RECENT REVIEWS 

American Splendor Dir. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini; writ. Berman, Pulcini, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner; feat. Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Earl Billings, Judah Friedlander, Pekar, Brabner (R)
Early on, the filmmakers capture the precise vibe of some of comic illustrator Harvey Pekar's best-known scenes. But Berman and Pulcini aren't only interested in dramatizing what's on the page. As the comic itself is self-referential, they occasionally let the movie twist back on itself and focus on the actual Pekar and Brabner. It ain't always splendid, but it's a slice of honest Americana rarely seen onscreen. JD

Buffalo Soldiers
Dir. Gregor Jordan; writ. Eric Weiss, et al.; feat. Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Peña (R)
A portrait of the peacetime Army as a den of thieves, Buffalo Soldiers is not so much political as opportunistic, like the scoundrel characters of its 317th Supply Battalion stationed outside Stuttgart in 1989, during the days before the Berlin Wall comes down. The men are swindlers, bigots, psychotics, and ignoramuses. Like a black market peddler, the film tries to profit off whatever comes to hand - odd-lot pieces of farce, satire, psychological drama, and thirller. Let the buyer beware of knockoffs, incompatible parts, and defective merchandise. SGK

Dirty Pretty Things
Dir. Stephen Frears; writ. Steve Knight; feat. Audrey Tatou, Sergi Lopez, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric (R)
Within the Chichester Suite of a London hotel, particularly dirty things go on: the manager extracts kidneys from desperate foreigners in exchange for forged passports. With taut plotting and arresting performances, Dirty Pretty Things is a horror fable about dislocation and dispossession is which virtuous newcomers slay the visa monster. SGK

Ghosts of the Abyss
Dir. and writ. James Cameron; feat. Cameron, Bill Paxton (G)
The rotting husk of the world's most famous ship comes alive here, with one of Hollywood's most gifted spectacle-makers using 3-D cameras to document the wreckage of the Titanic. James Cameron uses generous doses of computer imagery and re-created sets to show how great masses were once elegant decks and sepulchral chambers were once luxurious staterooms -- combining science, history, and gee-whiz effects in a very satisfying way. JD

Le Divorce
Dir. James Ivory; writ. Diane Johnson, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; feat. Naomi Watts, Kate Hudson, Leslie Caron, Romain Duris, Stephen Fry, Samuel Labarthe, Stockard Channing, Glenn Close, Thierry Lhermitte (PG-13)
While Roxy is clearly the wronged party in her divorce, her estranged husband and the French legal code agree that he is entitled to half of her property, including a painting that may or may not be a valuable lost canvas by Georges de La Tour. At its most entertaining, the film presents some intriguing clashes of family values on two continents. JD

The Magdalene Sisters Dir. & writ. Peter Mullan; feat. Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh (R)
The Hibernian branch of zealots called itself the Sisters of Mercy, and imposed its rigid brand of piety through a gulag of Catholic workhouses for wayward girls. The Magdalene Sisters dramatizes the real-life cases of four teenagers who were incarcerated and brutalized in one of these Christian establishments. It is essentially a women's prison drama set in a hellish institution where sadism and misogyny masquerade as rectitude, exposing another shameful chapter in the history of outrages committed in the tarnished name of religious purity. SGK

Masked and Anonymous
Dir. Larry Charles; writ. "Rene Fontaine & Sergei Petrov"; feat. Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Mickey Rourke (PG-13)
This rambly, shambley mess is an unqualified failure as entertainment, and any hope is has for cult status rests entirely in the hands of hardcore Dylanologists, who will undoubtedly scour its 107 minutes for in-jokes, references to the songwriter's back catalog, and bits of arcana that might - when viewed in terms of insights patched together from the lyrics to an underappreciated '70s album, a rare interview given to a German newspaper, and the hidden themes of his quasi-novel Tarantula - be thought to shed new light on this over-analyzed, under-enjoyed genius' soul. JD

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Dir. & writ. Robert Rodriguez; feat. Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Rubén Blades, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (R)
Robert Rodriguez falls short of delivering on the promise of an epic film. Even his trademark cinematic flourishes seem reined in. Depp's Agent Sands dominates - pushing even the iconic Mariachi to the sides. As appealing as parts of the film are to a sense of cultural pride, it ultimately leaves viewers wondering whether it is entertainment as empowerment - or exploitation. AP

Seabiscuit
Writ. & dir. Gary Ross, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand; feat. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens, William H. Macy (PG-13)
If only for its spectacular sequences of man-on-horse in motion, Seabiscuit is a splendid addition to the cinema of sports. But with the judicious use of stills and the voiceover of historian David McCullough, it also provides the snapshot of an era, the late 1930s, when Depression America was more than a little banged up, and the little colt that could gave hope to millions who could not. Seabiscuit is a horse's tale about underdogs, and from starting gate to finish line it is a timely and tonic reminder that once upon a time in America, neither wealth nor birth counted as much as spunk. SGK

The Secret Lives of Dentists
Dir. Alan Rudolph; writ. Craig Lucas, based on a novella by Jane Smiley; feat. Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney, Peter Samuel (R)
The film is an intricate anatomy of subcutaneous emotions and what passes for happiness in a culture of affluence. It is a delicate exercise in mood and perception, a tone poem that seems inflated into feature length. About an hour into the proceedings, after probing the conjugal cavities of David and Dana Hurst, The Secret Lives of Dentists begins to lose its bite. SGK

Swimming Pool
Dir. François Ozon; writ. Ozon, Emmanuéle Bernheim; feat. Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Marc Fayolle, Jean-Marie Lamour (R)
Ludivine is a babe. The young French actress, lithe and blonde, spends much of the film practically naked. But the film's real subject is the way Sagnier's casual yet supersized sexuality effects Charlotte Rampling's Sarah Morton, a middle-aged and emotonally constricted novelist. Hello Odd Couple. But what begins as a Felix-and-Oscar-style showdown quickly takes on a peculiar flavor - the older woman is fascinated by the girl and vice-versa. Just as the relationship between the two women grows most confusing, the film drops a bomb: A character disappears, and we suspect foul play. The movie begins to resemble one of Morton's whodunits. JD

 
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Thirteen
Dir. Catherine Hardwicke; writ. Hardwicke & Nikki Reed; feat. Evan Rachel Wood, Reed, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Kara Unger (R)
Co-writer Nikki Reed, now a 15-year-old honors student, drew on her own tumultuous experiences to depict four explosive months in the lives of a couple of seventh graders driven wild by the end of childhood. It is a disturbing peek at how very difficult it is for girls to grow up in contemporary America without growing feral. Coming of age never seemed like such a kick - in the face. SGK

28 Days Later
Dir. Danny Boyle; writ. Alex Garland; feat. Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Noah Huntley, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Stuart McQuarrie, Christopher Eccleson (R)
For once, a zombie movie you can sink your teeth into! With plague-devastate London as a backdrop and bleak videotape cinematography to capture it, Trainspotting director Danny Boyle gets off on the right foot. He seals the deal by giving us zombies who come at you like hellfire instead of sleepwalkers, and by working non-undead threats into the scenario. Forgive the occasional horror-film pitfalls, and go get scared. JD

Whale Rider
Dir. & writ. Niki Caro, based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera; feat. Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis (PG-13)
Filmed in spectacular coastal Whangara, on New Zealand's North Island, Whale Rider is a beguiling exercise in both ethnography and wish fulfillment. It is a South Pacific fish story that assumes respect for history and sympathy for social justice - and provides an inspiring, implausible conclusion that reduced the woman I saw it with to blubbering. SGK

Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
JW: Joe Weiss


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