Director Bryan Singer, best known for The Usual Suspects, was entrusted with turning the valuable Marvel Comics property into a motion picture, and he proved to be the right man for the job with the 2000 hit X-Men. Singer returned for 2003’s X2, and, bucking the trend, managed to make a followup that equaled its predecessor on nearly every level. And now we get X-Men: The Last Stand, the third picture in the series. Unfortunately, Singer is nowhere to be found, as he opted to jump ship in order to jump-start the dormant Superman franchise. So we get Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour duo) as the new ringmaster, aided in his efforts by scripters Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Zak Penn (who co-wrote X2 but also co-wrote the lamentable Elektra). It’s hardly a fair deal, yet it’s a testament to the durability of the original comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that the movie survives this hostile takeover. Newbies need not apply, but the faithful will catch on immediately when the movie brings up its smoking gun of a central issue: a “cure” has been found for mutancy, leading to divergent viewpoints among those afflicted with extraordinary powers. Some, like X-Woman Storm (Halle Berry) and the villainous Magneto (Ian McKellen), don’t look at mutancy as a curse and are offended that such a remedy is even being offered. Others see nothing wrong in desiring a life of normalcy; among those is Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose mere touch can kill anyone, even a boyfriend (Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman) with whom she can never enjoy even the most chaste of physical intimacy. As always, X-Men guru Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) takes a philosophical, wait-and-see approach. And Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Cyclops (James Marsden)? They don’t seem too preoccupied with the issue, since they’re both still reflecting on the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who sacrificed herself at the end of X2. Here, the Phoenix plot strand is horribly mangled, so that a denouement that should hit us with the gale force of a Greek tragedy instead comes off like a tepid storyline on Days of Our Lives. While Ratner may not be able to adequately tap into the mythology of the series, he’s pretty good with an action scene, which means that the movie kicks into high gear whenever the good guys and bad guys square off. A large-scale skirmish set on Alcatraz (now serving as a mutant research facility) makes for a doozy of a climax -- it’s the sequence in the film that most feels like it’s been directly lifted from the printed page.
DOWN IN THE VALLEY
Writer-director David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley seeks to pay homage to the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, and various scenes also bring to mind Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy. We’re talking classic cinema here, folks, yet for all of Jacobson’s ambitions, his movie doesn’t really deserve to be mentioned in the same hemisphere as those pictures, let alone the same sentence. That’s a shame, because for a good while, this moody drama clicks on all cylinders -- less for its Western trappings than for its look at an ill-fated romance. Evan Rachel Wood, best known for playing a rebellious LA teen at odds with her single mom in Thirteen, here plays a rebellious LA teen similarly at odds with her single dad. While protective of her younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), Tobe appears to have nothing but contempt for her father Wade (David Morse). She meets and falls in love with Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton), a much-older man whose cowboy duds and “aw, shucks” mannerisms make him an odd figure in the hustle-and-bustle concrete landscape of Los Angeles. Tobe and Lonnie think he’s the genuine article, while Wade smells a phony -- audience members, on the other hand, can’t peg him one way or another, thanks to Norton’s finely nuanced performance.
