- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

OPENING

• Gabrielle (2005) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter). A drama of marital estrangement derived from a Joseph Conrad story, “The Return,” set in Paris about a century ago and directed by Patrice Chereau, best known for “Queen Margot.” The co-stars are Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Avalon.

• The Guardian (2006) (PG-13). The Coast Guard finally gets an admiring showcase from Hollywood, which co-stars Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher as respectively seasoned and aspiring rescue swimmers, destined to contend with digitally enhanced storms at sea. Mr. Kutcher is trained by Mr. Costner and then joins his unit on demanding patrol duty in Alaska.

• Jesus Camp (2006) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter). A fascinating, reluctantly deadpan summary of the fervent course of instruction at a summer camp for the children of evangelical Christians, supervised at a North Dakota retreat by Becky Fischer, probably not a culture hero to the documentary team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Three of the kids emerge as charismatic prospects. A prize-winner at the most recent Silverdocs Film Festival.

• Keeping Mum (2006) (R). A smalltown British comedy with homicidal undercurrents. A new housekeeper played by Maggie Smith brings somewhat alarming new efficiencies to the dysfunctional family of an absent-minded vicar played by Rowan Atkinson. Kristin Scott Thomas and Patrick Swayze also have co-starring roles.

• Open Season (2006) (PG: Occasional slapstick vulgarity). A computer-animated farce about a deer that liberates a tame bear on the eve of hunting season. The partnership supposedly makes the forest safe for a menagerie of facetious critters. With Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher, Debra Messing and Gary Sinise in principal vocal roles.

• Renaissance (2006) (R). A science-fiction thriller from European filmmakers, who employ a number of animation techniques aimed at the “graphic novel” audience. The ostensible setting is Paris about 50 years from now, where a private eye dubbed by Daniel Craig is hired to recover an abducted scientist (Romola Garai) for a sinister super-corporation, Avalon, which monopolizes cosmetics and genetic research.

• School for Scoundrels (2006) (PG-13). A Hollywood update of the 1960 British comedy, derived from Stephen Potter?s “Gamesmanship” humor books. This remake stars Billy Bob Thornton as the unscrupulous instructor in a self-help course that attracts lovelorn traffic cop Jon Heder, who pines for Jacinda Barrett.

• The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006) (PG-13). A documentary feature that recalls the ill-fated Beatle?s publicity campaigns and passport disputes after taking up residence in New York in the 1970s and becoming an anti-war activist.

NOW SHOWING

• All the King’s Men (2006) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, violence and sexual candor) — **1/2. Writer and director Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 book is a moving illustration of Lord Acton’s maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sean Penn as Willie Stark fully becomes the corrupted politico in a perfect performance, and the whole cast is impressive. But it’s a slightly sloppy piece of work, made ponderous by narrative voiceovers. Jude Law plays the problematic narrator-protagonist, Jack Burden, a patrician who becomes a go-between for the upstart governor Stark. With Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Black Dahlia (2006) (R: Strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and adult language) — **. Director Brian De Palma returns with this noir tale about two detectives tracking down the man who killed a Hollywood hopeful. Neither Mr. De Palma’s trademark visuals, nor two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, can overcome the ridiculous final reel. — Christian Toto

• Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? (2006) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter). A documentary feature by Frank Popper about the 2004 congressional campaign of a Missouri political longshot named Jeff Smith, evoking memories of the James Stewart character in Frank Capra’s famous rabble-rouser “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. Not reviewed.

• Confetti (2006) (R). A British comedy about three couples who become finalists in a bridal magazine’s contest for “most original wedding.” Written and directed by Debbie Isitt, with Martin Freeman, Jessica Stevenson, Stephen Managan, Felicity Montagu, Jimmy Carr and Alison Steadman as her ensemble. Not reviewed.

• Feast (2006) (R). The latest beneficiary of the Project Greenlight showcase, which hasn’t proved a theatrical advantage to previous recipients. This semi-facetious horror thriller was contrived by director John Gulager and co-writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. Presumably under the influence of “Shaun of the Dead,” they envision an isolated tavern where several young strangers must defend themselves against a family of zombies. Not reviewed.

