STEAMBOY

Reviews by David Chute, Stacy Davies, Scott Foundas, Ernest Hardy, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Kim Morgan, Ron Stringer, Ella Taylor and Chuck Wilson.

With its geriatric story-framing device, gooey dime-store romanticism and tawdry pop ballads about unrequited yearning, watching Joel Schumacher's long-awaited (by some) film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway musical feels akin to dying and waking up in your parents' easy-listening-radio hell. That the film has been heralded as a faithful translation of the show may confirm the worst suspicions of those who heretofore managed to evade Webber's behemoth—in short, that there's no underestimating the public's appetite for cheap spectacle. (SF) (EdwardsBreaStadiumEast)

At nearly three hours long, this lavish spectacle about the life of Howard Hughes is crammed with spectacular set pieces and gives great airplane and Hollywood revelry. As a character study the movie is, if not exactly chipper, then maddenly circumspect about a man who lived the dark side of American success, treated others and himself horribly, and ended his life naked, filthy and barking mad. Leonardo DiCaprio makes a downright dainty Hughes, portraying this compulsively unfaithful huckster as no more than a naughty boy in his relationship with Katharine Hepburn, played by a merely imitative Cate Blanchett. (ET) (Countywide)

Not even the wonderful Jeff Daniels can lift Wayne Wang's flaccid adaptation, with screenwriter Joan Singleton, of Kate DiCamillo's award-winning children's novel about a grieving itinerant preacher caring for his tomboy daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) and her cuddly mutt in a glum Florida backwater. For all Wang's efforts to generate arresting images, the movie has no visual style to speak of, nor any vital sense of pacing. Notwithstanding Daniels' quiet nuance and understated comedy, there's no redeeming this slavishly folksy betrayal of what can be dimly discerned as an absorbing tale of pain overcome. (ET) (Countywide)

Despite John Travolta's long-standing claim to ontological cool, not even Chili Palmer, novelist Elmore Leonard's silky-smooth alpha-male loan shark turned entertainment entrepreneur, makes it all the way through this tired sequel to Get Shorty with his poise intact. And if the movie has no underlying tension, it's because the supporting players that director F. Gary "Italian Job" Gray recruited to accompany Chili's glide from the movie industry into the music business are never even vaguely menacing. They are just clowns with guns. The Rock gets a Good Sport award, however, for his preening turn as a gay bodyguard. (DC) (Countywide)

The endlessly commercial Jane Austen franchise gets a cheap and cheerful new twist in Gurinder Chadha's frolicky Bollywood musical about love and colonial snobbery. Bride and Prejudice commutes from Amritsar, India, to tourist London and on to tasteless Los Angeles in order to mate the reluctant Darcy (a droopy, lifeless Martin Henderson) with his Indian singleton, played by the wildly sultry Indian screen goddess Aishwarya Rai. Though the Indian dance numbers put one more in mind of Village People than village people, it's hard not to warm to this slaphappy, Technicolored lummox of a movie. (ET) (Countywide)

In this puckish provocation based on the Hellblazer comics, about moral ambiguity and very bad skin, Keanu Reeves plays a reluctant exorcist condemned to maintain the earthly balance between heaven and hell—also known as downtown Los Angeles and populated by inhospitable shape-shifters with empty sockets for eyes. Notwithstanding a dispiritingly banal script credited to Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello, director Francis Lawrence (out of music videos, natch) has created a viscerally imaginative if overstuffed attempt to chart the boundaries of American spiritual life that pits apocalyptic Catholic determinism against bleak existentialism, leavened with vigilante antics. (ET) (Countywide)

A pleasant, unremarkable kitchen-sink weepie marred by shameless button-pushing, Shona Auerbach's first feature stars Emily Mortimer— a beautiful and talented fawn in some danger of being trapped in Audrey Hepburn–land playing hapless gamines—as Lizzie, a Scottish single mother who's in the habit of writing warm letters to her deaf son from a fictitious sailor father. Auerbach paints an unusually graceful, even lyrical Glasgow, but the movie's glib trafficking in illness, death and pinched little faces (screenwriter Andrea Gibb was inspired by the equally likable, equally pandering Czech film Kolya) lost me at hello. (ET) (EdwardsUniversity,Irvine)

Chitlin-circuit writer-producer Tyler Perry's broad-as-the-side-of-a-barn first filmed play tells the story of Helen (Kimberly Elise), who starts out a Stepford wife, then, rejected by her successful lawyer husband, becomes a penniless pilgrim in search of all those meaningful things—the ones money can't buy—she thought she'd had all along but didn't. As I sat listening to Helen's earnest "Dear Diary" voice-overs, it occurred to me once again that real racial equality, at least in the realm of popular entertainment, may, after all, lie less with opportunities to be great than with opportunities to be mediocre. (EAK) (Countywide)