THE DA VINCI CODE
First, Columbia Pictures decreed that no critic would see the movie until the last possible nanosecond, to better preserve its mysteries and wonders. Then, in a highly unusual move, they decided that the critics should be forbidden from seeing the film together; thus, they nationally arranged for daily newspaper reviewers in each city to see the picture one day earlier than weekly newspaper scribes. It’s always possible that all of this busybody activity as well as the attempts to shroud the final product in secrecy were carefully orchestrated to distract everyone from the fact that the film version of The Da Vinci Code is merely... OK. It’s no instant classic, it won’t sweep next year’s Academy Awards, and it won’t make its way to the upper echelons of the all-time top-grossing films list. Conversely, it’s also not a turkey for the ages -- it won’t draw instant titters at the mere mention of its name like, say, Gigli or Battlefield Earth or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Like Bonfire, however, I suspect that it will be judged far more harshly by those who read the book than those who didn’t. After all, on its own cinematic terms, it’s a moderately entertaining ride, sort of like the Nicolas Cage hit National Treasure only done with more style and a more respectable cast. Steered by his Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, Tom Hanks plays the central role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist whose book-signing stint in Paris is cut short when he’s summoned to the Louvre to hopefully shed light on the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of an elderly curator. What Langdon doesn’t initially know is that the detective on the case, the gruff Bezu Fache (French national treasure Jean Reno), is convinced that he’s the killer. With a police cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Amelie’s Audrey Tautou) as his only ally, Langdon evades capture and begins a jaunt across France and, later, England in an attempt to solve an ancient mystery that, if revealed, could potentially spell the end of Christianity as we know it. Seeking guidance in their quest, Langdon and Sophie turn to British scholar Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, easily earning MVP honors) to fill in the missing pieces; all the while, they’re being pursued by the homicidal monk Silas (Paul Bettany), the designated hatchet man employed by the corrupt cabal lurking within the bowels of the Catholic Church. However tantalizingly this might have all played out on the page, up on the screen it simply comes off as one more familiar Hollywood thriller. Yet where The Da Vinci Code succeeds is, as expected, within the arena of religious debate. Whatever one thinks of the worldwide protests of offended Christians (the anger is understandable, though true believers must know that their religion will far outlive a perceived potboiler that will probably go the way of dinosaurs and Rubik’s Cubes) or Dan Brown’s research and subsequent conclusions, there’s no denying that the movie’s most gripping scenes involve the laying out of the conspiracy theories. The manner in which Langdon figures out riddles is almost laughable -- he cracks ancient codes in such record time that I half-expected him to pull out and solve a few Sudoku puzzles while he’s at it -- yet the resultant discussions, especially when McKellen’s Teabing is the one doing the talking, are heady and fascinating.
OVER THE HEDGE
Based on a comic strip with which I’m thoroughly -- and, if it’s anything like this movie, thankfully -- unfamiliar, Over the Hedge is yet another charmless animated feature made by profiteers whose historical reference point seems to begin and end with Shrek. In other words, don’t look for what was once quaintly referred to as “Disney magic,” that timeless, ethereal quality that used to be par for the course in toon flicks like Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians and, in more recent times, Beauty and the Beast. With rare exception, today’s cartoon characters aren’t allowed to be romantic or introspective or lovably quixotic -- usually, they’re too busy hyperventilating or passing gas or trying to find ways to screw over their fellow toons. Over the Hedge is more of the same, as an opportunistic raccoon (Bruce Willis), in hock to a grouchy grizzly (Nick Nolte), cons a group of peaceful forest denizens into helping him invade suburbia and steal the humans’ junk food. There’s a witty sequence in which the raccoon explains how the humans “live to eat” rather than “eat to live,” and a nicely delivered Stanley Kowalski gag make me chuckle out loud. Otherwise, this DreamWorks production feels like a flat-footed attempt to rip off the Pixar template. In addition to Willis and Nolte, other all-stars include Garry Shandling, William Shatner and Avril Lavigne -- another break from the past, as the classic yarns didn’t require marquee value to sell their stories.
