"They don't mean 'bad' in a good way"
Dir. Joel Schumacher; writ. Jason Richman and Michael Browning; feat. Anthony Hopkins, Chris Rock, Gabriel Macht, Garcelle Beauvais, Adoni Maropis (PG-13)
Remember when Michael Jackson called himself Bad? When he thought he was "bad" as in "tough," but really he was announcing his shift from pop genius to irrelevant nuisance?
That would be a great parallel for this movie, if director Joel Schumacher had ever been a pop genius. Instead, he's an aging hack whose most successful films (The Client, Falling Down) have been of questionable value, and who at his worst (the last two Batman films) is bad enough to kill a movie studio's prized cash cow. Though he flirted with reputation renovation by making the indie-ish Tigerland in 2000, this summer's craptacular isn't going to convince anybody.
In the film, Chris Rock may live in the ghetto, but it's Anthony Hopkins who's slumming. It's a lucky thing that his CIA agent Gaylord Oakes is a joyless, unimaginative G-man, because even Hopkins' healthy acting chops wouldn't convince you that he's enjoying himself here. As for Rock, his line readings in the film's first moments tell all you need to know about his acting range: it's as thin as cardboard.
While Rock has always come across as sharp-witted, the premise here — that the streetwise character is trained to replace his dead twin brother, a CIA agent, in a week — makes as much sense as teaching Adam Sandler brain surgery and Cantonese at the same time. Three days into the rigorous training program, Hopkins & Co. have taught Rock how to spot a fine cognac and Egyptian broadcloth, but haven't bothered to mention anything about nuclear weapons or the arms dealers he's supposed to know intimately. Nice going.
If you're still in your seat halfway through the movie, there will be some action scenes. Rock yells "Whoa! Whooo-aa! Ahhh!" a lot, and Hopkins tries not to over-exert himself. You yawn. In a climactic scene, a gorgeous European field of brilliant green grass is befouled by a car chase fit for a Saturday Night Live skit. At least it seems like the movie's climax, until the CIA chief tells us that the bad guys might keep moving their hostage 10 or 20 times before they're done. Oh no. Leave now. Better yet, keep your money and rent a movie where Chris Rock gets to be funny, or where Anthony Hopkins gets to act. — John DeFore
Dogtown and Z-Boys
"Documentary glides through skateboarding history"
Dir. Stacy Peralta; writ. Peralta and Craig Stecyk; feat. Sean Penn, Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Peralta, Nathan Pratt, Henry Rollins, Wentzle Ruml, Allen Sarlo (PG-13)
The birth of modern skateboarding, which is the subject of Dogtown and Z-Boys, is not quite as momentous as the birth of modern immunology or even free verse. When it is not a noisy nuisance and a hazard to more constructive occupations such as jogging, cycling, or even walking, skateboarding is a sport, a discipline, and an entree into a subculture of adolescent urban guerrillas. Combining vintage footage, current interviews, and narration by Sean Penn, Dogtown and Z-Boys examines the history, sociology, and aesthetics of surfing on cement.
Like hula hoops and yo-yos, skateboarding emerged and faded as a teenage fad during the 1950s and 1960s. Development of urethane wheels in 1972 offered new potential, but it took a ragged group of raffish young ocean surfers to transform skateboarding into choreography and commerce. Sponsored by the Zephyr Shop in Dogtown, a seedy section of Santa Monica, they conquered the 1975 Del Mar national tournament with a revolutionary pivotal style and vertical maneuvers modeled after surfing. They had honed their techniques in private swimming pools they surreptitiously drained. Dogtown and Z-Boys follows the fates of a dozen graceful kids as they confront the lure of commercial success and the prudence of maturity. — Steven G. Kellman
Nine Queens (Neuve Reinas)
"An exhilarating swim with Argentine sharks"
Writ. & dir. Fabián Bielinsky; feat. Gastón Pauls, Ricardo Darín, Leticia Bredice, Tomás Fonzi (R)
Pickpockets, muggers, and cheats throng the streets of Buenos Aires, warns Marcos (Darín), himself a seasoned hustler. In the opening sequence of Nine Queens, Marcos comes to the rescue of a stranger, Juan (Pauls), who botches his attempt to swindle the clerk at a convenience store. Pretending to be a cop, Marcos takes Juan into his custody and then offers to be his mentor and partner in criminal cons. The two embark on a series of scams, culminating in an attempt to peddle a counterfeit block of rare Weimar stamps, named the Nine Queens, for $450,000.
In his agile first outing as director, Fabián Bielinsky tells a picaresque tale of a world — contemporary, insolvent Argentina — in which even Diogenes would despair of finding an honest man, or woman. It would not do to reveal too much of his cunning plot, except to applaud the verve with which he pulls it off. Beyond lifting a woman's purse and thwarting a waiter's attempt to collect the restaurant bill, outwitting the audience is the film's ultimate challenge. Juan and Marcos have reason not to trust their victims or each other, but what makes Nine Queens itself so exhilarating is the fact that even as the final credits scroll across the screen, the bamboozled viewer still is not sure which version of events to credit. Here confidence is a game, and Bielinsky plays it well. — Steven G. Kellman
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Dir. Callie Khouri; writ. Rebecca Wells & Mark Andrus (from book by Wells); feat. Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, James Garner, Maggie Smith (PG-13)
I guess I had to be there ... in a literary frame of mind that is. Maybe then, I too would have been clutching my belly with uncontrollable laughter as the rest of the theatre was. But I never read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the popular book predating the movie, so I'll pretend that's the reason the jokes flew over my head. (Or perhaps I was slightly affected by my two disinterested male movie companions.)
Although I hate to hear critics pit new movies against the better ones of old, I couldn't help but compare this elderly-chick flick to rather recent ones such as The Joy Luck Club and even Steel Magnolias. All three have the same general plot of daughters learning to reconcile struggles with their mothers, and thereby healing their own inner wounds, with a little help from Mom and her cronies. In Divine Secrets, the sacred wisdom is doled out by a self-centered, flaky mother (played by the brilliant Ellen Burstyn ) and her gaggle of goofy friends. The aforementioned films span more generations and vignettes with stronger voices and better-defined characters. In this take, the women are a blur of silver-haired gossip mongers with similar styles of wit that center on alcohol and old age. And without spoiling the supposed climax, I will divulge this: The biggest secrets, slowly leaked throughout the movie, weren't really that juicy.
Despite these annoyances, Divine Secrets does have a few golden moments of lighthearted humor and moving drama, accomplished mostly by Burstyn, Judd (Burstyn's younger self), and Garner, who we should have seen more of. Although it is a film for and about women, there's none of the typical male-bashing involved. It's a feel-good movie, the kind American audiences are supposed to drool over these days. — Xelena González