Everything else that's out there

Married Life

Now here's a movie with a cast worth salivating over, but what's the point when the end result turns out to be so negligible? I love the direction of Pierce Brosnan's non-Bond career (The Matador, The Tailor of Panama); Patricia Clarkson constantly earns her designation as an indie goddess; Rachel McAdams quickly (and deservedly) gained her footing as one of Hollywood's best young actresses; and Adaptation Oscar winner Chris Cooper is everyone's idea of an exemplary character actor. Yet director-writer Ira Sachs (adapting John Bingham's book Five Roundabouts to Heaven with co-scripter Oren Moverman) has assembled the quartet for a stifling domestic drama that promises mystery and intrigue yet only succeeds in wasting the talents of these exceptional actors. Set in 1949, this casts Cooper as Harry Allen, a pent-up businessman who seeks romance in a marriage in which his wife Pat (Clarkson, faring best of the four) wants only sex. Harry falls in love with a war widow named Kay (McAdams), and he tells his best friend Richard (Brosnan) that he plans to leave Pat and settle down with the fragile and much younger woman. What Harry doesn't tell Richard is that, because he can't bear the thought of Pat suffering after he leaves her (since he's sure she'll be devastated), he plans to murder her; what Richard doesn't tell Harry is that, from the moment he saw her, he's been plotting to steal Kay away from his longtime chum. Clarkson's presence brings to mind Todd Haynes' superb Far From Heaven (in which she had a supporting role), and one suspects that, like Haynes, Sachs was hoping to present an homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s. Then again, it's impossible not to notice that McAdams' Kay is dolled up exactly like Kim Novak in Vertigo, so it's possible Sachs was shooting for Hitchcock comparisons. Either way, he falls woefully short, since Married Life lacks any semblance of genuine emotion, leaves out even one iota of sweat-inducing suspense, and collapses under the weight of an ending that not only isn't earned but contradicts its own key revelation. It's best to ignore these scenes from a marriage; stick with Ingmar Bergman instead.

Snow Angels

Until The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (in which he appeared as Charley Ford), I didn't think it was possible for Sam Rockwell to play a role in which his actorly tics and mannerisms didn't get in the way of creating a flesh-and-blood person. Watching him in projects as diverse as The Green Mile and Matchstick Men, he doesn't seem to care whether his look-Ma-I'm-acting! brand of emoting meshes with the rest of the project or not. Rockwell's back to his showboating ways in Snow Angels, the fourth feature written and directed by David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, George Washington). Based on the novel by Stewart O'Nan, this ensemble piece focuses on the lives of several members of a small American community, and specifically on the circumstances (mostly tragic) that bind them together. The central plotline deals with the efforts of town beauty Annie (Kate Beckinsale), wasting away as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant, to keep her seemingly unstable husband Glenn (Rockwell) at bay, even if it means cheating him out of quality time with their young daughter Tara (Grace Hudson). The usual cliches apply here: Annie's carrying on an affair with the lunkheaded husband (Nicky Katt) of her best friend (Amy Sedaris); Glenn turns to God and to the bottle (not necessarily in that order) in an effort to quell his demons; and the spats between Annie and Glenn lead to an obvious conclusion that's made even more painfully obvious by the casting of jitterbug Rockwell. The secondary storyline concerns high school student Arthur (Michael Angarano) and the budding romance he experiences with a quirky classmate (Juno's Olivia Thirlby), a balm to soothe the pain of witnessing his parents' messy split. These sections of the film work primarily because of the charming and natural performance by Angarano, a necessary counterpoint to Rockwell's patented grandstanding.


Loosely adapted from Ben Mezrich's fact-based bestseller Bringing Down the House, 21 is an entertaining and fast-paced film that occasionally manages to make the act of counting cards seem as exciting as this past winter's Super Bowl -- and as perilous as climbing Mount Everest with both eyes closed.

Jim Sturgess, fresh off his starring role as Jude in Across the Universe (as well as a supporting turn in The Other Boleyn Girl), plays Ben Campbell, a brilliant MIT student who needs some serious dough in order to be able to afford a stint at Harvard. His intelligence catches the eye of Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a shrewd professor whose extracurricular activity is training a hand-picked group of students in the art of counting cards at the blackjack table. He welcomes Ben to a gang that already includes two guys (Aaron Yoo and Jacob Pitts) and two girls (Kate Bosworth and Liza Lapira), and together they set off on weekly excursions to Las Vegas to clean up. Yet although they believe they're operating under the wire, their winning ways -- not to mention squabbles from within -- catch the eye of Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old-school casino enforcer whose preferred MO is taking cheaters to a back room and beating them to a bloody pulp. The movie works best during its first act, when the fascinating con game is explained to Ben (and to us), and during its second act, when Ben feels his life spiraling out of control as he makes a series of mistakes that could cost him everything. Scripters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb only really lose control during the third act, when an important plot point too lumpy to swallow leads to a series of increasingly unbelievable developments. Yet even during this convoluted section, director Robert Luketic and a perfectly cast Spacey insure that this stylish film maintains a winning hand.

Drillbit Taylor

As the trio of dweebs who find themselves the perpetual targets of high school bullies, lanky Nate Hartley, rotund Troy Gentile and spastic David Dorfman turn in natural, likable performances that go a long way toward making this dopey comedy even remotely watchable. Even so, the three are basically carbon copies of Superbad's lanky Michael Cera, rotund Jonah Hill and spastic Christopher Mintz-Plasse -- hardly a surprise, given that both films were produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by Seth Rogen. Both movies largely deal with three nerds trying to appear cool to their fellow students; the added attraction here is the character of Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless man who passes himself off as a bodyguard in order to earn some money protecting the undersized freshmen from the vicious seniors (Alex Frost and Josh Peck) who terrorize them at every turn. An assembly-line comedy in virtually every facet -- you can set your watch by the moment when the formerly aloof Drillbit is visibly moved by a charitable act on the part of one of the kids -- this dispiriting attempt at corralling laughs has little to offer anyone except die-hard Owen Wilson fans, and even those devotees might feel dejected after watching this charming if one-note actor spinning his wheels in such a tiresome character type.

Run, Fat Boy, Run

Run, Fat Boy, Run stars one of the two male leads (Simon Pegg) from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and, no, it isn't the fat one. Instead, it's the average-sized one, immediately nullifying this movie's title. Now if only someone had nullified this picture's very existence, we'd have one less bomb taking up valuable multiplex space. Instead, we're stuck with a wretched comedy whose greatest claim to, uh, fame is that it marks the directorial debut of Friends co-star David Schwimmer. But with friends like Schwimmer, who needs enemies? Along with writers Michael Ian Black and Pegg, Schwimmer has served up a broad, crass and spectacularly unfunny piece about a sad sack who abandoned his pregnant fiancee at the altar on their wedding day. Five years later, Dennis (Pegg) continues to regret the cowardice he displayed on that day, but the only reason Libby (Thandie Newton) hasn't shut him out of her life completely is because she believes their child Jake (Matthew Fenton) should have a relationship with his father. Dennis hopes to somehow win back Libby, but time is running o

ut since she's becoming more heavily involved with a successful businessman named Whit (Hank Azaria). The lazy and physically unfit Dennis is no match for the industrious and health-conscious Whit, but that doesn't prevent him from entering a 28-mile marathon in an effort to gain back Libby's love and respect. It's a thin premise undermined by rampant stupidity at every turn, from the lazy decision to turn Whit into a paper villain (so audiences won't have to strain their brains deciding who's better for Libby) to the infantile brand of comedy that appears at alarming intervals right up to the very end (literally; the final shot in the movie is a close-up of a flabby bare bottom).

Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!

In Horton's world, "a person's a person, no matter how small," but in our world, a mediocre movie's a mediocre movie, no matter how overhyped, overblown and overbearing. There's a reason that the 1966 TV version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! remains the best Seuss on film, and that's because its 26-minute length comes closest to approximating the brief reading time of one of the good doctor's delightful books. But when stretched out to 90 minutes, a great deal of padding is needed, thereby maximizing the chances of screwing up the source material. That's definitely the case here, since the basic story -- Horton the happy-go-lucky elephant finds himself ridiculed by the other jungle denizens when he insists that a speck on a flower contains an entire civilization (the residents of Whoville) -- retains its humanist (better make that anthropomorphic) appeal. But the additions to the original content are misguided, beginning with a decidedly non-Seussian reference to "poop" and ending with an atrocious Pokemon-inspired sequence that must be seen to be disbelieved.

The Bank Job

The Bank Job bills itself as being based on a true story, but given cinema's propensity for fudging details every which way, that's not a declaration that I'd be willing to take to the bank myself. But veracity be damned: Even if every detail of this heist flick was drenched in fiction, it doesn't change the fact that it's one compelling package. The film is set in 1971, which seems right, since one could easily picture the British heavyhitters of that era (Michael Caine, Ian Bannen, Harry Andrews, etc.) appearing in a film just like this one (Caine, in fact, did headline a heist flick during this period, 1969's The Italian Job). And inhabiting the film's central role is Jason Statham, who thanks to a series of action films has become the current poster boy for British roughhousing. The Bank Job gives his character, Terry Leather, a chance to use his brains more than his brawn, and this allows Statham a bit more vulnerability than usual -- his character even has a wife and two daughters, a break from the image of the emotionless lone warrior. Terry is approached by a former acquaintance (Saffron Burrows) to pull off a robbery at a Lloyds Bank that will benefit them both. She has her own reasons beyond monetary gain for making this proposal, and Terry senses that rather quickly. But he and his crew go for it anyway, a decision that involves them in a labyrinthine scandal that not only reaches into the upper echelons of government but also snares the British royal family as well.

Brimming with satisfying twists and populated with colorful characters, this represents a Job well done.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Romantic without being cynical, witty without being puerile, and blessed by two divine performances from Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. McDormand plays the title character, a British maid in 1939 London who all too suddenly finds herself unemployed. Desperate to remain off the streets, she dupes her way into the position of social secretary to American actress Delysia Lafosse (Adams), a dim but sweet-natured starlet whose biggest problem seems to be choosing between two playboys (Tom Payne and Mark Strong) who can advance her career and a struggling pianist (Lee Pace) who truly loves her. Yeah, I know: It's a no-brainer ascertaining who gets her hand by the fadeout. Yet despite Adams' screwball-style performance -- as enchanting as her turn in Enchanted -- the film's main source of delight doesn't rest with Delysia's affairs of the heart but with Miss Pettigrew's. A prim woman who lost her beloved during the First World War, Miss Pettigrew has long given up on any chance at romance. That a potential suitor comes along in the form of a successful clothing designer (Ciaran Hinds) seems just right, not only by the demands of the storyline but by the demands of our own hearts. McDormand sells her character with utter conviction.

10,000 B.C.

Playing like a cross between Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and the fanboy fave 300, this empty-headed spectacle from Stargate director Roland Emmerich centers on a young man who, when it comes to heroes leading their people out of the darkness, emerges as a towering figure worthy of standing alongside Moses, William "Braveheart" Wallace and Michael Moore. Steven Strait plays this warrior, whose name is D'Leh (not to be confused with Homer Simpson's "D'Oh!") and whose bland, pretty-boy countenance makes him a precursor to Malibu Ken. When he's not busy being tutored by his adoptive father Tic'Tic (Cliff Curtis), D'Leh passes the time by flirting with his one true love, Evolet (blank slate Camilla Belle). Evolet has these piercing blue eyes, but even more noticeable throughout the film is the makeup which surrounds them, and which never gets smeared even after she's been shedding copious tears. Who knew Maybelline existed as far back as 10,000 B.C.?

The Other Boleyn Girl

An often fascinating blend of fact, rumor and outright fabrication, The Other Boleyn Girl feels like an Oscar-bait title that somehow got its DNA mixed up with a daytime soap opera. Based on Philippa Gregory's controversial novel, this tracks the political intrigue and bedroom shenanigans which sprang from the attempts of the Boleyn family to get in the good graces of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Prodded on by the most venal member of the clan, the scheming Duke of Norfolk (The Reaping's David Morrissey, as uninteresting as always), the quivering Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) agrees to offer his strong-willed daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to the king as replacement for his majesty's current wife Catherine (Ana Torent), who has been unable to produce a male heir. But after Anne quickly falls out of Henry's favor, the men serve up Anne's demure sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) instead; a torrid love affair takes place, but when that begins to cool thanks to Henry's growing disinterest, Anne is brought back onto the scene. If Charles Laughton (winning an Oscar for 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII) was the chunkiest Henry VIII ever put on film, then Bana might be the hunkiest, but it's hardly a desirable tradeoff, given the actor's drowsy performance.

His female co-stars fare better, though it's hard to accept the physically dissimilar Portman and Johansson as flesh-and-blood siblings.


An ugly duckling of a movie, Penelope is a sweet but clumsy fable that's pleasing without being distinguished. Christina Ricci has always sported a nose that tilts upward, so it's perhaps either lazy casting or a sly in-joke that she was the one chosen to essay the title role, a poor little rich girl suffering from an ancient family curse that saddled her at birth with a pig's snout. Now 25, Penelope has been a prisoner in her own home by her busybody mother (Catherine O'Hara), who only allows blueblood bachelors to visit her daughter in the hopes that one of them will ask for her hand in marriage. A reporter (Peter Dinklage) who's forever been trying to get a photo of Penelope hears of this arrangement, and he hires a down-and-out playboy (Atonement's James McAvoy) to gain entry and take the snapshot; needless to say, real feelings develop, hearts get broken, and, as in Babe: Pig In the City, our protagonist finds herself adrift in the city.


Will Ferrell as an idiotic guy prone to infantile outbursts -- check. Ferrell making loud noises and running around like a goofball in a desperate attempt to generates laughs -- check. Ferrell sporting a laughable hairstyle (this one vintage 1970s) -- check. Ferrell surrounding himself with his comedian friends, some with extremely limited talent -- check. Ferrell resorting to ca-ca and pee-pee level jokes with alarming regularity -- check. Ferrell making more loud noises -- check. And so it goes, reaching a point of such creative bankruptcy that Ferrell stands poised to become as tiresome a screen jester as Robin Williams.


Jumper is Highlander for a new generation: a cheesy, globetrotting film certain to be savaged by most critics, but also a mindlessly entertaining yarn likely to lead to a string of sequels and/or TV adaptations. Hayden Christensen, still struggling with that wooden aspect of his acting, plays David Rice, a kid who discovers he has the ability to "jump" to any location on the planet in a matter of seconds.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Smoothly directed by Mark Waters, the miracle worker responsible for Lindsay Lohan's two best performances (Freaky Friday and Mean Girls), Spiderwick displays a lighter touch than other fantasy films of this nature, meaning that its thrills are all the more unexpected — and effective. Freddie Highmore, the talented young star of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, essays the roles of twin brothers Jared (troublemaker) and Simon (bookworm), who, along with mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), take up residence in an ancestral home with interesting inhabitants.

