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RECENT REVIEWS

Esmeraldero
Dir. Andrew Molina; writ. Eishy Hayata; feat. Hayata, Eva Varella, Luis velasco, Juan Pablo Shuk (NR)
Esmeraldero's problems are numerous, but they revolve around a central mistake: Eishy Hayata, a Japanese-born Columbian emerald baron, wrote, produced, and stars in his autobiography, resulting in a two-dimensional picture of a morally ambiguous business and man. The actors and real people are believable about 50 percent of the time, and there are no unscripted moments, so we never get to know the subjects. Hayata drew himself as a Judge Roy Bean of the Columbian mine fields, making him slightly ridiculous when he is posturing in front of government agents or guerillas. EW

The Battle of Shaker Heights
Dir. Efram Potelle & Kyle Rankin; writ. Erica Beeney; feat. Shia LaBeouf, Elden Henson, Amy Smart, Billy Kay, Kathleen Quinlan, Shiri Appleby (PG-13)
To the extent that the film has a plot, it centers on Operation Mince Meat, the stratagem by Kelly (LaBeouf) to wreak revenge on a local bully. Enlisting other reenactors, he stages an early-morning raid that leaves the scared lad with a vacant bladder. Although The Battle of Shaker Heights lacks depths, it is a successful sortie with a bright and cheeky adolescent who learns to plant his banner on the right side of the border between fantasy and reality. SGK

Casa de Los Babys
Dir. & writ. John Sayles; feat. Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Rita Moreno, Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhall, Susan Lynch (R)
Director John Sayles latest film is the story of six North American women who go south to acquire abandoned babies. While enduring the ordeal of official approval, they stay in the same hotel, Casa de Los Babys. During the single day on which the film is focused, one would-be mother has already been waiting more than two months, and her application for a child seems no closer to endorsement than when she arrived. The supplicants pass their anxious time sightseeing and backbiting. SGK

Intolerable Cruelty
Dir. Joel Coen; writ. Joel & Ethan Coen, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone; feat. George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Billy Bob Thornton (PG-13)
Clooney's Miles Massey is the big shark in divorce-attorney waters, a Dapper Dan able to sell the most ludicrous settlements. In the course of raking Mrs. Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) through the coals in court, he falls for her hard and proceeds to make a fool of himself. While film history suggests that the Coens will eventually make a bad movie or two, it won't be this year: Cruelty hits the nail on the head. JD

Kill Bill
Dir. & writ. Quentin Tarantino; feat. Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, Sonny Chiba, Julie Dreyfus, David Carradine (R)
The movie follows a former member of the Deadly Viper Assassin Squad who was left for dead by treacherous colleagues, and makes it her mission to eliminate each of them. It's a movie soaked in blood, picked up and wrung out, then tossed back again into the carnage; and while it is not simply one long fight, it will hold little appeal for moviegoers who can't thrill to decapitations and epic duels. The director relishes the beautifully choreographed action and the bits of style - the long, high whine of an unsheathed sword, the geyser of blood produced by a de-limbed torso - that make cinematic violence a visual feast. JD

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

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

Mystic River
Dir. Clint Eastwood; writ. Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane; feat. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney (R)
Repressed memories of abuse propel the action and compel calamity in Mystic River. Never trust a stranger, according to the unspoken code that governs lusterless life beside the Mystic River, where everyone becomes a stranger. The recurrent motif of someone getting into a car driven by another is a visual reminder that danger lurks in letting go. Despite a few unnecessary digressions and a bothersome, redundant final scene, director Clint Eastwood's understated style parallels the silences that insulate, isolate, and destroy his characters. They inhabit a world in which laconic men are in control, or at least prove their masculinity by acting as if they - and not the force of Nemesis - could hold control. 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

Runaway Jury
Dir. Gary Fleder; writ. Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman, based on a novel by John Grisham; feat. John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz (PG-13)
The film focuses on a civil proceeding in which the widow of a stockbroker murdered by a psychopath charges Vicksburg Firearms with culpable liability. "Trials are too important to be left to juries," says Rankin Fitch (Hackman), a veteran specialist in jury management, who demands $30 million to guarantee Vicksburg immunity from legal judgment. Runaway Jury runs away from the intricacies of Second Amendment law and corporate responsibility toward a layered thriller. SGK School of Rock
Dir. Richard Linklater; writ. Mike White; feat. Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Joey Gaydos, Maryam Hassan, Kevin Clark, Rebecca Brown, Robert Tsai, Miranda Cosgrove (PG-13)
Dumped by his bandmates and way behind on the rent, would-be rawk star Dewey Finn stumbles into a temporary gig as the substitute teacher for a class of fifth-grade overachievers. After discovering that his class harbors a few talented musicians, he plans to use them to win a battle of the bands contest for $20,000. But first he must teach them how to rock. JD

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

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Dir. Marcus Nispel; writ. Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel (original), Scott Kosar; feat. Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Eric Balfour, R. Lee Ermey, Terrence Evans (R)
Although details have changed, the basic plot elements remain. A handful of road-tripping youngsters pick up a hitchhiker who is bad news. Shortly thereafter, they meet a family whose pride and joy enjoys attacking strangers with power tools and sewing patches of their skin together to wear over his own. Jessica Biel is so perfect for this kind of work that the female leads of other recent slasher flicks should hang their generic little heads in shame. No movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should be expected to have much respect for the dead. But this one has an awful lot of jump-in-your-seat fun at their expense. 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

Wonderland
Dir. James Cox; writ. Cox, Captain Maurzner; feat. Val Kilmer, Lisa Kudrow, Kate Bosworth, Dylan McDermott, Eric Bogosian (R)
This ain't Boogie Nights. Wonderland begins long after the fun stopped for porn star John Holmes (Kilmer), when the prodigiously penised actor was a drug-addicted lowlife caught up in a murder mystery. The filmmakers don't know any more about the case than what is in the press record, so they turn their tale into a raunchy Rashomon, pitting Holmes' account of a revenge killing against that of another junkie crook. Kilmer has redeemed troubled films before, but can't do much here. Again: If we had seen Holmes in a broader context, Kilmer might have had a better chance to make us care about him. As it is, the down-and-out porn star is a one-trick pony - whose trick stays firmly tucked in his trousers throughout the film. JD


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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