Recent Reviews

The Best Two Years, Bush's Brain, Collateral, Danny Deckchair, The Door In the Floor, Garden State, Hero, Intimate Strangers, The Manchurian Candidate, Maria Full of Grace, Suspect Zero, Zatoichi, and all the rest…

The Best Two Years
Dir. & writ. Scott S. Anderson; feat. KC Clyde, Kirby Heyborne, David Nibley, Cameron Hopkin, Scott Christopher, Michael Flynn (PG)
The Best Two Years, the new feature-length film about Mormon missionaries at work in Holland, is as relaxing as Valium, and Valium for the soul is what the young Elders who star in this movie are offering the Dutch-landers they seek to convert. The film is overtly modeled on the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, from the four quirky-yet-square protagonists to the long, stop-motion musical montages that move the plot along at key intervals. With personalities as carefully assembled as the Monkees, it is an effective retort to the recent book Under the Banner of Heaven. Endearing though the four Elders are, this conversion film gets boring not long after the second epiphany if you're not becoming a believer, too. That may not be a sin in Salt Lake City, but in Tinseltown they'll crucify you for it. EW

Bush's Brain
Dir. Michael Paradies Shoob, Joseph Mealey; based on the book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater (NR)
Even if your daddy is rich and powerful, you don't get to live in the White House by being a dummie. Shoob and Mealey offer a different take on the resistible rise of Bush II, setting out to prove that even if corporate interests have bought Bush's ear, his brain belongs to a Republican Svengali named Karl Rove. A formidable roster of politicians, journalists, and scholars appears as character witnesses, testifying that Rove is a character who will do anything not only to outsmart but to annihilate his opposition, but the film offers no visual proof for its most serious allegations. What the directors are left with is a gallery of talking heads talking trash about a sly monster who eludes capture. It is the kind of defamation by hearsay, innuendo, and circumstantial evidence that might make Rove himself proud. SGK

Dir. Michael Mann; writ. Stuart Beattie; feat. Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Irma P. Hall, Javier Bardem (R)
Hollywood isn't shy about testosterone, of course, but Mann romanticizes manliness in a particularly potent and distinctive way, especially the manliness of those old movie mainstays, cops and robbers. Collateral revolves around two men: a paid killer (Vincent, played by Cruise) and a cabbie (Foxx as Max) who, like most inhabitants of Mannsville, do their jobs exceedingly well. The plot is satisfyingly tense, but it becomes a stumbling point in the story's climax, which involves a coincidence as big as the Hollywood sign. By that point, audiences are either with or against the film and, as usual with a Mann film, style and technique go a long way, even when the movie itself isn't quite working. JD

Danny Deckchair
Writ. & dir. Jeff Balsmeyer; feat. Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto, Justin Clarke (PG-13)
An actual incident that might have made an anecdote on local Australian news has been inflated into a feature-length fable celebrating ordinary blokes. When Danny (Ifans), a bricklayer with extravagant dreams, attaches balloons to a backyard lawnchair, he floats free of his conniving wife (Clarke) and the city of Sydney. He falls to earth in remote, idyllic Clarke and into the arms of Glenda (Otto), a lovely meter maid. It is no surprise that Danny rejects the celebrity that his exploit earns and that Danny Deckchair never quite gets off the ground. SGK

The Door in the Floor
Writ. & dir. Tod Williams, based on a John Irving novel; feat. Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Jon Foster (R)
When Eddie O'Hare, a junior at Exeter, obtains a summer job as assistant to Ted Cole, his father advises: "Do whatever it is he wants you to do." Eddie resembles Ted's 17-year-old son, also a student at Exeter who, along with his younger brother, died in an auto wreck five years before. Car crashes and fictional novelists are trademarks of John Irving, and The Door in the Floor is Tod Williams' adaptation of the first section of Irving's 1998 novel A Widow for One Year. The film's title comes from one of Ted's books, as well as the sense of subterranean secrets that lurk beneath any household. Veering between angst and farce, The Door in the Floor opens up on domestic dysfunction but earns a few knocks. SGK

Garden State
Writ.-dir. Zach Braff; feat. Zach Braff, Nathalie Portman, Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard (R)
A remake of The Graduate for the age of lithium, Garden State is the comic tale of a wasted young man who finds himself by finding the right woman. Braff plays Andrew Largeman, another alienated 20-something slacker whose existence is accompanied by mellow acoustic music. Thirty-seven years after Benjamin Braddock tried to redeem his vapid life through love, Braff's Andrew Langeman attempts the same with a quirky epileptic. The clever shticks that Braff sticks in almost every frame until the facile ending announce an irreverent spirit that flouts the pieties of his chosen genre. SGK

Dir. Zhang Yimou; writ. Yimou, Feng Li, Bin Wang; feat. Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Daoming Chen, Donnie Yen (PG-13)
Hero begins with a lone warrior, called in for an audience with the king. Nameless from Nowhere recounts how he came to save the kingdom, but we will learn that his initial account isn't exactly the way things went down. Yimou helps us keep the varying accounts straight by color-coordinating his flashbacks, an efficient clarifying device that also allows Yimou to go crazy with his production designer. The images onscreen are ravishing, lush, and romantic; and Yimou has cast the story with some of the most magnetic actors working in China today. The filmmakers create fight scenes that are more aestheticized than thrilling, but this is an epic movie, full of warfare great and small. JD

