The Hollywood studios where Australian-born director Roger Donaldson has spent much of his career toiling away on competent but undistinguished assignments (The Recruit,Dante's Peak,Speciesand the immortal Cocktail) would never have ponied up for this passion project about a determined old codger who ends up breaking the world's land-speed record on a 1920s motorcycle. After all, the star is old enough to be shilling for Geritol, and the story doesn't call for an avalanche of CG effects. So Donaldson made the movie independently, and the result is his best work in two decades—a warm, spacious road movie with a stirring sense of the wide-open landscapes of the American West.The World's Fastest Indian—the title refers to the brand of motorcycle, not the ethnicity of its rider—tells the true story of Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), who in 1963 travels from his home in New Zealand's southernmost city, via Los Angeles, to the annual "Speed Week" contest at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Along the way, he encounters a vibrant cross section of American dreamers and schemers, including a San Fernando Valley used-car salesman (Paul Rodriguez), a Native American apothecary, an amorous desert widow (Diane Ladd) and a GI on leave from Vietnam who assures Burt that "we should have this war done in six months or so." Opportunities for schmaltz abound, but like his subject, Donaldson knows it's always a good idea to place the center of gravity ahead of the center of pressure, which in moviemaking terms means opting for genuine feeling over cheap sentimentality. In one of the best performances of his career, Hopkins plays Munro as a simple man but not a simpleton, generous of spirit and single-minded in his pursuit, hoping against hope that if he travels fast enough, he might succeed at turning back the hands of time. (Scott Foundas) (Countywide)
ALSO OPENING THIS WEEK:
A GOOD WOMAN
Oscar Wilde fans who find Lady Windermere'sFantoo moralizing for their satiric taste miss the humane wisdom of this dramatic comedy about a fallen woman stepping unannounced into the life of the grown daughter she had abandoned as a baby. Still, Wilde himself would have rolled his eyes at Mike Barker's shallow effort to spiff up the play for transatlantic markets. It's no wonderA Good Womanhas moldered on Anglo-American shelves for close to three years. Barker shifts the action from Victorian England—where it belongs, as a scathing attack on haute-bourgeois ethics—to the irrelevantly picturesque Amalfi coast of Italy in the 1930s, where Helen Hunt (born for television sitcoms and buried under too much aging pancake) tries not to let Scarlett Johansson (born to play wantons, not prigs in floral frocks) know that she's her long-lost mum, while gaily blackmailing Scarlett's studly young stiff of a husband (Mark Umbers) into supporting her shopping budget. Stephen Campbell Moore is miserably out of his depth as the playboy trying to tempt Scarlett, leaving poor Tom Wilkinson to sound a lone note of sophisticated intelligence as the filthy-rich lord who understands that both romantic love and moral choice are more complicated and compromised than this sorry crew's petty minds can encompass. (Ella Taylor)(Edwards Island, Newport Beach)
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IMAGINE ME & YOU
The premise seems tailor-made for a low-budget gay comedy: On her wedding day, a blushing bride discovers her true love—and it's a woman! Thankfully, British writer-director Ol Parker's romantic dramedy has a broader emotional palette, but its upscale treatment of burgeoning same-sex love can't escape some fundamental chemistry problems. The bride in question is Rachel (Piper Perabo), who, despite being devoted to her longtime boyfriend Heck (Matthew Goode), feels anxious walking down the aisle—feelings that only become more pronounced when she meets Luce (Lena Headey), the ravishing (and gay) wedding florist. Settling into married life, and with Heck busy at work, lonely Rachel bonds with Luce, and although Rachel has never had any homosexual leanings, a mutual attraction develops between the two women. Parker infuses this romantic triangle with an empathy that shames his American counterparts. By presenting Heck as more nuanced than the typically ineffectual pushover and Luce as a warm but certainly not perfect partner, he positions Rachel's infidelity as a thoughtful question about the difficulty of commitment. But while the film's tasty London settings add a whiff of elegance, Parker's confection collapses because we never believe Rachel and Luce as destined soul mates. The blame rests entirely with Perabo's meager performance. Rather than conveying the dangers and euphoria associated with following your heart, she comes across as merely indecisive and whiny. Rachel may be confused about her sexual identity, but audiences will have little doubt that her competing love interests both deserve better than her. (Tim Grierson)(Edwards University, Irvine)
