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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)

NOTES ON A SCANDAL

This grim piece of work—brilliantly adapted by Patrick Marber from the darkly comic Zo Heller novel—is Fatal Attraction for the art-house crowd. Rookie prep-school art instructor Bathsheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), or "Sheba," as she likes to be called, is a beauty tethered to a frustratingly middle-class existence in London with her slightly disheveled older husband (Bill Nighy) and their two children. To fill the void, Sheba has an affair with a 15-year-old student, but she is also wooed by a friendless teacher at the school, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who covets the pretty young thing—as a friend, she would have us believe as our unreliable narrator. (RW) (Countywide)

THE PAINTED VEIL

John Curran's fresh take on Somerset Maugham's novel is sober and delicate but downright buoyant compared to a dull 1934 adaptation starring a miscast Greta Garbo, and a 1957 remake, The Seventh Sin, that tanked on arrival. Edward Norton makes a pretty impressive stiff himself as Walter, a research doctor who, after marrying up and badly to bored socialite Kitty (a suitably brittle Naomi Watts), moves to Shanghai, where he immerses himself in the study of infectious disease, while she immerses herself in a caddish vice-consul (Liev Schreiber). (ET) (Countywide)

 

PAN'S LABYRINTH

Literally and figuratively marvelous, writer-director Guillermo del Toro's rich, daring mix of fantasy and politics begins with a "once upon a time," then becomes utterly specific. Spain 1944: The civil war is over, and Franco's Falangists have long since subjugated the country. The Maquis, last remnants of Republican resistance, are fighting a rearguard action in the forested northern hills. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her ailing, pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) have been relocated there, to a remote military base commanded by her new stepfather, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), a cold and brutal autocrat. From Ofelia's perspective, there are all sorts of monsters, human and otherwise. (JH) (Countywide)

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS

Despite its title, this isn't one of those noxious, neo-Dickensian fantasias that tend to arrive during the holiday season—you know, the ones where overpaid studio executives seem to be working through their guilt about being rich by evoking the nobility of the starving class. Inspired by the true story of Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith), this is about a man who is abandoned by his wife (Thandie Newton) and left to care for his 5-year-old son (played by Smith's own son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) as he races about the streets of 1980s San Francisco, peddling the very thing that was to have been his ticket to ride but instead landed him in financial shackles. (SF) (Countywide)

 

THE QUEEN

More fun than any movie about the violent death of a 36-year-old woman has a right to be (and as exotic an English-language picture as the season is likely to bring), Stephen Frear's skillful docudrama is set in the peculiar bestiary that is Britain's royal family during the traumatic week between Diana Spencer's fatal car crash and the state funeral that the British public forced into existence. Whether or not Tony Blair actually saved the British monarchy, Frears has made it seem so and even worth doing. Could the actual Elizabeth exhibit anything approaching Helen Mirren's wit or timing? (JH) (Countywide)

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Stranger Than Fiction, a fanciful confection about a nebbish who finds out he's a character in a novelist's unhappy ending, may not add up to much more than the standard studio-made exhortation to live your life, not your fears or fantasies. But the movie, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) from a screenplay by Zach Helm, teems with ideas both literary and existential, which might make it unbearably precious, were it not redeemed by woozy charm and some serious acting from Will Ferrell. (ET) (Woodbridge Dollar Movies, Irvine)

VOLVER

The title of this latest and highly enjoyable comic melodrama from beloved Spanish director Pedro Almodòvar translates as Coming Back—as in "back from the dead," referring to the amusingly matter-of-fact resurrection of Irene (Carmen Maura), an old grandmother who refuses to let mortality get in the way of unfinished familial business. For the filmmaker, Volver represents a return of other sorts as well: to his childhood home of La Mancha, to lighter material after Bad Education, and to All About My Mother's Penèlope Cruz, who, cast here as Irene's catering daughter Raimunda, delivers her most loose-limbed and endearing performance. (RN) (Countywide)

 

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ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES

Adapted from wildly uneven French writer/director/producer Luc Besson's own series of children's books, this predictable and overly busy 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 his grandfather's diary. Following the clues, Arthur, now a 3-D animated figure, enters the mythical Seven Kingdoms, where he joins forces with sexy CGI princess (Madonna) and her chubby, rubber troll of a brother (Jimmy Fallon) as they battle the evil Lord Malthazard (David Bowie) for buried treasure. (JO) (Countywide)

BABEL

In Alejandro González Iñárritu's kaleidoscopic study of tone-deaf culture collision and dislocation, a rifle links the fates of a Moroccan goatherder's young sons (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid), a grieving California couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), a San Diego nanny (Adriana Barraza) stranded with her privileged charges, and a deaf-mute Tokyo schoolgirl (Rinto Kikuchi). The director and his longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga mean to show the butterfly effects of American arrogance and post-9/11 solipsism throughout the world, but after a strong first hour the movie settles for cheap ironies and climactic calamities rigged to unfold almost in unison. (JR) (Countywide)

 

