88 Minutes actually runs 108 minutes, a cruel trick to play on moviegoers who check their watches at the 80-minute mark and erroneously believe they’re on the verge of being set free. A film so moldy that it was released on DVD in some foreign territories as far back as February 2007, this tarnished star vehicle is finally being dumped into U.S. theaters. As laughable as any thriller that’s come down the pike in a while, 88 Minutes stars Al Pacino (mercifully keeping the “Hoo-ah!” showboating to a minimum) as Dr. Jack Gramm, a college professor and forensic psychiatrist whose expertise has repeatedly helped the FBI in nailing down serial killers. Kicking off in 1997, the film finds Gramm providing the invaluable testimony which convinces a jury that Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) is the “Seattle Slayer” responsible for the grisly killings taking place around the city. Cut to nine years later, and we find that Forster is finally scheduled to be executed. But a new rash of similarly styled bloodbaths has Seattle’s finest perplexed. Are these murders the work of a copycat killer? Is Forster really innocent, and the real killer has never been caught? Is Forster masterminding the proceedings from his front-row seat on Death Row, with an accomplice on the outside doing his dirty deeds? Or is it possible that the real killer is -- gasp! -- Gramm himself? Although some of the other characters suspect that Gramm might really be the sicko, the movie never allows that suspicion to take root in our minds; after all, the title comes from the fact that a menacing voice over his cell phone informs him that he only has 88 minutes to live. “Tick tock, doc,” the caller repeats during every phone conversation, a pithy catchphrase that’s annoying upon its very first use and becomes the verbal equivalent of Chinese water torture during its subsequent utterances. By removing Gramm from the list of suspects, that leaves us only, oh, 126 other characters from which to sniff out the actual villain. That’s because Jon Avnet’s clumsy direction dictates that practically every actor who walks in front of the camera lens, right down to bit players, try to act as suspicious and menacing as possible. It’s usually fun when a murder-mystery offers several suspects, but this goes beyond serving up a few red herrings; here, we get trout, tilapia and mahi mahi as well.
Those afraid that the dismal Drillbit Taylor marked the beginning of the end for Hollywood wunderkind Judd Apatow can relax: Forgetting Sarah Marshall (on which he serves as producer) nearly matches the laugh output of Knocked Up and actually surpasses that of Superbad. (None can touch The 40-Year-Old Virgin, though.)Jason Segel (who also scripted) plays Peter Bretter, a nondescript guy who writes the music for the TV crime series starring his celebrity girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). After five years together, Sarah dumps Peter for self-centered and none-too-bright musician Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a rejection that sends Peter spiraling into self-pity. He flees to Hawaii to escape from it all, only to end up at the same hotel as Sarah and Aldous; it's only through the efforts of Rachel (Mila Kunis), the resort's desk clerk, that Peter's able to occasionally follow through on the title action. Apatow's films are hailed for successfully mixing raunchy moments with heartfelt ones, but their greatest strength might actually be the depth of their benches. Even the most minor characters are a joy to be around, and that's the case here as well, whether it's the brain-fried surf instructor (a very funny Paul Rudd) or the fawning waiter (Jonah Hill) or the newlywed (Jack McBrayer) who's freaked out by his wife's bedroom prowess (his indignation over the "playground" and the "sewer system" being placed so close together is priceless). As for the leads, Segel is an affable underdog, Bell displays some choice reaction shots, Kunis is talented enough to turn her role into more than just a Male Fantasy, and Brand -- the MVP among strong competition -- is spot-on as the British rocker who manages to turn vanity into an endearing character trait.
Like last year's Bridge to Terabithia, this views a child's imagination as a tangible playground, and this angle is sharply delineated by the colorful flourishes of directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. Jodie Foster, the most prominent child actress of the 1970s, here hands the torch to Abigail Breslin, with the latter playing Nim, a precocious girl who lives on a remote island with her scientist father (Gerard Butler). When she's not frolicking with her animal friends, Nim enjoys reading adventure novels featuring the Indiana Jones-like Alex Rover, so when her dad goes missing and strangers invade the island, she naturally e-mails Alex Rover to help her. What her young mind doesn't grasp is that her hero doesn't actually exist; instead, the books are written by Alexandra Rover (Foster), an eccentric agoraphobe who carries on conversations with her fictional creation (also played by Butler) and who reluctantly sets out to help Nim in her hour of need. Nim's Island is occasionally silly (as befits a movie aimed at youngsters), but the sumptuous visuals as well as the presence of Foster insure that discerning adults will also find it worthwhile.