• Flyboys (2006) (PG-13: Some sexual content and war-themed action sequences) — **1/2. A World War I action film, based on the real life of the Lafayette Escadrille, a pioneering squad of French and American fighter pilots who battled German forces in the months before this country entered the war. It brims with heroism, cross-cultural conflicts and the inherent drama of the earliest days of flight. But “Flyboys” opts for a flyweight take on history, soaring chiefly when its special effects capture the spectacular dogfights. James Franco leads the mostly unfamiliar cast, proving once again he’s the ideal man for superficial fare. — Christian Toto

• Gridiron Gang (2006) (PG-13). A topical-inspirational sports melodrama that stars Dwayne Johnston, aka The Rock, as a probation officer at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. He takes it upon himself to organize and coach an inmate football team. With Xzibit, Vanessa Ferlitto, L. Scott Caldwell, Leon Rippy and Kevin Dunn. Directed by Phil Joanou from a screenplay by Jeff Maguire. Not reviewed.

• Haven (2006) (R). A romantic suspense melodrama set in the Cayman Islands, where Orlando Bloom and Zoe Saldana are a love match. The cast also includes Bill Paxton, Gabriel Byrne and Bobby Cannavale. Written and directed by Frank E. Flowers. Not reviewed.

• Hollywoodland (2006) (R: Occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor) — ***. A noir mixture of movieland biopic and sinister speculation, recalling the circumstances surrounding the premature death in 1959 of actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck), out of work and out of favor at 49 after making his mark as Superman on a low-budget TV series. He is presumed to have shot himself, but his mother hires gumshoe Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) to investigate. Simo takes the case — it’s a way to make a quick buck and maybe even get himself some publicity — but as he delves into it he actually starts to care. This real-life unsolved mystery has plenty of dramatic potential. In his feature film debut, director Allen Coulter makes the most of it while never going over the top. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Idlewild (2006) (R)* . An original film musical with a 1930s setting by members of the hip-hop group OutKast, Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton. The film looks terrific — beautifully framed in dusky, sensuous hues befitting the underworld of the Depression-era. But looks, alas, can be deceiving. Directed by Bryan Barber, the film is little more than an extended music video enabling its stars to play dress-up and preen amid a contrived and confused plot set to anachronistic hip-hop songs, complete with a predictable ending. Mr. Benjamin doesn’t outright fumble his lines. Mostly, he looks gorgeous on screen. Cicely Tyson and Patti LaBelle contribute little in star cameos. The choreography by District native and three-time Tony winner Hinton Battle is splendid, but can’t rescue this film. — Robyn-Denise Yourse

• The Illusionist (2006) (PG-13: Some sexuality and violence) — **1/2. Edward Norton is the title character, a stage magician circa 1900 Vienna whose show seems more magic than simple slight of hand. His act draws the ire of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and his conflicted police captain (Paul Giamatti). The stars shine as expected but the film trips over a soggy love triangle. — Christian Toto

• Invincible (2006) (PG: Sports violence and some adult language). ***. The true story of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Vince Papale is told with considerable emotion in this new biopic. Mark Wahlberg is Vince, rabid Eagles fan, recent divorcee and superior weekend warrior who decides to check out an open tryout for his favorite team. Weeks later, he’s on the squad. The film hits all the expected sports film highlights, but does so with a passion befitting its underdog subject. — Christian Toto

• Jackass II (2006) (R). A return engagement for Johnny Knoxville and his intrepid, harebrained stunt team, illustrating the risk-taking impulse at its least desirable. Directed by Jeff Tremaine. Not reviewed.