BLOOD DIAMOND

Edward Zwick's latest film assembles three refugees from central casting around the quest for an egg-sized pink diamond in Sierra Leone. When rebels rampage through his village, Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) is wrenched from his family and put to work mining diamonds. On the job, Solomon retrieves the rock and sets about hiding it when government soldiers bust in and cart everyone off to jail. Word of the diamond soon reaches Danny (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a scheme is hatched to get rich or die trying. The holy trinity of African adventure flick clichès is soon completed by the arrival of Maddy (Jennifer Connelly), a foxy idealist reporting on the blood diamond trade for an American newsweekly. (NL) (Countywide)

 

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER

Like his Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou's third global-market gigaproduction makes little sense in narrative terms even after two screenings, but the sets, costumes, and cinematography are so intoxicating that it doesn't much matter. Zhang's interest in the wuxia (martial arts) film may well extend no further than the kick he gets out of constructing ostentatious palaces and then watching from behind the lens as they crumble to the ground—he's a movie director, in other words. (RN) (AMC 30 at the Block, Orange; Edwards Long Beach)

DÉJÀ VU

The story goes like this: The ferry blows up (seen it), Denzel Washington struts on the scene to investigate (seen it), clues are discovered (seen it), a dead girl is found under mysterious circumstances (seen it), Val Kilmer arrives looking kind of pudgy (??), everyone heads off to a top-secret government base and climbs into a gigantic spark plug. There, a next-level surveillance system renders real-time composite images of anything that happened four days ago, from any angle, through all obstacles, and in the visual vocabulary of the 21st century blockbuster. Except that actually it's a time machine. (Now here is something new.) (NL) (Woodbridge Dollar Movies, Irvine)

THE DEPARTED

Martin Scorsese strives to bring it all back home, remaking the strongest HK action film of recent years. Infernal Affairs is a movie with a star premise; The Departed is packed with names: Matt Damon; Leonardo DiCaprio; and Jack Nicholson; who skews crazy, reprising his turn from The Witches of Eastwick in the inflated role of a patriarchal crime boss. Neither debacle nor bore, the movie works, but only up to a point and never emotionally—nothing that wouldn't have been cured by losing half an hour . . . and Jack. (JH) (Countywide)

ERAGON

In a time of darkness, under the evil reign of John Malkovich—who sits upon a throne in a different soundstage from all the other cast—a hero shall rise: Eragon (newcomer Ed Speleers). And then shall cometh a big blue CGI dragon, voiced by Rachel Weisz and far lamer—physically and stylistically—than Sean Connery's beast from 1996's Dragonheart. As Eragon tries to save his home from the power-mad king of Stefen Fangmeier's lame fantasy world, much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensue, especially in the scenes when singer Joss Stone plays a fortune-telling gypsy, and even more so when songbirds Avril Lavigne and Jem foist themselves unto the soundtrack. (LYT) (Krikorian Buena Park; Regal Foothill Towne Center, Foothill Ranch; Edwards Long Beach)

FREEDOM WRITERS

Neither Half Nelson nor all bad, this white-teacher-uplifts-poor-kids-of-color drama aims to favor the students' stories, which are based on those of real-life Long Beach high-schoolers who wrote their way out of oppression and anonymity in the mid-'90s. But those diary entries too often take a back seat to the film's "Ms. G." played by two-time Oscar-winner and Chad Lowe-survivor Hilary Swank, who makes instantly credible her character's preference of work over marriage to a boring man-behind-the-woman (Patrick Dempsey). The movie's most effective lesson is teaching isn't just for teachers. (RN) (Countywide)

FLUSHED AWAY

The third collaboration between Britain's Aardman studio and DreamWorks animation, this puckish charmer about a posh Kensington mouse flushed down the loo into London sewer country is to action-adventure what Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was to Hammer Horror. Beyond the obligatory Hollywood moralizing about community and cooperation, there's a heartfelt upstairs-downstairs tale of urban loneliness redeemed by love and family. (ET) (Regency Charter Centre, Huntington Beach; Woodbridge Dollar Movies, Irvine)

THE GOOD SHEPHERD

It took Norman Mailer seven years and 1,282 pages to write 1991's Harlot's Ghost: A Novel of the CIA, so director Robert De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth can be forgiven for taking two hours and 40 minutes to tell The Good Shepherd (a/k/a A Movie of the CIA)—but then why does it feel so empty? As long as it is, Shepherd speeds through its leading man's life, cramming in 30 years without elaborating on any of them. The fictional story here is about Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a CIA agent tied to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and suspected of being a mole. (RW) (Countywide)

HAPPILY N'EVER AFTER

With shtick as dull as it is ill-natured, this appallingly dumb and tasteless inversion of the Cinderella story features the voice of Sigourney Weaver as a generically shrieky wicked stepmother who discovers she can tinker with fairy-tale endings, notably that of Cinders (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who sports a short black Audrey Hepburn 'do and a mistaken crush on a narcissistic prince (Patrick Warburton) brazenly ripped off from Beauty and the Beast's Gaston. I spent the movie scratching my head over which audience Lionsgate is hoping to tap with this noisy rubbish. YouTubers? Tots with A.D.D.? (ET) (Countywide)

