Recent reviews 

A Very Long Engagement
Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet; writ. Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant, based on the novel by Sébastien Japrisot; feat. Audrey Tatou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Dominique Bettenfeld, Clovis Cornillac, Marion Cotillard, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Julie Depardieu, Jean-Claude Dreyfus (R)
The film begins in the infamously muddy and claustrophobic French trenches of World War I. Five French soldiers are being escorted to their death through the fetid muck, accused of self-inflicted mutilation in order that they might return hom. Flash forward to the film's present, a countryside and people whose wounds have begun to turn to scars. The soldier's betrothed, Mathilde, refuses to accept that Manech died on that battlefield. While Mathilde clings to loose threads in the tale of Manech's fate, Manech clings to his wounded hand in whose throbbing he feels Mathilde's heartbeat. It's not until the very end of the film that we clearly hear Mathilde's syncopated gait as she follows the last clue to its conclusion, and it sounds just like a heart beating. EW

The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Dir. Neils Mueller; writ. Mueller, Kevin Kennedy; feat. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson (R)
Despite its title, neither assassination nor Nixon is the true subject of The Assassination of Richard Nixon, but rather how a human cipher proclaims to the world that he exists. Most of the film is a flashback to explain how Samuel Bicke came to board TWA Flight 523 with intent to commandeer it into the Executive Mansion. "All I want is a little piece of the American Dream," says Bicke, but he has not found it working in a furniture store. Bicke's boss (Thompson) arms him with motivational tapes and books, but Bicke is no more adept at closing a deal than sustaining a marriage. Incapable of abiding deceit in others (especially the president of the United States, exposed by Watergate as a liar), he fails to discern his own dishonesty. Penn's Bicke is an American Erostratus, a nebbish who attempts to overcome anonymity through one final act of transcendent violence. SGK

Assault on Precinct 13
Dir. Jean-François Richet; writ. James DeMonaco; feat. Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Maria Bello, Gabriel Byrne, Brian Dennehy (R)
A remake of the 1976 film written and directed by Halloween creator John Carpenter, Assault on Precinct 13 unites policemen with criminals in a shoot 'em up standoff with little bang. Spending their New Year's Eve at work in Precinct 13, officers and a psychologist keep warm indoors with a snowstorm coming down around their small headquarters. When a bus full of convicts including cop killer Marion Bishop has to be rerouted to another precinct because of the storm, the Precinct 13 team has to babysit the criminals overnight. Little do they know that the building is being surrounded by an ensemble of shady Detroit cops that wants kill Bishop before he can testify against the men in blue who secretly work with him. Their only way to survive the onslaught: The good cops and criminals trapped inside the precinct must fight together to ensure their survival. KM

The Aviator
Dir. Martin Scorsese; writ. John Logan; feat. Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, Kelli Garner, Alec Baldwin, Gwen Stefani (PG-13)
The Aviator focuses on the 20 years of Hughes' life in which he was still a functioning, flamboyant tycoon. It begins in 1927, when Hughes assembles the largest private air force in the world in order to produce the cinematic extravaganza Hell's Angels, and it concludes in 1947 with the political victory that enables Hughes' airline, TWA, to expand its routes to Europe. The Aviator is Martin Scorsese's Citizen Kane, his exuberant account of how a voracious American life ends up devouring itself. Both films portray buccaneer capitalism with a human face, one that wears the mask of tragedy. Like Charles Foster Kane, Hughes leverages an ample inheritance into enormous wealth, celebrity, and power, before retreating into lonely solitude. This aviator, like Icarus, flies too high and falls very low. SGK

Coach Carter
Dir. Thomas Carter; writ. Mark Schwahn, John Gatins; feat. Samuel L. Jackson, Rob Brown, Rick Gonzalez, Denise Dowse, Ashanti (PG-13)
When their coach retires after another losing season, Ken Carter (Jackson) takes over the Richmond High School basketball squad and shows them tough love on the hardwood, laying down the law and forcing players to sign contracts promising to work hard for him not only on the court but also in the classroom. Everything is endurable for Carter and his players until grades start slipping and personalities start clashing. Carter decides that the only way to prepare the young men for their futures is to get them on the honor roll. After he cancels games and turns gym time into library time, the community lashes out at Carter despite his logical approach to a failing system. Although Coach Carter is worthy of praise for putting the "student" in "student athlete," the film doesn't stay focused on this theme, and its exceptional message is delivered with little imagination. KM

Hotel Rwanda
Dir. Terry George; writ. George & Keir Pearson; feat. Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, David O'Hara, Fana Mokoena (PG-13)
Hotel Rwanda recounts the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where an artificial ethnic distinction between the Hutus and Tutsis, made by occupying Belgians in the early 20th century, led to a slaughter of 800,000 people in the space of three months. The dramatic heart of this film is Don Cheadle who is captivating as Paul Rusesabagina. Rusesabagina begins the film as a luxury hotel manager comfortable in the world of bribery and back-scratching, but as violence begins Paul is forced to act. In a gradual but engrossing transformation, Rusesabagina's knack for graft turns him into a natural hero, and by the film's end he is housing more than 1,000 refugees. Hotel Rwanda is not a great film, but it is a deeply affecting one, with the power to shock viewers into outrage, not only at the atrocities onscreen but at the idea that our leaders ignored the problem for so long. JD