The much maligned subgenre known as the “disaster flick” began with 1970’s Airport and ended with 1980’s aptly titled When Time Ran Out. The Poseidon Adventure was one of the first disaster flicks and it arguably remains the best. Based on Paul Gallico’s novel, it tracks the efforts of a group of survivors who try to make their way to the surface after an enormous wave flips their luxury cruise ship over with the ease of a plastic sailboat being similarly submerged in a bathtub. Efficiently directed by Ronald Neame, The Poseidon Adventure also benefits from its spectacular technical attributes, especially its imaginative set design (everything had to be mapped out and then constructed upside down). The Oscar-winning visual effects hold up; the Oscar-winning song “The Morning After” does not. Come next spring, I doubt we’ll be similarly mentioning Poseidon and Oscars in the same sentence, since this is as forgettable as motion pictures can get. Electing to scrap the characters from Gallico’s book and Neame’s film, director Wolfgang Petersen and scripter Mark Protosevich instead serve up all-new players. Petersen describes them as “original, contemporary characters,” which I guess is some sort of doublespeak meaning one-dimensional dullards rendered uncomplicated for today’s audiences. So instead of Gene Hackman’s cipher of a holy man, we get Josh Lucas as a professional gambler who acts tough but really sports an empathic heart. Instead of Ernest Borgnine’s fundamentally decent but outwardly obnoxious detective, we get Kurt Russell as a saintly, sin-free father who’s also a retired firefighter and the former mayor of New York. And God forbid today’s youth market accommodate wheezy old farts like those played by Winters, Buttons and Jack Albertson; here, they’re replaced by a newlywed couple (Emmy Rossum and Mike Vogel) who barely look old enough to vote and a Hispanic hottie (Mia Maestro) who, because she’s the one openly Christian character in this secular Hollywood entertainment, will of course learn that her faith can’t protect her.
JUST MY LUCK
With such titles as Freaky Friday, Mean Girls and A Prairie Home Companion on her resume, Lindsay Lohan has made smarter choices than other performers her age, most of whom have a tendency to end up in inane teen-bait comedies or disposable Disney Channel movies. Just My Luck marks a major career stumble, as Lohan suddenly finds herself in the sort of drivel usually snatched up by arch-rival Hilary Duff. To add insult to injury, Lohan is too young to be playing the character at the center of this new film. Ashley Albright is a rapidly rising account executive at a swanky New York p.r. firm, but wouldn’t you assume that a college degree would be required for such a position? So how can we accept 19-year-old Lohan in a role better suited for an actress in her mid-20s? It’s only a minor annoyance, but then again, Just My Luck is a movie entirely comprised of minor annoyances, pelting us throughout with a steady stream of idiotic moments. The fantasy-tinged plotline posits that Ashley is the luckiest woman in the world while the bumbling, stumbling Jake (Chris Paine), a bowling alley custodian who dreams of success as a band manager, is her exact opposite, a guy so plagued by rotten luck that he’s constantly being placed in compromising or injurious positions. But after these two strangers meet and kiss at a masquerade ball, Ashley suddenly finds herself the unluckiest woman in the world while Jake -- well, you can figure out the rest. That the key to Ashley’s happiness (at least until the unconvincing third act denouement) is directly related to her wealth and status seems lost even to screenwriters I. Marlene King and Amy B. Harris, who apparently thought they were penning a romantic comedy when they were actually writing an ode to materialism. Worse, the pair can’t even adhere to the guidelines they themselves established. When Ashley drops a contact lens into a cat’s soiled litter box and then scoops it out and puts it in her eye without even rinsing it, this isn’t an example of Ashley experiencing bad luck; this is an example of Ashley being a moron.
While 1996’s Mission: Impossible featured some wild action scenes -- remember that helicopter in the train tunnel? -- it was mostly memorable for Brian De Palma’s stylish direction and a screenplay that left too many moviegoers vigorously scratching their heads. The 2000 sequel elected to focus more on the wham-pow-bang factor, but as (over)directed by John Woo, the movie proved to be a soulless enterprise. For Mission: Impossible III, instead of going for an established director like De Palma and Woo, Paramount Pictures and producer-star Cruise elected to take a chance on J.J. Abrams, who began his career as a scripter of mediocre movies (Armageddon, Regarding Henry) before being born again as the creator of the acclaimed TV hits Alias and Lost. Even if this turns out to be the last movie in the series, Abrams at least ensures it’s being sent off on a high note. Ethan Hunt has had a reassignment since we last saw him: He’s no longer working as a field agent but rather as an instructor of new recruits, thus allowing him to spend more time with his blissfully out-of-the-loop fiancee Julia (Michelle Monaghan). But a dangerous mission beckons, and of course he chooses to accept it. This mission is also tainted with a whiff of the personal, as he learns that his best student, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell, star of Abrams’ first series Felicity), has disappeared while investigating the shady affairs of weapons dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He agrees to take charge of a rescue team consisting of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q). Look, I’m as sick of hearing about Cruise’s offscreen nonsense as anyone else. But the great thing about the magic of the movies is that it immerses us in fantasy worlds that more often than not allow us to disengage from real-life baggage. In other words, Cruise is accomplished -- and canny -- enough to know that a well-oiled summer flick is just the item to make us all forgive him -- at least temporarily -- for his indiscretions. Yet the performance of note in Mission: Impossible III belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh from winning an Oscar for last fall’s Capote. It’s a compliment when I state that Hoffman’s Owen Davian would have made a formidable Bond villain, and it’s a shame that the part isn’t much larger. But Owen’s icy stare and reptilian movements make it clear that he’s as ruthless as he is humorless, and when a woman spills a drink on him during a fancy soiree, his look suggests that he’d kill her on the spot if it weren’t for those hundreds of pesky eyewitnesses surrounding them.
