ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES The wildly uneven French writer/director/producer Luc Besson has a fondness for worlds and lifestyles that lie outside the margins of conventional society: the neon-lit labyrinths of the Paris Metro (Subway); the pristine depths of the ocean (The Big Blue); exotic but treacherous visions of the future (The Fifth Element). His latest finds him subterranean once again, this time burrowing down to a fantastical universe where elves and fairies so small that they are invisible to human eyes live in harmony with nature. Adapted from a series of childrens books authored by Besson himself (based on an original idea by Céline Garcia), this live-action/computer-animated hybrid follows 10-year-old Arthur (Freddie Highmore), who, in order to save the home he shares with his somewhat addled grandmother (Mia Farrow), must decipher a diary left by his grandfather before he mysteriously disappeared four years ago. Following the clues, Arthur, now a 3-D animated figure sporting cool shades and spiked hair, enters the mythical Seven Kingdoms, where he joins forces with sexy CGI Princess Selenia (voiced by a delightfully unrecognizable Madonna) and her chubby, rubber troll of a brother, Betameche (Jimmy Fallon), as they battle the evil Lord Malthazard (David Bowie) for buried treasure. Predictable and overly busy, this sci-fi adventure should nonetheless appeal to computer-game-savvy tots, especially those familiar with the source material, while boring their parents silly. Highmore is sweetly exuberant, but the voice talent is uneven, and the only really clever bits find the CGI characters navigating real live foliage. (Beverly Center) (Jean Oppenheimer)
BLACK CHRISTMAS Ever the devoted public servant, I went to see this grisly little horror movie (which opened without benefit of preview screenings) by myself, on Christmas. That makes me sound like a real loser, but in truth, going alone to scary movies takes me back to adolescence, when my folks would drop me off at the local twin theater and I would gleefully experience soul-warping chillers with titles like Sssssss and Asylum. Writer-director Glen Morgan, who co-produced the Final Destination films, appears to have had a similarly unhealthy youth, because whenever he gets a hankering to direct, he remakes a horror classic of the 1970s. First came 2001s Willard (which wasnt bad at all), and now theres Morgans fast-paced but unsatisfying remake of a 1974 film by director Bob Clark (Porkys, A Christmas Story) that few saw at the time, but which has since been credited with influencing John Carpenters Halloween and the 30 years of slasher-movie brutality that followed. The gimmick, first devised by screenwriter Roy Moore, is simple: On Christmas Eve, a snowbound houseful of sorority girls are picked off by a killer who calls the house phone in between killings to rant in a variety of voices, all of them creepy. In Clarks version, we never saw the killers face or knew his reasons for killing. Here, in a series of flashbacks, Morgan tells of a boy who grew up in the house with an evil mother who drove him mad. The flashbacks are wittily gothic, and the present-day murder scenes have the absurdist, chain-reaction intricacy of the Final Destination deaths, but the sorority girls buxom babes all are so interchangeable, and so uninteresting, that I got to wishing that Morgan and all those who tread the lucrative horror remake market would take the time to create a bona fide heroine whose survival we could cheer. Hey, does Jamie Lee Curtis have an actress daughter? (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)
THE DEAD GIRL Karen Moncrieffs dark, showily acted ensemble piece begins where torture-porn flicks typically climax and move on with a girls mutilated body. Here, the discovery splits the film into five stories of women somehow linked by the murder, four afters and a before, each providing its own partially obscured angle on the crime. Moncrieff, who made a promising debut in 2002 with Blue Car , doesnt force some overlay of cosmic linkage on the stories: The plot strands that connect the five women are direct and plausible. Most often, images and details rhyme between the stories in mysterious ways the wifes pet rabbit and the dead girls stuffed bunny, for example, or the burning of news clippings by two characters for gravely different reasons. The top-notch cast includes Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Kerry Washington, Rose Byrne and Brittany Murphy. The truncated stories force the actors to start at a high pitch and keep going, but they and the director work wonders at low volume. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)