Based in part on the testimony of Hitler's secretary, this plodding docudrama about the last days in the Berlin bunker, clocking in at 155 slavishly detailed minutes, features a performance from Bruno Ganz so over the top that the mind flies inescapably to Monty Python. The movie is marginally more interesting as a study in the fanatical loyalty the FŁhrer inspired in the ghastly Goebbels family, but it's hard to imagine even German audiences emerging from this movie gasping, "Those Nazis, what bastards, who knew?" Downfall gives us the known facts, then tiptoes quietly away. (ET) (RegencyLido,NewportBeach)

Hapless accountant Albert (Kevin James) is so frantically smitten with his firm's star client that he hires Hitch (Will Smith), who has a gift for helping Manhattan nerds land the women of their dreams. The problem is, Hitch himself keeps going all gooey around Sara (Eva Mendes), a love-leery gossip columnist. The film moves in fits and starts, and is way too long, but it may prove memorable, if only for the sweet, marvelously inventive performance of Kevin James. (CW) (Countywide)

French director Florent Siri's first English-language feature wears its influences on its sleeve. Only instead of the aesthetics of the contemporary video-game universe, Hostage plants its roots firmly in two earlier cinematic eras: hard-boiled 1950s noirs and 1970s grindhouse thrillers. The result—a crude, violent home-invasion drama—isn't particularly tasteful or finely crafted, but it has a pulpy intensity that grabs you early on and rarely lets go. The movie feels like the pushing of a much-needed reset button, both for the action genre and for its floundering star, Bruce Willis, who hasn't seemed this human and vulnerable since the original Die Hard. (SF) (Countywide)

Paul (Don Cheadle, wonderful), a Hutu, manages a swanky hotel in Rwanda while remaining oblivious to the rising Hutu-led genocide against the Tutsis—which his wife and their children happen to be. When the violence surges to his front door, Paul is forced into the role of hero. Director Terry George, working from a script he co-wrote, hooks viewers by having us ride shotgun to Paul's awakening consciousness. The film, based on true lives and events, aims unequivocally to break your heart, and it does. (EH) (AMCFullerton;EdwardsParkPlace,Irvine)

Tim Fywell's follow-your-bliss teen-skater charmer about two daughters (Michelle Trachtenberg and Hayden Panettiere) pressured into career plans they don't want treats female achievement with such respect, one almost forgives the malice of its portrayal of single mothers as rabid stage moms. Joan Cusack and Kim Cattrall bring some nice ambiguity to their thankless roles as the mothers, while pintsize Kirsten Olson and punked-out Julianna Cannarozzo, both professional skaters, leaven this Disney sugarplum with much-needed wit. But the movie's real subject, wittily handled by writer Hadley Davis, is the ardent loyalties and competitive bitchery of the figure-skating subculture. (ET) (Countywide)

This second animated feature written and directed by The Iron Giant's Brad Bird, about a family of superheroes living incognito in the suburbs, isn't just a wisecracking Pixar parody of a world-rescuing adventure thriller. It's the real thing. So much so that scenes of the family members fighting as one on a jungle island, when their various clashing superpowers finally begin to rhyme and reinforce one another, carry a stronger sense of their bonds of affection than the standard sitcom scenes around the dinner table. (DC) (Captain'sFamily,Brea)

Writer-director Paul Weitz's corporate comedy begins as a canny skewering of the modern workplace, with Dennis Quaid as a veteran ad exec demoted to make room for a cocky upstart (Topher Grace). But the movie's satire ultimately feels facile and obvious, and by the time Grace invites himself over to Quaid's place for dinner and starts making googly eyes with Daddy's college-age girl (Scarlett Johansson), the whole thing has devolved from softball to cornball. (SF) (Captain'sFamily,BreaandSantaAna;RegalFoothillTowneCenter,FoothillRanch)

Suffering from amnesia after being shot in the head during the first Gulf War, Jack Stark (Adrien Brody) returns home, is wrongly accused of murdering a cop and is sent to a psych hospital run by a doctor who locks him in a mortuary drawer for hours on end. Employing a nails-on-a-chalkboard sound design and a relentless, staccato-edited visual scheme, director John Maybury's work is suitably unnerving, but leaves one feeling beaten senseless by reel two. (CW) (AMCattheBlock,Orange)

