Dir. John Lee Hancock; writ. Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, Hankcock; feat. Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarría, Jordi Mollá (PG-13)
In its rush to be every thing to every one, The Alamo fails to bring forth anything other than a paint-by-the-numbers rendering of that historical event that provided the rallying cry for those who would forge the then Mexican state of Tejas into a republic. But trying to focus on six major characters in two hours, as well as sundry minor characters, battles, and military strategy, is beyond the abilities of the filmmakers who bite off a larger hunk of Texas history than they can chew. And unless you have a degree in Texas history, you are unlikely to even then to know the difference between Texans, Texians, Tejanos, Mexicans, and Texicans that the film bandies about without actually explaining. Additionally, the screenplay, which was "doctored" by more writers than the Marx brothers, never rises above the cardboard characterizations of Bowie, Travis, and Houston. Only Emilio Echevarría's over-the-top portrayal of the Mexican general Santa Ana and Billy Bob Thornton's larger-than-life David Crockett manage to hold our attention - part of the time. GB
Dir. & writ. Lars von Trier; feat. Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Blair Brown, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Harriet Andersson, John Hurt (R)
Dogville isn't Kill Bill, Vol. 2, but Nicole Kidman could certainly show Uma Thurman a thing or two about the correct way of exacting vengeance. Like all engaging works of art, you may want to walk out of Dogville, shout at the screen, applaud, pick a fight, or return to confront its perplexity anew. It is that audacious and challenging.
Von Trier shot this masterful three-hour film in HD video as a theater piece. Replete with chalk markings and labels for missing props, this stripped-down universe is laid bare on a sound stage not unlike Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The director has found his muse in Nicole Kidman, who is mesmerizing from first frame to last. As the fugitive Grace, she sneaks into the Depression-era mining town and is taken under the wing of young Tom, a budding writer- and later lover - who arranges for her to find work in the self-sufficient town. The townsfolk grow to like Grace but turn against her when a wanted poster reveals she is on the lam for bank robbery. The Dogvillians make her work longer hours and worse. Her via crucis includes beatings, multiple rapes, and other atrocities. For von Trier fans, there is good news. Dogville is the first part of an American trilogy. GB
Dir. Barry Levinson; writ. Steve Adams; feat. Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Rachel Weisz, Amy Poehler, Christopher Walken (PG-13) In Envy, the relationship of best friends and coworkers Jack Black and Ben Stiller is threatened when Black becomes insanely wealthy overnight. Black has invented an aerosol spray that instantly disintegrates dog feces, relieving a nation of canine owners from their hated scooping duties.
That image - of a piece of crap on the ground, vanishing completely when a spray is aimed at it - is a tempting one to use when talking about the film. There's simply nothing in Envy worth talking about. No laughs, no outrage, no mystery.
In a way, there's not even anything to be disappointed about. Anyone walking in with high expectations would do well to question their source: Is there a reason to expect much from director Barry Levinson, who made a couple of fine films in the '80s but whose work has ranged from so-so to disastrous since? Or from Ben Stiller, an apparently smart funnyman who seems to be bending over backward to dumb-down his filmography - and not fake-dumb, á la Zoolander, but the real McCoy? Even Jack Black - so perfect in School of Rock, High Fidelity, and his own Tenacious D material - clearly only shines when he's working under a gifted director.
So abandon hope, moviegoers: Envy is broad without effective slapstick, crass without hitting any nerves, and parable-like without saying anything at all.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Dir. Michel Gondry; writ. Charlie Kaufman, Gondry, Pierre Bismuth; feat. Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo (R)
A clinic on Long Island called Lacuna has developed a neural technology that makes it possible to expunge particular memories from a client's brain. Exasperated by her boyfriend Joel's ambivalence and his reluctance to have a child, Clementine (Winslet) decides to wash that man right out of her mind. In retaliation, Joel (Carrey) visits Lacuna and pays them to erase Clementine from his mind, almost entirely.
With Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman proved himself a maestro of metafiction, of scripts that move in and out of the illusory world that they create. We are immersed in movie fantasy and then propelled into another layer of awareness. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind invites us to experience the romantic memories of Joel and Clementine, but it also reminds us that, like the cinematic medium itself, those memories are mutable. What we see onscreen is being deleted while we watch. SGK
Dir. Nick Hamm; writ. Mark Bomback; feat. Greg Kinnear, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Robert De Niro, Cameron Bright (PG-13)
It is a dark and stormy night at the beginning of Godsend, a horror film whose ambiguous title suggests both divine beneficence and the death of the deity. The Duncans are about as perfect a nuclear family as can be found on any screen since Robert Young grew old. Paul (Kinnear) and his wife Jessie (Romijn-Stamos), a professional photographer, adore each other and dote on their only child, Adam. Yet many frames before it happens, viewers are cued to expect that Adam's Eden will be shattered. The day after a joyous celebration of his eighth birthday, Adam is killed by a wayward car.
In the 1994 film that was called Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (but was really director Kenneth Branagh's), Robert De Niro portrayed the famous Monster. But here he is the obsessed scientist, a brilliant medical researcher named Richard Wells who has perfected the techniques of human cloning. But when the new Adam reaches eight, terrible things begin to happen.
As Adam, Cameron Bright sports the impassive face and bright blue eyes that could signal either godsend or God's end. Hokey, spooky music and manipulative camera angles signal twists to the plot a lot earlier than they should. The denouement of Godsend depends on the preposterous premise that genes retain and transmit specific memories, as if the child of Kenneth Lay's tax accountant would inherit knowledge of how much he deducted for charitable donations in 1973. It takes a trained geneticist to appreciate the full horror of Godsend. SGK
Good Bye, Lenin!