 

THE HOLIDAY

Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is an LA movie trailer producer who's just kicked her cheating boyfriend to the curb. Iris (Kate Winslet) is a Daily Telegraph wedding reporter whose own unfaithful ex is getting hitched to another woman. After bonding in an Internet chat room, they negotiate a house swap and, upon arriving in their new digs, promptly dive headfirst back into the relationship cesspool (Diaz with Jude Law, Winslet with Jack Black). The Holiday is frequently smarter and savvier than the Hollywood norm, but like writer-producer-director Nancy Meyers' other recent films (What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give), it's also reductive in its view of women. (SF) (Countywide)

 

THE ITALIAN

Russian director Andrei Kravchuck charts the plight of his country's army of orphans, hapless waifs deserted by drunken parents, and a post-Soviet government in disarray. Caught between the brutalities of orphanage life and the profiteers of illegal adoption, little Vanya Solntsev (Kolya Spiridonov) longs to reunite with his real mother, and sets out to learn to read in order to find her. Lured, perhaps, by the promise of international markets, Kravchuk opts for routine uplift, and once the heroic journey is set in motion, the rest is ballast. (ET) (Edwards Westpark, Irvine)

LITTLE CHILDREN

Todd Field's second excursion into middle-class unease, after his intelligent but overrated In the Bedroom, unfolds at a leisurely, insidious pace. It posits a suburb full of hypocrites busily persecuting their local child molester (a compellingly creepy Jackie Earle) so as not face up to their own subterranean secrets and desires. Little Children divides its time between melodrama and black comedy, uneasy bedfellows in a movie that solicits serious sympathy for its wounded souls, adulterous lovers played by Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson. (ET) (Edwards Westpark, Irvine; Art Theatre, Long Beach)

 

MISS POTTER

How the Beatrix Potter franchise—with its tight-lipped moral justice visited upon insipid mice, bunnies, and the truly insufferable Jemima Puddle Duck—continues to flourish in this age of permissive parenting is a mystery, but surely there's a meaty drama to be made about the dark forces that drove this dyed-in-the-wool Victorian. Director Chris Noonan (Babe) and screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr. are having none of it. Miss Potter shifts the burden of ill humor onto the lady authoress' petit bourgeois mother (Barbara Flynn), thus freeing Rene Zellweger to perk up Beatrix into a chipper cross between Bridget Jones and Mary Poppins. (ET) (Century Stadium, Orange; Edwards Brea Stadium East; UA Marketplace, Long Beach)

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM

Ben Stiller—as usual, frazzled with a touch of hipster frump—is a divorced dad in need of a gig, lest his cutie-pie kid (Jake Cherry) wind up spending all of his time with uptight bond-trading New Dad (Paul Rudd, wasted in a straightlaced cameo). So Stiller's Larry takes a job as night watchman at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where things go bump in the night. The first half-hour's too slow; the last half-hour's too manic. But it's the first outing from director Shawn Levy (he of Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther infamy) that actually entertains. (RW) (Countywide)

 

PRIMEVAL

Dominic Purcell plays a disgraced, charisma-challenged reporter traveling to Africa alongside nature documentarian Aviva (Brooke Langton), Funny Black Guy cameraman Steve (Orlando Jones, who deserves better), and Steve Irwin-y animal guy Matthew Collins (Gideon Emery, dullsville). There, they learn that life in Africa is hard, especially with those warlords and oversized reptiles picking on everyone. With a little camp this could have been fun (see: Lake Placid, Anaconda), but director Michael Katleman (see: episodes of Gilmore Girls, Tru Calling) doesn't play it that way, and even Jürgen Prochnow's crazed Ahab wannabe is unfortunately understated. (LYT) (AMC 30 at the Block; Edwards Long Beach)

ROCKY BALBOA

In '06, Rocky's belated return to the ring can be blamed, like this DVD-ready sequel, on the digital revolution: The ESPN Boxing channel's computer simulation program predicts that the Italian Stallion, at least as he was in his prime, could take the current heavyweight champ, Mason "the Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver) by K.O. Naturally, neither Rocky, now a restaurateur, nor Mason Dixon (named for the thin line between drama and comedy?) can resist when a promoter's Vegas exhibition offer follows. (RN) (Countywide)

STOMP THE YARD

Upon his release from jail, talented dancer DJ (Columbus Short) is shipped by his moms from South Central to Atlanta's ever-so-subtly named Truth University (a fictional amalgam of prominent black colleges). There, DJ falls for a fine sister (Meagan Good), whose father—the dean of Truth—doesn't look kindly on his little angel socializing with an ex-felon. What's a brother to do? Why, put his fancy footwork to use in service of step-dancing competitions, a tradition at black fraternities and sororities, which, as filmed by White with an overload of slow-motion effects and high-speed shutters, are about as cinematic as a televised Riverdance concert. (SF) (Countywide)

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