Recent reviews

Dir. Charles Shyer; writ. Shyer, Elaine Pope; feat. Jude Law, Marisa Tomei, Susan Sarandon, Omar Epps (R)
So, Alfie, what is it all about? Given the number of times that Burt Bacharach-penned question has been repeated since 1966 (as the title song to the original Alfie), you might think filmmakers Charles Shyer and Elaine Pope would feel obliged to answer it in this remake. They don't. But the more disappointing news is that they don't make the question itself interesting. That is to say, who really cares about the day-late, dollar-short soul searching of a cad whose life revolves around Gucci suits and casual sex? In keeping with its swell-looking star, the movie is photographed beautifully, but sadly it shares another characteristic with its protagonist: Though it looks great and sounds smooth, it is mostly soulless. JD

Dir. Jonathan Glazer; writ. Glazer, Milo Addica, Jean-Claude Carriére; feat. Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare, Ted Levine (R)
Unlike most body-swap tales, Birth isn't played for magical whimsy. Nicole Kidman has just become engaged after an appropriate mourning period for a dead husband. As the news becomes public, she is approached by a young boy who claims to be the dead spouse. It takes quite a while for Kidman and those around her to decide what to think of this claim, and it's certainly not fun and games once a decision is made. Late in the plot, the focus shifts: Glazer is less interested in the supernatural switcheroo than in what this scenario is doing to Kidman's mind. Birth isn't a bad film, it's just not a successful one. It puts pressure on Glazer, who directed the surprisingly good debut Sexy Beast, to prove himself next time around, while giving movie lovers just enough reason to pay attention to the effort. JD

I Am David
Dir. & writ. Paul Feig, based on a novel by Anne Holm; feat. Ben Tibber, Joan Plowright, Jim Caviezel (PG)
A boy needs more than a compass, a pocket knife, a bar of soap, and a loaf of bread to make it alone on foot from Bulgaria to Denmark, but 12-year-old David has luck and pluck and very little choice. He has lived most of his life in a forced labor camp, and escape is the only alternative to probable death. "I don't even know who I am," says David at the outset of his journey. In his final words, "I am David," lie the wisdom of self-discovery. He never truly escapes from Belene until he learns to accept the virtues in himself and others. The film creates considerable tension at every stage along the way but the viewer is never required to share the boy's fundamental uncertainties. What marks this as "young adult" material is its facile dichotomy of "good" and "bad" and its compulsion to reassure vulnerable viewers that everything in its dreadful universe ultimately works out for the best. SGK

I Huckabees
Dir. David O. Russell; writ. Russell & Jeff Baena; feat. Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law, Naomi Watts (R)
After I Heart Huckabees, one wonders why philosophy isn't a more common subject for comedy. There are few people more vulnerable to satiric attack than human beings trying to make sense of the universe; there's something endearingly noble about trying to see the big picture, but every attempt is destined for failure. Huckabees is full of competing worldviews, some more coherent than others but all comically flawed. Wandering among them is Albert Markovski, a tree-hugging crusader who writes poetry and organizes anti-sprawl civil disobedience. Intrigued by a series of coincidental meetings with an African immigrant, Albert hires a husband-wife team of "existential detectives" played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman. If it flows imperfectly, the movie compensates with brilliant dialogue and a surfeit of on-target ideas. It doesn't take a Ph. D. to find humor in the mysteries of existence, after all. If you can find the right guide, reality is a riot. JD

The Incredibles
Dir. & writ. Brad Bird; feat. (voices) Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Brad Bird, Wallace Shawn, Spencer Fox, Elizabeth Peña, Sarah Vowell (PG)
Mr. I and his wife Elastigirl are superheroes living in a post-hero world with kids who are already exhibiting extraordinary abilities of their own. Some years ago, civilians started filing lawsuits when daring rescues were less than perfect; the government outlawed "supers" and forced them to lead square, anonymous lives. As perceptive moviegoers will guess, the Parr clan gets a reason to don the Spandex once more, although bad guy Syndrome is just a wannabe hero at heart. Meanwhile, writer/director Brad Bird is reveling in the upside down super-world he has created. Once the action and comedy both kick into gear, The Incredibles becomes the Pixar equivalent of the Spy Kids movies: family bonding and empowerment through super-cool adventure. It's just the thing for a country that would dearly love to have old-fashioned, uncomplicated, and pure-hearted heroes to root for again. JD

The Motorcycle Diaries
Dir. Walter Salles; writ. José Rivera, based on the books by Ché Guevara and Alberto Granado; feat. Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mía Maestro, Mercedes Morán, Jean Pierre Noher, Lucas Oro, Marina Glezer, Sofia Bertoletto, Ricardo Díaz Mourelle, Diego Giorzi (R)
In the 35 years since Ernesto Guevara de la Serna's death, his legend continues to grow, fueled by his historical deeds and a romanticism attached to it from afar. Yet, in remembering the Revolutionary Ché, the new man born out of the socialist struggle, we tend to overlook who he was prior to his ride alongside Fidel: a child of the Argentinean elite from upper-middle class origins, the life he most likely would have lived had he not accompanied Alberto Granado, his friend and fellow medical student, on a motorcycle road trip across South America. In the course of their eight-month, 7,200-mile trip Ché awakened to the poverty and inequality endemic to the continent's sister countries, as well as the peoples' strength and determination to survive. The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles (Central Station), takes us to that point in young Guevara's life, committing to film screenwriter José Rivera's interpretation of Guevara's Notas de Viaje and Granado's Con el Ché por Latinoamerica. AP