Vantage Point

Imagine 24 crossed with Rashomon, and you'll get some idea of what to expect from Vantage Point, a dizzying thriller that relates the same catastrophic event from eight different POVs. In Salamanca, Spain, U.S. President Ashton (William Hurt), on the verge of making a speech concerning the War on Terror, becomes the target of an assassination attempt, and various occurrences that take place before and after the shooting are filtered through the actions of several participants and witnesses. Chief among these characters are Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), who stopped an assassin's bullet during a prior attempt on the president's life; Barnes' fellow bodyguard, Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox); Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), an American tourist who catches some startling images with his camcorder; and Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), a TV producer whose own newsreel footage might help Barnes crack the case.

By splintering the material in such a fashion, writer Barry Levy has added some snap, crackle and pop to what would otherwise be a routine action film had it been presented in chronological order.

Fool's Gold

In a reunion that no one was exactly clamoring for, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days co-stars Matthew McConaughney and Kate Hudson play Finn and Tess; he's an irresponsible beach bum who's skilled at running up debts, while she's a level-headed lass who's forced to take a job on the yacht of millionaire Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland). Despite finalizing their divorce mere hours earlier, Finn talks Tess into joining him once again on his never-ending quest for 18th century Spanish booty; they persuade Honeycutt to finance their endeavor, but they're working against the clock since murderous rapper-turned-mobster Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart) also has designs on the riches. Eye candy abounds in Fool's Gold: Many women will enjoy the sight of McConaughney taking off his shirt at regular intervals, some men will gaze at the bronzed Hudson sporting teeny bikinis, and ocean lovers can ignore the lame plot at the forefront in favor of concentrating on the shimmering beauty of the water. (a modest saving grace also found in After the Sunset and Into the Blue). But the direction (by Hitch's Andy Tennant) is uninspired, the script is bubbleheaded, and the bland leads continue to disprove the notion that some measure of movie-star charisma is required to make it as a romantic draw.

There Will Be Blood

I'm not sure Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in There Will Be Blood represents the best acting of 2007, but it certainly represents the most acting of the past year. His performance here as Daniel Plainview, a prospector who strikes it rich in turn-of-the-century California, basically comes across as Bill the Butcher (his character in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York) turned up a couple of notches. Then again, Day-Lewis' oversized turn is right in line with Paul Thomas Anderson's oversized ambitions in creating a modern-day masterpiece, a movie so audacious that it flagrantly apes Citizen Kane during its final half-hour and recalls The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at regular intervals. Based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! the movie opens with a superb 12-minute sequence with no dialogue. During this sequence, we're introduced to Plainview, a determined prospector who over time strikes it rich and becomes one of the nation's most powerful oilmen. Plainview has an adopted son in young H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who ends up going deaf after sitting next to an oil rig that explodes as it brings up black riches from beneath the surface. Plainview tries to be an acceptable parent to the boy, but he's hardly a social creature, intolerant of those around him and not one to extend trust or affection easily. The picture is a beauty to behold and there are individual sequences so staggering that a second viewing will hardly be a chore. But those planning to check it out should be sure to bring an umbrella, Rocky Horror Picture Show-style, just in case Day-Lewis' juicy lip-smacking manages to break through that fourth wall.

No Country for Old Men

The Coen Brothers have always been known for the ease with which they've jumped from genre to genre, but with their superb new picture, No Country for Old Men, they seem to be tapping from various wells at once. Certainly, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel smacks of a contemporary Western through its wide-open settings and signals a crime thriller via its "law and disorder" plotline. But may I add the classification of monster movie to the mix? That might seem like a stretch, but as I watched Javier Bardem's seemingly unstoppable Anton Chigurh shuffle his way through the picture, killing left and right without remorse, I realized that it's been a long time since I've seen such an unsettling creature on the screen. Chigurh spends the film, set in 1980 Texas, on the trail of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a cowboy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong in the desert (lots of guns, lots of spilled blood, lots of corpses) and walks away from the scene with a satchel containing $2 million in cash. But a sum that large isn't about to be written off by the crime bosses, and so here comes Chigurh (working for an outfit independent from the Mexican dealers) to take care of business. The cat-and-mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss is enough to propel any standard narrative, yet tossed into the mix is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary sheriff who, baffled and deflated by the wickedness that has come to define his country, nevertheless trudges from crime scene to crime scene, hoping to save Moss and stop Chigurh.


This indie effort takes a moment to get its bearings. Yet after a rocky opening that almost drowns in its own attempt to be hip, this movie is pure bliss. Ellen Page, who already revealed herself as an actress to watch in Hard Candy, is perfection plus as the title character, a spunky and verbose teen who finds herself pregnant after a dalliance with sweet classmate Paulie Bleeker (Superbad's Michael Cera).

The Savages

How interesting that 2007 produced two pictures about Alzheimer's that approached the subject from diametrically opposite points. Sarah Polley's Away From Her was about a man who dearly loved his wife and was devastated as the disease created an unbreachable gap between them. Tamara Jenkins' The Savages is about siblings who dislike their dad and are upset that circumstances dictate they be responsible for his well-being. Away From Her was a straightforward drama, but The Savages is a black comedy that frequently goes down like the most bitter coffee imaginable. Philip Bosco plays the father figure around which the action stirs: Found smearing his own excrement on the bathroom walls of his Arizona residence, he's eventually placed into the hands of his distant -- both geographically and emotionally -- offspring, Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney). Jon's a college professor in Buffalo, while Wendy's an aspiring writer in New York City; neither one has the time nor the inclination to take care of the old man, but they do their best to find him suitable lodging in an "assisted living" facility. But Wendy's definition of suitable is different than Jon's, and the siblings end up squabbling about his living arrangements, a discussion that opens up a can of worms regarding their relationships not only with their father but with each other. The two leads are equally superb. Linney turns every one of Wendy's foibles and insecurities into a mountain that the character must scale before she can come to acceptance with herself, and the actress keeps us firmly in her corner. As for Hoffman, this is his third great performance of 2007 -- he's also aces in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Charlie Wilson's War -- and thanks to a smashing sequence in which he describes the brutal realities of growing old, it's also his best.

The Savages sports a sharp-edged tone that might put some viewers off, but in Hoffman and Linney, it provides us with two of the premier performances of last year. That's a tough act to ignore.

MacDonald), kept in the dark by a husband whose increasingly frantic behavior threatens to put them both at risk, and Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a jocular bounty hunter who functions as a walking encyclopedia when it comes to detailing Chigurh's crimes against humanity. All of the performances are exceptional, yet this is clearly Bardem's picture. So magnetic and full of life in his Oscar-nominated turn in Before Night Falls, he takes the opposite stance here, portraying Chigurh as an emotionally withdrawn individual whose only defining trait (outside of his imaginative choice of weapon) is the whimsical manner in which he occasionally allows a potential victim the opportunity to call a coin toss to decide their fate -- a quirk best exemplified in an extraordinary scene opposite a gas station owner (Gene Jones) that's terrifying to watch.