Intimate Strangers / Confidences trop intimes
Dir. Patrice Leconte; writ. Jérôme Tonnerre; feat. Sandrine Bonnaire, Fabrice Luchini, Michel Duchaussoy, Anne Brochet (R)
Intimate Strangers examines the attractions of voyeurism, exposing the peculiar pleasure that therapists and movie audiences enjoy when granted access to others' secrets. By the time the opening credits conclude, an attractive pair of legs have taken a woman to an office she has never visited before. Distraught and desperate, Anna Delambre (Bonnaire) found the address in the telephone directory, under "psychotherapist." She immediately begins unburdening herself of the details of her troubled marriage. When she eventually terminates the session, William Faber (Luchini) is too overwhelmed by the revelations he has heard to offer one of his own - Anna has wandered into the wrong office; William is not a therapist but a tax attorney. The characters in Intimate Strangers live all they can within the conventions of a Hitchcock thriller devoid of violence except the psychological sort. It is all enough to make a rational viewer wriggle in his privileged seat. SGK

The Manchurian Candidate
Dir. Jonathan Demme; writ. Daniel Pyne, Dean Georgaris, Richard Condon (novel); feat. Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight (R)
While the director's last Hollywood outing, a remake of Charade, suffered from comparisons to its more debonair predecessor, Demme has learned his lessons here: He takes the story's solid bones - brainwashed war hero, presidential politics, and one of cinema's great Lady Macbeth roles - and changes enough of the details to keep it suspenseful even for viewers who have recently revisited the original. Directorial flourishes, political commentary, and film history aside, The Manchurian Candidate is still a gripping thriller with a top-flight cast. Audiences needn't know John Frankenheimer to enjoy its thrills, and they needn't share Demme's politics to feel its chill. It's a great night at the movies, whether you think it strikes close to home or not. JD

Maria Full of Grace (Maria, llena eres de gracia)
Writ. & dir. Joshua Marston; feat. Catalina Sandino Moreno, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae (R)
Like El Norte, Maria Full of Grace offers an acrid take on immigration of the innocents. Lovely Maria Alvarez (Moreno) might seem full of grace, but during a gut-wrenching flight from Bogota to Newark her stomach is full of heroin - 62 packets that she swallows to smuggle past customs. When customs officials discover she is pregnant, regulations constrain them from using X-rays to test their hunch that drugs lie hidden beneath her smooth skin. But novice writer-director Joshua Marston, a native of California and graduate of New York University who insisted on making his film in the language his characters would speak, uses a camera in place of MRI, to bare the soul of a brave and brazen traveler. SGK

Suspect Zero
Dir. E. Elias Merhige; writ. Zak Penn, Billy Ray; feat. Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss, Harry Lennix, Kevin Chamberlin (R)
It is a dark and stormy night. A jumpy fat man sits in a diner booth, minding his own business. Silhouetted in the front door is an oddly familiar figure, plucked out of context and shown in the most ominous light. It's Gandhi the Serial Killer! And sadly, it isn't funny. For Suspect Zero, which is clearly aimed at a wider audience, Merhige dispenses with the unconventional humor he showed in Shadow of the Vampire, revealing how shaky his horror story really is. Merhige obviously wants to do something artful with the hokey screenplay but there are too few scares here to justify all the atmosphere. Mood and style only carry a film so far, especially when it's weighted down by as many goofy genre conventions as this ambitious but underwhelming film. JD

Vanity Fair
Dir. Mira Nair; writ. Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, Mark Skeet, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; feat. Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans (PG-13)
Squeezing Vanity Fair into a theatrical movie of 137 minutes demands omissions, but director Mira Nair finds strength in constriction. From its opening scene in the swarming, muddy, squalid streets of 1802 London, Mira Nair's Vanity Fair is as intensive as Thackeray's book is extensive. Witherspoon's Becky Sharp is a Napoleon of the drawing room and boudoir, out to conquer England. "I had thought her a mere social climber," says best friend Amelia's mother. "I now see she's a mountaineer." The mountains in Vanity Fair are treacherous. Like the upstart emperor Bonaparte, whose misfortune forms a backdrop to her own machinations, Becky proves puppet more than puppeteer. "We have all been fools," she ultimately realizes. This Vanity Fair is a seductive spectacle: A worldly carnival, Beelzebub might have used it to lure sinners in the scene in Pilgrim's Progress from which Thackeray borrowed his book's title. SGK

Dir. Takeshi Kitano; writ. Kitano, based on the novels by Kan Shimozawa; feat. Kitano, Michiyo Ookusu, Gadarukanaru Taka, Daigoro Tachibana, Yuuku Daike, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa, Ittoku Kishibe (R)
Takeshi Kitano is known Stateside as the writer and director of unusually artful gangster movies. In his latest film, the first to be set in the era of samurai and feudal lords, Kitano takes on a personality as well-known as his own: Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, star of two dozen films and related media dating back to the early '60s. In this adventure, Zatoichi steps into a long-marinating revenge plot, but it doesn't quite hang together. The plot and pacing aren't compelling enough to withstand the many distractions. It certainly looks like Beat Takeshi had a good time crafting this encounter with a legend, but Zatoichi's sandals don't fit him as well as his own. JD

Films reviewed by:

EB: Eric Bradshaw
JD: John DeFore
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
SDP: Susan Pagani
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
LS: Lisa Sorg
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff

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