Even when he’s grinning, Dennis Quaid generally bears the sour disposition of someone badly in need of an Alka-Seltzer; that pained grimace serves him well in Smart People, a dark comedy that turns out to be only moderately intelligent. Quaid stars as Lawrence Wetherhold, a miserable English professor whose disdain for his students is matched only by his intolerance of his fellow teachers. A widower who sorely misses his wife (Mark Jude Poirier’s foggy screenplay never makes it clear if her death caused his surliness or if he was always something of an SOB), Lawrence lives with his daughter Vanessa (Juno’s Ellen Page), a Young Republican who’s as unhappy as her dad, and has to contend with an extended (and decidedly unwelcome) visit from his deadbeat brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). A minor injury temporarily places Lawrence in the hospital, where his doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), turns out to be a former student who once had a crush on him. Lawrence and Janet tentatively try their hand at dating while Chuck attempts to get Vanessa to loosen up and enjoy life; both scenarios contain interesting components yet never quite transcend their lukewarm presentations. All four stars are fine -- Quaid and Church are the more memorable of the quartet, but that’s largely because the men have the most interesting roles.
If your kids have been totally weaned on ADD-addled animated flicks that mostly coast on crude humor and instantly dated pop culture references, then this clearly isn't the film for them. If, however, said children still find as much enjoyment (if not more so) in opening a book as in piloting a video game's remote control, then this delightful family film will satisfy them in no small measure. Like last year's Bridge to Terabithia, it 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.
The story of a boy struggling mightily to be reunited with his mother can be approached in any number of ways. This film's title suggests perhaps a whiff of magical surrealism; the sidebar topic (illegal immigration) hints at far more somber material. The end result falls somewhere in between, and somehow it works -- at least until all those pesky coincidences get in the way. Director Patricia Riggen's movie centers on 9-year-old Carlitos (adorable Adrian Alonso), a Mexican lad who's been living with his grandmother for the past four years while his mother Rosario (Kate del Castillo) has been working in Los Angeles. Once Granny dies, Carlitos elects to hightail it to the States with a wad of cash in his pocket. Crossing the border proves to be a tricky situation, but his real problems begin when he inconveniently (but oh-so-conveniently for the sake of the narrative) loses his poorly secured dough and must make it to L.A. relying only on his wits and the occasional kindness of strangers. Did I say occasional? Except for a druggie who attempts to sell the kid to a sicko sex lord, Carlitos encounters nothing but kindly folks -- even a grouchy laborer (Eugenio Derbez) with no love for children eventually takes the lad under his wing. It's a warmhearted story with some nice humorous touches - best of all, the inclusion of the song "Superman es ilegal," which persuasively makes the case that the foreign-born Man of Steel is no more American than the Mexicans trying to sneak into the U.S. - yet all of the film's cumulative power repeatedly gets let out with the increasing appearances of lazy plot contrivances shamelessly included by scripter Ligiah Villalobos as a simplistic way to move the story from Point A to B and beyond.