Director Curtis Hanson's instant masterpiece L.A. Confidential was based on the novel by James Ellroy, and here's Ellroy himself writing the screenplay (with Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss) for another saga about the boys in blue. It's no wonder, then, that Street Kings' central player, a cop named Tom Ludlow (played by Keanu Reeves), manages to incorporate qualities from all three protagonists in Hanson's 1997 Oscar winner. Kevin Spacey's celebrity cop, Guy Pearce's myopic do-gooder and especially Russell Crowe's brooding tough guy can be found in Ludlow, a veteran detective who's the MVP on an elite squad operating under ambitious Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker). When apprehending (or, more often, blowing away) criminal suspects, Ludlow doesn't always follow the rulebook, which places him under the scrutiny of Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (House's Hugh Laurie). And when Ludlow's former partner (Terry Crews), the man who may have reported him to Biggs, gets fatally gunned down, it's up to the maverick cop to prove that he's innocent of any involvement in the brutal slaying. Street Kings proves to be as standard-issue as much of the gear assigned to real police officers -- is there any doubt as to how deep the departmental corruption runs? -- and this familiarity often numbs the picture's effectiveness. Yet director David Ayer (best known for penning such cop flicks as Training Day and S.W.A.T.) and a gruff Reeves manage to provide the picture with a suitably hard-nosed atmosphere, and even the stunt casting in smaller roles (Cedric the Entertainer, The Game) works.
Sign of the Times, Part I: While accepting his Oscar in 2003, Michael Moore is loudly booed for criticizing Bush's "fictitious" war in Iraq. Sign of the Times, Part II: During last week's advance screening of the new Iraq War drama Stop-Loss, audience members clap and cheer when Ryan Phillippe's character spits out, "Fuck the president!" As far as cinema is concerned, we're probably still several years away from the definitive Iraq War flick. Stop-Loss at least comes closer than most of the others: Rather than getting buried in ham-fisted armchair liberalism (like Lions for Lambs and Rendition), it carefully tries to include something for everyone on both sides of the war divide. Yet while this approach is a thoughtful one, it can also be a dangerous one, as evidenced by late-inning occurrences that spit in the face of anyone who has ever taken a stand on moral grounds. Helming her first film since 1999's Boys Don't Cry, director Kimberly Peirce (co-scripting with Mark Richard) centers her tale on three Texas boys who all served together in Iraq and have returned to their hometown: Brandon King (Phillippe), a natural born leader and the most intelligent of the three; Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), a jingoistic grunt prone to repeating canned rhetoric like, "We kill them in Iraq so we don't have to kill them here in Texas!"; and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the hard-drinking soldier who lost his best friend in the conflict. Having served plenty of time overseas, Brandon expects to settle down stateside, so he's understandably upset when Bush's "stop-loss" policy -- basically, a backdoor draft -- requires him to head back to Iraq yet again. Refusing direct orders, Brandon instead goes AWOL, a decision that irrevocably affects both Steve and Tommy. Despite its serious intentions, Stop-Loss often plays like a softer version of The Deer Hunter, and, without revealing too much, its about-face message ultimately isn't "Fuck the president" as much as it's "Fuck yourself" -- a dispiriting message no matter how it's sliced.
Loosely adapted from Ben Mezrich's fact-based bestseller Bringing Down the House, 21 is an entertaining and fast-paced film that occasionally manages to make the act of counting cards seem as exciting as this past winter's Super Bowl -- and as perilous as climbing Mount Everest with both eyes closed. Jim Sturgess, fresh off his starring role as Jude in Across the Universe (as well as a supporting turn in The Other Boleyn Girl), plays Ben Campbell, a brilliant MIT student who needs some serious dough in order to be able to afford a stint at Harvard. His intelligence catches the eye of Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a shrewd professor whose extracurricular activity is training a hand-picked group of students in the art of counting cards at the blackjack table. He welcomes Ben to a gang that already includes two guys (Aaron Yoo and Jacob Pitts) and two girls (Kate Bosworth and Liza Lapira), and together they set off on weekly excursions to Las Vegas to clean up. Yet although they believe they're operating under the wire, their winning ways -- not to mention squabbles from within -- catch the eye of Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old-school casino enforcer whose preferred MO is taking cheaters to a back room and beating them to a bloody pulp. The movie works best during its first act, when the fascinating con game is explained to Ben (and to us), and during its second act, when Ben feels his life spiraling out of control as he makes a series of mistakes that could cost him everything. Scripters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb only really lose control during the third act, when an important plot point too lumpy to swallow leads to a series of increasingly unbelievable developments.