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FIREWALL PP

Has any superstar of the past 20 years bungled his career as thoroughly as Harrison Ford? It’s only been about a decade since blockbusters like The Fugitive and Air Force One kept him at the head of the class alongside Hanks, Cruise and Gibson, but one bad choice after another has dropped him out of contention while the other three actors continue to drive the box office. His fall from popular grace would be easier to swallow if his duds were at least artistic productions that found him attempting to stretch or make personal statements, but instead, they were safe, predictable choices that offered nothing new -- either to himself or audiences (Ford famously turned down the Michael Douglas role in Traffic, not long after announcing that he was ready to start making edgy, provocative films). Firewall is such a tired copy of Ford’s past adventures that it almost verges on parody. Once again, the actor plays an upstanding guy who must save his family from dangerous foreigners, an angle previously tapped in Air Force One and Patriot Games (to name but two). In this case, he’s Jack Stanfield, a bank executive responsible for creating the computer programs that prevent the facility from ever getting hacked. But when Eurotrash bandit Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) and his gang of techies snatch Jack’s wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and their two children, our hero has no choice but to aid them in their scheme to siphon millions of dollars from the accounts of the bank’s wealthiest clients. Madsen, whose career was revived via her smashing turn in Sideways, finds herself relegated to cheerleader status as her character has nothing to do except wait to get saved by her hubby -- she doesn’t even warrant an Anne Archer moment to call her own. As for Ford, it’s almost painful to watch him going through the motions here. The twinkle of mischievousness and sprinkle of levity that he brought to many of his most memorable films -- even the dramas like The Fugitive and Witness -- are conspicuously missing here, replaced by a cranky fatigue that’s difficult to watch and impossible to enjoy.



THE PINK PANTHER P1/2

Suffering from a particularly misguided delusion of grandeur, Steve Martin has elected to co-write and star in a new version of The Pink Panther. But why stop there? While he’s busy plundering the cemetery of iconic movie roles, he might as well try his hand at another Casablanca or a new Citizen Kane. It would only be a slightly less ludicrous endeavor. The original 1964 film only features Inspector Clouseau in a supporting role. But it immediately became obvious -- to series creator Blake Edwards and to viewers -- that the real prize here was the performance by Peter Sellers as the bumbling police inspector. The names of Peter Sellers and Jacques Clouseau became synonymous from there on out, with the actor returning to the role several times before his death in 1980.

Were the movie surrounding Martin a top-flight comedy, it might be easier to let him slide in the role. But this new Panther is as clumsy as its leading figure. The basic story is prime material for this sort of outing -- a French soccer coach (an unbilled Jason Statham) is murdered during a championship game, and Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, too restrained to provide the original series’ Herbert Lom with any serious competition) decides to put a moron in charge of the investigation so that he may quietly nab the culprit himself. Dreyfus settles on provincial policeman Clouseau, not aware that this imbecilic officer will embarrass him in ways he never dreamed possible. For the most part, the gags dreamed up by Martin and co-writers Len Blum and Michael Saltzman aren’t particularly fresh, mildly amusing bits are repeated until they lose every ounce of appeal, and the efforts to cater to modern audiences (a pop performance by co-star Beyonce Knowles, the unsettling image of Clouseau preparing to take Viagra) are ill-conceived. Most damaging of all, though, is the inconsistency in the central character. Sellers’ Clouseau was a stand-offish moron through and through, and the fun was in watching how he repeatedly stumbled into solving the mysteries at hand. Martin, in that phase of life in which many aging actors try to endear themselves to audiences no matter the cost, softens Clouseau into a sweetly sentimental schlemiel.

FREEDOMLAND PPP

An adaptation of Richard Price’s novel that itself owes a debt to the real-life Susan Smith incident, Freedomland is a forceful drama that would be compelling enough without all the needless fuss made by director Joe Roth. Two hard-hitting lead performances combine with some salient points about racial tensions to produce a powderkeg of a movie, a far cry from the insipid drivel usually tossed out by studios at this time of year. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Lorenzo Council, a detective assigned to question a woman (Julianne Moore) who claims a black man from the projects stole her car while her young son was sleeping in the back seat. The inner-city locals are outraged at the media attention -- where were all the cameras when their own kids were in danger? Lorenzo turns to a missing-children activist (Edie Falco) to help him determine what really happened to the distraught mom’s boy. Moore’s performance is hard to take in its intensity, yet it’s true to the character and her circumstances. Yet it’s Jackson who holds our attention throughout, making an indelible impression as an African-American lawman whose loyalties are questioned by both his friends in the projects and his acquaintances on the force.

