Parents taking their kids to catch this at a matinee showing should reasonably be expecting a dog day afternoon; instead, those perky creatures known as actors keep getting in the way of total enjoyment. Based on a Japanese film that was itself inspired by a true story, Eight Below relates the tale of a scientific expedition in Antarctica and what happens when punishing weather forces its members to leave their eight sled dogs behind. As the animals spend months coping with exhaustion, starvation and a particularly 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. But the picture runs an unpardonable two hours (can little kids bladders hold out that long?), and its length is felt in the countless scenes centering on Jerry: his romance with a pilot (Moon Bloodgood), his bantering with a co-worker (Jason Biggs, heavy on the shtick) and his pity parties as he agonizes over the potential loss of his dogs (watching Walker try to convey brooding introspection and angst is never a pretty sight). At 95 minutes, this would have been a winner; maybe the DVD will include a function that will allow viewers to edit out the humans and leave only the remarkable canines.
Has any superstar of the past 20 years bungled his career as thoroughly as Harrison Ford? Its 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. Firewall is such a tired copy of Fords 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, hes 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 Jacks 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 banks 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. As for Ford, its 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 thats 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 hes 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. 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 arent 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.
An adaptation of Richard Prices 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. 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 moms boy. Moores performance is hard to take in its intensity, yet its true to the character and her circumstances. Yet its Jackson who holds our attention throughout.
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
Forsaking his beloved New York City, Woody 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 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. Malicks 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.
NANNY MCPHEE PP1/2
Nanny McPhee may be based on Christianna Brands 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 familys 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, theres not much about this modest romantic comedy that transcends the storys expected ebb and flow. Here, the rigid individual is Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), a workaholic who doesnt have time to look for her IBM (ideal black male). When she finally does make time to go on a blind date, shes stunned to discover that the guy, a landscape architect named Brian Kelly (Simon Baker), is white. She soon comes to realize that hed make a suitable boyfriend. But once Kenya is eventually introduced to her perfect mate, a black businessman (Blair Underwood) who shares her outlook on life, shes forced to make a decision between what she wants and what society expects. This potential sleeper from director Sanaa Hamri and screenwriter Kriss Turner is blessed with a vibrant leading lady and choice moments dealing with racial tensions but marred by 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 shell 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 Ive 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 thats by turns silly and sullen. The weakness in his work -- that he doesnt 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 whos 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.
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.