"Thriller at McGill wilts"
Dir. Stephen Gaghan; writ. Gaghan, based on a novel by Sean Desmond; feat. Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Charlie Hunnam, Zooey Deschanel, Melanie Lynskey (PG-13)
"I would rather be dead than mediocre," proclaimed Embry Langan (Hunnam), a brilliant, charismatic student. Two years after disappearing, Embry, heir to a vast family fortune, is presumed dead. When Detective Wade Handler (Bratt), a recovering alcoholic, is assigned to close his missing-person file, the trail leads to the selective college where Embry stood out even among hundreds of high achievers. Katie Burke (Holmes), a graduating senior with an 800 SAT math score, is still obsessed with him, although he abandoned her two years ago.

Clunky flashbacks keep reminding us that she was also abandoned by her father when she was a child. And an abandoned house improbably located just across from campus is the site of crucial trysts between Katie and Embry. Viewers should abandon all hope of cogency. Novice director Gaghan, who wrote Traffic, throws several balls into the air, but all they do is hit a passing lark. Shot at Montréal's formidable McGill University, which the cheaper Canadian dollar makes a cut-rate stand-in for an unnamed elite school in the United States, Abandon is the drama of perky college kids trying to balance studies with drugs, romance, and career ambitions. It is the story of a dissolute cop who reads Camus and struggles to redeem himself through love. And it is a murder thriller whose thrills are diminished by the film's revealing trailer and the plot's predictable twists. Though her best friend is an anti-globalization activist, Katie is a suave charmer who insinuates herself into a job at a multinational — a viewer doesn't need Roentgen vision to see through her. — Steven G. Kellman

8 Women
"Francophone cinephilic campfest"
Dir. François Ozon; writ. Robert Thomas (play), Ozon, Marina de Van; feat. Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier, Firmine Richard (R)
Critics have been careful to warn that 8 Women is one of those exercises best enjoyed by die-hard movie buffs — that it plays on the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, the extravagance of Jacques Demy, the whodunnit formality of Agatha Christie. Moreover, this self-conscious little musical farcical murder mystery stars representatives of every living generation of French leading ladies, which is a nerdy reference in and of itself. Not everyone can agree, though, on whether this is a good or bad thing.

We're in a snow-bound cabin with a dead man. The murderess is "still among us." Everyone has some reason to be rid of him; hidden grudges are unearthed. It's as if Maggie Smith had teetered over from the Gosford Park set and stood off-camera, stage-whispering leftover homicidal motivations to the cast, who until then thought they'd been called together for a fashion shoot cosponsored by Vogue and Film Comment.

It's clear, after last year's psychologically stirring Under the Sand, that director Ozon is respectful of the depth and variety of the female psyche; when here he directs his estrogenic cast toward overblown, stereotypical characterizations, one must assume there's a reason. It's an ironic campfest, then, where the jokes are all delivered with a wink, where we shouldn't be upset that many of the song-and-dance routines are barely integrated with the surrounding story. Just enjoy the spectacle: the lush retro set; the colorful dresses and gorgeous women; the two hair-mussing catfights, including one that ends — yes, fellas — in l'amour. (About that amour: There's nary a nude scene in this film, and the talk of sex is scandalous, but not at all explicit. It's appalling that the MPAA would give this an R, while the fecal Goldmember and its ilk get PG-13s.)

Beyond the irony, though, one gets the feeling there might be something going on under this Technicolor surface — there are scenes where genuine emotions seep through; and in the final shot, where the cast stands to face us, they're joined in a straighfaced emotional bond. Either way, this pastry's joys make it worth the cinephile's time. John DeFore

Paid in Full
"Predictable drug saga"
Dir. Charles Stone III; writ. Matthew Cirulnick, Thulani Davis; feat. Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer, Cam'ron, Esai Morales, Elise Neal (R)
A solidly made rehash of every "crime pays, but the retirement package sucks" story from the original Scarface to Goodfellas, Paid is set in the Harlem of two decades ago, even if the period details aren't exactly convincing. You've seen this character before, whether he was Italian, black, or a naïve kid from the sticks: A good guy is seduced by the omnipresent easy money of drug dealing, goes from rags to riches overnight, watches it all come crashing down. When he's rolled into the ER with gunshot wounds and the medic asks him "Who did this to you?" he replies, "I did."