House of Flying Daggers
Dir. Zhang Yimou; writ. Feng Li, Bin Wang, Zhang Yimou; feat. Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Dandan Song (PG-13)
House lacks the opulence of its predecessor, Hero, and the story isn't as epic, either: In ancient China, a law officer is sent to find a female assassin who belongs to a Robin Hood clan. He arrests her, but falls in love with her immediately; when he springs her from jail and takes her on the lam, we don't know whether he's using her to track her comrades or trying to win her heart. It's practically impossible to care for the characters so their shifting allegiances matter very little. Toward the end, a character that is clearly dead staggers upright to conduct one last showdown, and a groan may emerge unbidden from your throat; can't these guys die and be dead, leaving me to wait in peace for the real successor to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, instead of this beautiful but soulless imposter? JD

In Good Company
Dir. and writ. Paul Weitz; feat. Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, Marg Helgenberger, David Paymer, Clark Gregg, Philip Baker Hall, Selma Blair, Malcolm McDowell (PG-13)
Weitz starts with a fine and appealing cast, culturally relevant themes, and the best intentions, but still can't give us much reason to care about what's happening on the screen. Quaid is an honest salesman in charge of the ad department at a sports magazine. He is demoted, replaced by a kid - who just happens to be exactly half his age - who will try to sell anything to anyone, whether or not he believes in it or they need it. Predictably, Quaid and young Topher Grace have an uneasy working relationship, more so once Grace (whose personal life is falling apart) starts looking at the older man's home life with admiration and envy. Much of the set-up here stinks of narrative convenience, and there is learning aplenty. If you in the audience don't catch the lessons, the characters are happy to point them out. JD

Dir. & writ. Bill Condon; feat. Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O'Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt (R)
In 1948, publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a sober study of American erotic practices, brought instant infamy to its author, a Hoosier academic named Alfred Kinsey. In Bill Condon's sympathetic biopic, Kinsey, played by Liam Neeson, is a professor of zoology who specializes in gall wasps. He is induced to extend his research to wingless bipeds of his own species when, asked by a flustered student couple for marital advice, he realizes that what they do not know does hurt them. Assembling a staff of devoted assistants, he crisscrosses the continent collecting data on what people say they do with others and themselves. Kinsey, while acknowledging Prok's flaws and blunders, is largely a celebration of the man who, along with Hugh Heffner, Lenny Bruce, Barney Rosset, Henry Miller, and other guerrillas in the post-war sexual revolution, made it possible to see an R-rated film like Kinsey 50 years later. SGK

Vera Drake
Dir. & writ. Mike Leigh; feat. Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Eddie Marsan, Adrian Scarborough (R)
Though it is set, meticulously, in 1950 England, Vera Drake speaks to current American anxieties over reproductive rights, in the working-class accents of extraordinarily ordinary characters. For longer than she can remember, Vera has been coming to the rescue of women "in trouble." Her patients - a careless adolescent, a wayward wife, a Caribbean immigrant, a mother who has already borne six children - are often queasy, even desperate, but Vera goes about her fateful work with steady self-assurance. "You'll be right as rain," she promises. But when one of Vera's supplicants ends up right as acid rain, near death in a hospital bed, the police come calling. In the title character, Imelda Staunton has created an icon of instinctive, guileless generosity. Vera Drake takes no overt position on whether abortion should be outlawed. It merely tells the story of one unreflective woman and her reflexive response to suffering. SGK

The Woodsman
Dir. Nicole Kassell; writ. Steven Fechter & Nicole Kassell; feat; Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, Eve, Hannah Pilkes (R)
Even cannibal Hannibal Lecter and serial killer Aileen Wournos might not seem as monstrous as a man who molests pubescent girls. It took considerable courage for Kevin Bacon to produce this film and to star in the part of a sexual deviant. Bacon's Walter Rossworth has not only violated the trust and flesh of minors before the drama begins, yet, as Walter tells his brother-in-law: "I'm not a monster." By the end of The Woodsman, Bacon succeeds in convincing a viewer that Walter is right at least in this, or that monstrosity is linked to our common humanity. Though it refuses the facile Hollywood consolation of virtuous redemption, the film does promise that the love of a good woman can salvage a creep. SGK

Films reviewed by:
JD: John DeFore
GG: Gilbert Garcia
TJ: Thomas Jenkins
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
JMO: J. Michael Owen
SDP: Susan Pagani
AP: Alejandro Pérez
LS: Lisa Sorg
EW: Elaine Wolff



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