No Country for Old Men isn't the first great movie certain to have its ending criticized even by many who enjoyed the rest of the picture (Apocalypse Now also springs to mind), but admittedly, the events of the final half-hour are occasionally murky enough -- in either execution or intent -- that confusion might indeed develop among many viewers. Yet love it or hate it, accept it or debate it, it's the only proper conclusion for a movie as uncompromising as this one.

IF I'M STILL around at the age of 83, I doubt I'll even be able to successfully navigate the remote control. Yet here's the great veteran director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and on and on and on), who, just two years after winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy, has made an impressive picture that's earning him his best reviews in ages. And for at least three-quarters of the way, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead deserves those stellar notices, as it shapes up to emerge as one of the best films of the year. But like a long-distance runner who miscalculates his own endurance level, it falters at the very end, with a two-pronged wrap-up that disappoints with both barrels.

Yet this isn't the fault of Lumet as much as first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson, who otherwise contributes a compelling script that adds a tantalizing twist to the standard heist flick by also making it a personal family drama. Philip Seymour Hoffman heads the powerhouse cast as Andy, who, sensing that money might be the way to save his faltering marriage (to Marisa Tomei's Gina), talks his weak-willed younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke, never better) into taking part in the robbery of a jewelry store -- the one owned by their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). Andy envisions it as one of those victimless crimes -- use a toy gun, rob the place when there are no customers, the owners recoup their losses via insurance, etc. -- but we all know what happens to the best-laid plans.

At first glance, Before the Devil is one of those post-Memento neo-noirs that believes it's necessary to tell its story in a fragmented style that skips between past and present. But as played out, this technique isn't merely for show but as an immediate way to pinpoint how each dire consequence is the result of several major and minor decisions.

This film is as bleak as No Country for Old Men, but the difference is that whereas that picture leaves viewers feeling haunted by its denouement, this one merely leaves them feeling cheated. Like many superb works, No Country demonstrates that a shaggy-dog ending can work wonderfully, but a similar attempt here results in one plotline feeling rushed and another feeling abandoned. Still, while Masterson's script might come up a hair short, Lumet remains firmly in control: Even at 83, there's nothing arthritic about his ability to engage our emotions or our intellect.


This indie effort takes a moment to get its bearings. Yet after a rocky opening that almost drowns in its own attempt to be hip, this movie is pure bliss. Ellen Page, who already revealed herself as an actress to watch in Hard Candy, is perfection plus as the title character, a spunky and verbose teen who finds herself pregnant after a dalliance with sweet classmate Paulie Bleeker (Superbad's Michael Cera). After briefly considering an abortion, Juno elects to have the baby and place it up for adoption, a decision supported by her dad (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man's J. Jonah Jameson) and stepmom (Allison Janney). After careful research, she decides on the adoptive parents: Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a tightly wound businesswoman who wants a child in the worst way, and Mark (Jason Bateman), a TV jingle composer whose tendency to live in the past makes him an ideal friend to Juno (they both share a love for gore flicks and bicker over musical tastes). But Juno's idea of how everything should proceed smoothly doesn't exactly pan out, and her sarcastic front falters in the face of fear and uncertainty, revealing the child underneath. Perhaps because it's written by a woman — and a former stripper and phone-sex operator at that — Juno is already receiving the sort of knee-jerk backlash that tellingly was never foisted upon Judd Apatow's similarly themed summer comedy Knocked Up. Yet Diablo Cody's script is more balanced than Apatow's: The laughs are plentiful in both, but Cody places a bit more emphasis on the emotional fallout, with teenagers Juno and Bleeker awkwardly trying to express their feelings for each other and Vanessa's anxiety almost palpable as she constantly worries that Juno might change her mind about handing over the baby (Garner is excellent in her best film role to date).The direction by Jason Reitman (also responsible for last year's winning Thank You For Smoking) is understated and never obtrusive; clearly, this is the writer's dance. Cody's dialogue may not always be believable (how many 16-year-old girls reference Dario Argento, let alone Soupy Sales and Seabiscuit?), but its intelligence and quirky humor qualify as music to the ears of moviegoers tired of monosyllabic snorts and witless banter.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Given the emphasis on history in the National Treasure franchise, this follow-up to the 2004 original reminded me of a line from the Herman's Hermits tune about that jolly historical figure Henry the Eighth: "Second verse, same as the first." In other words, NT2 is essentially the same movie as its blockbuster predecessor, meaning it's a draggy combination of The Da Vinci Code and old-style serials. Only Nicolas Cage's Benjamin Franklin Gates is no Indiana Jones, and (like the first flick) this isn't Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moving ahead at breakneck speed and with no time for rhyme or reason, it's a disjointed yarn in which Gates, in an effort to prove that his great-great-grandfather wasn't one of the conspirators behind Abe Lincoln's assassination, must locate a legendary lost city of gold by uncovering clues hidden on historical artifacts in Paris, London and at the White House. Practically the entire principal cast returns from the original film — Jon Voight as Gates' dad, Diane Kruger as his girlfriend, Justin Bartha as his sidekick, and Harvey Keitel as the sympathetic FBI agent hovering around the margins (a role that exists for no discernible reason) — and they're joined by a slumming Ed Harris as a shady treasure seeker and a slumming Helen Mirren as Gates' feisty mother. It should be noted that this marks Mirren's first screen appearance since winning an Oscar for The Queen. Granted, that's not nearly as shocking as Shirley MacLaine turning up in Cannonball Run II immediately after her Terms of Endearment Oscar victory, but it's nothing to brag about, either.

Atonement ***

This year's sight-unseen, automatic Oscar entry mostly lives up to its lofty expectations, even if it doesn't possess the sweeping emotion that provided other British period pieces like Sense and Sensibility and The Remains of the Day with their enduring resonance. If a finger must be pointed, it would most likely fall in the direction of director Joe Wright, who previously teamed with his muse Keira Knightley on 2005's breezy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Here, it's Ian McEwan's beloved novel that gets tastefully brought to the screen, via a literate screenplay by Dangerous Liaisons adapter Christopher Hampton. Knightley essays the role of Cecilia, who finds herself attracted to the family servant's upwardly mobile son Robbie (James McAvoy). But Cecilia's precocious younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has also developed a crush (albeit a more chaste one) on Robbie, and Briony grows jealous as she witnesses events that she feels attests to the bond between the lovers. Eventually, Briony uses a tragedy that occurs on the estate grounds as a way to get back at Robbie, not comprehending the long-term implications of her actions. It's only when she herself has grown up (and played at this point by Romola Garai) that she's able to grasp the magnitude of what she did — and work on setting matters right. Knightley's role doesn't allow her to flourish as she did under Wright's direction in Pride and Prejudice, which is fine, since this is Briony's story and McAvoy's film. As solemnly played by Ronan, the teenage Briony comes off as a bad seed writ large, with an IQ that, coupled with her naivety, makes her especially dangerous. It's a memorable performance in the best-written role, yet it's the excellent McAvoy who injects the proceedings with a notable degree of compassion: We ache for Robbie throughout this tale, and McAvoy expertly conveys the feelings and frustrations of a man who dared to dream outside his station in life, only to watch as his desires go up in flames. It's a shame that the denouement doesn't completely provide us with the emotional catharsis we require. Providing a clever, bittersweet twist, it affects the head more than the heart, and reveals a certain measure of clinical execution on the part of Wright. It caps the film with a slow simmer, when nothing less than a full blaze will suffice.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ***1/2

This is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway smash, but it hides its stage roots so thoroughly that it feels like a piece created for the silver screen. In refashioning Sweeney Todd for the movies, Tim Burton and scripter John Logan have presented audiences with a big, bold endeavor that functions as an upscale slasher film: It's bloody but also bloody good, with the gore tempered by the melancholy love stories that dominate the proceedings. Burton's go-to guy, Johnny Depp, delivers a haunted performance as Benjamin Barker, a sweet-natured barber who's falsely imprisoned by a lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who covets Barker's wife. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London a changed man: Now calling himself Sweeney Todd and looking like a zombie who's already been buried a couple of times, he sets about planning his revenge. He's aided in his efforts by Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a lonely widow whose love for Todd will clearly remain unrequited. As partners-in-crime, however, they're matched beautifully: A crazed Todd slits the throats of all who sit in his barber's chair, while Mrs. Lovett grinds up the corpses to use in her increasingly popular meat pies.

