BACKSTAGE The 24-year-old French actress Isild Le Besco has made a career portraying sullen teenagers, mostly for veteran gamine-connoisseur Benoît Jacquot. But angst-ridden adolescence wont be her signature role much longer, and she kisses it off to splendid effect in Emmanuelle Bercots Backstage. An enjoyably overwrought meditation on the consequences of celebrity and the vicissitudes of fandom, Backstage stars Le Besco as the schoolgirl acolyte of Emmanuelle Seigners pop diva, a singer-songwriter and high priestess of cheese. Le Besco makes a pilgrimage to Paris and thanks in part to a spontaneous nosebleed at a strategic moment manages to cross the border between heaven and earth and insinuate herself into Seigners entourage. Thereafter, the film develops into an appropriately mood-swinging two-hander, with each of the principals more than a little scary. Publicity for Backstage compares it to All About Eve, but Le Bescos character wants something far crazier and more primal than to assume the stars career or have her clothes or her cute boyfriend or even her identity. Those are rational, if not exactly heartwarming, ambitions. Her desire is closer to founding a new religion. Shes possessed and Backstage is less case history than myth. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)
CHARLOTTES WEB Breathe easy: Gary Winicks new, live-action Charlottes Web does not screw up one of the seminal works of American childrens literature. In fact, the film manages to modernize this classic tale without losing the gravity and essential dignity of animals grappling with mortality. Winick skillfully undercuts the seriousness of the subject matter (Wilbur, the porcine protagonist, is essentially on death row for the entirety of the film) with contemporary sarcasm and a liberal dose of potty humor. While Dakota Fanning does well by Fern, the films pig-loving heroine, John Cleese, with his clipped British delivery, is the real scene-stealer as the elitist sheep Samuel. Then theres Steve Buscemi as scheming Templeton the rat and the always hilarious Thomas Haden Church as an addled crow both perfectly pitched comic relief. The only true weak spot in this basically charming adaptation is Wilbur. The cardinal sin in childrens movies is crossing the line from cute to cloying, and Dominic Scott Kays high-pitched, overly precocious whine is more saccharine than sweet. Still, with such stellar source material, this Charlottes Web wont disgrace your childhood memories or your child. (Citywide) (Jessica Grose)
ERAGON In a time of darkness, under the evil reign of John Malkovich who sits upon a throne in a different sound stage from the rest of the cast a hero shall rise. But lo, there will be little rejoicing, for this dragon rider (newcomer Edward Speleers) is but a nancy boy, about as imposing as Lance Bass, and somehow in possession of the only soap and clean clothes in all the land. (This despite being a humble farmer.) And there shall come a big blue CGI dragon, gifted with the telepathic timbre of Rachel Weisz, yet probably incapable of kicking the ass of the Sean Conneryvoiced beast from Dragonheart. Said dragon shall be the sole focus of all in director Stefen Fangmeiers lame fantasy world, its mighty pixels emoting more effectively than Djimon Hounsou and Robert Carlyle in bad wigs, or King Malkovichs army of evil balding fat men. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth will ensue, especially when singer Joss Stone tries to play a fortunetelling Gypsy, while songs by Avril Lavigne and Jem manifest upon the soundtrack. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
HOME OF THE BRAVE War is hell, says Home of the Brave, and if youre Curtis 50 Cent Jackson, so is acting. Fiddy gets a leg up from typecasting as Jamal Atkins, one of four demoralized veterans of Operation Enduring Fuckup, home from Iraq to a world of pain. How to handle back problems, bureaucratic indifference, memories of slaughtered innocents? And a boo that dont talk to him no mo? Keep it gangsta! Take a burger joint hostage. Like everyone else in Irwin Winklers beyond-earnest weepie, homeboy hurts and means it; the film is as sincere as a three-legged puppy. Less Prestige Picture du Jour than Movie of the Week, Home of the Braves heart is very much in the right place, but did it have to be placed so far out on the sleeve and must it bleed so profusely? As for its mind, its not so much that the script by first-timer Mark Friedman has nothing new to say, which it doesnt, but that Winklers emotional and technical resources are so middling he settles for it, leaving cast (Jessica Biel, Chad Michael Murray, Samuel L. Jackson) and crew to glide through bromides and coast along on the facile and formulaic. (ArcLight; AMC Century 15) (Nathan Lee)
