Hello, film fans. The peripatetic Charlie Myers is once again out wandering the globe, so for the second week in a row you're stuck with a know-nothing's guide to this week's new releases. And from where I sit, this week may well go down in the annals as The Week That Bad Films Happened To Good Actors.
A few years ago, back before he'd been sucked into Terry Gross' maw, the film critic David Edelstein challenged readers of Slate magazine to comb through the entire history of film and come up with one — just one — good biopic. Readers responded and Edelstein recanted somewhat and apologized for calling the genre "the most vacuous in cinema."
Of course, he had it right the first time. Something about the filmic life-story brings out the schmaltz, even in the best of directors. They spread it on like mayonnaise. Think Kinsey . Think A Beautiful Mind . Think Under the Sea , Pollack , Man on the Moon , Patch Adams , The Hurricane , The Aviator , Shine , Wilde , La Bamba . If you can stomach it, think again of Patch Adams . You can watch these movies, but afterward you feel dirty and abused.
Personally, I have little faith that Becoming Jane will break the pattern. Yes, the sprightly Jane Hathaway ( ThePrincess Diaries ) seems a good choice for the young Jane Austen. Yes, the film includes the obligatory James Cromwell turn as a grumpy, clueless oldster (see The Queen , HBO's Six Feet Under ). But, like most biopics, this one reeks of cheesy Oscar ¬Æ -bait. Rated PG. 113 m. At the Broadway.
On the other hand, might there be something to Talk to Me ? The advance press emphasizes the uplift — never a good sign — but check out the cast: Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cedric the Entertainer (but no Bernie Mac, alas). Cheadle plays Petey Greene, an ex-con who lands a radio show in Washington, D.C., smack in the middle of the soul power '60s. The man finds his tongue and somehow gives voice to a generation. "Based on a true story," as they say. Rated R. 118 m. At the Minor.
Good God, yet another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers ? Yes, and damned if The Invasion doesn't feature Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Jeremy Northam, all presumably showing off their fake American accents. If you're keeping track, this one is set in Washington, D.C. — aha! allegory! — while previous Invasions were staged in San Francisco and Nowheresville, U.S.A. Rated PG-13. 99 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
For midsummer historo-porn, you've got The Last Legion , a prequel to every King Arthur story ever filmed. It's the last days of the Roman Empire, swords and togas are au courant . The Goths want a piece of the action. So a little boy sets off for Olde England to call in the cavalry, finding the legendary sword "Excalibur" along the way. Starring — bafflingly, once again — Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley. Rated PG-13. 101 m. At The Movies, Mill Creek and the Fortuna.
Finally, breaking with this week's theme, revel in the goodness: Judd Apatow's production company is back with Superbad , a teen party flick, and this time Apatow is bringing along the brilliant Michael Cera ( Arrested Development 's George Michael). That's all you need to know. Go see it. Rated R. 113 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and the Fortuna.
— Hank Sims
SUNSHINE: In director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland's previous genre outing, 28 Days Later , they reinvented the zombie film as a post-apocalyptic tone poem. With Sunshine they turn their attention to science fiction with sure-handed, though imperfect and less original, results.
The film stars Cillian Murphy as a physicist who's one of a multinational crew aboard the spaceship Icarus II , which has been tasked with the mission of delivering a bomb to the dying sun to revive it before the earth perishes in a global winter. Added to the intrigue is the fate of the crew of the ship's precursor, Icarus I , which mysteriously stopped short of its goal and lost contact with Earth.
The film contrasts the huge scale of the looming fiery sun with the claustrophobic cramped quarters of the spaceship, a contrast underscored by the cool blues and greens of the cramped vessel. It looks great on the big screen, and the story and special effects are seamlessly joined together. One never gets the feeling, so common in modern fantasy and science fiction films, that the movie is just a bigger, louder video game. The gritty interactions and moral dilemmas of the contentious crew members (which include Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne and Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada as the captain) are the heart of the story, not special effects.
While the film is nothing new — there are conscious nods to SF films of the '60s and '70s, including Silent Running (the oxygen garden providing food for the crew) and 2001 (the design of the spaceship, and the mix of technological rationalism and cosmic transcendence) — it's refreshing to see a SF film that traffics in ideas and provides the sense of wonder that is one of the wellsprings of the genre. It's a shame, then, that Boyle and Garland succumb to a predictible "killer on the loose" ending that's not worthy of the rest of the film. Too bad, because great science fiction films are a rarity. This one's merely good. Rated R. 108 m. At the Broadway.
STARDUST: If Sunshine is inspired by the more thoughtful SF films of the '60s and '70s, Stardust obviously aims for the mix of high fantasy and comedy of The Princess Bride . Based on a book by fantasist Neil Gaiman, the film tells the classic story of a quest for a fallen star named Yvaine (Claire Danes), who is the key to the throne of the fantastic kingdom of Stormhold, which exists aside of a sleepy English village called Wall. Young Tristran searches for the star to win the love of a snooty girl in his village, but gets sidelined by a witch named Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer), who needs Yvaine's heart to return her her youth.
This kind of fantasy is a lot easier to take with a sense of humor, and the film never takes itself too seriously. The comedy is hit and miss, though, with Robert DeNiro's portrayal of Captain Shakespeare the most egregious example of ham acting I've seen in some time (though his scenery-chewing is sometimes amusing). There's also a brief cameo by Ricky Gervais that plays like an outtake from his show Extras (funny, but a little out of place here).
