Florida for $30 tricks, shot six of her johns to death. Raped by her father's friend, prostituting herself by age 9, and on her own by age 13, Wournos has, by the time she stumbles out of the rain and into the opening scene, been around the wheel several times. Monster itself is a fun-park attraction that induces less amusement than nausea. A spectacular performance by Charlize Theron, who reportedly put on 30 pounds and prosthetic teeth to impersonate Wournos, gives life to Monster. She commands the screen whenever she is on it, which is almost every moment. But Monster refuses to put together a coherent case for whether Wournos and Wall should be held accountable for their odious actions or regarded as creatures of circumstance, monsters created by a commodity culture in which love, like cash, is just another four-letter word. SGK

Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!
Dir. Robert Luketic; writ. Victor Levin; feat. Kate Bosworth, Josh Duhamel, Topher Grace (PG-13)
Tad is careening drunk in a convertible, cigarette in mouth and bimbo in hand. He's getting a bad reputation, and his agents (who evidently haven't heard the names Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell) fear it's costing the actor work. They decide to polish Tad's rep with a charity contest in which some lucky nobody will win one evening with the star. That nobody is Rosalee (Bosworth), a wholesome beauty who checks groceries at a Piggly Wiggly in rural West Virginia. Like all West Virginian prom-queen types, Rosalee eats Pringles by the canful, speaks with homemade hillbilly exclamations like "shake-a-do!" and "yikes-a-be!," and has never let a man near her "carnal treasure." There's more chemistry in grape Kool-Aid than in Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!, a bland romantic comedy with no convincing romance and very few laughs. Unlike Kool-Aid, though, it won't stain your tongue. It will leave you completely unmarked, and it's entirely possible you will forget everything about it before you leave the parking lot. JD


Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff


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