Dir. & writ. Wolfgang Becker; feat. Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Sass, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Florian Lukas (R)
A German Rip Van Winkle, Christiane Kerner (Sass) collapses into a coma on October 7, 1989. She awakens, eight months later, to a world utterly transformed. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and Christiane, a patriotic citizen of East Germany, is now living in eastern Germany, part of a newly unified nation whose guiding principle is consumerism, not Communism. However, Christiane's doctor advises her son, Alex (Bruhl), that the patient's health remains extremely fragile; any shock will kill her. Alex sets about trying to shelter his Marxist mother from any intimation that the German Democratic Republic no longer exists, devising increasingly elaborate strategies to keep his mother convinced that nothing at all has happened, that the chill is still on the Cold War. Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! is thus built upon a play within a film, a spectacle staged by Alex to insulate his mother from real-life historical drama. Becker uses his ingenious premise to create hilarious satire. SGK
Dir. Guillermo del Toro; writ. del Toro, Mike Mignola (orig. comic); feat. Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, John Hurt, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, David Hyde Pierce (voice) (PG-13)
Mexican native Guillermo del Toro has devoted his career to the many facets of horror. The director approached this material as a true fan, and it shows. He respects his characters, from the big red fella (played by Ron Perlman, one of the few real-life men who could match the comic creature's physical presence) to fish-man Abe Sapien, pyrotechnically challenged Liz Sherman, and the human doctor who has cared for Hellboy through an adolescence that is only now in its final phases. Fans of the comic will be surprised at the changes del Toro has made. But the changes (all endorsed by comic creator Mike Mignola) are all in the service of bringing out human truths latent in the source material. Yet around all this mushy stuff is an honest-to-goodness comic book romp, full of action and monsters and Nazi soldiers made of sawdust and clockwork. It's silly and fun, and provides Hellboy opportunities to smash things with that Buick-sized red right hand. The characters are brought to life as vividly as can be imagined. JD
Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Dir. & writ. Quentin Tarantino; feat. Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks (R)
Joyless dialogue is one reason Vol. 2 feels fairly anticlimactic after the first half's thrill ride. Another reason is that there simply was nothing the filmmaker could do to top the violent spectacle of the first film's "House of Blue Leaves" sequence. Instead, there's almost no fight at all once the Bride (Thurman) meets Bill (Carradine); the conflict is more emotional than violent. Still, there's a lot to like about the film, including a showcase fight scene that takes place not in a cavernous Japanese restaurant but in a cramped trailer home whose dimensions make swordfighting a challenging proposition. Vol. 2 ends with an overextended credits sequence in which many actors (from both chapters) get their names in lights twice, and even the gaffer gets a full-screen acknowledgment. Maybe this installment's long goodbye will make more sense as part of some future Director's Cut, in which the Bride meets all her enemies in one four-hour stretch - but here it's just one more small, questionable decision keeping Vol. 2 from its better half's greatness. JD
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen; writ. Coens, William Rose (orig. screenplay); feat. Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons (R)
Tom Hanks is a ridiculously eccentric Southern gentleman who takes up residence in the home of an elderly black lady, where he hopes to use the root cellar to rehearse with his chamber-music ensemble. The musicians are actually thieves, though, who intend to tunnel from the cellar to a nearby casino vault; they keep the landlady distracted by playing classical recordings while taking pick and shovel to the loamy walls of the rehearsal room. This is the first Coen Brothers film to have so many black actors in its cast, and some viewers may walk out of the theater feeling a little itchy about the movie's racial attitudes. That's nothing new: The filmmakers routinely let stereotypes do some of their characterization for them. But that's equally true for Jews, Minnesotans, trailer-park white folk, and Texas billionaires, who are almost invariably cartoonish exaggerations - Miller's Crossing aside, there simply aren't a lot of believable human beings in the Coen Universe. That hasn't seemed to bother audiences up until now, and there's no reason it should here. JD
The Passion of the Christ
Dir. Mel Gibson; writ. Benedict Fitzgerald, Gibson; feat. James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Jivkov, Hristo Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano (R)
By restricting itself to the final 12 hours of Jesus' life, The Passion of the Christ revels in distress devoid of context. Watching Jim Caviezel methodically transform into a barely ambulant corpse oozing blood from every pore, one might reasonably ask: What is the point? Christian theology responds: the ministry and the resurrection. But Mel Gibson's movie offers neither. A few fleeting flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount are insufficient to establish faith, hope, and charity as counterweights to the ferocious malice on display for all but a couple of minutes. The film provides no basis for understanding the fury that drives the Temple priests and the crowds in the streets to demand the death of a supremely loving man. It is pain without purpose, the spectacle of savage violence ravaging the Prince of Peace. At the end, a momentary image of Jesus on his feet and washed of his wounds points to the resurrection, but it hardly redeems this bloody film. SGK
Writ. & dir. David Mamet; feat. Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill, Tia Texada, Kristen Bell, Clark Gregg (R)
The lone ranger here is Val Kilmer's Robert Scott, an ice-cold military man brought in by the Secret Service for a sensitive job. The daughter of a V.I.P. has been abducted, and he is to help rescue her before the media finds out or unknown forces make her safety irrelevant. Scott has an advantage over most movie characters of his sort: His dialogue is written by David Mamet. So what comes out of his mouth is stringently macho to the core, as opposed to the nickel-plated trash talk of your average action hero. Corrupting power in general is what this movie and its "worker bee" hero come to challenge, and this smart, nervy battle is as gripping as the conflict is timeless. 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