Tommy Lee Jones plays Roland, a Texas Ranger assigned to protect a squad of college cheerleaders who've witnessed a murder and are now being hunted by the killer. It's dull going, despite two nice courtship scenes between Jones and Anne Archer, whose grounding, radiant presence restores, however briefly, a trademark twinkle to the eye of a bored leading man. (CW) (EdwardsAnaheimHills;RegalFoothillTowneCenter,FoothillRanch)

Jay Roach's sequel to his popular Ben Stiller comedy Meet the Parents feels like a big-budget Dharma & Greg episode with toilet jokes. Prospective in-laws Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner, as tight-assed WASPs, interact predictably with the Stiller character's folks, Roz and Bernie Focker, played by Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman as unbuttoned Jewish-hippie stereotypes. The desperation is occasionally leavened by the charm of the star cast: De Niro does incredulous disgust better than anyone on Earth, and entire sequences here are choreographed to inspire his slow burn. In the next installment he should play a movie critic. (DC) (Captain'sFamily,Brea)

Clint Eastwood's 25th film as director is one of his very best: a masterful, classically constructed boxing drama that views the sport as a metaphor for the wounds we suffer in life, in and out of the ring. In his most emotionally unguarded performance to date, Eastwood plays veteran fight trainer Frankie Dunn, who grudgingly takes an upstart female fighter (the extraordinary Hilary Swank) under his wing, and bonds with her in a way he never did with his own estranged daughter. At times, the movie throws blind-siding counterpunches of brutality and tenderness, but Eastwood navigates them with the cool confidence of a champion who knows when to step forward and when to lean back. (SF) (Countywide)

Seven-year-old Damien (Alex Etel), grieving the passing of his mother, sees saints, Catholic ones, so when a satchel full of cash tumbles from the sky, he naturally thinks it a gift from God. It's really bank-robbery loot, but by the time Damien and his older brother figure that out, the money's been released into the world. Millions is an intelligent children's film that may prove to be a guilty pleasure for adults, thanks to the virtuoso filmmaking of director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and a screenplay, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, that suggests even non-believers deserve happiness. (CW) (Countywide)

For his third feature as director, Campbell Scott has filmed Joan Ackermann's play about a family living in the farthest reaches of the New Mexico desert, and much like the characters it depicts, the film achieves a nearly total originality of expression. Just when and why these people—a part-Hopi woman (Joan Allen), her catatonically depressed husband (Sam Elliott) and their precocious 11-year-old daughter (superb newcomer Valentina de Angelis)—have dropped out is never revealed. But the time is the 1970s, and like the greatest American movies of that decade, Off the Map taps beautifully and beguilingly into the restlessness of the American soul. (SF) (EdwardsBreaStadiumEast;EdwardsParkPlace,Irvine;UAMarketplace,LongBeach)

Vin Diesel, you rocked my world in Pitch Black, owned that muscle car in The Fast and the Furious, extreme opped in XXX—and even when you went all drama in Boiler Room, I defended you. Setting aside Chronicles of Riddick, I've been willing to give your bald head, basso voice and Lee Marvin stoicism another chance. But The Pacifier is suddenly making my job a lot harder. A Navy Seal assigned to baby-sit five kids? Changing diapers? Vin, please, don't ever watch Kindergarten Cop again. (KM) (Countywide)

Now with less tortured Jesus! (AMCattheBlock,Orange;GalaxyCinemas,Anaheim)

Beware the marauding heffalump! That's a big purple elephant to you and me, but for Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and Rabbit, a heffalump is a frightening creature of legend that must be captured before it invades the Hundred Acre Wood. So begins this amusing, beautifully drawn one-hour film, taken from the stories of A.A. Milne and centered on the budding friendship between Roo, son of Kanga, and Lumpy, a baby heffalump with a British accent. (CW) (Captain'sFamily,BreaandIrvine;EdwardsTustinMarketplace)

Dedicated to the attractive thesis that mothers must kill their children in order to winkle the evil out of them, this limp sequel to The Ring is directed with a notable lack of luster by Hideo Nakato, who made the Japanese prototype Ringu. Once again girl reporter Naomi Watts, wearing suspiciously full lips, scurries around the Pacific Northwest doing battle for the soul of her son with the wench who lives down a well and kills by videotape. As to the fright factor, while waiting out a textbook nasty scene involving deer and headlights, around me I heard the terrifying sound of . . . uncontrollable giggles. (ET) (Countywide)

