16 BLOCKS ***
Rapper-turned-actor Mos Def is paired with action vet Bruce Willis, but just because director Richard Donner is behind the controls doesn’t mean we should worry that this will turn out to be a pale imitation of Donner’s tiresome Lethal Weapon buddy flicks. 16 Blocks may be full of shootouts and laced with humor, but it’s mercifully free of the jokey nature and penchant for overkill that dogged the inexplicably popular Mel Gibson-Danny Glover franchise. Willis, admirably looking his age and then some, stars as New York detective Jack Mosley, a badge-carrying bum whose love for the bottle has reduced him to a has-been on the police force. One morning after working the night shift, he’s ready to head for home (or a nearby bar) when he’s ordered to transport a petty criminal from the jail to the courthouse 16 blocks away. He has two hours to deliver the man, but really, it’s a job that should only take 15 minutes, tops. But it turns out Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) isn’t your ordinary punk picked up for snatching a purse or stealing a TV set. Instead, Eddie is the key witness in a case in which he’s expected to testify against some crooked cops. Jack doesn’t know this at the outset; it’s only when someone attempts to shoot Eddie en route that he realizes something big is going down.
THE LIBERTINE **1/2
Bawdy period sex comedies are nothing new -- they’ve been around at least since 1963’s Tom Jones hightailed it back to England with the Best Picture Oscar in hand. At first glance, The Libertine appears to be a modern attempt to jump-start the sub-genre, to wrest the costume epic away from the prim and proper Austen adaptations and steer it back to a sensibility that owes as much to Benny Hill as to any literary tome. But it soon becomes apparent that The Libertine is marching to its own beat: The humor is dipped in poison, and the end result of its sexual revolution isn’t bare arses and jiggling breasts but rather the physical deformities and uncontrollable bowel movements brought on by syphilis. Based on a stage play (and it shows), The Libertine tells the story of John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), a.k.a. the second Earl of Rochester. At the film’s outset, this 17th century poet, playwright and sex fiend turns to us and insists that we won’t like him, at which point he proceeds to spend the remainder of the running time cruelly berating nearly everyone who enters his atmosphere, even Charles II (John Malkovich). The one exception is the budding stage actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), yet she proves to be the one person that a smitten Rochester cannot best. In casting the role of Rochester, the filmmakers had the right idea by turning to Depp -- this maverick has proven himself to be among the most fearless thespians out there -- but ultimately, he’s not required to do more than mix profanity with profundity and allow himself to be subjected to lengthy sessions in the makeup artist’s chair. For all its attempts to startle us with its vulgarity, this underdeveloped movie never locates a defining method to its messiness; ultimately, it possesses all the shock value of a toddler yelling, “Poopy!”
THE PINK PANTHER *1/2
Suffering from a particularly misguided delusion of grandeur, Steve Martin has elected to co-write and star in a new version of The Pink Panther. But why stop there? While he’s busy plundering the cemetery of iconic movie roles, he might as well try his hand at another Casablanca or a new Citizen Kane. It would only be a slightly less ludicrous endeavor. The original 1964 film only features Inspector Clouseau in a supporting role. But it immediately became obvious -- to series creator Blake Edwards and to viewers -- that the real prize here was the performance by Peter Sellers as the bumbling police inspector. But this new Panther is as clumsy as its leading figure. The basic story is prime material for this sort of outing -- a French soccer coach (an unbilled Jason Statham) is murdered during a championship game, and Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, too restrained to provide the original series’ Herbert Lom with any serious competition) decides to put a moron in charge of the investigation so that he may quietly nab the culprit himself. Dreyfus settles on provincial policeman Clouseau, not aware that this imbecilic officer will embarrass him in ways he never dreamed possible. For the most part, the gags dreamed up by Martin and co-writers Len Blum and Michael Saltzman aren’t particularly fresh, mildly amusing bits are repeated until they lose every ounce of appeal, and the efforts to cater to modern audiences (a pop performance by co-star Beyonce Knowles, the unsettling image of Clouseau preparing to take Viagra) are ill-conceived.
DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY ***
Dave Chappelle, amusingly commenting that he's mediocre at both comedy and music yet able to make a fortune nonetheless, heads to his Dayton, OH, hometown to hand out golden tickets to attend his block party in Brooklyn. Chappelle invites everyone from young black dudes to elderly white women to attend his shindig, which turns out to be a celebration of hip-hop music: Among those taking part in the musical mirth are Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu (removing her wig at one point) and the reunited Fugees. Dave Chappelle's Block Party, not so much directed as observed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), is unique in the manner in which it salutes African-American culture and unity while at the same time exhibiting an exalted openness that makes it clear everyone's invited to take part in the merriment. The comic material is spotty -- some gags work better than others -- but the sizzling concert performances are the primary attraction anyway.