Charlie Wilson's War ***

Sterling entertainment punched across with enough glitz to sell it but not too much to bury it. Aided by a big-name cast and a sharp script by Aaron Sorkin (adapting George Crile's nonfiction book), Nichols has crafted a winning if occasionally facile work whose level of intelligence is measured by how much (or how little) each individual viewer wants to put into it. Kicking off in the 1980s, it follows Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a blustery politician not above lounging in Vegas hot tubs with busty strippers, as he becomes interested in Afghanistan's ineffectual attempts to oust the invading Soviet army. Charlie's spurred to take action at the insistence of his politically savvy friend Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, little more than serviceable), a born-again right-wing millionaire who also hails from the Lone Star State. Charlie does his best, but it isn't until he teams up with prickly CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, marvelous) that the ball gets rolling and the Afghans are able to defend themselves. But at what cost to the future? Charlie Wilson's War doesn't answer its own question, preferring instead to let viewers mull over the response.

The Golden Compass **1/2

Christians have been on the warpath for believing that the film attacks their religion. Non-Christians have been furious because they've heard that the movie removes all condemnations of Christianity. Book lovers have braced themselves for a bastardization of their beloved text. But a movie is a separate entity from a book and as such deserves to be judged on its own terms. And on that level, The Golden Compass is an acceptable piece of fantasy fluff, a cluttered mishmash that nevertheless can lay claim to its own scattered charms. An ambitious tale set on an alternate world, The Golden Compass opens with an expository crawl meant to set up the story, but not since 1984's ill-fated adaptation of Dune has a supposedly helpful introduction been so impenetrable. Top-billed Nicole Kidman plays the villainous Marisa Coulter, but the lead is actually Dakota Blue Richards, a talented child actress whose presence goes a long way toward keeping this story grounded. Richards stars as Lyra, the spunky lass whose devotion to her uncle, the explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and to her young chums contributes to her landing in the middle of a large-scale skirmish that finds the fascistic members of the religious ruling body fighting all manner of outsiders in an effort to not only hold onto power but insure that they eliminate the notion of "free will" entirely.

Lyra emerges as the unlikely leader of the revolution, backed by such disparate characters as an airborne cowboy (Sam Elliott) and an armor-packing bear (voiced by Ian McKellen). Zipping from one adventure to the next, it often plays like a highlights reel from a multipart miniseries. Craig appears in two segments before disappearing from the story (presumably, he'll rack up more screen time in the planned sequels). And Eva Green (Craig's co-star in Casino Royale) flits about the screen as a kindly warrior-witch, but I'll be damned if her place in the saga is ever properly explained. But for all the narrative shortcuts taken by director-adapter Chris Weitz (yes, he of American Pie fame), the movie still works fairly well as a high-flying fantasy tale for the younger set. Budding girls are sure to fall behind Richards' sassy heroine, while boys will dig the hand-to-hand — excuse me, paw-to-paw — combat between two fearsome CGI bears (and here's a rare occasion when ample use of computer-generated effects enhances the project rather than overwhelms it). As for the adults, they can enjoy the fine work by Kidman, who's all slinky, silky menace as the purring Marisa Coulter.

The Mist ***

The Mist marks writer-director Frank Darabont's third adaptation of a Stephen King property, and because he's not shooting for Oscar gold this time around (the previous titles were the reasonably enjoyable but grotesquely overrated pair, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), he's able to ease up on the pedal of self-importance and deliver an old-fashioned "B"- style genre flick. But even here, Darabont hasn't completely abandoned his high-minded ideas, meaning that The Mist manages to offer some accurate evaluations of human nature in between all the expected bloodletting. Owing a nod or two in the direction of John Carpenter's The Fog, this concerns itself with a group of people who, in the aftermath of a horrific storm, are gathered at the local supermarket stocking up on emergency rations when a mysterious mist envelops the entire area. It soon becomes clear that something evil resides in the fog — oh, about the time that a bag boy gets shredded by a monstrous tentacle beyond anything witnessed in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — and the shoppers wisely decide that they should remain indoors rather than venture out into the parking lot. It's here that Darabont's script (adapted from King's short story) reveals its cynical roots, as Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a religious zealot certain that the creatures outside are God's final solution in response to humankind's litany of sins, converts many of the frightened survivors to her mode of thinking, a dangerous path that eventually leads to a Jim Jones-like environment and at least one human sacrifice. Religious nutjobs are usually tiresome (and rather benign) characters brought in to add some superficial tension, but propelled by Harden's scary performance, Mrs. Carmody is a genuine threat, and she validates Darabont's contention that times of crisis are as likely to turn people against each other as they are to unite them against a common enemy. Darabont's pessimism extends to other areas of the script, to favorable (i.e. less predictable) advantage: It's not always easy to figure out who will survive and who won't, and the ending (altered from King's original) will keep audience members' tongues wagging as they exit into the parking lot — one, I hasten to add, hopefully not blanketed by a similarly impenetrable mist.

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium *1/2

If the Hasbro toy company elects to issue an updated version of its popular board game Clue, it can dispense with Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the lead pipe as one of the murder scenarios. Readily available to replace it is Mr. Magorium in the wonder emporium with the gag reflex. Suffering from a fatal attack of the "cutes," this family-aimed fizzle marks the directorial debut of Zach Helm, who caught everyone's attention last year with his innovative script for Stranger Than Fiction. Helm's screenplay here, though, is as lackadaisical as his previous one was inspired, with Dustin Hoffman cast as a kindly 243-year-old man who decides it's time for him to graciously leave this earth (his reason being that he's down to his last pair of comfortable shoes). He hopes to leave his magical toy store in the care of his assistant Mahoney (Natalie Portman), but she doesn't think she can handle the responsibility, even with the shop's workaholic accountant (Jason Bateman) and its best customer, a lonely little boy (Zach Mills) with a penchant for hats, around to assist her. The G-rated film combines Peter Pan's message — the whole "Clap your hands if you believe in magic" spiel — with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory's stuffed-to-the-gills set design, but with no real dramatic tension (where's Kevin Spacey as an obvious villain when you really need him?) and a visually drab shop that remains cluttered rather than captivating, the end result is a bland confection that features an atypically bad Portman performance. And, perhaps most critically, with no playthings on the order of Buzz or Woody to enliven events, this proves to be one toy story that's easy to skip.