CAPOTE PPP

The selling point in Capote is the excellent lead performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, that character actor extraordinaire who has contributed finely etched portrayals to such films as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Magnolia. Constantly punctuating the air with his whispery wit and entertaining other people as if to the diva manner born, Hoffman's Capote is an odd figure against the barren backdrop of the Kansas flatlands, where he has come to learn about the brutal murders of a respected family of four. Accompanied by his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), whose own book is about to make her a celebrity in her own right (a running gag is that nobody can recall the name of her upcoming novel, just that it has something to do with killing birds), Capote gets to know some of the locals and, eventually, the two drifters found responsible for the repugnant killings. He forms a bond with one of them, a pensive type named Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). But as time passes and Capote keeps needling Perry for specific details on the murders it becomes unclear -- perhaps even to Capote himself -- whether the author is merely using Perry for his own purposes or whether the doomed convict has indeed stirred Capote's own humanity.

MATCH POINT PPP

This picture represents Allen's best work since 1996's overlooked Everyone Says I Love You, but it hardly belongs in the pantheon reserved for the likes of Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. Yet the hosannas are understandable: It's nice to have Allen back again, even if it turns out to be only for a short visit. Forsaking his beloved New York City, Allen has made a film that's set -- and shot -- in England. Also gone is another mainstay: the nebbish protagonist, generally played by Allen himself but on occasion portrayed by a younger actor like John Cusack or Jason Biggs.

Clearly, the leading character here is no nervous, self-effacing nerd. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is handsome, charismatic and secure enough to know what he wants out of life. A tennis pro employed at a posh London club, he makes the acquaintance of dashing rich kid Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), who then proceeds to introduce Chris to his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris' life in the fast lane, however, encounters a speed bump in the curvaceous shape of Tom's American fiancée, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Eventually, the two engage in an adulterous tryst that has the potential to bring down Chris' carefully constructed lifestyle. Match Point is exceedingly well-written and exquisitely performed (Johansson stands out in her best performance to date), yet what causes it to come up a hair short of true greatness is that, for all its dissimilarities to past Allen films, it still ends up largely playing like a remake of the "Crimes" half of Crimes and Misdemeanors, the section of the two-story film that focused on the adulterous duo portrayed by Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won't specify exactly where the films line up and where they deviate, but suffice to say that this new drama could have offered more surprises and still retained Allen's thematic stance.

THE NEW WORLD PP

Any ambience created in tandem by ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki Lubezki and director Terrence Malick repeatedly dissipate in the face of the plodding treatment of fascinating material: the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and, more specifically, the relationship between lithe Native American girl Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and sensitive English settler John Smith (Colin Farrell). As a look at the despoiling of untamed territory by brutish Europeans, this can't touch Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God -- heck, it's not even up to the shaky standards of Hector Babenco's At Play In the Fields of the Lords. Malick’s indifference to the accomplished performers milling around the set (Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale among them) is so apparent that one almost wonders why he didn't just cast this with mannequins. He seems equally bored with prose, considering some of the dead-weight exclamations uttered by various characters. To even attempt to compare The New World with Disney's animated Pocahontas would be a pointless exercise in futility, far beyond apples and oranges. But I will say this: Where's a mischievous raccoon when you really need one?

NANNY MCPHEE PP1/2

Nanny McPhee may be based on Christianna Brand’s “Nurse Matilda” books, but its cinematic predecessor is clearly the family film that turned “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” into the longest household word ever recorded. Reminiscent of the black comedies routinely made by Danny De Vito (most notably his delightful Matilda), Nanny McPhee finds director Kirk Jones and Emma Thompson (who also penned the script) similarly employing menacing situations, questionable comic material and oversized, often grotesque characters in an unorthodox attempt to arrive at a sentimental conclusion. Thompson, delivering a sharp performance under pounds of facial latex, plays the title character, a snaggletooth, wart-sprouting nursemaid who mysteriously shows up to help a widower (Colin Firth) contend with his seven monstrous children. As Nanny McPhee helps transform these little devils into little angels, she also becomes involved in the family’s strained affairs with an interfering aunt (Angela Lansbury) and a husband-hunting harridan (Celia Imrie).