FAST TRACK Being cast out by the Weinstein Company into the wilds of January with barely a blip of advertising support, director Jesse Peretzs Fast Track doesnt stand a chance at finding an audience which is a shame, because when it works (which is at least half of the time), this antic romp has the off-the-wall, go-for-broke zaniness of that other great modern screwball comedy, David O. Russells Flirting with Disaster. When career slacker Tom (Zach Braff, keeping his look how cute I am tics to a welcome minimum) gets fired from his latest job, he packs up wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) and their newborn kid and trades life in the Big Apple for the calming pleasures of small-town Ohio Sherwood Anderson country. There, he takes up his sad-sack father-in-law (Charles Grodin) on the offer of an assistant associate creative position in a new-agey advertising company, where Tom soon finds himself under the thumb of Sofias paraplegic former classmate (and possible ex-flame), Chip (Jason Bateman), a seemingly benevolent cripple whos really a Machiavelli on wheels. Thats an inspired starting place for a farce, and Peretz (working from a sometimes tasteless, often insidiously funny script by first-time screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman) has a knack for casting the kind of bright comic talents Amy Adams, Donal Logue, Mia Farrow and Paul Rudd round out the ensemble who more or less just have to show up. The movie is Batemans to steal, however, which he does early and often, whether re-enacting an old high-school cheerleading routine or trying to seduce Sofia by showing her the money shot from one of his favorite movies: Coming Home. (Beverly Center 13) (Scott Foundas)
THE FLYING SCOTSMAN Barely a year after The Worlds Fastest Indian, we get The Worlds Fastest Schwinn? Well, not exactly, but its hard to keep Roger Donaldsons picaresque true-life tale about an eccentric New Zealand coot and his home-built motorbike totally out of mind while watching first-time director Douglas Mackinnons true-life about... an eccentric Glasgow coot and his home-built racing cycle. Only, whereas Donaldsons movie was all heart, Mackinnons is pure hokum. Its not that the story of Graeme Obree (Jonny Lee Miller) a former competitive cyclist who came out of self-imposed retirement in the 1990s to set a couple of world speed and distance records lacks for dramatic incident, but as rendered by Mackinnon and screenwriters John Brown, Declan Hughes and Simon Rose, it has a terminal case of the cutes crossed with the labored earnestness of a disease-of-the-week melodrama. When Obree isnt busy being a maverick (taking apart a washing machine to use its bearings for his bike, inventing new riding positions that are subsequently banned by mean-spirited racing officials), he battles the roller-coaster mood swings caused by his manic depression (which the movie never names outright, a la the homosexuality of Suddenly Last Summer) and, in one downright looney sequence that may or may not be a paranoid fantasy, gets chased through the streets by the same schoolyard bullies who taunted him in childhood. All thats missing is the PSA coda in which the cast appears on screen, out of character, to say, If you know someone who may be suffering from depression... (Fallbrook) (Scott Foundas)
NOTES ON A SCANDAL Queasily parked between halfhearted satire and overcooked melodrama, this adaptation of a well-received 2003 novel by British writer Zoë Heller offers the unhappy spectacle of a raft of acting talent trying to do right by slimy material. The setting is one of those modern London high schools where what passes for education is pure crowd control, but the premise an unlikely bonding between two lonely women teachers reaches all the way back to cut-rate Muriel Spark. Judi Dench is infuriatingly good as that reliable old Eng-lit creation, the lesbian closet case whose repressed passions have warped her into a manipulative witch ready to whack all who stand in the way of her deluded desires. Director Richard Eyre (Stage Beauty) asks us to take on trust the emotional isolation of Denchs object of desire (the always excellent Cate Blanchett), who enjoys a rich domestic life whenever shes not shagging a 15-year-old special-needs pupil in her art studio after class. Setting aside the scads of preposterous plot contrivance, Patrick Marbers screenplay is full of jaundiced cleverness about Englands intricate class system, but thats far from enough to save this disreputable movie, not the least of whose sins is that it manages to elicit a bad performance from Bill Nighy which Id have thought was close to impossible. (ArcLight; NuWilshire; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)
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PICK PANS LABYRINTH Like his terrific 2001 The Devils Backbone, Mexican horrormeister Guillermo del Toros new movie offers us both real-life and fantastical monsters, and if you know his work, you wont waste time figuring out which to root for. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a little girl whose anxious dark eyes recall those of that other dreamy daughter of the fascist era the Frankenstein-obsessed Ana from Victor Erices The Spirit of the Beehive is the link between harsh reality and dark fantasy in the savagely beautiful Pans Labyrinth, which is set in 1944 in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Trying to protect her sick mother (Ariadna Gil), who is pregnant by the austere officer (a menacing Sergi López) in charge of rooting out the tattered remains of the rebel opposition, Ofelia seeks refuge, with the encouragement of a friendly maid ( Y Tu Mamá Tambiéns Maribel Verdú), in a classically del Toro underworld of dripping caves and grabby tree branches, long-tongued toads and helpful fairies, ruled over by a demanding but fair-minded faun (Doug Jones). Where the world up top is full of fascist spit and polish and sadistic violence for powers sake ever devoted to his beloved genre, del Toro rubs our faces in nearly unbearable defacings, both literal and symbolic down below Ofelia finds, in the contents of her own troubled mind, terror aplenty and a subversive challenge to confront the wicked stepfather whos ruining her life, and Spains. Though never sentimental, del Toros hopeful ending is as historically premature as it is true to the trust he places in the redemptive power of the imaginative life. (Selected theaters) (Ella Taylor)
PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER A multimillion-euro adaptation of a best-selling German novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer relates the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), born in 18th-century Paris with a uniquely puissant sense of smell. He begins life as an orphan, sold into servitude to a brutal tanner, but in Toucan Sam fashion follows his nose into the rarefied world of perfumers, where his superhuman gift proves highly valuable. After a brief yet intense infatuation with the bodily smell of a comely fruit monger leads to her sudden death, Grenouille becomes obsessed with discovering the means to create a permanent record of an individuals scent and to concoct the most powerful perfume possible. The pungent plot may sound preposterous, and indeed its hard not to snicker early on when Grenouille is introduced as a mere nose hanging in darkness, his inner life revealed via a digital zoom up his nostril. But Perfume s hyperfragrant world strives beyond mere physical sensuality toward a spiritual erotic. Its a noble experiment in pushing the limits of cinema, but one too many sequences of ruffling silks and dreamy flower bouquets evoke little more than the ad-agency clichés of an elongated Chanel No. 5 commercial. (ArcLight) (Ed Halter)
THE RULES OF THE GAME What is natural, these days? a lady dressing for the evening asks her maid, who finds Madames violet lipstick a bit too artificial. The year is 1939, the place Paris, after the Munich Conferences false promises of peace and on the eve of Hitlers deadly march across Europe. The question, tossed off in the first few minutes of The Rules of the Game, is like so much else in Jean Renoirs masterpiece, at once frivolous and poignant a melancholy lament for a world gone awry, delivered in a tone so light you might think you had missed it. The film follows the amorous exploits of a group of aristocrats invited to a hunting party at a French chateau. Their spineless yet sympathetic host, the wealthy, Jewish Marquis de la Chesnaye (brilliantly played by Marcel Dalio), entertains himself with mechanical toys when hes not attempting to rid himself of a cumbersome mistress. Meanwhile, his beautiful, foreign-born wife (Nora Gregor, the stage name of an Austrian princess) must contend with the adoration of a dashing aviator (Roland Toutain) a romantic hero thrust into a society devoid of illusions. Renoir himself is unforgettable as the friend and hanger-on Octave, a failed artist haunted by a sense of missed opportunities. Their hectic intrigues find an uncanny echo in the affairs of their servants, upstairs and downstairs comically crossing paths on the way to a tragic conclusion. The dazzlingly labyrinthine script never mentions the coming war, yet its menace permeates a milieu that seems to have lost all moral compass, and where the ideal of happiness has been sacrificed to one of mere amusement. The Rules of the Game provoked something like a riot at its Parisian premiere. People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses, Renoir said of the French response to his film, which, beneath its frothy veneer, showed their society going down the drain. The film was cut twice, and its original negative was destroyed by Allied bombing. The occasion for this re-release is its complete restoration from a master print. It is required viewing, if only to understand the ideal that filmmakers from Robert Altman to Woody Allen have been after. Even if you think you know it, see it again for its newly rediscovered depth of field, and even more, for its infinite wellsprings of character and empathy. (Nuart) (Leslie Camhi)
THE TIGER AND THE SNOW In an apparent attempt to revive the lukewarm blend of tragedy and comedy achieved in his concentration-camp-set Life Is Beautiful , Roberto Benigni here plays out a madcap tale of romantic obsession against the backdrop of the Iraq invasion. The results are neither profound nor funny. Benigni casts himself as Attilio, a university professor who is shown early in the film expounding platitudes on poetic inspiration to a lecture hall of multicultural students, who laugh with unrealistic spontaneity at his Robin Williamsesque antics. This doggerel Dante has his own Beatrice: a woman who appears to him as his bride in recurring dreams, and then seems to materialize in the flesh as Vittoria (Benignis real-life wife, Nicoletta Braschi), a writer working on a biography of Attilios friend Fuad (Jean Reno). The film shifts from banal to tasteless as the war begins. Fuad calls Attilio from Baghdad, informing him that Vittoria has been severely injured. Attilio rushes to Iraq to save her. Perhaps somewhere in Tiger lies a dim Bush parable: Attilio as bumbling, narcissistic go-it-aloner, stumbling into Iraq with ill-conceived intentions. But the metaphor doesnt hold: The outcome of this mess were in wont leave Bush a benighted romantic. (Music Hall; One Colorado) (Ed Halter)