The actors are engaging and the film is nicely shot, but nothing ever happens here that you don't expect, and things get a bit tiresome at the end, when the tale drops off its moral lessons like a batch of dry cleaning. It would've been a lot more compelling without the now-cliché voiceover, which doesn't tell us anything we couldn't learn by seeing, but that's par for the course in the drug-lord genre. John DeFore

Real Women Have Curves
"Banal is beautiful, almost"
Dir. Patricia Cardoso; writ. George LaVoo, Josefina Lopez, based on a play by Lopez; feat. America Ferrera, Lupe Ontiveros, Ingrid Oliu, George Lopez, Brian Sites (PG-13)
Curves is an anti-movie movie, a rejection of Hollywood's anorectic aesthetics. Instead of paragons of svelte, it offers big bones and sagging flesh, more typical of its audience, perhaps, but not necessarily more "real." Epidemiologists note that the mass of American — particularly Hispanic — women lead lives of superfluous mass, but does that make Julia Roberts inauthentic? In the film's climactic scene, four Latinas sweating in a garment factory strip to their bras, baring cellulite and stretch marks. "How beautiful we are!" one declares. The claim is harder to swallow than an extra plate of flan. Beware of pronouncements about what is real; it is no more true that real men don't eat quiche than that real women stuff their faces with it.

Cardoso opens up Josefina Lopez's stage play (performed two years ago at the Guadalupe Theater) with shots of the vibrant streets of East L.A., where stocky 18-year-old Ana (Ferrera) comes of age. Though a saintly teacher encourages her aspirations, Ana's family balks. Her mother, Carmen (quintessential mamacita Ontiveros), is a bundle of griefs who has been working since age 13. She cannot abide a kinder fate for her younger daughter and insists that Ana join her and elder daughter Estela (Oliu) making elegant dresses at slave wages. Covertly, Ana applies to Columbia and loses her virginity to a tender classmate from outside the hood.

Real colleges have deadlines, and Columbia would not have accepted Ana's application during the summer for fall admission. Yet Real Women presents itself as a triumph of verisimilitude. Like many families with roots in Mexico, its characters move freely between Spanish and English, and don't keep house to Martha Stewart specs. The film is a defense of humble lives betrayed by Hollywood lies.

Yet, despite a title that endorses the inverted snobbery of slob-ery, insisting that heaviness is heavenly, Real Women Have Curves also attacks complacency, a lumpish refusal to get up from the table. Ana has attitude to match amplitude, and we admire her ambition. But, groaning with the weight it carries, this ambitious film, rejecting the "reality" it pretends to embrace, condescends. — Steven G. Kellman

The Ring
"Culturally cleansed"
Dir. Gore Verbinski; writ. Koji Suzuki; feat. Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Brian Cox (PG-13)
Are there any U.S.-made remakes of foreign blockbusters that do the original justice? The Birdcage and The Magnificent Seven, sure — but The Ring, a remake of one of Japan's biggest box office hits ever, Ringu (1998), would't make the list at all.

The Ring

Plot-wise, the similarity is strong. In Ringu, Rieko, a cynical reporter, investigates the mysterious death of her cousin, Tomoko, and uncovers the urban legend of a videotape that kills everyone who views it exactly seven days later. After Rieko and her ex-beau view the tape, they become involved in uncovering its origin in a race against time.