No Country for Old Men ****

The Coen Brothers have always been known for the ease with which they've jumped from genre to genre — screwball comedy with Raising Arizona, gangster saga with Miller's Crossing, neo-film noir with Blood Simple, etc. — but with their superb new picture, No Country for Old Men, they seem to be tapping from various wells at once. Certainly, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel smacks of a contemporary Western through its wide-open settings and signals a crime thriller via its "law and disorder" plotline. But may I add the classification of monster movie to the mix? That might seem like a stretch, but as I watched Javier Bardem's seemingly unstoppable Anton Chigurh shuffle his way through the picture, killing left and right without remorse, I realized that it's been a looong time since I've seen such an unsettling creature on the screen. Chigurh is just one of the several fascinating characters occupying screen time in a delirious drama that in its finest moments echoes such classics as Psycho, Touch of Evil and Chinatown, not only in its intricate and unpredictable plot structure but also in its look at an immoral world in which chance and fate battle for the upper hand and in which evil is as tangible a presence as sticks and stones. Chigurh, who finds it easier to murder an innocent bystander than to crack a smile, is described by another character as operating by his own set of principles, and only in a topsy-turvy world could a fiend such as this be described as principled — and, more disturbingly, possibly even deserve the designation. Chigurh spends the film, set in 1980 Texas, on the trail of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a cowboy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong in the desert (lots of guns, lots of spilled blood, lots of corpses) and walks away from the scene with a satchel containing $2 million in cash. But a sum that large isn't about to be written off by the crime bosses, and so here comes Chigurh (working for an outfit independent from the Mexican dealers) to take care of business. The cat-and-mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss is enough to propel any standard narrative, yet tossed into the mix is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary sheriff who, baffled and deflated by the wickedness that has come to define his country, nevertheless trudges from crime scene to crime scene, hoping to save Moss and stop Chigurh. As we've come to expect from a Coens feature, interesting players can be found around every corner — there's also Moss' baby-faced wife (Kelly MacDonald), kept in the dark by a husband whose increasingly frantic behavior threatens to put both of them at risk, and Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a jocular bounty hunter who functions as a walking encyclopedia when it comes to detailing Chigurh's crimes. All of the performances are exceptional, yet this is clearly Bardem's picture. So magnetic and full of life in his Oscar-nominated turn in Before Night Falls, he takes the opposite stance here, portraying Chigurh as an emotionally withdrawn individual whose only defining trait (outside of his imaginative choice of weapon) is the whimsical manner in which he allows a potential victim the opportunity a coin toss to decide their fate.

Beowulf ***

Director Robert Zemeckis, whose 2004 The Polar Express felt like an animated feature that had been embalmed, again employs the "performance capture" technique (or "digitally enhanced live-action," per the press notes) with far greater success, overlaying real actors with a cartoon sheen and placing them in the middle of a CGI landscape. In 2D, which is how the film is being shown in most theaters nationally, this runs the risk of looking as soulless as many other CGI works, but in 3D (presented only at select venues), it results in a positively astonishing experience. Tossed coins roll directly toward the camera, spears poke directly out at audience members, and even an animated Angelina Jolie's, umm, assets seem more pronounced than usual. Based on the ancient poem, a staple of most school curriculums, the script by fantasy author Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary doesn't always match the movie's visual splendor (burp and piss scenes show that the makers are clearly hoping to attract the fanboy crowd), but their modifications to the ancient text are more often than not respectful. After the gruesome monster Grendel (voiced, or, more accurately, snarled by Crispin Glover) wreaks havoc on the castle of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his followers, the heroic (and boastful) Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives to save the day. Yet he finds himself not only having to confront Grendel but also the misshapen creature's mother (Jolie), envisioned here as a seductress with the power to lead any noble warrior astray.

Enchanted *1/2

It's a nice touch having Julie Andrews serve as (unseen) narrator for the bookend sequences in Walt Disney's Enchanted. Andrews, of course, played the title nanny in the studio's Mary Poppins, which contains the famous phrase "practically perfect in every way." And I can't think of any better way to describe Amy Adams' performance as Giselle, the animated damsel who doesn't long to be a real girl but becomes one anyway. Enchanted begins in the style of the classic Disney toon flicks of yore, with the beautiful Giselle, at one with nature and its furry inhabitants, longing for "true love's kiss" from the lips of a handsome prince. She gets her wish when she meets Prince Edward, but his scheming stepmother Queen Narissa, not wanting to relinquish the throne, banishes Giselle to a faraway land, which, it turns out, is our own New York City. Now flesh and blood, Giselle turns to a stranger, a buttoned-up divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey), to help her survive in this bewildering city; meanwhile, others arrive in the Big Apple in pursuit of Giselle, including Edward (James Marsden) and the evil Queen (Susan Sarandon).

August Rush **1/2

There's no denying that the movie, which often plays like Oliver Twist as conceived by the dance troupe Stomp, is sweet and heartfelt and full of passion. But there's also no denying that it's clunky, haphazard and not especially well-written or efficiently directed. If you've seen the trailer, which seems to go out of its way to reveal every important scene (even the climax), then you already know that August Rush is the story of Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore), an orphan whose parents — a cellist (Keri Russell) and a guitarist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) — don't even know he exists (Mom was told by her controlling father that he died during childbirth). But young Evan is determined to find his parents, and he believes that through music they can be reunited; i.e. that they'll be able to magically hear him and locate him. Thus, he escapes from the orphanage, making his way to New York City and falling in with a band of street kids working for a Fagin-like musician-promoter (Robin Williams). That Williams' character turns out to be a controlling bully is one of the picture's few surprises; everything else falls neatly into place, thanks to a script that needs about 128 coincidences to retain its forward momentum.

Bee Movie **

Unfortunately, Bee Movie is the same nondescript toon tale we've pretty much come to expect from any animated outlet not named Pixar. In this one, it's Jerry Seinfeld contributing the vocals to the central character, a bee (named Barry) who, not content to work inside the hive until the day he dies, opts instead to see what's going on in the world outside. He finds a New York City full of sound and fury, but also one that contains a sweet florist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). Breaking the long-standing rule that bees must never talk to humans, Barry makes contact with Vanessa, and the two strike up an unorthodox friendship (although Barry's constant ogling of Vanessa makes it clear that she stirs strange sensations in his stinger).

American Gangster ***

For all its familiar trappings, director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian invest their tale with plenty of verve. Denzel Washington has been charged with bringing Frank Lucas to the screen, and, as expected, he turns the Harlem kingpin into a magnetic menace who, after serving as an apprentice to bigwig Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) throughout the 1960s, becomes a millionaire by eliminating the middle man in the drug trade, thereby infuriating the Italians who are used to being at the apex of this particular food chain. Scott and Zaillian offer up a standard movie hero in Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the honest cop tasked with busting open the New York/Jersey drug racket. Roberts could have come across as a cardboard saint, but thanks to Crowe's deft underplaying, he's an interesting figure and strikes a nice counterbalance to the more dynamic Frank Lucas.

While it never achieves the epic grandeur of, say, The Godfather, it manages to pump a measure of respect back into a genre that thrives on it.

Dan in Real Life **1/2

This is a warm and fuzzy tale of a popular newspaper writer (Steve Carell) whose column, "Dan In Real Life," offers practical advice that he can't seem to apply to his own life. A widower with three daughters, Dan travels to Rhode Island for the annual family get-together with his parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney), his siblings and their significant others. He falls for Marie (Juliette Binoche), a Frenchwoman he meets in a book store, only to be devastated when he learns that she's the present girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook).

