New Film Reviews

Bluffmaster, Wolf Creek, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Fun With Dick and Jane, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Ringer, Rumor Has It, The White Countess

. . . very little, unless you count Bob Hoskins stripping to the buff, mercifully in fuzzy lighting. Stephen Frears has had more downs than ups of late, but I would never have thought the man responsible for My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters capable of stooping to pap as pappy as this unbearably chipper take on the real-life story of Laura Henderson, who in 1937, at age 69, bought London's venerable but defunct Windmill Theater and turned it into a raunchy vaudeville venue. Poor Judi Dench is saddled with playing Henderson as a dotty old lady liberated by widowhood into a game old dame with two new leases on life: retooling the theater into a de facto strip joint ("Oh! How delicious! Naked girls!") and growing a schoolgirl crush on her theater manager, Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins), despite the fact that he's a d class Jew. Christopher Guest guests unmemorably as Mrs. H.'s pal, the Lord Chamberlain, who gives his blessing so long as the lovelies (headed by the truly lovely Kelly Reilly, last seen as a bitchy minx in Pride & Prejudice) don't move a muscle. All is joyful vulgarity until World War II churlishly bursts in, generating oodles of Dunkirk spirit and swelling Martin Sherman's awful script into such orgies of cliché, you want to bottle it. (Ella Taylor) (Opens Dec. 25 at Edwards University, Irvine)

See Film feature. (Opens Dec. 25 countywide)

At their best, Peter and Bobby Farrelly make garishly inappropriate comedies with a soft center—the flying jism and terrible comb-overs feel less grotesque because of the love the brothers exhibit toward their oddball characters. The trickiness of that sweet-and-sour balancing act becomes apparent when others try to follow in the Farrellys' gross-out footsteps. Such is the case with this would-be outrageous laugher from director Barry W. Blaustein and writer Ricky Blitt. When Steve (Johnny Knoxville) has to raise a ton of cash for a friend's surgery, his uncle Gary (Brian Cox) proposes that Steve pretend to be "retarded" and compete in the Special Olympics while Gary places bets on him to win. With that setup (and the Farrellys as producers), you expect The Ringer to plunge headfirst into some Bad Santa-style offensive humor where no taboo is left unturned. But the movie strains so hard to have its heart in the right place that it never really exploits the guilty-pleasure fun of the premise. Receiving the endorsement of the Special Olympics, which also served as a consultant, The Ringer means to champion and humanize the film's real-life disabled athletes, but such earnest political correctness neuters any possibility of satire or subversion. As a result, the athletes come off as rather dull, Knoxville feels hemmed in, and Blitt's clichéd script—which includes a steal-the-cute-girl-away-from-her-jerk-fiancé romantic subplot—fails to make us care about anyone, special or otherwise. Instead of a raucous comedy with an ultimately positive message, you get a public-relations campaign with a side of slapstick. (Tim Grierson) (Countywide)

Wolf Creek
Wolf Creek

Well, now, let's see. Mrs. Robinson (Shirley MacLaine, vamping, camping) is still an old lush, but a helpful one who makes jokes and gives sage counsel. Benjamin, trust us, was no innocent to begin with, and now, if you please, he's Beau Burroughs (same initials, get it?), an Internet millionaire with a Kevin Costner paunch and a testicular deficit that in no way interferes with his yen for sleeping with multiple women from the same family. Elaine is tragically gone in the usual manner (the big C), and that blond Ken doll she almost married turns out to be the most standup guy (Richard Jenkins) in all of Pasadena. And here's a little something extra to hold the under-50 audience: Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston), a New York Times obituary writer in early-midlife crisis who, upon her return to staid Pasadena for her giddy sister's (Mena Suvari) wedding, twigs that it was her family history that inspired The Graduate. Stuffing her sensible boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) onto a plane back to New York, she hares off to San Francisco to search for the man who may be her real father. Sarah gets to go to a ball in a very lovely blue number that shows off the Aniston peepers, but not much else of consequence goes down, let alone a walk-on for Dustin Hoffman. This Rob Reiner comedy jogs along pleasantly enough to the finish (Costner is charming as always in over-the-hill-ruin mode), which entails a less-than-shattering insight about love and marriage, of interest only in that it inadvertently reveals just how fearful and reactionary we've grown about both since Benjamin and Elaine first got on that bus. (Ella Taylor) (Countywide)

The Redgrave cheekbones march out in full collective force to play a blue-blooded émigré Russian family living in 1930s Shanghai in genteel poverty. Kindly but ineffectual aunt (Vanessa) and snobby mother-in-law from hell (Lynn) try to save face while ambivalently relying on widowed Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson, blooming) to support them with night work as a taxi dancer and heaven only knows what else. Sofia's star rises when she becomes the hostess of a glamorous new nightclub owned by Jackson (Ralph Fiennes, smiling mysteriously and continuously), a former diplomat whose spirit was crushed along with his eyesight during a period of intense Chinese political turmoil. The theme that juts out of The White Countess like Margaret Rutherford's jaw is that no man is an island, especially if the Japanese are coming and no one is being nice to the Jews, represented in saintly mode by Allan Corduner. I have the greatest respect for Kazuo Ishiguro, whose wonderful novel The Remains of the Day became one of the best films in the Merchant-Ivory oeuvre. But the combination of his stately writing and James Ivory's stately directing, even when pepped by Christopher Doyle's fizzy cinematography, makes for fatally low-key viewing. Which isn't quite the ticket for a melodrama set in one of the world's most cosmopolitan and, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, conflict-ridden cities. Where Shanghai should teem, it merely ambles. (Ella Taylor) (Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana)

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