Insert American character names, actors, and backdrops, and you have a whitebread Ring. The Ring is to Ringu what Vanilla Sky is to Abre los Ojos; not horrible, but nowhere near as good as the original. On its own, The Ring does deliver some suspenseful moments and gory gross-outs. Henderson provides a different kind of scary as Noah, the weird little boy who needs either counseling or another acting coach. Alas, the final plot twist lacks the checkmate move that made The Others and Sixth Sense winners. Amalia Ortiz

"Smart, if difficult, look at reservation life "
Dir. Chris Eyre; writ. Adrian Louis (novel), Jennifer Lyne; feat. Eric Schweig, Graham Greene, Gary Farmer, Noah Watts (R)
When a black widow bit 10-year-old Rudy Yellow Lodge, his older brother Mogie rescued him from that trickster spirit. Mogie told him that he would save his life only once; after that Rudy was on his own. As adults, Rudy and Mogie have traded places. Mogie (Green), now a drunken Vietnam veteran, has turned into a practical joker whose laughter is no salve for five centuries of pain. Rudy (Schweig), in contrast, is everything his brother is not - including a surrogate father for Herbie, Mogie's teenage son. Skins is about these relationships between Indian men: the bond between two brothers, between father and son, between uncle and nephew.

The film's prologue juxtaposes sweeping shots of the majestic Pine Ridge Reservation with the harsh reality of everyday life: Alcohol-related death is nine times the national average, while life expectancy lies 15 years below average. A century later, the site of the 1890 Massacre of Wounded Knee still sees indigenous people under assault, as liquor stores make a (literal) killing from their business.

A dedicated police officer, Rudy patrols his rez with a mixture of love, contempt, and coraje. The majority of his calls are drinking-related, infuriating him to no end. Wearing both badge and American flag, Rudy polices a sovereign nation confined by the world's superpower. Frustrated by his apparent powerlessness against the effects of alcoholism and the ghosts of history, Rudy's indignation leads him to vigilantism. "I do little things to help our people," Rudy explains to his brother, as he realizes the limitations of his resistance.

Eyre (Smoke Signals) avoids one-dimensional, stereotypical portrayals to create an unflinching, slice-of-life look at a contemporary reservation, rough edges and all — including Indians who are intelligent, caring alcoholics with a sense of humor. The powerful, uplifting ending speaks volumes symbolically; but by refusing to stoop to romanticism or despair, Skins avoids offering easy solutions to a complicated situation. — Alejandro Pérez

The Truth About Charlie
"Multi-referential fun"
Dir. Jonathan Demme; writ. Peter Stone (orig. screenplay), Demme, Steve Schmidt; feat. Thandie Newton, Mark Wahlberg, Tim Robbins, Ted Levine, Joong-Hoon Park, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Christine Boisson (PG-13)
In Charade, the über-suave Cary Grant led Audrey Hepburn through a labyrinth of false identities and unsure allegiances, all the while fending off the youngster's persuasive romantic overtures. Jonathan Demme's new remake turns the tables: Thandie Newton (who, like Hepburn, demands the adjective "gamine") is the one who's all business, while an intentionally anti-Grant Mark Wahlberg struggles to seduce her — wanting not only her body and soul, but the fortune he's sure she's hiding, one supposedly left behind by a husband whose life and death were a mystery to the woman.

This is an old-school Demme film, a throwback to the days before Beloved and Philadelphia, when life-and-death dilemmas weren't saddled with the additional weight of social injustice and could thus be treated lightly. The jaunty Demme of Something Wild is in evidence here, from the opening credits to a scene in which a mere boom box can magically conjure the presence of legendary French crooner Charles Aznavour. Aznavour does double duty, serving both as whimsy and as a nod to the French New Wave; in fact, Demme fills his Parisian adventure with sometimes elegiac, sometimes invigorating cameos by figures from that era. He also uses their legacy as an excuse to untether his camera from conventions he has usually followed. Sometimes, with informative micro-flashbacks and hallucinations, this works perfectly. At other moments, as when the frame slides around distractingly during flirtatious dialogue sequences, the effect is more mixed.

On the whole, the movie is best if not viewed soon after Charade. Uncertainty is one of the tale's essential elements, after all, and while this remake does stray from the original, many of the mysteries work the same way here. On its own, though, the film is a nice ride; not as perfectly structured as some of the director's earlier road trips through Quirksville, but still an antidote to all those cloak and dagger adventures out there which take themselves far too seriously. John DeFore
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