ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL Closing out a pretty great year for children’s movies — Up, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Coraline among them — Betty Thomas’ dutiful animated and live-action sequel to 2007’s Alvin and the Chipmunks brings up the rear with capable mediocrity. It’s not entirely Thomas’ fault: What are you going to do with those fat-cheeked, helium-voiced singing critters but slap together enough “awwww” moments to make the toddlers happy, and enough knowing winks to keep parental bums in the seats? Except that these days, even the younger-than-10 market has to be carved up, sectioned off by gender and genre. Enter the Chipettes, a rootin’-tootin’ sassy girl group voiced by Amy Poehler, Anna Faris and Christina Applegate, to compete with, then cozy up to rambunctious Alvin and his pals (same guys as last time). With Jason Lee’s Dave in the hospital and more or less out of the picture, our furry lads run amok at school while under the benignly neglectful care of a shy dweeb (Zachary Levi) with a feeble subplot of his own to trudge through. The rest is a horribly loud, partially comprehensible and half-assed action movie, strewn with homilies about staying true to your sisters and bros, which just about every studio except Pixar lazily serves up below the PG-13 cutoff. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)
GO CREATION Already a blogosphere punching bag for right-wing Christians, Creation — about Charles Darwin’s writing of On the Origin of Species — commits the sin of thoughtfulness, and is quite moving in the process. Director Jon Amiel, working from a screenplay by John Collee, injects flashes of artsy craftsmanship (time-lapse photography depicting a bird’s body decaying and being absorbed into the Earth) in an otherwise visually lovely, solidly tasteful period piece. The Darwin we meet is trying — and failing — to come to terms with grief over the death of his favorite daughter (he has three other children), which wreaks havoc on every aspect of his life. Paul Bettany is note-perfect as Darwin, whether shading in grief, showing the erotic heat beneath his love for his wife (played by Bettany’s real-life partner, Jennifer Connelly; they have palpable chemistry) or perfectly essaying the torturous nature of channeling ideas into words. The film’s title speaks not only to the issue of evolution versus creation but also to what it means to be a person of the mind. Creation’s power lies in its layers, in the way it makes distinctions between religion and faith, and the ways it beautifully (save for one clunky bit of overexplanation) lays out the similarities between religion and science, from the healing power of water to the “curses” issued even upon true believers. (Nuart) (Ernest Hardy)
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS Reunited with Charles McKeown, his co-writer from Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam has created another Ultimate Po-mo adventure crammed to a fault with big ideas and bigger images, which mutate a grungy contemporary London into a living heaven and hell. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is nothing if not one from the heart, and not just because it’s haunted by the ghost of Heath Ledger, whose death during filming threatened to shut down the shoot until three other notable bad boys stepped in to amplify his role as the possibly feckless love interest of Lily Cole, a model who looks like an otherworldly kitty. The titular Doctor P., played with livid zest by Christopher Plummer, is a suitably Olympian man of the theater, as misunderstood and unattended to by his audience as Gilliam feels he is for prizing imagination over mundane reality. He’s also a compulsive gambler who has traded away the future of his beloved daughter (Cole) to the devil (Tom Waits — really!) in return for immortality, then eternal youth and other existentially dubious goodies. This is potentially wonderful, if not exactly new stuff, but Gilliam and McKeown’s willful refusal of coherent narrative and determination to pack every idea they ever had about art into one scenario make this fiendishly gorgeous movie more exhausting than exhilarating to watch. (ArcLight Hollywood; AMC Century City) (Ella Taylor)
IRON CROSS Mostly notable for being the final film for actor Roy Scheider, who died in 2008, writer-director Joshua Newton’s portentous revenge drama wants to say something meaningful about retribution and forgiveness but is overwhelmed by its own sense of dour significance. Visiting Nuremberg to see his estranged son, Ronnie (Scott Cohen), retired New York cop Joseph (Scheider) finds himself confronting long-buried memories of his time fleeing the Nazis as a child in Poland. Adding to his unease, Joseph becomes convinced that Ronnie’s German neighbor (Helmut Berger) is actually the former SS commander who orchestrated the deaths of his family. Iron Cross splits its time between the present, where Joseph improbably enlists his son to help kidnap the neighbor, and 1940s Poland, where young Joseph (played by the filmmaker’s son, Alexander) is on the run from Hitler’s goons. Inspired by his own father’s experiences during the Holocaust, Newton cuts between the two time periods to illustrate how Joseph has never fully recovered from the horrors of his past. Despite Scheider’s haunted gravitas, the film tips its hand early on that Joseph’s obsession will lead not to justice but only to more tragedy, accentuating every not-so-dramatic twist with unsubtle, “mournful” strings. As for Scheider, who was relegated to bit parts in forgettable productions near the end of his career, it’s nice to see him get one final opportunity to be a leading man — it’s just unfortunate that Iron Cross isn’t the farewell he deserved. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)