We Own the Night **1/2

Beyond one terrific and mesmerizing action sequence, We Own the Night, set in 1988 New York City, is another example of (crime) business as usual. Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is a nightclub manager at odds with his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and his father Burt (Robert Duvall), both respected police officers. Circumstances force Bobby to become even more estranged from his family, but that all changes when a powerful drug dealer (Alex Veadov) orders a hit on Joseph. The young cop barely survives, but this spurs Bobby to choose sides in the fight between law and disorder. He falls squarely on the side of right, risking his own life for the sake of his family. Phoenix and Wahlberg (who previously co-starred in Gray's The Yards and serve as producers here) are solid but unremarkable, and even a great actor like Duvall can't do much with his threadbare role.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age **

Like most sequels, Elizabeth 2 proves to be markedly inferior to its predecessor, which was a more original piece in that it examined the life of the Queen of England (played by Cate Blanchett) as she came into her own as both a woman and a ruler. With interesting characters flitting about in the shadows (most notably Geoffrey Rush's loyal but lethal advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham) and an unsettling sense of menace lurking around every corner (after all, it was hard being Protestant in a Catholic world order), the first film deserved much of the lavish praise heaped upon it. By comparison, Elizabeth's second coming feels less like a royal offering than a common period biopic which mistakes stuffiness for stateliness.

Into the Wild ***

Despite (or, in some cases, because of) his meticulous Method madness, Sean Penn's performances — even the fine ones — can best be described as overwrought. But place the actor behind the camera, and the opposite holds true. And with each passing film (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge), it's clear that his confidence and comfort level have grown at a startling rate. Given this maturation, it's no surprise that Into the Wild finds Penn turning in his best directorial effort to date. Adapting Jon Krakauer's based-on-fact novel, he has fashioned a somber, reflective film about a young man whose actions are so open to interpretation that where some will see an idealistic dreamer, others will see an obnoxious brat; where some will see a martyr, others will see a moron. Emile Hirsch delivers a strong performance as Chris McCandless, a well-to-do college graduate who, instead of following the distinguished career path laid out for him by his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), elects to donate all his savings to charity and head for the wilderness. Determined to leave society behind, he treks all over North America's untamed terrain, finding himself as far south as Mexico and as far north as Alaska. But while Chris (who has since renamed himself Alexander Supertramp) may think he has little use for humankind, he finds he still can benefit from the kindness and occasional company of particular people.

He meets a wide range of interesting individuals during his travels, among them an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) who engages in philosophical debates with the lad, a Midwestern farmer (Vince Vaughn) who offers him practical advice, and a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, a real-life river guide making the year's best acting debut) who view him as a surrogate son. Functioning as a bookend piece to Werner Herzog's excellent documentary Grizzly Man, it demonstrates that nature is as beastly as it is beautiful, and even noble aspirations run the risk of getting trampled under its imposing weight.

All of the characters have their say, yet even when people's opinions run counter to each other's, everyone is making sense and no one is being disingenuous. Penn obviously feels enormous sympathy (and perhaps a kinship?) for his protagonist, yet he doesn't present him as a saint, only a charismatic if troubled kid whose defining feature is that he managed to live a life less ordinary.

-do college graduate who, instead of following the distinguished career path laid out for him by his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), elects to donate all his savings to charity and head for the wilderness.

The Heartbreak Kid **1/2

The original 1972 version (with a screenplay by Neil Simon) is one mean-spirited movie, a prickly comedy about an unlikable nebbish (Charles Grodin) who suddenly decides to abandon his plain-Jane wife (Jeannie Berlin) on their honeymoon once he spots a beautiful blonde WASP (Cybill Shepherd) on the Miami beach. But in this version, the groom (Ben Stiller) is generally a nice guy, his new bride (Malin Akerman) is an outright nightmare, and the beach bunny is no longer a callow, self-centered brat but a sweet-natured and down-to-earth gal (Michelle Monaghan). The movie earns its R rating, thanks to plenty of salty language, some acrobatic sex scenes and one startling crotch shot.

Much of it is funny (stay through the closing credits for a satisfying capper), some of it merely infantile, but the picture ends with a clever twist, and Akerman proves to be a real trouper throughout as she degrades herself in the name of modern movie comedy.

The Kingdom **1/2

Just as 1978 saw the release of two Vietnam War flicks that complemented each other in their portrayals of the skirmish — The Deer Hunter and Coming Home — along comes September 2007 and its entree selection of two Iraq War dramas. The Kingdom is basically a Rambo retread outfitted with a thin veneer of topical import. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) appears to be an American apologist at heart, which may explain why, after a fascinating title sequence illustrating the United States' complicated ties to Saudi Arabia the movie quickly devolves into a standard us-against-them revenge flick. The film opens with a shocking sequence in which a base for American families in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is destroyed by terrorists, thereby prompting a group of elite FBI agents to undergo a secret mission to find the culprits once the Saudi and U.S. governments both balk at creating an international incident. Collectively, the four agents — played by Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman — are devoid of much in the way of personality, but that's OK: Their only purpose in this story is to kill Middle Easterners. Lots of them.

In the Valley of Elah ***1/2

1/2 Writer-director Paul Haggis will forever be lambasted in many circles because his arch drama Crash unfairly shanghaied the clearly superior Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars. But those quick to write off Haggis as a pandering huckster tend to forget that he also penned the exquisite screenplays to two Clint Eastwood triumphs, Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima. It's that Paul Haggis who shows up with In the Valley of Elah, a powerful drama that employs a murder-mystery template to initially camouflage what ultimately proves to be the picture's true intent: Examine the repercussions of war on the psyches of the youngsters we ask (or order) to defend us in battle. Tommy Lee Jones, in a superlative performance, stars as Hank Deerfield, a retired officer trying to find out why his son went AWOL upon returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. It's obvious from the outset that Hank won't find his son alive, and once it's ascertained that the boy was murdered, the morose father teams up with equally glum detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to solve the case. On its own terms, the mystery is set up and followed through in a satisfying matter, and only those expecting an elaborate Agatha Christie-style unmasking of the killer will be disappointed in this aspect of the story, which wraps up well before the actual movie does. Clearly, Haggis' main story is about the toll that the Iraq War — and, by extension, all battles, especially those (like Iraq) created for bogus reasons — takes not only on the soldiers sent to participate in the bloodshed but also on their families and friends. For all his surface simplicity, Hank Deerfield is a complicated and conflicted individual, a conservative patriot who would never question the military but who can sense that its ideals, along with those of the country he loves, have changed since his time of service. Even more daringly (and likely to spark debates among war vets), Haggis' film attempts to depict the manner in which the specter of war can follow a soldier back to civilization and inform every subsequent decision and action.

Feast of Love **1/2

A sprawling, messy yet occasionally affecting adaptation of Charles Baxter's novel, Feast of Love finds Oscar-winning director Robert Benton (whose last film was the grossly underrated The Human Stain) orchestrating a series of intertwined storylines that all push force the notion that the true meaning of life can be found in the arms of a loved one. Morgan Freeman once again plays his stock role, a gentle soul who's smarter than everyone else around him; here, that translates into the character of a happily married and semiretired professor who notices that love — and, in some cases, lust, deception and betrayal — is all around him. In what could probably be construed as first among equals in terms of the competing storylines, he befriends a coffee shop owner whose wife (Selma Blair) leaves him for another woman and who then becomes involved with a realtor (Radha Mitchell) who can't seem to break off her affair with a married man (Billy Burke). The Mitchell-Burke relationship is given plenty of screen time on its own; ditto the puppy-love romance between two young coffeehouse employees (Alexa Davalos and Toby Hemingway). Happiness and tragedy are doled out in equal measure — usually falling where we expect — but a fine cast and some touching moments help make the film if not exactly a feast, then at least an edible appetizer that will keep our hunger for a great movie romance at bay a while longer.

