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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 children’s 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 2001’s Willard (which wasn’t bad at all), and now there’s Morgan’s fast-paced but unsatisfying remake of a 1974 film by director Bob Clark (Porky’s, A Christmas Story) that few saw at the time, but which has since been credited with influencing John Carpenter’s 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 Clark’s version, we never saw the killer’s 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 Moncrieff’s dark, showily acted ensemble piece
begins where torture-porn flicks typically climax and move on — with a
girl’s 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
, doesn’t 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 wife’s pet rabbit and the dead girl’s 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)

FACTORY GIRL See film feature (Westside Pavilion)

FAST TRACK Being cast out by the Weinstein Company into the wilds of January with barely a blip of advertising support, director Jesse Peretz’s Fast Track doesn’t 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. Russell’s 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 Sofia’s paraplegic former classmate (and possible ex-flame), Chip (Jason Bateman), a seemingly benevolent cripple who’s really a Machiavelli on wheels. That’s 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 Bateman’s 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)

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THE FLYING SCOTSMAN Barely a year after The World’s Fastest Indian, we get The World’s Fastest Schwinn? Well, not exactly, but it’s hard to keep Roger Donaldson’s 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 Mackinnon’s true-life about… an eccentric Glasgow coot and his home-built racing cycle. Only, whereas Donaldson’s movie was all heart, Mackinnon’s is pure hokum. It’s 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 isn’t 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 that’s 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)

MISS POTTER See film feature. (Showtimes)

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
Dench’s object of desire (the always excellent Cate Blanchett), who
enjoys a rich domestic life whenever she’s not shagging a 15-year-old
special-needs pupil in her art studio after class. Setting aside the
scads of preposterous plot contrivance, Patrick Marber’s screenplay is
full of jaundiced cleverness about England’s intricate class system,
but that’s 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 I’d have thought was close to impossible.
(ArcLight; NuWilshire; Playhouse 7)
(Ella Taylor)

PICK PAN’S LABYRINTH Like his terrific 2001 The Devil’s Backbone, Mexican horrormeister Guillermo del Toro’s new movie
offers us both real-life and fantastical monsters, and if you know his
work, you won’t 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 Erice’s
The Spirit of the Beehive
— is the link between harsh reality and dark fantasy in the savagely beautiful
Pan’s 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 También’s 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 power’s 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 who’s ruining her life, and Spain’s. Though never
sentimental, del Toro’s 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)

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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
individual’s scent and to concoct the most powerful perfume possible.
The pungent plot may sound preposterous, and indeed it’s 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. It’s 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 Madame’s violet lipstick a bit too artificial. The year is 1939, the place Paris, after the Munich Conference’s false promises of peace and on the eve of Hitler’s 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 Renoir’s 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 he’s 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)

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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 Williams–esque 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 (Benigni’s real-life
wife, Nicoletta Braschi), a writer working on a biography of Attilio’s
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 doesn’t hold: The outcome of this mess
we’re in won’t leave Bush a benighted romantic.
(Music Hall; One Colorado)
(Ed Halter)