Polar Express
Dir. & writ. Robert Zemeckis, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg; feat. Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Peter Scolari, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer (PG)
Sweet as a candy cane and as soft as Christmas taffy, Polar Express is a non-denominational invitation to "believe." The CGI graphics are stunning, creating characters that are short of human but filled with soul, but the story doesn't pack the punch of Peter Pan, Willie Wonka, or Wizard of Oz, three of its cinematic and spiritual forebears. The young protagonist (Hanks) and his friends (a winning black girl and a heart-rending boy from the wrong side of the tracks) don't really have names. They serve as placeholders for the child in everyone, and still manage come alive as individual children. Hanks (again) is right on the money as the train conductor/guide who walks the line between intimidation and comfort, yet as the virtual fulfillment of a childhood fantasy, the film never achieves holiday apotheosis. EW

Dir. & writ. Shane Carruth; feat. Carruth, David Sullivan, Carrie Crawford, Ashok Upadhyaya, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhayaya, Brandon Blagg (R)
Carruth has created a low-budget DIY movie about two 30-something engineers who build a low-budget DIY time travel machine that ultimately resides in a rental storage unit. Abe (ably played by Carruth) and Aaron (Sullivan) don't know what to do with their new toy - besides make oodles of money in the stock market, of course - in part because even they can't keep track of the endlessly permutating problems and implications. It's a very dark comedy of the law of unintended consequences, a mesmerizing fusion of Twilight Zone and Kurt Vonnegut. As is often the case with technological advances, the inventor who figures out the science discovers he is a step behind the one who understands how it can be exploited. EW

Red Lights (Feux Rouges)
Dir. Cédric Kahn; writ. Kahn, Laurence Barbosa; feat. Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Carole Bouquet, Vincent Deniard (NR)
As Red Lights opens, Antoine (Darroussin) emails his wife, reminding her to meet him at the bar and proclaiming the giddy love of a first date as they approach vacation and a short road trip to fetch their children from summer camp. Several drinks later, the wife is late and Antoine is a bitter mess. Finally in the car, Antoine baits Helene into bickering æ "You don't treat me like a man," he slurs æ and soon the two are not speaking. As traffic backs up, turns are missed, and visions of neon bar signs dance before Antoine's hallucinating eyes; a Hitchcockian soundtrack builds with the sense of dread. Unfortunately, that suspense is hijacked by interminable driving scenes and Antoine, who is completely unsympathetic as a drunk whiner. Still, the trip almost seems worthwhile when the plot resurfaces and circles back to the redemptive power of love. SDP

Stage Beauty
Dir. Richard Eyre; writ. Jeffrey Hatcher; feat. Clare Danes, Billy Crudup, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, Hugh Bonneville, Zoe Tapper (R)
The camera stands backstage as opening credits unroll over a performance of Othello. It is the final scene, and Maria, factotum to the famous Ned Kynaston, watches from the wings, mouthing her master's lines as he performs Desdemona's poignant death. When Ned goes off with genteel groupies, Maria rushes to another theater to perform the role of Desdemona herself. When the King hears of this development, he approves. A variation on A Star Is Born, Stage Beauty portrays Maria's ascendency as the first lady of the English stage through the descent of her mentor, Britain's last great female impersonator. Stage Beauty revels in polymorphous perversity - men playing women playing men playing women, on stage and in bed. But, ultimately, for all its Restoration rakishness, the film is an affirmation of heterosexual normalcy, in which men are men, women are women, and art is limited to showing that. SGK

What the Bleep Do We Know?
Dir. Mark Vicente; writ. Vicente, William Arntz, Betsy Chasse; feat. Marlee Matlin, Elaine Hendrix, William Tiller, Amit Goswami, John Hagelin, Fred Alan Wolf, David Albert, Stuart Hameroff, Jeffrey Satinover, Andrew Newberg, Daniel Monti, Joseph Dispenza, Candace Pert, Ramtha, Miceal Ledwith (NR)
It's hard to respect a film from the get-go that substitutes the word "bleep" in the title for what must be the most popular four-letter expletive in use today. If the producers of What the Bleep Do We Know? are correct, nothing in the universe is fixed anyway, not the ground under your feet, not your bad luck with men, and certainly not the word fuck. This is a big big picture film that invites you to reimagine the world with yourself at the center as the primary creative force in your life, while Marlee Matlin walks through a dramatization of how your life could change if you, too, believe that quantum mechanics can finally answer the great philosophical questions that dog mankind. It's a shaky marriage of philosophy, spirituality, and science, so for the time being we may have to follow the sage advice offered in the opening sequences: "The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery." EW

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


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