SOMETHING NEW PP1/2

From Silver Streak to Bringing Down the House, there have been countless movies in which an uptight Caucasian is taught how to loosen up by an African-American acquaintance. Something New reverses that formula, but beyond this little-seen novelty, there’s not much about this modest romantic comedy that transcends the story’s expected ebb and flow. Here, the rigid individual is Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), a workaholic who doesn’t have time to look for her IBM (ideal black male). When she finally does make time to go on a blind date, she’s stunned to discover that the guy, a landscape architect named Brian Kelly (Simon Baker), is white. Initially resistant, she soon finds herself relaxing in his company and comes to realize that he’d make a suitable boyfriend. But once Kenya is eventually introduced to her “perfect mate,” a black businessman (Blair Underwood) who shares her work ethics and outlook on life, she’s forced to make a decision between what she wants and what society expects. This potential sleeper from director Sanaa Hamri and screenwriter Kriss Turner (both making their feature-film debuts) is a diamond in the rough, blessed with a vibrant leading lady and choice moments dealing with racial tensions but marred by occasional clunky dialogue and perfunctory supporting characters.

LAST HOLIDAY PP1/2

A remake of a 1950 British comedy starring Alec Guinness, Last Holiday is better than expected thanks to its retooling as a vehicle for Queen Latifah. Latifah stars as Georgia Byrd, a working class woman who, upon learning that she’ll die in three weeks, cashes in all her assets and heads off to the Czech Republic with the intent of winding down her life in luxury. While at the hotel, she befriends the cook (Gerard Depardieu -- how I’ve missed him!), offers sage advice and butts heads with her former boss, the hardhearted CEO of a national retail chain (Timothy Hutton). Meanwhile, her love interest (LL Cool J) back home discovers her dark secret and hightails it to be by her side.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN PPP1/2

The secret behind Brokeback Mountain is that, behind its convenient (and infuriating) designation as “the gay cowboy movie,” this is as universal as any love story Hollywood has produced in recent times. As Jack, Gyllenhaal delivers a nicely modulated performance that’s by turns silly and sullen. The weakness in his work -- that he doesn’t completely disappear into his character -- is only noticeable because his co-star is operating at such a stratospheric level. Ledger, in short, is phenomenal as Ennis, the sort of pensive individual who’s so reluctant to speak that it appears as if uttering a syllable is as strenuous for him as lifting a refrigerator is to the rest of us.



MUNICH PPP

Munich is a strong film, an important work, and already a lightning rod for controversy and (one hopes) healthy debate. But another instant Spielberg classic? Not quite. With a script drafted by heavy-hitters Tony Kushner (Angels In America) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Munich is largely a fictionalization of the events that transpired after that tragic day at the 1972 Olympics in Germany, when a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September slaughtered the Israeli athletes they were holding as hostages. The movie reveals that, in an effort to exhibit their toughness to the world, the Israeli government sent a select band of assassins to eliminate everyone who was responsible for the Munich massacre. Spielberg and his writers bring to vivid life this motley crew of enforcers.

HOODWINKED P1/2

Clearly aping the Shrek films, this attempts to put a spin on the classic children’s fairy tales by adding all manner of so-called “hip” references and grownup-geared plot maneuverings, approaches that grow more stale with each passing year.

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE PP1/2

Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni play the new Dick and Jane, who find themselves in a similar predicament once the CEO (Alec Baldwin) of Dick’s company bails out, leaving thousands of employees without jobs, pensions or benefits. After working a series of low-paying odd jobs (the picture’s funniest sequences), the couple eventually turn to robbing local shops with a squirt gun, earning enough dough to engage in even more elaborate heists.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE PPP

Like the best kid flicks, this one never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

WALK THE LINE PPP

Just as Ray lived or died on the performance of Jamie Foxx, so too does Walk the Line depend on the mesmerizing work by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (who both do their own singing). Phoenix commands the screen, yet even he's topped by Witherspoon in her most fully realized performance since Election. Phoenix may provide the movie with its voice, but it's Witherspoon who delivers its soul.

GOOD NIGHT & GOOD LUCK PPP1/2

Good Night, And Good Luck, which marks George Clooney's second stint as director, looks at an inspiring moment in US history, when Murrow, more or less backed by an uneasy CBS, did the unthinkable by standing up to Joe McCarthy, the junior Senator from Wisconsin who was destroying lives left and right. The movie's stroke of genius, however, is in its masterful integration of actual newsreel footage into the fictionalized framework. No actor was hired to play Joe McCarthy because none was needed.



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More by Matt Brunson

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  • Review: Moana

    Again combining a fairly standard morality tale with eye-popping visuals, Disney has another hit in Moana, a rollicking yarn centered on a young lass (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) coming of age on a South Pacific island.
    • Nov 29, 2016
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    A film that cuts close to the bone, with gentle humor only occasionally serving as a buffer against the harsh realities of these characters’ lives.
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    A motion picture that turns out to be far more focused on humanity than on otherworldly visitors, it’s a transcendent viewing experience that gets under the skin and into the heart.
    • Nov 15, 2016
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