Diane Lane and the Tuscan countryside prove to be a more dynamic duo than Diane Lane and the Outer Banks, an assertion that immediately becomes clear when placing Under the Tuscan Sun and Nights in Rodanthe side by side. The coastal-Carolina-shot Rodanthe starts off well as Tuscan Sun’s more serious-minded cousin, but it eventually sinks under the weight of shameless plot devices. Lane, teaming with Richard Gere for the third time (following 1984’s The Cotton Club and 2002’s Unfaithful, the latter for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination), plays Adrienne Willis, who agrees to look after her best friend’s beachfront inn at the same time that her philandering husband is begging her to let him come back. Gere co-stars as Paul Flanner, a doctor brooding over a minor surgery procedure that went tragically wrong.
There’s a scene in Miracle at St. Anna in which a light bulb mysteriously (to the character, not to us) flickers back to life, and the sequence is staged in such a manner that it feels as if director Spike Lee is paying tribute to Federico Fellini. Alas, that moment passes, and it no longer becomes clear exactly what Lee is honoring with this baffling motion picture. Certainly, by orchestrating this screen version of James McBride’s novel, Lee wants to pay tribute to the black soldiers who served this country during World War II. But a more linear narrative might have helped him accomplish that goal. Miracle at St. Anna turns out to be a cluster of good intentions crossed with clunky storytelling.
The peril of encroaching technology has been a cinematic mainstay at least since Stanley Kubrick allowed HAL to temporarily get the upper hand in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but rarely has this intriguing concept been presented as daftly as in the new thriller Eagle Eye. Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg (whose own techno-infused thriller, the superb Minority Report, bests this on every imaginable plane), this tiresome action yarn finds slacker Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) and single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) drawn into what appears to be a terrorist strike against the United States.
A substantial number of British costume dramas focus on the efforts of a corseted beauty to land a husband to call her own. These tales generally end on a “Happily Ever After” note, but The Duchess begins where the others end and takes matters down a darker route: What if the man you snag turns out to be a complete lout? That’s the central storyline establishing The Duchess, which hands Keira Knightley another plum leading role and serves as yet another example of how Ralph Fiennes’ brooding brand of acting can be successfully employed for all manner of characters. cs
Knightley stars as Georgiana, who, as a teenage girl in 1774, is entered by her mother (Charlotte Rampling) into a marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana soon discovers that the Duke’s only interest in her is that she produce a male heir, so after she gives birth to a couple of girls, he loses complete interest and embarks on an affair with her best friend, Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell). For her part, Georgiana keeps busy in her role as a society trendsetter, but she eventually finds herself contemplating an illicit romance with her longtime acquaintance, rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). The Duke commits some monstrous acts during the course of the film, but it’s a credit to the performance by Fiennes as well as Saul Dibb’s direction that the character never emerges as a dull, one-note villain but rather an emotionally stifled man whose Neanderthal brain can’t quite grasp certain aspects of civility and respect.
As for Knightley, she’s establishing herself as England’s go-to girl for this sort of period epic: A bright and sunny presence in Pride and Prejudice (albeit used far less effectively in), she’s given greater depths to explore in this picture. She doesn’t disappoint.
As is the case with most great filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen produce only two classifications of pictures. There’s Major Coen, like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, and there’s Minor Coen, such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Big Lebowski. (And then there’s the strange case of Raising Arizona, which looks Minor but is Major every step of the way.) Burn After Reading is decidedly Minor Coen, which means that it’s still more enjoyable than a lot of the product out there. With George Clooney and Brad Pitt in full-on clown mode, the film feels as much of an insignificant riff as those Ocean heist flicks, but with the Coens at the helm, it features a pitch-black comic sensibility that will either attract or repel moviegoers. The memoirs of a recently fired CIA wonk (John Malkovich) accidentally fall into the hands of a pair of idiotic gym employees (Pitt and Frances McDormand). Their awkward attempts at blackmail produce a vortex of misunderstandings that also ensnares the ex-CIA suit’s aloof wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Clooney), a bundle of energy who enjoys jogging, womanizing and building stuff in his basement (his creation yields one of the film’s biggest laughs and will be at the top of most women’s Christmas wish lists). The three guys are more fun to watch than the two gals, although the film is stolen by J.K. Simmons (Juno’s dad) as a thoroughly confused CIA bigwig. Still, while the picture offers strikingly off-kilter characterizations and a number of huge guffaws, it won’t remain in the memory like most of the siblings’ output.
Given the dearth of quality romantic comedies produced by the major studios -- these days, it’s up to the independent outfits to provide them -- it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that Ghost Town manages to buck the odds. Certainly, the high-concept storyline makes it sound as dreary as a Kate Hudson vehicle. Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), a dour dentist who avoids interacting with people at all costs, suddenly finds himself surrounded by dead people. That’s because he himself died for seven minutes while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, and this established an open line of communication with restless ghosts still hovering around Manhattan. Chief among them is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), who demands that Bertram prevent his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying a human rights lawyer (Billy Campbell). Ghost Town is given a significant boost by the presence of Gervais, whose caustic wit and no-nonsense demeanor provide the picture with more of an edge than it would have received with a more conventional leading man at the helm. But the picture surprises in other ways as well, thanks to unexpected tweaks in the script co-written by John Kamps and director David Koepp (best known for penning such blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and the latest Indiana Jones installment). Kinnear’s ethereal hubby isn’t exactly the dashing nice guy he initially seems, while the emotionally torn widow played by Leoni (who really needs to appear in more movies) isn’t just a pawn to be moved around by the three men in her life but instead takes control of the situations presented before her. Charming and unassuming, Ghost Town offers enough in the way of laughs to raise anyone’s spirits.
It was 30 years ago that the Christopher Reeve version of Superman was released, and now we have its equal on the other side of the aisle, a superhero saga that’s as dark and deep as its forefather was cheery and colorful. Even in superior entertainment like Spider-Man and Iron Man, there’s a feeling that it’s all make-believe, but The Dark Knight offers no such safety net -- it wears its danger on its sleeve. In this outing, Batman (Christian Bale) has done a fine job of tightening the reins around the mob bosses who have long controlled Gotham City, and he’s soon aided in his efforts by idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). But their combined attempts to corral the city’s crooks are hampered by the presence of a murderous psychopath known as The Joker (Heath Ledger). Eckhart stands out in what proves to be the picture’s most fully realized characterization, though we all know who’s the MVP of this particular show: The late Ledger is simply mesmerizing as this whirling dervish of cackling, lip-smacking, cheek-sucking sin. cs