Matchstick Men
Dir. Ridley Scott; writ. Nicholas Griffin, Ted Griffin, based on a novel by Eric Garcia; feat. Nicholas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill (PG-13)

Like Tony Shalhoub's Monk, the TV detective whose multiple phobias handicap him in everything but solving crimes, Nicholas Cage's Roy is a master grifter when not incapacitated by obsessive-compulsive disorder. Among multiple mishegosses are anxieties over dirt and open air. Roy copes with an unruly world through rituals and pills; his daily dinner is tuna in a can on a plate, and he turns the knob three times to open any door. Yet he is slicker than silk with a gullible mark. In the opening sequence of Matchstick Men, Roy shows his awestruck apprentice, Frank (Rockwell), how to fleece a grandmother out of hundreds of dollars for a water filter. Later, posing as a bunko investigator, he gets into her bank account.

Adrian Monk marshals his terrors to fight malefaction, but Roy works on the wrong side of the law. Yet when a 14-year-old tells him: "I don't think you're a bad guy," he and we agree. The sweet swindler never uses violence and preys only on other people's greed. Careful not to overreach, Roy is content with plucking thousands of dollars out of obliging pigeons but accedes to Frank's desire to loot a larger nest. They target a gangster (McGill) for a high-stakes currency con.

Meanwhile, attempting to reestablish contact with his former wife, Roy is told that though she has no wish to see him, the teenage daughter he never met does. A finicky bachelor, he becomes host to a boisterous stranger (Lohman) who disrupts his existence. Chamber work for flamboyant director Ridley Scott, the film offers stings within schemes within scams; let viewers beware. But the brightest fire in Matchstick Men illuminates a dysfunctional life humanized by the ancient fictions of fatherhood. — Steven G. Kellman

(Courtesy photo)
Secondhand Lions
Dir. & writ. Tim McCanlies; feat. Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment, Kyra Sedgwick, Emmanuelle Vaugier (PG)

Grown-up Walter (Osment) will never forget the summer of his 14th year, spent with his great uncles Garth and Hub, two mangy old coots who taught a fatherless youngster how to roar. "The last thing we need is some sissy boy hanging around all summer," says Garth McCann (Caine) when Walter's flibbertigibbet mother, Mae (Sedgwick), deposits her son with them before heading for Vegas in quest of another abusive man. Most of Secondhand Lions is a flashback to Walter's coming-of-age in the ramshackle farmhouse in central Texas that Garth and Hub called home. By the end of the film (the first for writer-director Tim McCanlies since his debut feature, Dancer, Texas), Walter is no sissy, and his uncles are more courteous. They cease unloading buckshot at every passing salesman.

When Walter moves in, Garth and Hub have recently returned to Texas after an absence of 40 years. They might have been bank robbers, Mafia hit men, French Foreign Legionnaires, or inmates in a mental ward. Although they live in squalor, all accounts agree that the geezers came back rich. While other relatives dig for gold, Walter digs for truth. The story Garth tells Walter about his brother's swashbuckling escapades in Africa seems improbable, except that old Hub, played with brio and a shotgun by the magnificent Robert Duvall, still summons enough gumption to thrash four punks at a barbecue stand. Hub teaches Walter that though honor, valor, and love might not be true, we must pretend they are: "A man should believe in those things worth believing in." I am trying to believe in Secondhand Lions as something more than a menagerie of quirks and other sweet but tired creatures. — Steven G. Kellman

(Courtesy photo)
Dir. Len Wiseman; writ. Kevin Grevioux, Danny McBride, Len Wiseman; feat. Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly (R)

Oh, good, a pro-proletariat movie. In Underworld's vampires vs. werewolves (aka Lycan) conflict, the vamps are the decadent aristocracy that has declined through the centuries into a not-so-genteel hedonism. Except for the warrior class - the "death-dealers," of whom Kate Beckinsale's character, Selene, is the most furrow-browed - the bloodsuckers mostly pose in goth vignettes inside their fortress-like mansion, making knowing eyes whenever the perturbed protagonist strides by in her black leather (big surprise there) getup.

Selene pines for Victor, the father-figure Elder who slumbers in his crypt, awaiting awakening for his next ruling shift, while the weasely Kraven (who, indeed, would leave someone named Kraven in charge of anything?) runs the show with a sneer that overwhelms any latent acting ability Shane Brolly may possess. It's as if one of the nasty models from Zoolander landed his dream job. The battle eyes that foes make at each other, baring their fangs and hissing, also seem unnecessarily silly until you get to the final fight scene and realize that this is a "professional" wrestling fantasy in full-fledged staging and downlighting with extras thrown in.

The unimaginative decaying urban set could be a war-torn communist block city, and Beckinsale's lovely visage does not compensate for the disappointing realization that every last one of her action scenes is a paler version of Trinity's escapades; except for one move ripped straight from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

Yet werewolf leader Lucien (Sheen) is a pale wraith who leads his fellow lumpen Lycan with brains and twitchy charm. The werewolves are genuinely unsettling in their beast phase, and the story line cleverly combines elements of pagan and early Christian myth. It isn't stretching things too far to say that it can be read both as an allegory for the Middle East troubles and a speculation on the root cause of religious and ethnic conflict. That is, if you can get through the panting, sneering, and furrowing with a straight face. Elaine Wolff

Winged Migration
Dir. Jacques Perrin; feat. Perrin, a lot of birds (G)

Birds "make up one of the most extraordinary successes of evolution," write the filmmakers behind Winged Migration, a four-year odyssey following numerous flocks of birds on their annual travels across the planet. With minimal, quirky narration by French actor and director Jacques Perrin and almost no human actors, the film lets the birds recommend themselves as the most amazing creatures on the planet.

Watching them beat their wings tirelessly over vast expanses of water, navigating solely by the sun, stars, and Earth's magnetic field, is deeply moving. Perrin and his crew adapted gliders and small planes to follow the birds in flight, often filming within feet of their subjects.

The new-age soundtrack is both beautiful and overbearing, but given the accomplishment of the filmmakers, entirely forgiveable. This isn't a National Geographic special, after all, and you will have to decide for yourself why the little hatchling pushes an un-hatched egg out of the nest while the parents are away, or whether the Emperor penguins are mourning the death of their fledgling who is killed in front of them by some very ugly, hook-beaked birds.

The film is a loving homage to birds and to the idea of a world without artificial barriers. The Eurasian Crane flies over exotic lands on its 2,500-mile trip from Spain to the Boreal Forest. Another flock zooms effortlessly over the Great Wall of China, gathering moss in the mists below.

The film also spends plenty of time earthbound, providing the most humorous and poignant moments in the film. A group of Canadian Geese wandering the desert of the American Southwest looks like a befuddled clutch of aliens in search of their spaceship. A flock of striking red, black, and white geese waddle around an ominous industrial site in Eastern Europe, not realizing the danger until one goose becomes trapped in a sludge pond.

But Winged Migration ends on a poetically positive note, with now-familiar birds revisiting the fields in which we first met them, fulfilling, the narrator tells us, "the promise to return." Elaine Wolff

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