Recent Reviews 

Alien vs. Predator, The Best Two Years, Bush's Brain, Collateral, Danny Deckchair, The Door In the Floor, Garden State, Hero, The Manchurian Candidate, Maria Full of Grace, Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau), Zatoichi, and all the rest…

Alien vs. Predator
Dir. & writ. Paul W.S. Anderson; feat. Sanna Lathan, Raoul Bova, Lance Henriksen (PG-13)
Alien vs. Predator is not so much a movie as a cool concept run into the ground, the sort of sci-fi fans' dream date that, in the hands of hack director/writer Paul W. S. Anderson, should have remained in the conceptual stages rather than tarnishing what was left of both of those '80s action icons. A group of well-financed adventurers go exploring an ancient ruin - part of the tired "chariots of the gods" premise which takes up the film's first act - buried thousands of feet under Antarctica's ice cap. While there, they inadvertently set loose what should be the biggest match-up since Ali vs. Fraizer between the two intergalactic species. Unlike that famed title bout, however, the surprisingly chaste, PG-13 rated AvP delivers nothing worthwhile beyond the hype. Whoever wins ... you lose. AP

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

Collateral
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

Hero
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

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

Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau)
Dir. Stephen Chow; writ. Chow, Kan-Cheung Tsang; feat. Stephen Chow, Vicki Zhao, Man Tat Ng, Yin Tse, Sarondar Li, Yut Fei Wong (PG)
If professional matches were as predictable as sports movies, bookmakers would be losers. But filmmakers keep their books balanced by repeating the same winning formula - a sorry squad of scrappy underdogs claws its way to victory in the final moments. Shaolin Soccer is a kung fu fairy tale, the story of how the discipline and intensity acquired from Shaolin martial arts enable a bunch of pathetic underachievers to become soccer champions of Shanghai. Since their opponents in the finals are a squad named Team Evil, the outcome offers as much suspense as an election in Syria. A boisterous soundtrack that includes American hip hop keeps the Shaolin ball rolling until the final frame, when our heroes achieve apotheosis on the cover of Time. SGK

Zatoichi
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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