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RECENT REVIEWS

American Splendor
Dir. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini; writ. Berman, Pulcini, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner; feat. Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Earl Billings, Judah Friedlander, Pekar, Brabner (R)
Early on, the filmmakers capture the precise vibe of some of comic illustrator Harvey Pekar's best-known scenes. But Berman and Pulcini aren't only interested in dramatizing what's on the page. As the comic itself is self-referential, they occasionally let the movie twist back on itself and focus on the actual Pekar and Brabner. It ain't always splendid, but it's a slice of honest Americana rarely seen onscreen. JD

Anything Else
Dir. Woody Allen; feat. Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, Allen, Stockard Channing, Danny DeVito, Jimmy Fallon (R)
Through flashbacks, continuing dramatic action, and Jerry's own commentary delivered into the camera, Anything Else traces how Amanda and Jerry met, ignited, and made ashes of themselves. Much more interesting is the figure of David Dobel, a deranged sage who quotes Albert Camus and stocks his harangues with sesquipedalian words. Freed from the protocols of romantic lead, Woody Allen creates in Dobel a manic blend of paranoid and prophet. SGK

Ghosts of the Abyss
Dir. and writ. James Cameron; feat. Cameron, Bill Paxton (G)
The rotting husk of the world's most famous ship comes alive here, with one of Hollywood's most gifted spectacle-makers using 3-D cameras to document the wreckage of the Titanic. James Cameron uses generous doses of computer imagery and re-created sets to show how great masses were once elegant decks and sepulchral chambers were once luxurious staterooms -- combining science, history, and gee-whiz effects in a very satisfying way. JD

 
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Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation (Courtesy photo)
Lost in Translation
Dir. & writ. Sofia Coppola; feat. Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Akiko Takeshita (R)
Bill Murray plays a movie star who has come to Tokyo to make a quick $2 million for endorsing a whiskey. Scarlett Johansson plays the wife of a self-absorbed commercial photographer who goes with him on a business trip and spends her days alone while he works. The two are staying in the same hotel; neither is sleeping well, and during their insomniac strolls, they cross paths enough times that they strike up a friendship. Both individuals are wrestling with their lives in ways that make them hungry for meaningful interaction. They are stranded in a country whose language and pop culture are baffling, but that's just a signpost for the alientation they suffer among those who supposedly speak their language. JD

The Magdalene Sisters Dir. & writ. Peter Mullan; feat. Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh (R)
The Hibernian branch of zealots called itself the Sisters of Mercy, and imposed its rigid brand of piety through a gulag of Catholic workhouses for wayward girls. The Magdalene Sisters dramatizes the real-life cases of four teenagers who were incarcerated and brutalized in one of these Christian establishments. It is essentially a women's prison drama set in a hellish institution where sadism and misogyny masquerade as rectitude, exposing another shameful chapter in the history of outrages committed in the tarnished name of religious purity. SGK

Matchstick Men
Dir. Ridley Scott; writ. Nicholas Griffin, Ted Griffin, based on a novel by Eric Garcia; feat. Nicholas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill (PG-13)
Attempting to reestablish contact with his former wife, Roy is told that though she has no wish to see him, the teenage daughter he never met does. A finicky bachelor, he becomes host to a boisterous stranger who disrupts his existence. Chamber work for flamboyant director Ridley Scott, the film offers stings within schemes within scams. But the brightest fire in Matchstick Men illuminates a dysfunctional life humanized by the ancient fictions of fatherhood. SGK

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Dir. & writ. Robert Rodriguez; feat. Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Rubén Blades, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (R)
Robert Rodriguez falls short of delivering on the promise of an epic film. Even his trademark cinematic flourishes seem reined in. Depp's Agent Sands dominates - pushing even the iconic Mariachi to the sides. As appealing as parts of the film are to a sense of cultural pride, it ultimately leaves viewers wondering whether it is entertainment as empowerment - or exploitation. AP

Seabiscuit
Writ. & dir. Gary Ross, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand; feat. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens, William H. Macy (PG-13)
If only for its spectacular sequences of man-on-horse in motion, Seabiscuit is a splendid addition to the cinema of sports. But with the judicious use of stills and the voiceover of historian David McCullough, it also provides the snapshot of an era, the late 1930s, when Depression America was more than a little banged up, and the little colt that could gave hope to millions who could not. Seabiscuit is a horse's tale about underdogs, and from starting gate to finish line it is a timely and tonic reminder that once upon a time in America, neither wealth nor birth counted as much as spunk. SGK

Secondhand Lions
Dir. & writ. Tim McCanlies; feat. Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment, Kyra Sedgwick, Emmanuelle Vaugier (PG)
Grown-up Walter will never forget the summer of his 14th year, spent with his great uncles Garth and Hub, two mangy old coots who taught a fatherless youngster how to roar. It's hard to believe in Secondhand Lions as something more than a menagerie of quirks and other sweet but tired creatures. SGK

Thirteen
Dir. Catherine Hardwicke; writ. Hardwicke & Nikki Reed; feat. Evan Rachel Wood, Reed, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Sisto, Brady Corbet, Deborah Kara Unger (R)
Co-writer Nikki Reed, now a 15-year-old honors student, drew on her own tumultuous experiences to depict four explosive months in the lives of a couple of seventh graders driven wild by the end of childhood. It is a disturbing peek at how very difficult it is for girls to grow up in contemporary America without growing feral. Coming of age never seemed like such a kick - in the face. SGK

28 Days Later
Dir. Danny Boyle; writ. Alex Garland; feat. Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Noah Huntley, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Stuart McQuarrie, Christopher Eccleson (R)
For once, a zombie movie you can sink your teeth into! With plague-devastate London as a backdrop and bleak videotape cinematography to capture it, Trainspotting director Danny Boyle gets off on the right foot. He seals the deal by giving us zombies who come at you like hellfire instead of sleepwalkers, and by working non-undead threats into the scenario. Forgive the occasional horror-film pitfalls, and go get scared. JD

Underworld
Dir. Len Wiseman; writ. Kevin Grevioux, et al.; feat. Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly (R)
The unimaginative decaying urban set could be a war-torn communist block city, and Beckinsale's lovely visage does not compensate for the disappointing realization that every last one of her action scenes is a paler version of Trinity's escapades; except for one move ripped straight from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. EW

Whale Rider
Dir. & writ. Niki Caro, based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera; feat. Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis (PG-13)
Filmed in spectacular coastal Whangara, on New Zealand's North Island, Whale Rider is a beguiling exercise in both ethnography and wish fulfillment. It is a South Pacific fish story that assumes respect for history and sympathy for social justice - and provides an inspiring, implausible conclusion that reduced the woman I saw it with to blubbering. SGK

Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff


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