RANG DE BASANTI
Already a cultural phenomenon in India, this reformist melodrama by Rakesh Omprakash Mehra (Aks) uses razor-sharp technique and an eavesdropper's ear for dialogue to update the patriotic fervor of Bollywood's golden age. Mehra seems to be trying to jump-start the idealism of the young movie audience and of the movie industry at the same time. Here, he's devised a premise that is psychologically as well as rhetorically effective, as a group of slackers at Delhi University is hired by a British indie moviemaker (Alice Payton) to portray the heroes of the terrorist phase of the Indian independence movement. The students, whose ranks include superstar Aimer Khan (Lagan), go from rolling their eyes over the rebels' heartfelt rhetoric to imitating those sentiments and then absorbing them into their bloodstream. Khan is at least a decade too old to play even a postgraduate hanger-on, but it's hard to imagine anyone younger bringing as much wisdom to the role, the glimpses of desperation camouflaged by his seemingly cheerful aimlessness. Veteran character actor Atoll Kukri (Chanting Bar) is equally impressive as a Hindu fundamentalist fire-breather, stubborn and angry but not a fraud or a thug. The movie falters only toward the end: Mehra seems locked into a motif of literal-minded match-cuts between the past and the present, and in order to maintain it, he has the newly awakened youthful reformers adopt the violent methods of the revolutionaries—the first actions that seem to have been imposed on the characters by the moviemakers. Luckily, the fluidity and textured authenticity of the earlier Delhi U. sequences stay with us well beyond this programmatic conclusion. (David Chute)(Naz 8, Artesia)
For a film that supposedly examines racial differences in fresh ways, it's ironic how unoriginal Something Newis. Black workaholic Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) insists she's too busy for love, but nonetheless feels lonely on Valentine's Day. Agreeing to a blind date, she meets Brian (Simon Baker), a sweet, sexy, charming landscaper who has only one critical flaw—he's white. Deciding she'll never see him again, she later runs into Brian at a party and, feeling guilty for brushing him off earlier, she hires him to redo her back yard. Because she's high strung (and black) and he's laid-back (and white), she initially resists his advances, but soon enough the two begin a tentative relationship. First-time director Sanaa Hamri can't do much with first-time screenwriter Kriss Turner's sitcom dialogue, and while none of the actors embarrass themselves—well, except for Alfre Woodard, who should be above playing shrill, disapproving mother characters—the film drifts through a comfortable miasma of predictable romantic complications and resolutions made only slightly more memorable because of the underlying questions about racial politics in the bedroom. There's no denying that we still live in a world where interracial dating is frowned upon in some circles, but Something Newnever feels remotely like the world we live in—it's a fabrication of a gauzy romantic-comedy movieland where people of all colors can be equally trite and dull. (Tim Grierson)(Countywide)
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS
Director Simon West's remake of the 1979 thriller amounts to an assault of jarring music cues and peek-a-boo scares that starts off mechanical and ends up utterly desperate. The original film's first act concerned a babysitter (Carol Kane) who, tormented by a sadistic anonymous caller, discovers that the threatening calls are coming from inside the house and narrowly escapes with her life. In the new version, the entire plot revolves around that memorable opening—since no one remembers what happened after that part anyway—gruelingly extending the sequence's running time without adding much in terms of character or twists. Here, it's blandly hot Jill (Camilla Belle) who's spending the night in a rich couple's impossibly opulent home in the middle of the Colorado forest when the heavy-breathing calls begin. But despite composer James Dooley's overly caffeinated score, there's no actual suspense—Stranger is one long tease that, instead of building tension around Jill's efforts to outwit her mysterious stalker, instead has her run around the house, unsuccessfully calling every friend, cop and family member she knows, before she finally confronts her nemesis in one of those battle-to-the-death endings Scream perfectly parodied 10 years ago. While waiting for that predictable finale to arrive, our only consolations are architectural porn shots of the home's exquisite interior—oh yeah, baby…check out that atrium…oh yeah—and our stray recollections of Belle's superior performance as Daniel Day-Lewis's burgeoning teenage daughter in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. (Tim Grierson) (Countywide)