KABUL EXPRESS Although its commercial Indian movie, writer-director Kabir Kahns Kabul Express is not another Bollywood songspiel. Its a songless, two-hour drama about two clueless greenhorn journalists, played by fashion plate John Abraham (Water) and comic scene-stealer Arshad Warsi (Munna Bhai MBBS), who travel from to Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban to hunt for scoops. Together with their Afghan guide (Hanif Hum Ghum) and an American tag-long (Linda Arsenio), the journos are van-jacked by a refugee Talib fighter (Salman Shahid) for a quick trip to the Pakistani border. Kabul Express is the first foreign production shot in Afghanistan since the war, but Kahn makes surprisingly little of his unique opportunity. Most of the areas we get to see are just endless vistas of pale brown dust and pale brown rocks, and the story that is acted out in front of them is confined dramatically to some standard PC comments on cultural stereotyping. But the film does depict an aspect of the Afghan conflict that will be unfamiliar to most Americans: The large numbers of Pakistani regular Army personal who were assigned to fight with the Taliban, only to be disowned and left stranded post-9/11, when their government found it prudent to shift its allegiance to the U.S. Here, as in Bahman Ghobadis Turtles Can Fly (which was set in Iraqi Kurdistan), the U.S. military is seen as a peripheral, occasionally lethal, flyover presence, suggesting that both the pro- and anti-war factions in the U.S. have an inflated sense of Americas importance in the region. How typical that even Americas dissidents should think of their country as the center of the universe. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8; Laguna Hills 3) (David Chute)
THE LISTENING Several years ago, journalists from the BBC and The New York Times uncovered the fact that the United States National Security Agency could remotely turn any telephone whether in use or not into an eavesdropping device. Such unsettling news has inspired Tony Scotts high-octane ballets of paranoia and canted camera angles, but in the hands of first-time director Giacomo Martelli, it results in a film as ungainly and insularly techy as a Tom Clancy novel. Honorable NSA old-timer James Wagley (Michael Parks) instantly despises Anthony Ashe (real-life son James Parks), a slick surveillance-company executive launching Tumbleweed, an elite NSA phone-tapping technology. But when sensitive documents about Tumbleweed go missing, a hasty investigation incorrectly targets Francesca (Maya Sansa), an innocent Italian woman. Disillusioned by the NSAs lapsed ethics apparently, being a loyal operative means exhibiting amazing naiveté about the nature of your work Wagley quits the agency to protect Francesca and expose this new snooping program. At that point, the movie promises to become a pulpy cat-and-mouse showdown between the grizzled old pro and the powerful organization hell-bent on silencing him. But The Listening isnt really a thriller its mostly a droning conspiracy theory dressed up in moderately exotic locales, high-tech jargon and a moralizing spying-is-wrong message. Martelli wants to emphasize the dreariness of surveillance work; his doddering tone means to strip the profession of its Enemy of the State cool. With such square characters and unexciting suspense scenes, The Listening succeeds in this objective all too well. (Sunset 5; Town Center 5) (Tim Grierson)
WONDROUS OBLIVION In outline, writer-director Paul Morrisons film follows a well-worn problem-drama path: a lively Jamaican family moves into a resentful white working-class neighborhood in 1960s Britain, offering friendship and a glimpse of a happier, less buttoned-down life to the staid folks next door. But if the movie traces a predictable arc from racial unease to acceptance, its often winning and sometimes tough-minded in the details. Cricket provides the bond between David (Sam Smith) the 11-year-old son of European Jews in a blue-collar South London neighborhood, and his new neighbor Dennis (Delroy Lindo in a wonderful performance), a relocated Kingston foundry worker. As the neighborhoods bigoted busybodies and proto-skinhead hoods take notice of their friendship, the boys neglected mother (Emily Woof) falls for the affectionate man next door. With Nina Kellgrens cinematography providing a glow-of-memory sheen, the movie has an oddly rosy, almost fairy-tale feel which has the unfortunate side effect of making the neighborhoods simmering racism seem like something that happened very long ago, distantly remembered. But even if it vacillates awkwardly between innocuous fancy and real menace, the sensitively acted film also maintains a rather nervy balance between a light coming-of-age drama for children and a darker, more adult story of deferred passions. (Music Hall; Town Center 5; One Colorado) (Jim Ridley)
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