TAKE THE LEAD
Like a vampire scurrying to avoid the rising sun, an unfortunate number of filmgoers still insist on staying clear of documentaries, which even in this era of Michael Moore and penguins are often presumed to be dry-as-desert-sand. Fortunately for these audience members, Hollywood is always willing to water down the formula by offering fictionalized versions of true-life tales.
Fortunately, because Tinseltown has always been partial to underdog stories, its inspirational sagas are often told with a certain amount of panache and a flair for button-pushing melodramatics that will entertain as many moviegoers as it irks. Take the Lead might be a tad too predictable for my taste, but itís just the sort of uplifting yarn that could conceivably generate enough positive word-of-mouth to emerge as a modest sleeper hit. Inspired by a true story (and rarely has that opening disclaimer been used so loosely), this centers on the efforts of ballroom dance instructor Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) to teach his elegant craft to a high school class of rowdy inner-city youths. Initially resistant to his efforts, the kids eventually come around once Pierre agrees to mesh his moves with their hip-hop music. The climactic ballroom dance competition (surely you didnít expect this to end any other way?) is clumsily presented, and I could have done without the heavy-handed ìvillainsÎ of the piece: a blonde upper-class dancer who talks down to the inner-city kids and a busybody teacher who all but foams at the mouth as he rails against Pierre and his teaching methods. Still, Banderas and his young co-stars are attractive and appealing, and the subplots involving the studentsí troubled home lives carry more currency than one might expect.
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
The so-called ìculture of spinÎ gets taken for its own spin in this lacerating adaptation of Christopher Buckleyís celebrated 1994 novel. Even with a too-brief running time of 90 minutes, the movie manages to pack in all manner of material both saucy and dicey, yet when the smoke clears, whatís most visible is the emergence of Aaron Eckhart as a major talent. At the filmís outset, Eckhartís Nick Naylor understands that, as the chief spokesman for the tobacco companies, heís viewed by a significant part of the population as Public Enemy #1. Yet Nick isnít especially troubled by this designation; if anything, it only challenges him to make the best case he can on behalf of the nationís cigarette companies. He spends his days working his magic as a spin doctor, and heís bursting with ideas on how to return this country to the days when smoking was not only fashionable but expected. One such brainstorm takes him to the door of Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), a Hollywood agent who, after listening to Nickís pitch, figures he can convince Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones to engage in a post-coital smoke in their upcoming sci-fi epic set on a space station. One unenviable assignment -- to offer a bribe to a former (and dying) Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) whoís planning to lash out at the tobacco industry -- only succeeds because Nick is second to none when it comes to deconstructing opposing arguments. Indeed, heís so skilled at his job that he attracts the attention of Big Tobaccoís Big Daddy, a crusty old coot (Robert Duvall) prone to Mint Juleps. The first half of the picture features a steady stream of laughs, meaning thereís a noticeable drop-off during the second part. In many black comedies, this signals that the storytellers suddenly feel a twang of remorse over their unrepentant characters and start softening up the picture for a sentimental fadeout. Is that the case here? Thatís up to each individual viewer to decide.
FIND ME GUILTY
The best way to enjoy Find Me Guilty is to view it as an indictment of the jury system, as a smackdown of a procedure that allows the dirty dozen to form their opinions of a personís guilt or innocence not by the incriminating evidence stacked against him nor by the testimony of reliable witnesses but rather by his charisma, his looks and his ability to tell a joke. The only problem is that itís clear that an anti-jury stance isnít whatís on director Sidney Lumetís mind. In telling the true-life tale of a low-level member of a New Jersey mob family, Lumet (sharing screenplay credit with T. J. Mancini and Robert J. McCrea) clearly sides with his protagonist and, in effect, the jury that falls in love with him. Lumet, whoís made a career out of law & order films (Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict are but two of his numerous gems), obviously has great affection for Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel), the maverick defendant in a gargantuan court case which finds prosecutor Sean Kierney (Linus Roache) simultaneously seeking charges against dozens of members of the Calabrese crime syndicate. While the other mobsters are represented by seasoned lawyers, Jackie elects to defend himself. Jackieís ìaw shucksÎ persona begins to make an impression on the jurors -- one woman even calls him ìcuteÎ -- and what appeared to be an open-and-shut case for the prosecution suddenly looks like it could swing either way. Diesel delivers an impressive performance that will surprise those who pegged him as a one-dimensional action hero, and the supporting cast is peppered with sharply etched characterizations. Yet Lumetís sympathies repeatedly tug against the natural grain of the story. Jackie may be an amiable loudmouth but heís still a crook, and the hard-nosed head of the mob family (Alex Rocco) clearly belongs behind bars.
LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN
This yearís Sin City is one thin ditty, a hollow exercise in hipster chic that once again proves (as if more evidence was required) that the Pulp Fiction bandwagon has not only run its course but jumped off the track some while ago. Sin City escaped wanna-be status by virtue of its genuine pulp fiction origins (graphic novels by Frank Miller) and a startling visual scheme; Slevin, on the other hand, is the sort of convoluted, twist-packed yarn that strains to be unpredictable but is actually even easier to figure out than those Jumble puzzles that appear in the dailies. Josh Hartnett, cinemaís favorite lightweight, plays Slevin, a seemingly guileless guy who finds himself caught in a power struggle between two rival crime lords (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley). Bruce Willis is on hand as, natch, the taciturn hitman who turns out to be more involved than he initially appears. Hartnett would seem hard-pressed to carry a basket of laundry, let alone carry a motion picture, while the three reliable vets seem almost bored trying to keep up with the plotís changes of direction. The movieís saving grace is Lucy Liu: Cast as a chatty neighbor who helps Slevin piece together the mystery, sheís a breath of fresh air in a genre that too often suffocates on its own fumes of pungent testosterone.
BASIC INSTINCT 2
Let me preface by offering a positive word about Sharon Stone. While many reviewers (to say nothing of Razzie Award voters) consider her a miserable actress, I can honestly say I would require all four fingers and the thumb on one hand to count her memorable performances. That number includes her fine work in last summerís Broken Flowers, as well as her star-making performance as the ice pick-wielding author Catherine Tramell in the 1992 smash hit Basic Instinct. But what Hollywood giveth, Hollywood taketh away, meaning that the role that made her an A-lister might now be the same role that effectively kills her struggling career. In BI2, Stone is simply awful, replacing the sexy insouciance from the first film with a beady stare that would seem more appropriate coming from a dead codfish than a calculating nympho adept at playing twisted mind games.
Spike Leeís Inside Man kicks off in standard play mode, with a quartet of intruders -- decked out in paintersí overalls, sunglasses and masks -- commandeering the Manhattan Trust bank in New Yorkís Wall Street district. Armed with machine guns, these three men and a lady order the hostages to hand over their cell phones, strip down to their underwear and don outfits identical to the ones worn by the robbers. Once the situation is secure, gang leader Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) waits for the police to arrive to listen to demands. The NYPD turns to hostage negotiators Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take charge of the facilitating. In Inside Man, the upper-crust is repped by Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the bankís founder and the person most worried about the robbery unfolding at his institution. He employs the services of Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), an enigmatic woman who has made a career out of helping wealthy clients out of sticky situations. While delivering the goods with a thriller premise, Lee is once again more interested in making astute observations about contemporary society, especially as it relates to a post-9/11 mindset.
