CODE NAME: THE CLEANER A man who may or may not be a janitor wakes up in a fancy hotel, next to a dead FBI agent, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Not a bad set-up for a story, but unfortunately the man in question is played by Cedric the Entertainer, who has yet to do as his name suggests in a leading role. (Steven Seagal would have been funnier.) You wouldnt imagine that a man this overweight could elude his pursuers so easily, but Cedric gets some help from a butt-kicking babe (Lucy Liu) who may or may not be his girlfriend, and if you believe this pairing could plausibly happen, you might be gullible enough to buy a ticket to this movie. The most entertaining thing about Codename: The Cleaner certainly isnt Cedric its the way grainy stock footage of Seattle is intercut with what are clearly Vancouver locations. That, or the audacity with which plugs for Skittles and Quiznos have been liberally sprinkled throughout the dialogue. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
FREEDOM WRITERS For those who found Half Nelson a bit too gritty for their palates, here comes Hilary Swank as a first-year high-school teacher who doesnt look like shes ever paid a bill late, let alone lit up a crack pipe. As 23-year-old Erin Gruwell, shes a prim idealist in polka dots and pearls a very white knight cast into the voluntarily integrated combat zone of Long Beachs Woodrow Wilson High School in the wake of the L.A. riots. Based on The Freedom Writers Diary, the 1999 book consisting of journal entries written by Gruwells students, Freedom Writers the movie is about how this wet-behind-the-ears teacher taught her racially diverse bunch of dangerous minds to stand and deliver, all the while combating the fussbudget administrators (including one played by Swanks former Oscar rival, Vera Drake star Imelda Staunton) who seem to have never met a student of color they didnt fear. It all sounds like a recipe for the most noxious liberal jerk-off movie since Crash, but in the hands of writer-director Richard LaGravenese, Freedom Writers turns out to be a superb piece of mainstream entertainment not an agonized debate over the principles of modern education à la The History Boys, but a simple, straightforward and surprisingly affecting story of one woman who managed to make a difference. (As fanciful as it may seem, Gruwell really did break through to her class by teaching them The Diary of Anne Frank, culminating in a classroom visit by Franks protector, Miep Gies.) LaGravenese is smart enough to see Gruwells story as the exception and not the rule, and his casting of Staunton as Swanks chief antagonist is an inspired stroke their bitchy exchanges may lack the raucous fury of Cate Blanchett and Judi Denchs full-on catfight in Notes on a Scandal, but they still seem to be having a grand old time going at it. If only LaGravenese had taken one additional page from the Dangerous Minds playbook and left Gruwells tepid personal life (a troubled marriage with Patrick Dr. McDreamy Dempsey that pads out the movies running time by a good 20 minutes or so) on the cutting-room floor. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
HAPPILY NEVER AFTER Remember those fabulously giddy bits in the Shrek movies that riffed on just about every fairy-tale character known to Western man? Someone over at Lionsgate thought theyd turn Disney into computer-animated Grimm, which might have made for inspired satire in less clumsy hands than those of director Paul J. Bolger and screenwriter Rob Moreland, who have drained both the affectionate wit out of the Shrek franchise and the bite out of the Brothers Grimm, and replaced them with shtick as dull as it is ill-natured. This appallingly dumb and tasteless inversion of the Cinderella story features the voice of Sigourney Weaver as a generically shrieky wicked stepmother who discovers she can tinker with fairy-tale endings, notably that of Cinders (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who sports a short, black Audrey Hepburn do and a mistaken crush on a narcissistic prince (Patrick Warburton) brazenly ripped off from Beauty and the Beasts Gaston. An inept Fairy Godmother, a sulky dishwasher (Freddie Prinze Jr.) headed straight for love interest, two run-of-the-mill critters with little to do but try to seize the attention of the under-fives by force, and quantities of unimaginative CGI do nothing to perk up a barely sketched storyline. I spent the movie scratching my head over which audience the studio is hoping to profit from with this noisy rubbish. YouTubers? Tots with ADD? (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)
THR3E What happens when a thriller finds Jesus? Its bye-bye, blood and boobs. Thr3e, written by Left Behinder Alan B. McElroy, based on a Ted Dekker novel and debuting as the first theatrical release from Foxs new Christian-friendly imprint Fox Faith, is on its dull surface the mystery of a psychopath/serial killer and his seminary-student prey with God replacing gore. There are no dead bodies here, but perhaps filmgoers tired of all those secular scares and heathen horrors wont miss the aesthetic pleasure of a creative murder scene. Still, Marc Blucas as the hunted seminary student Kevin Parson might as well be dead for all his charisma, even with a back story involving deceased parents and an unhinged, abusive Aunt Belinda (Priscilla Barnes, formerly Thr3es Companys blonde No. 3 and currently looking like Courtney Love after a thr3e-week bender). Of course, Fox Faith wouldnt want you to trust our judgment; as the movie reminds us in its tidy moral, We need the power of God to teach us good and evil. That awesome power has co-opted pop music and cornered the market on swearing-in ceremonies. Cant we at least have our cookie-cutter thrillers? (Selected theaters) (Jessica Grose)
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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)
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 (Cate Blanchett), who enjoys a rich domestic life whenever shes not shagging a 15-year-old special-needs pupil after class. Setting aside the scads of preposterous plot contrivance, Patrick Marbers screenplay is full of jaundiced cleverness about Englands 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. (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 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. But Perfumes 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. (Selected theaters) (Ed Halter)
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)