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THE LIGHTKEEPERS Midnight-movie connoisseurs seeking the next blithely incompetent auteur in the vein of Ed Wood and The Room director Tommy Wiseau need look no further than Daniel Adams. A Harvard-educated veteran of the late-’80s and early-’90s direct-to-video scene, Adams has only recently hit his so-terrible-they’re-fascinating stride with two film adaptations of the early–20th century American writer Joseph C. Lincoln. This past spring, he unleashed The Golden Boys, an inert, geriatric kvetch-fest based on Lincoln’s novel Cap’n Eri, starring Rip Torn, Bruce Dern and David Carradine as a trio of crusty, woman-hating sea dogs in 1905 Cape Cod. Now he rounds out the year with The Lightkeepers, based on Lincoln’s short story “The Woman Haters” (a trend?) and starring Richard Dreyfuss as a crusty, woman-hating lighthouse operator in 1912 Cape Cod. As in the previous film — which appears to have been shot simultaneously, using recycled sets, costumes and tax incentives — conflict arises with the arrival of the dreaded fairer sex (as represented by Blythe Danner and Mamie Gummer), sending Dreyfuss and his younger, woman-hating assistant (Tom Wisdom) into a tailspin. Nothing if not consistent, Adams again shows an uncanny knack for marshaling ordinarily good actors into static, gauzy compositions and having them declaim dialogue like “By thunder!” and “If I’m confectionary with my women, drown me!” as if they’re projecting to the last row of some infernal dinner theater. I would add that Dreyfuss, who scowls a lot and snarls his lines in a Long John Silver brogue, gives the most desperate performance by an Oscar winner this side of Michael Caine in Jaws the Revenge. But, given that Dreyfuss is soon to be seen in Piranha 3-D, the verdict remains out. (Music Hall) (Scott Foundas)
THE NEW DAUGHTER How ironic for Kevin Costner that, in a week when everybody is talking about a certain big-budget phenomenon whose plot closely resembles his Dances With Wolves, he gets relegated to a cheapie horror flick that’s been dumped unceremoniously and sans press screenings into the Beverly Center and Fairfax (you know, the one that has holes in the ceiling, where the rain comes in). There’s a degree of thriller pedigree to The New Daughter — it’s directed by Luis Berdejo, the writer of Spanish horror hit [Rec] (remade domestically as Quarantine), and features Pan’s Labyrinth star Ivana Baquero as Costner’s troubled daughter. Unfortunately, Berdejo doesn’t seem to know the difference between “slow” and “suspenseful,” erring on the side of the former far too frequently. It’s mostly formulaic fare, too (at least until the third-act revelation of a completely insane mythology): Single dad with two kids moves into a country house that has a secret, troubled past, only to have his young son turn conveniently uncommunicative, and his daughter slowly transform into the Blair Witch, courtesy of a terrifying ... giant mound of dirt! Horror isn’t exactly the best medium for Costner, who’s too laid-back to sustain an air of terror, but he’s nonetheless the most vibrant, engaging aspect here. The film’s riffs on the fear fathers have of teenage daughters’ mood swings are its only strength, but Berdejo is too timid to actually examine all the ramifications thereof. (Beverly Center; Fairfax) (Luke Y. Thompson)
GO POLICE, ADJECTIVE Detective stories imply that mysteries can be solved, or at least rationally explained, and confirm a universe in which guilt is determined and the guilty accorded their just desserts. Such are the underpinnings of Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu’s remarkably self-effacing and highly intelligent comedy Police, Adjective — a philosophical crime film that substitutes irony for suspense. Three high school kids have been reported for smoking weed. For much of the movie, we watch the conscientious young plainclothes detective (Dragos Bucur) watching them, then dutifully collecting bits of evidence and filing reports in which the raw data of clues are transformed into the basis for an argument. Although it’s not entirely clear exactly which kid is committing the crime of supplying the others with pot, there’s enough free-floating incrimination to bust someone. The detective’s supervisor orders him to make the collar, but the detective, who has concluded that the “squealer” is setting up his friend, demurs. Making his own judgment on the evidence, the detective deems the crime too minor to warrant prosecution. In this disinclination to identify and punish, the cop not only transgresses the rules of the detective genre but also confounds the state’s need to identify individual guilt and evade collective responsibility. Police, Adjective is a deadly serious as well as drily humorous analysis of bureaucratic procedure and, particularly, the tyranny of language. Images may record reality, but words define it. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (J. Hoberman)
SHERLOCK HOLMES As overemphatic as one might expect from the ham-fisted Guy Ritchie, this resurrection of the world’s most famous detective is a dank, noisy affair that unfolds in a gloomy London which seems a bootleg copy of A Christmas Carol’s CGI set. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective was, in essence, a master of the 19th-century scientific method, who used empirical observation and logical deduction to make sense of a chaotic universe; it’s inevitable that his 21st-century avatar would be a buff superhero. In addition to being the smartest man on Earth, the new Holmes is a master of bare-handed fisticuffs — using strategies derived from lightning physical calculations. As played by Robert Downey Jr. with gloomy insouciance, Holmes is also something of a hipster. He wears shades and, rather than the traditional deerstalker hat, favors a porkpie job with the brim turned up. Hollywood logic has further dictated that the movie be a bit of a buddy film, even a love story. Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is a good-looking bloke whose impending marriage drives Sherlock half-mad with jealousy. The wartime Holmes and Watson battled the Axis, as well as the Spider Woman. A few near-subliminal references to terrorism notwithstanding, there’s little attempt to make super Holmes topical. The real mystery here is Downey. Whatever his personal demons, this actor seems immune from self-contempt. At least on the screen, he brings a wry conviction to even the most hackneyed role. (Citywide) (J. Hoberman)