V FOR VENDETTA
One irate citizenís Margaret Thatcher is anotherís George W. Bush, which might explain why writer Alan Moore has distanced himself from V For Vendetta, the big-screen adaptation of his influential graphic novel. Penned in 1989, Moore meant for his work to be taken as an indictment of Thatcherís conservative platform in England. The screen version has been upgraded for a new chapter in world history. Set in England in the year 2020, V For Vendetta envisions a world thatís been torn apart by all manner of conflicts. The United States, weíre told, has fallen as a superpower and now lays in ruins. England, meanwhile, struggled with a dreadful plague that killed thousands but has since reemerged under the rule of a fascistic government headed by Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). Dissidents, intellectuals and homosexuals all meet with the same fate -- execution -- while all news is filtered through the sensibilities of a government-sanctioned TV network. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is a low-level worker at the TV station, yet sheís also the daughter of political activists who were dragged off and murdered by government thugs when she was still a child. She meets V (Hugo Weaving), an eloquent swashbuckler who sports a Guy Fawkes mask and speaks of a regime change. A man of mystery, V subscribes to the theory of a radical revolution, of achieving freedom by any means necessary. Because his face is hidden behind an immobile mask, Hugo Weaving relies on his voice and movements to bring life to the role of V. Yet the performer to watch here is Natalie Portman. Heroines in fantasy flicks often get swallowed up by the extravagance surrounding them, yet Portmanís work is on a par with Aliensí Sigourney Weaver, The Terminatorís Linda Hamilton and King Kongís Naomi Watts.
FAILURE TO LAUNCH
Matthew McConaughey plays Tripp, a 35-year-old who still lives at home with his parents (Bradshaw and Kathy Bates). Anxious to move their grown boy out of the house, the folks hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), a professional consultant who -- get this -- makes a career out of building up the self-esteem of adult males still living at home by romancing them and then dumping them once they feel independent enough to move out on their own. But Paula soon discovers that Tripp isnít like her other clients, which leads to a sputtering romantic comedy that moves like clockwork through all the expected plot predicaments.
THE SHAGGY DOG
Imagine if someone decided to remake David Cronenbergís excellent horror yarn The Fly as a wretched Disney family film, and you would basically get The Shaggy Dog. Borrowing elements from both 1959ís The Shaggy Dog and 1976ís The Shaggy D.A. but mostly wandering off in its own direction, this new Dog casts Tim Allen as an assistant district attorney who periodically turns into a canine after being bitten by a 300-year-old sheepdog.
Rapper-turned-actor Mos Def is paired with action vet Bruce Willis, but just because director Richard Donner is behind the controls doesnít mean we should worry that this will turn out to be a pale imitation of Donnerís tiresome Lethal Weapon buddy flicks. 16 Blocks may be full of shootouts and laced with humor, but itís mercifully free of the jokey nature and penchant for overkill that dogged the inexplicably popular Mel Gibson-Danny Glover franchise. Willis, admirably looking his age and then some, stars as New York detective Jack Mosley, a badge-carrying bum whose love for the bottle has reduced him to a has-been on the police force. One morning after working the night shift, heís ready to head for home (or a nearby bar) when heís ordered to transport a petty criminal from the jail to the courthouse 16 blocks away. He has two hours to deliver the man, but really, itís a job that should only take 15 minutes, tops. But it turns out Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) isnít your ordinary punk picked up for snatching a purse or stealing a TV set.
Based on a stage play (and it shows), The Libertine tells the story of John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), a.k.a. the second Earl of Rochester. At the filmís outset, this 17th century poet, playwright and sex fiend turns to us and insists that we wonít like him, at which point he proceeds to spend the remainder of the running time cruelly berating nearly everyone who enters his atmosphere, even Charles II (John Malkovich). The one exception is the budding stage actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), yet she proves to be the one person that a smitten Rochester cannot best. The filmmakers had the right idea by turning to Depp -- among the most fearless thespians out there -- but ultimately, heís not required to do more than mix profanity with profundity and allow himself to be subjected to lengthy sessions in the makeup artistís chair.
Based on a Japanese film itself inspired by a true story, Eight Below relates the tale of a scientific expedition in Antarctica and what happens when weather forces its members to leave eight sled dogs behind. As the animals cope with starvation and a nasty leopard seal, expedition guide Jerry Shephard (Paul Walker) desperately tries to find a way to rescue them. The dogs are gorgeous and wonderfully expressive (no creepy Snow Dogs-style anthropomorphizing here, thank God), and as long as director Frank Marshall and debuting scripter Dave DiGilio focus on their part of the story, the movie succeeds in the grand tradition of past Disney live-action adventures.