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Movie Reviews: The Bucket List, Persepolis, The Great Debaters 

Also National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and more

Wednesday, Dec 19 2007
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4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS See film feature

 ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here soon. (Citywide)

THE BUCKET LIST The sort of movie that inspires you to ponder all the better uses to which the chemical ingredients of 35mm film stock might be put, director Rob Reiner’s atrocious cancer “comedy” marks a new low in Hollywood’s self-flagellating “things to be thankful for” tradition — those movies that reliably arrive with the change of season, in which men of great wealth and influence learn that there are things more important in life than cold hard cash. Here, our surrogate Scrooge is a pompous hospital privatizer (Jack Nicholson), who ends up a terminally ill patient in one of his own cut-rate institutions, whereupon he and his salt-of-the-earth, garage-mechanic bedmate (Morgan Freeman) conspire to set off together and — you know — do everything they ever wanted to do before they die. As imagined by screenwriter Justin Zackham, those tasks include “witness something totally majestic,” “drive a Shelby Mustang” and “laugh until I cry” — all of which Nicholson and Freeman must have wanted to do without leaving the studio backlot, judging from the laughably bad stock footage and blue-screen effects that attempt to place the geriatric globetrotters at the Taj Mahal, the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China. Memories of that other acrid, round-the-world Reiner fantasy, North, are never far at hand. Zackham, meanwhile, cooks ups such zingers as “Sounds like my third wife — woman thought mayonnaise came from a plant” and manages to make a running joke out of coffee beans made from the feces of Sumatran tree cats. It’s a very expensive form of shit, we’re told, but not nearly as much as the one right before our eyes. (The Grove) (Scott Foundas)

CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR See film feature

THE GREAT DEBATERS First: Just register the laziness of that title. All right. The Inspiring True Story behind The Great Debaters is the 1930s championship streak of East Texas’ all-black Wiley College debate team, coached by poet and teacher Melvin B. Tolson. This bit of historicity is the excuse for an educational tour of the re-created Jim Crow South, where students learn life lessons amid demonstrative orchestration. Denzel Washington, declaiming Langston Hughes and professorially popping a pipe in and out of his mouth, plays Tolson with typical toothsome preening. (Forest Whitaker shows up as a fellow Wiley faculty member, to remind the viewer what it’s like not to be acted at.) Director Denzel is an adequate handler of cinematic gush and platitude, though, and even tries out a few snaky tracking shots and a compositional nod to Manet. That’s about as surprising as things get; the film avoids potentially interesting frictions by always letting the team debate (and win) on the “correct” side of every issue — that which aligns with generally accepted modern liberal sympathies. The kids follow their party line all the way to the big game — a ridiculous, fallacy-riddled face-off against Harvard. Nobody gets to root for his teammates from a hospital bed, but I’ll bet the idea was at least floated. (Selected theaters) (Nick Pinkerton)

NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS Oscar winner in hideous haircut? Check. Love interest with foreign accent? Yup, that too. Insanely convoluted treasure hunt involving multiple ancient clues to a historical mystery? You know it. But this ain’t The Da Vinci Code, folks, and the reason you can tell is that it’s actually quite entertaining. Perhaps not so much if you still think of Nicolas Cage as the serious method actor of yesteryear, but if you’ve learned to enjoy his current incarnation of shticks and tics, bugging out his eyes, smiling creepily at inappropriate moments, and RANDOMLY SHOUTING certain words for NO APPARENT REASON... this is for you. Cage’s Benjamin Gates is so insanely patriotic that when his ancestor is smeared as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, he sets out to prove otherwise by kidnapping the president and striding into the top-secret areas of pretty much every major national landmark, which is doubly preposterous given how conspicuous he is with all the yelling and wildly demonstrative hand gestures. If you can put all sense of realism on hold, however, you’ll be rewarded with a moderately pleasing diversion, featuring Justin Bartha as the genuinely amusing wiseass sidekick and Ed Harris doing a charmingly awful Old South accent. Also, Helen Mirren’s here, as Cage’s inexplicably English mother — Oscars apparently just don’t pay the bills. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

THE ORPHANAGE See film feature

P.S. I LOVE YOU This isn’t the first time that Richard LaGravenese, the gifted writer of A Little Princess and The Fisher King and writer-director of the lovely Living Out Loud, has gone best-seller slumming. His screenplay for The Bridges of Madison County was good enough to persuade a dispiriting number of respected critics that a movie was worth making out of that dreadful piece of pulp. Nothing, however, could redeem the chipper folk wisdom of P.S. I Love You, the first novel (for want of a better word) of Cecelia Ahern, a 20-something Irish “writer” whose chief literary asset is a sharp eye for the winning romantic formula. Hilary Swank, who was not put in this world to simper, does little else as a young wife whose twinkly leprechaun of an Irish husband (Gerard Butler, who’s Scottish, but never mind) has died, leaving her to mope around in lacy black underwear, do her nails, and lean on Mom (Kathy Bates) and the usual wisecracking friends (Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon). Guided by flashbacks to happier days and perky letters left behind by her obliging hubby, Swank takes healing trips to scenic Wicklow County, where dimpled replacement hunks lie thick on the ground. LaGravenese has sliced away the worst of Ahern’s excruciating prose, but that proves a negative virtue. With “She longed for the couch to hold out its arms to her” out of the way, there’s little left to dance with but the old stages-of-grief two-step, and some blessedly irreverent noodling with Harry Connick Jr. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

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