Writer-director Paul Greengrass’ superb 9/11 docudrama United 93 is one of those movies that should be seen, but it’s understandable that many viewers won’t want to see it, and no amount of critical hosannas will change their minds. The first half of the movie spends more time with traffic controllers desperately trying to make sense of the chaos descending on them at sickening speed. In the second half of the film the connective tissues fall away, and we’re left with the saga unfolding aboard United 93. Realizing that these terrorists plan to use the plane as a weapon of mass destruction -- and thereby realizing that no Entebbe-style rescues are in the works -- the passengers decide only they can stop the murderers at the controls. It’s noble to imagine their collective motive was to honor God and country, but this movie is honest enough to acknowledge that, like any of us caught in such a situation, self-preservation comes first. And it’s a testament to the movie’s power that we find ourselves praying for a safe landing even though history has long dictated otherwise. Greengrass refuses to take the bait of making a picture that can be tagged as propagandistic or too political. How restrained is Greengrass’ approach? Understand that passenger Todd Beamer’s catchphrase “Let’s roll” -- you know, the one that’s been co-opted by seemingly every politician and pundit from coast to coast -- is barely audible when Beamer speaks it.
One would have to travel deep into the 1990s -- during the era of Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage -- to find a comedic Robin Williams performance that was more than simply incessant and annoying shtick. RV, therefore, marks the first time in at least a decade that Williams merges his patented humor with a recognizably human character, and the balance suits him well. It’s just a shame that the vehicle that carries this engaging performance doesn’t offer a smoother ride. Williams stars as Bob Munro, a workaholic who spends far more time sucking up to his boss (Will Arnett) than racking up quality hours with the wife (Cheryl Hines) and kids. Ordered to attend a business meeting in Colorado when he’s supposed to take the family to Hawaii for a vacation, Bob decides to meet both obligations by renting an RV and heading out to the open spaces with his clan -- and thereby making it easier to sneak away long enough to participate in the powwow.
AKEELAH AND THE BEE
The lion’s share of the credit for its success goes to Keke Palmer, who essays the central role of Akeelah Anderson. Growing up in south LA with her widowed mother (Angela Bassett) and two older siblings, Akeelah’s only true passion is for spelling -- a seemingly frivolous fancy considering her dour surroundings and dead end options. But determined to somehow put his decrepit school on the map, the principal Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong) encourages Akeelah to try out for a competition that will determine which student will represent them in upcoming spelling bees. Akeelah easily trounces the competition and in doing so catches the eye of Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), Mr. Welch’s friend and a former spelling wiz himself. Dr. Larabee agrees to coach Akeelah through the exhausting bee season, and their goal is no less than reaching the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals. What sets the film apart is the manner in which it details how Akeelah’s triumphs end up lifting the entire community. Her success is their success, and it’s inspiring to watch neighbors from all walks of life -- everyone from the postman to the local crime lord(!) -- throw their support behind her.