Eastern Promises ***

One of the central gags in Knocked Up involves the efforts of Seth Rogen and his pals to create a website that catalogues all the nude appearances made in motion pictures by actresses of all ranks. Of course, sites of this nature really do appear all over the Internet, though it's unknown (at least by me) if a similar site exists that tackles male movie-star nudity with such dedication. If so, then Viggo Mortensen's turn in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises will be right at the top of the site's "Most Searches" list. In one of the climactic scenes, Mortensen's Nikolai Luzhin, a taciturn chauffeur who works for the Vory V Zakone outfit (the Russian mafia) in London, is relaxing in a steamroom when he's attacked by two knife-wielding (and clothed) assassins. Without time to even pick up his discarded towel, he ends up fighting both assailants in the buff, and thanks to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's camera angles, we can examine Mortensen from vantage points that even his personal doctor probably hasn't seen (it's astonishing that the prudes on the MPAA board gave the film an R instead of an NC-17). Some might think that Cronenberg is merely giving the ladies in the audience equal time, but on a thematic level, the skirmish makes sense: Nikolai has been living a life full of betrayal and deceit, and it's time to strip down to his essence in order to make an attempt to reclaim his true identity. In a sense, Eastern Promises is a bookend to the last film made by Cronenberg and Mortensen: 2005's excellent A History of Violence, about an ordinary cafe owner who may or may not have been a vicious mobster in his earlier years. Both films run along parallel tracks, full of whispery menace, marked by probing studies of masculinity at its extreme boundaries, punctuated with bursts of sexual and violent excess, and coping with abrupt endings.

The Brave One **1/2

The Brave One is basically a retread of Death Wish, only with a sex change for its protagonist and, given the director (The Crying Game's Neil Jordan) and star, a more distinguished pedigree. It also purports to add dramatic heft to the moral implications of the situation at hand, with an ad line that blares, "How Many Wrongs To Make It Right?" But the movie itself clearly doesn't believe in its own promotion, resulting in a finished product that works as exploitation (like Death Wish) but fails at anything more socially relevant. Jodie Foster stars as Erica Bain, the host of a particularly dreadful-sounding NYC radio show called Street Walk. She and her fiancé David (Naveen Andrews) are blissfully happy, but everything changes after a brutal attack by street punks leaves David dead and Erica in a coma. Once Erica awakens, she's become a different person, afraid of the city she calls home and terrified by even the thought of leaving her apartment. Mustering up her courage, she goes out and illegally buys a gun for protection. But quickly learning that happiness is a warm gun, she sets about using the weapon on anyone who threatens her, from punks on the subway to a killer in a convenience store. Detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) obviously has no love for the victims, but he feels that it's nevertheless his duty to stop this vigilante. Via a massive coincidence, he also becomes friends with Erica, little suspecting (at least at first) that she and the vigilante are the same person. Foster is rarely less than excellent, but for years now, she's settled into making movies in which she portrays a largely desexed woman who's all business and no pleasure (Panic Room, Flightplan, Inside Man, etc.). Mind you, I'm not suggesting an insipid romantic comedy opposite someone like Bruce Willis, but I'm sure there's a happy medium to be found somewhere.

3:10 To Yuma ***

3:10 to Yuma proves to be a rarity among remakes. It doesn't slavishly copy the original, nor does it update it for modern times. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, the 1957 3:10 to Yuma retains its status as a solid Western, typical of the psychologically rooted oaters that emerged in force during that decade. In Glenn Ford's old role, Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade, a notorious outlaw who's finally captured by the authorities and scheduled to be transferred via train to the prison in Yuma, Arizona. Dan Evans (Christian Bale in the Van Heflin part) is a rancher by nature — he's so mild-mannered that his own wife (Gretchen Mol) and son (Logan Lerman) are often disappointed in him — but because he's about to lose his home and cattle, he agrees to help transport Wade for $200.

Mr. Bean's Holiday**

By borrowing from Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis and silent-cinema icons like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson managed to concoct his own singularly unique comic creation in the bumbling Mr. Bean. It's just a shame that the actor has yet to find a feature film to do his character justice. Mr. Bean's Holiday has some amusing moments scattered throughout but they're not enough to sustain an entire picture.

Rush Hour 3 *

Exactly 50 years ago, Max Von Sydow was exploring philosophical issues of life and death in Bergman's masterpiece The Seventh Seal; now, he's shunted to the background to make room for the increasingly unfunny antics of Chris Tucker. If there's a more depressing commentary to be made on the current state of cinema, I can't imagine what it might be.

Hairspray ***1/2

One of this summer's few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the issues that made John Waters' original film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray stars delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won't let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream in 1960s Baltimore. And her dream is to become famous, preferably by showing off her dance moves on The Corny Collins Show, a local American Bandstand-style program that's a hit with the kids. Her obese mom Edna (John Travolta in drag) is afraid her daughter will get hurt, but her dad Wilbur (a warm Christopher Walken) encourages her to go for it. Impressing Corny Collins himself (X-Men's James Marsden), not to mention the show's reigning pinup star Link Larkin (Zac Efron), Tracy does indeed land a coveted spot on the show, much to the disgust of Link's girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her wicked mom Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer). Compounding the tension is that Tracy has become friends with the blacks who are allowed to perform on the program once a month (on "Negro Day"), an open-minded attitude that infuriates the racist Velma to no end. The film's hot-topic issues are all presented in the realm of feel-good fantasy, meaning that reality has no place in this particular picture. But that's not to say the movie is insincere in its intentions, and when Tracy and "Negro Day" host Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) lead a march promoting "Integration, Not Segregation," it's hard not to get swept up in the emotionalism of the piece.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ***

Those who like their Potter black will find much to appreciate in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and moodiest of the J.K. Rowling adaptations to date. Chris Columbus' first two entries — both underrated — focused mainly on fun and games, with the subsequent installments helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell taking on decidedly darker dimensions. The level of malevolence is raised even further here, thanks to the taut direction by unknown David Yates and a forceful performance by series lead Daniel Radcliffe. With only one to two years separating each Potter flick, it's been easy to spot the relative growth of Radcliffe (as well as costars Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) as he sprouted from wide-eyed tyke to troubled teenager. Yet between the last film (Goblet of Fire) and this new one, it's startling to note how the actor and the character seem to have aged multiple years, a testament to the maturity Radcliffe brings to the role.

Villainy abounds in The Order of the Phoenix, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) haunting Harry's every move, a fluttering fascist named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) taking over the Hogwarts school, and an escaped prisoner known as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) arriving late to kill off a popular character. Add to those threats Harry's issues of abandonment and estrangement, and it's no wonder the lad can't keep those roiling emotions in check. In this respect, Phoenix operates not only as a story-specific fantasy flick but also as a universal teen angst tale, a far-flung Rebel Without a Cause in which the protagonist tries to comprehend the adult world he's on the verge of entering while simultaneously struggling to cut the umbilical cord of childhood. Because of this slant, this emerges as the most dramatic of the five films to date.