• Jet Li’s Fearless (2006) (PG-13: Violent action sequences) — **1/2. Jet Li, in what he promises is his final martial arts film, plays martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia in this intense biopic. In portraying the man who overcame great personal strife to embody the finest aspects of martial arts at the dawn of the 20th century, Mr. Li tells a broader story of peace, personal growth and national pride in his inimitable style. We have to endure plenty of the choppy acting and signpost storytelling characteristic of martial-arts movies, but Mr. Li makes it worth our while. — Christian Toto

• The Last Kiss (2006) (R) — **1/2. A coming-of-age tale for a new generation, the thirtysomethings who don’t want to grow up, this comedy-drama remakes the 2001 Italian film “L’Ultimo bacio,” transporting it to Wisconsin. Zach Braff plays a successful architect who’s about to settle down with Jacinda Barrett but can’t stop thinking about Rachel Bilson and doesn’t want to give up choices. Directed by Tony Goldwyn from a screenplay by Paul Haggis, renowned for “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash.” — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Little Miss Sunshine (2006) (R) — ***1/2. A hilarious black comedy that follows a family of misfits on a road trip from Albuquerque, N.M., to Redondo Beach, Calif., in a broken-down VW bus as they try to get 7-year-old Olive to California in time to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. This could be the funniest film of the year. With Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette as the parents, Alan Arkin as an irascible gramps, Steve Carell as a traumatized brother-in-law and Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano as the kids. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Protector (2006) (R: Pervasive violence and some sexual content) — **. Thai action hero Tony Jaa returns as a young man out to reclaim his family’s lost honor as well as two stolen elephants. Mr. Jaa’s acrobatic fighting is the only reason to sit through the film, but boy, is he a marvel to behold in full fury mode. — Christian Toto

• Quinceanera (2006) (R) — ***. This may be the most insightful film about Latino culture in a long while. The title alludes to the approaching 15th birthday celebration of heroine Magdalena, played by Emily Rios in an impressive debut. When she discovers she’s pregnant, her preacher father kicks her out of the family home. She moves in with a forgiving great-uncle, who already has one tenant, a young nephew, on the premises. Some dialogue in Spanish with English subtitles. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Science of Sleep (2006) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual allusions and comic vulgarity) — ***. The first French-made feature by the exceptionally imaginative and playful Michel Gondry, whose earlier pictures were collaborations with the American humorist Charlie Kaufman — “Human Behavior” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The latter won them an Academy Award as best original screenplay. “Sleep” brings the dream world of one very confused young man to magical life. It is set in Paris and luxuriates in the fantasy life of a young illustrator played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who becomes smitten with neighbor Charlotte Gainsbourg after moving back to an apartment owned by his mother, Miou-Miou. With a witty supporting performance by Alain Chabat as an office jester. Some dialogue in French with English subtitles. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Snakes on a Plane (2006) (R) — **1/2. The heavily promoted reptile-phobic thriller with Samuel L. Jackson starring as the most resourceful potential victim on a flight imperiled by hundreds of poisonous snakes. Director David R. Ellis strikes just the right tone for such B-movie nonsense in the opening moments and hangs on for dear life. The shock moments are uniformly telegraphed. The film is a lowest common denominator romp. — Christian Toto

• This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter) — **. Why are films rated the way they are? Director Kirby Dick attempts to answer that question with this new documentary, a jaunty, vaguely comic, low-budget affair, interspersed with lively graphics and montages of clips from the films it discusses. It tries to tar the ratings board with charges of secrecy and censorship, but it mostly serves as a forum for purveyors of graphic sexual imagery to whine that movie theaters and retail outlets have declined to air their work. And, quite unintentionally, it reminds viewers — with its barrages of sexually explicit imagery — why the major movie studios instituted a ratings system to begin with. — Peter Suderman

• World Trade Center (2006) (PG-13: Intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language) — **1/2. Director Oliver Stone re-creates the September 11 attacks with all the precision and reverence he can muster. What Mr. Stone’s film doesn’t do is go beyond the headlines and obvious emotional highlights. Stars Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena fare best as two Port Authority workers trapped under the fallen Twin Towers. — Christian Toto

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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