As with most of these types of films, we know where the plot is going, and the fun is watching it go there. I was amused and engaged, though in the end the sentimentality of the love story was just a little too saccharine and predictable for my taste. Those with higher levels of tolerance for such things might enjoy it more. It'd be nice if someone brought Gaiman's darker (and more substantial) Sandman series to the screen. Rated PG-13. 128 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
RESCUE DAWN: Werner Herzog first told the story of Navy pilot Dieter Dengler in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly . In that film, we hear Dengler tell the story of his childhood in bombed-out Germany and his obsession with American fighter planes, an obsession that led him to America to become a Navy pilot. Dengler was shot down over Laos while conducting secret bombing in the earlier phases of the Vietnam conflict, and spent a horrific stint in a POW camp before his escape, which he accomplished at a great psychic cost to both himself and his fellow prisoners.
The documentary was fascinating for two main reasons — Dengler's own account of his experiences was fantastic and gripping, and Herzog seemed to connect with the commonalities between his own life story and Dengler's (both survived small-town childhoods in Germany during the war, and both ended up living in America).
Ten years later Herzog has made a fictionalized, bigger-budget version of the same story called Rescue Dawn , and it's instructive to compare the two versions. From the generic title onward, Herzog has taken what was idiosyncratic about Dengler's story in the documentary and turned it into a Hollywood film. This is surprising, because Herzog's career has previously always favored the peculiar and the eccentric over the safe and predictable, from risking life and limb in the Amazonian jungle while filming Fitzcarraldo to eating his shoe on a bet. Over the last decade, Herzog has concentrated more on documentaries than fiction films, and has produced some of his finest work — most recently, the harrowing Grizzly Man . It seems that in recent years Herzog's found his true metier as a documentarian (though he incorporates fictional elements in all of his work).
That makes the decision to make Rescue Dawn all the more puzzling. There's a long history of POW escape pictures, and this one doesn't vary enough from that template. Christian Bale portrays Dengler, and though he's an admirably fastidious method actor there's always been something vacant at his core. Here, he just can't summon the depths of feeling required for the role. Steve Zahn, an actor previously known for goofy comic roles, does a surprisingly great job as Dengler's haunted fellow prisoner Duane Martin, though, and his performance is the soul of the movie. There are little touches where Herzog shows his unique eye, but far too few. At the end of the film, after Dengler's rescue, there's a chest-pumping homecoming on an aircraft carrier that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a movie like Top Gun . This film is one that had no reason to be made, and is superfluous to Herzog's earlier, superior version of the story. A big disappointment. Rated PG-13. 120 m. At the Broadway.
— Jay Herzog
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. Latest in the series of action films for thinking adults. Jason Bourne (M. Damon) returns to America to seek out the covert ops baddies who scrambled his brain. Rated PG-13. 113 m. At the Broadway, Minor, Mill Creek and the Fortuna.
BRATZ. Oh, those adorable Bratz! Four empowered high school girls reject social stereotypes and lead the way to an America that has moved beyond race. Rated PG. 110 m. At The Movies.
DADDY DAY CAMP. Inept group of fathers, led by C. Gooding Jr., open summer camp for much smarter kids. Hilarity ensues. Rated PG. 89 m. At The Movies and the Fortuna.
HAIRSPRAY. Movie based on Broadway show based on movie. J. Travolta, Q. Latifah, C. Walken reinterpret the John Waters classic, adding singing and dancing and such. Rated PG. 123 m. At the Broadway.
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX: Rebel rebel — in round five of the series, Harry and the gang buck government orders and found their own secret society, so as to better combat Voldemort, the big baddie. Rated PG-13. 148 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
HOT ROD. Generic manchild sports film from the Saturday Night Live stable, this time starring A. Samberg. Rated PG-13. 88 m. At The Movies.
I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY. Madly-in-love gay couple (A. Sandler, K. James) pretend to be New York City firemen. Or maybe it's the other way around. Rated PG-13. 125 m. At The Movies and the Fortuna.
LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD: In the latest and perhaps last installment of B. Willis' "Die Hard" franchise, there's a bunch of computer stuff that's gonna asplode the world. Rated PG-13. 130 m. At The Movies.
NO RESERVATIONS. You better come on into my kitchen. Uptight career woman (C. Zeta-Jones), a chef, is alternately frustrated at and aroused by her dude-ish new assistant (A. Eckhart). Hearts melt like mozzarella. Rated PG. 104 m. At The Movies and the Fortuna.
RATATOUILLE: Pixar alert! An animated Parisian rat with a preternatural talent in the kitchen dreams of earning his Michelin star. Rated G. 120 m. At The Movies.
RUSH HOUR 3: Chan. Tucker. Polanski. Wacky crime-fighting duo take the show on the road to Paris. Rated PG-13. 88 m. At the Broadway, Minor, Mill Creek and the Fortuna.
THE SIMPSONS MOVIE. Gentle-hearted animated buffoon accidentally imperils the world. Large cast of supporting characters. Rated PG-13. 87 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
SKINWALKERS. Werewolf bildungsroman . Rated PG-13. 110 m. At The Movies.
TRANSFORMERS: Acclaimed auteur Michael Bay's masterpiece. A poignant, nostalgic ode to '80s-era Saturday morning cartoons. Also, a bunch of shapeshifting robots blow each other up. Rated PG-13. 154 m. At the Broadway.
UNDERDOG. In live-action remake of classic cartoon, superpowered beagle is coming here to save the day. Rated PG. 84 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.