Like its eponymous heroes, this CG-animated feature is a haphazardly riveted heap of hand-me-down parts—a chunk of The Wizard of Oz welded to bits of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and ideas borrowed from The Corporation. Despite some clever visual ideas, the movie also suffers from a fundamental failure of imagination: Whereas Pixar's Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles labored ingeniously to give us a toy's/monster's/superhero's view of the world, the robots of Robots come off as one-dimensional humans in tin clothing. (SF) (Countywide)

Twenty-seven years later, the camp and sass of transvestite Doctor Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), smarmy Riff Raff (auteur Richard O'Brien), plucky Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) and anal Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) all stuck in a castle doing the time warp, having orgies and eating Meatloaf still makes you either cheer or jeer—depending on your age and how much weed you smoke. (SD) (Sat.,midnightatArtTheatre,LongBeach)

Javier Bardem gives a revelatory performance as a middle-aged quadriplegic fighting the Spanish church and state for the right to die. Director Alejandro AmenŠbar (Open Your Eyes) may not have the intellectual chops to take on a topic as incendiary and full of nuance as assisted suicide—he doesn't give the opposing arguments the time of day. But he is an exquisitely expressive filmmaker: The Sea Inside is less about a legal struggle than about the evolution of a spirit, from the animal exuberance of an able-bodied young stud to a disillusioned, yet unbowed, passion for liberation from its disused body. (ET) (EdwardsParkPlace,Irvine)

Adapting Rex Pickett's novel about two middle-aged friends on a road trip down the middle of parallel existential life crises, director Alexander Payne remains alert to both the beauty of the American landscape and the trashiness of American life. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is intent on introducing Jack to the finer points of winetasting in the Santa Inez Valley; Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is preparing to marry the following weekend and intent upon shouting a last hurrah to singledom. Then an encounter with a waitress (Virginia Madsen) and a wine pourer (Sandra Oh) messes with both their agendas. Payne moves in a new direction with Sideways—one less mordant than, but just as pointedly observant as, that of About Schmidt or Election. (KM) (Countywide)

A passionate poem to invention that also preys on our fears of science run amok, this extraordinary new animated picture from Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) features Anna Paquin as the voice of Ray Steam, an intrepid Victorian lad from a family of inventors, who finds himself at the center of a crucible of murky vested interests when he is sent a monstrous new source of steam power that does unspeakable things to London's tourist attractions. Released in both dubbed and subtitled form, Steamboy is exquisitely animated with a blend of hand-drawn and state-of-the-art digital technology that suggests an old world being bullied into a new one. (ET) (EdwardsBreaStadiumEast;EdwardsUniversity,Irvine;UAMarketplace,LongBeach)

Obscurity becomes Kevin Costner. As Denny, a run-to-seed baseball star and cut-rate radio talk-show host who keeps showing up uninvited to booze with his suburban neighbor Terry (Joan Allen), whose husband has mysteriously disappeared, Costner all but steals the show out from under his co-star—which is no easy task. One senses that this uneven, erratic comedy-drama is an intensely personal project for director Mike Binder, who is not as forgiving as he might be toward Terry. Still, the film is carried by Costner and Allen, who project a chemistry so incrementally built on reluctant camaraderie they almost seem like siblings. (ET) (Countywide)

Glossily commercial and intellectually ambitious, this gripping drama from Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger) takes on the hardened heart of Israel at home and abroad. Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage) is terrific as an unraveling Mossad assassin who poses as a tour guide to two young visiting Germans (Knut Berger and Caroline Peters) in the hope that they will lead him to their grandfather, an elderly Nazi war criminal. For all its perfunctory heterosexual love story, Walk on Water is a barely closeted gay movie, and a conciliatory meditation on the endless tussle between vengeance and forgiveness that is Israel's legacy. (ET) (EdwardsSouthCoastVillage,SantaAna)

In this poignant, funny, uncloyingly sentimental exercise in alternative bird watching, Judy Irving trains her increasingly engaged camera on homeless musician and de facto ornithologist Mark Bittner, whose care, protection and close observation of a flock of cherry-headed conures (Mingus, Picasso, Sophie, et al.) unexpectedly assume the dimensions of a vocation, and whose identification with a curmudgeonly blue-headed interloper (Connor) leads to an unexpected turn in his own, already eccentric life's journey. Wild Parrots is also about how the city of San Francisco still does, here and there and especially around North Beach, live up to its reputation as a haven for birds of a different feather. Following an arc from whimsical detachment to profound engagement, this is a remarkable document from a filmmaker who enters—deeply, personally and, above all, tactfully—into the lives of all her subjects. (RS) (EdwardsSouthCoastVillage,SantaAna)

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