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Alpha Dog, Borat, Charlotte's Web

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Reviews by David Chute, Scott Foundas, Jessica Grose, J. Hoberman, Nathan Lee, Rob Nelson, Jean Oppenheimer, Jim Ridley, Ella Taylor, Luke Y. Thompson and Robert Wilonsky.

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ALPHA DOG

Based on the real-life murder of a 15-year-old San Fernando boy by a gang of teens allegedly led by Jesse James Hollywood—who escaped to Brazil, was arrested there in 2005 and still awaits trial—Alpha Dog lays out a horrific tale of suburban indulgence gone wrong. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes prepped for this movie by poring over off-limits files leaked by the case's prosecutor, and he presents Hollywood, here named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), not as a great criminal mastermind, but merely a baby-faced punk who deals weed to spoiled Valley girls and their hip-hopped-up boyfriends. (RW) (Countywide)

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN

Sacha Baron Cohen's ersatz Kazakh TV reporter, the ineffably oafish Borat Sagdiyev, goes looking for America—from New York to LA by way of Mississippi, and well beyond the boundaries of taste. It's a documentary. Borat specializes in one-on-ones with unwary professionals, snared by their desire to appear on (even Kazakh) TV. The audience doesn't laugh so much as howl. How does Baron Cohen keep a straight face? (JH) (Regency Charter Centre, Huntington Beach; Woodbridge Dollar Movies, Irvine)

CHARLOTTE'S WEB

Breathe easy: Gary Winick's new, live-action Charlotte's Web pic does not screw up one of the seminal works of American children's literature. In fact, the film manages to modernize this classic tale without losing the gravity and essential dignity of animals grappling with mortality. Winick skillfully undercuts the seriousness of the subject matter (Wilbur, the porcine protagonist, is essentially on death row for the entirety of the film) with contemporary sarcasm and a liberal dose of potty humor. While Dakota Fanning does well by Fern, the film's pig-loving heroine, John Cleese, with his clipped British delivery, is the real scene-stealer as elitist sheep Samuel. (JG) (Countywide)

CHILDREN OF MEN

Alfonso Cuaròn's dank, hallucinated, shockingly immediate version of P.D. James's sci-fi novel functions equally well as fantasy and thriller. Like War of the Worlds and V for Vendetta (and more consistently than either), Children of Men attempts to fuse contemporary life with pulp mythology. Infertility may be the metaphor that enables Children of Men to entertain the possibility of No Future but the war against terror and the battle for Iraq are powerfully present. (JH) (Countywide)

DHOOM 2

Sanjay Gadhvi's sequel tp the first Dhoom (a.k.a. Blast, in the sense of "having a…") is a globe-trotting succession of elaborate robbery and chase sequences. Judged purely as a crime movie, it's a mess, littered with unanswered questions and dangling plot threads. As an entertainment that has more in common with a variety show than with a well-made narrative, it lives up to its title. In spite of all the CGI- and wire-assisted heavy lifting, the most impressive special effects here are the sinuously athletic dance moves of leading man Hrithek Roshan (Krrish), who plays the dashing cat burglar everyone else is chasing—a wall-climbing, sky-diving master of disguise. (DC) (Naz 8, Artesia)

DREAMGIRLS

By now, so much of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's 1981 Broadway hit Dreamgirls' prime real estate has been overdeveloped by the rash of Broadway and big-screen music biographies (Ray, Walk the Line, Jersey Boys) that it's tough to get too worked up over yet more scenes of naïve, young vocalists hearing their song on the radio for the first time, encountering the ugly face of racism, and discovering that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be. Still, the movie version of Dreamgirls, which was written and directed by Bill Condon, is by far the best of the recent Hollywood musicals. (SF) (Countywide)

GURU

Gifted Indian moviemaker Mani Ratnam's enthralling and eventful new picture is one of his best yet. Inspired by the rags to riches story of a real-life Indian petrochemical tycoon, the late Dhirajlal "Dhirubhai" Ambani, it's a realistically textured biographical thriller staged on an operatic scale. Re-named Gurukant "Gurubhai" Desai and played with high-stepping enjoyment and focused determination by Abishek Bachchan, he's a hero not in spite of the fact that he's a crafty corporate Capitalist but because of it; his textile factories have created tens of thousands of jobs, and the ordinary people he recruited as shareholders have been hoisted out of poverty by his success. (DC) (Naz 8, Artesia)

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND

An adequate thriller redeemed by Forest Whitaker's sensational turn as Idi Amin, this novice venture into narrative features by documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, One Day in September) stars James McAvoy as a callow young Scot who becomes the dictator's personal physician and close adviser, and lives to rue the day. Based on the 1998 novel by Giles Foden, the movie feels awkwardly derivative of Under Fire, Salvador, and other superior thrillers of Westerners entangled in the legacy of imperialism. (ET) (Countywide)

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

The simple act of mirroring can't help but seem provocative in a movie that's about to be released into a nation at war—a war, like most others, predicated on absolutist notions of good and evil. But in Letters From Iwo Jima, as in Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood seems less concerned with provocation than with contemplation of a popular military campaign and its supposed days of glory. Letters narrows its focus to Iwo Jima and the Japanese troops who endured weeks of food shortages and dysentery epidemics only to perish in hails of bullets, or, in some cases, impaled by their own swords. (SF) (Countywide)

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