Joining the ranks of genre-melting Spaniards such as Alejandro Amenabar and Alex de la Iglesia, writer-director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo makes a feature debut that is fully formed and remarkably assured. Part investigative procedural, part futurist sci-fi fantasy, part meditation on fate, Intacto snakes its way toward a mysterious casino in the desert where the "god of chance" (a fearsome, full-force Max von Sydow) oversees a series of events designed specifically to test luck, turning it into a commodity to be won, lost and exchanged. Meanwhile, an exiled protégé, now working as an insurance adjuster, uses a disaster survivor as a proxy and pawn to orchestrate a showdown with his former mentor. The story is bound together with gaming set pieces that are strange, inventive and mesmerizing: An insect lands on the winner's head; Russian roulette commences with only one chamber empty; players run blindfolded through the woods until they smack into a tree. Stumbling only on a late-breaking monologue that explains just a touch too much, Fresnadillo utilizes a clean and efficient visual design, full of sharp angles and smooth surfaces rendered from a respectful distance, smartly conveying even the film's knockout finale with a spareness that makes the fantastic all the more believable. (Selected theaters) (Mark Olsen)
Except for the shiny new cars and cell phones, writer-director Joe Carnahan's Narc could be one of those 1970s Friedkin-Lumet-Siegel urban dramas in which good cops discover that the battle against evil can't be fought with adherence to procedure. Disgraced narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) returns from a suspension for firing on a suspect in a crowded playground to solve a cop killing, and is partnered with the dead cop's live-wire best friend, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta). The deeper Nick's drug connections take them into the Detroit underground, the deeper the institutional rot seems to go. Set in a frigid, blue-tinted winter, Narc is taut and well-acted, faltering only when the filmmaker loses faith in the power of his story. He overcompensates with clichéd hand-held camera work, unmotivated and unrevealing split screens, and a distracting cameo from Busta Rhymes. Still, Carnahan (Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) gets strong work from two of Hollywood's most erratic actors. Neither star is a stranger to playing the overinvolved cop, but Carnahan keeps Patric's repressed guilt and desperation from slipping into somnambulism and keeps Liotta's manic energy organic to his character's rage. Bulked and goateed almost beyond recognition, his eyes rarely blinking, Liotta plays one of those great cinematic icons the lawman whose unrelenting dedication inspires trust, but whose tortured psyche demands fear. (ArcLight, Loews Century Plaza, Mann Criterion) (Dan Fienberg)
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That gifted miserabilist, Ralph Fiennes, appears to fine advantage in David Cronenberg's deliciously wicked, strangely poetic portrait (adapted by Patrick McGrath from his own novel) of a schizophrenic man at once tyrannized and elevated by oedipal terrors. Released prematurely to a halfway house from the mental institution where he's lived since the age of 10, Spider (so named by his mother because of his love for arachnid tales) wanders the gray, empty streets of his childhood haunts in London's East End, mumbling to himself and spinning literal and imaginary webs as he relives a childhood fear that his father (Gabriel Byrne) murdered his mother (Miranda Richardson) to make way for a slutty girlfriend. Whether he's remembering or rewriting the script of his life won't become clear until the end of the movie, but the inflamed state of Spider's mind reflects without a single special effect Cronenberg's abiding concerns with the fine line between the normal and the depraved, especially when it comes to the covert sexual politics of family life. Richardson makes a horrifyingly funny transition from Madonna to whore to dominatrix; Lynn Redgrave is a campy stitch as Spider's control freak of a landlady; and newcomer Bradley Hall makes a splendid young Spider, at once vulnerable and dangerous. (Sunset 5, for a one-week run at the Oscars, followed by a re-release in February) (Ella Taylor)
THE WILD THORNBERRYS MOVIE
This lively Klasky Csupo production is a convincing amplification of the popular Nickelodeon series about a family of eccentric, globetrotting nature documentarians voiced with audible relish by (among others) Tim Curry, Lynn Redgrave, Lacy Chabert, and Flea, the Chili Pepper, moonlighting as the Tasmanian Devil of obstreperous toddlers. The directors, Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian, make full use of the big screen, especially in some early outdoor chase sequences set in Africa, smoothly deploying CGI landscapes for a majestic sense of scale. The basic plot device (fiendish poachers despoiling the veldt) is almost as old as the hills of Kilimanjaro didn't Johnny Weissmuller pitch these guys into a pool of quicksand along around 1937? But the trans-African odyssey of 12-year-old Eliza Thornberry (Chabert), who can talk with the animals, is surprisingly engaging, as is the Paul Simon theme song, and the film is enlivened by flashes of humor just rude enough to delight older children. My daughter especially enjoyed the Wedgie Dance, and a sequence in which an English-accented talking chimp lays waste to a snooty British boarding school. (Citywide) (David Chute)