EIGHT BELOW **1/2
Parents taking their kids to catch this at a matinee showing should reasonably be expecting a dog day afternoon; instead, those perky creatures known as actors keep getting in the way of total enjoyment. Based on a Japanese film that was itself inspired by a true story, Eight Below relates the tale of a scientific expedition in Antarctica and what happens when punishing weather forces its members to leave their eight sled dogs behind. As the animals spend months coping with exhaustion, starvation and a particularly nasty leopard seal, expedition guide Jerry Shephard (Paul Walker) desperately tries to find a way to rescue them. The dogs are gorgeous and wonderfully expressive (no creepy Snow Dogs-style anthropomorphizing here, thank God), and as long as director Frank Marshall and debuting scripter Dave DiGilio focus on their part of the story, the movie succeeds in the grand tradition of past Disney live-action adventures. But the picture runs an unpardonable two hours (can little kids’ bladders hold out that long?), and its length is felt in the countless scenes centering on Jerry: his romance with a pilot (Moon Bloodgood), his bantering with a co-worker (Jason Biggs, heavy on the shtick) and his pity parties as he agonizes over the potential loss of his dogs (watching Walker try to convey brooding introspection and angst is never a pretty sight). At 95 minutes, this would have been a winner; maybe the DVD will include a function that will allow viewers to edit out the humans and leave only the remarkable canines.
Has any superstar of the past 20 years bungled his career as thoroughly as Harrison Ford? It’s only been about a decade since blockbusters like The Fugitive and Air Force One kept him at the head of the class alongside Hanks, Cruise and Gibson, but one bad choice after another has dropped him out of contention while the other three actors continue to drive the box office. Firewall is such a tired copy of Ford’s past adventures that it almost verges on parody. Once again, the actor plays an upstanding guy who must save his family from dangerous foreigners, an angle previously tapped in Air Force One and Patriot Games (to name but two). In this case, he’s Jack Stanfield, a bank executive responsible for creating the computer programs that prevent the facility from ever getting hacked. But when Eurotrash bandit Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) and his gang of techies snatch Jack’s wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and their two children, our hero has no choice but to aid them in their scheme to siphon millions of dollars from the accounts of the bank’s wealthiest clients. Madsen, whose career was revived via her smashing turn in Sideways, finds herself relegated to cheerleader status as her character has nothing to do except wait to get saved by her hubby. As for Ford, it’s almost painful to watch him going through the motions here. The twinkle of mischievousness and sprinkle of levity that he brought to many of his most memorable films -- even the dramas like The Fugitive and Witness -- are conspicuously missing here, replaced by a cranky fatigue that’s difficult to watch and impossible to enjoy.
An adaptation of Richard Price's novel that itself owes a debt to the real-life Susan Smith incident, Freedomland is a forceful drama that would be compelling enough without all the needless fuss made by director Joe Roth. Two hard-hitting lead performances combine with some salient points about racial tensions to produce a powderkeg of a movie, a far cry from the insipid drivel usually tossed out by studios at this time of year. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Lorenzo Council, a detective assigned to question a woman (Julianne Moore) who claims a black man from the projects stole her car while her young son was sleeping in the back seat. The inner-city locals are outraged at the media attention the story has brought to their neighborhood -- where were all the cameras when their own kids were in danger? -- and it's all that Lorenzo can do to keep the police and the citizens from violently clashing. But with the case continuing to baffle him, he turns to a missing-children activist (Edie Falco) to help him determine what really happened to the distraught mom's boy. Moore's performance is hard to take in its intensity, yet it's true to the character and her circumstances -- rarely has a film allowed so raw a demonstration of parental bereavement. Yet it's Jackson who holds our attention throughout, making an indelible impression as an African-American lawman whose loyalties are questioned by both his friends in the projects and his acquaintances on the force. Price's bustling script and the actors provide enough drama to overcome the terrible direction by Roth (Christmas With the Kranks), whose kamikaze style (swerving cameras, rapid edits, a booming soundtrack) displays an inexplicable lack of confidence in his material.
MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS **
Except for her atypical (and smashing) performance in Iris, Judi Dench has been delivering the exact same performance dating back to 1997's Mrs. Brown and running through last fall's Pride & Prejudice -- that of the frosty, tart-tongued Englishwoman who's clearly smarter than everyone else in the room. She's at it again in Mrs. Henderson Presents, a predictable bit of piffle that follows the "quirky English film" template (see also: Calendar Girls, The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine, etc.) as precisely as, say, Wolf Creek aped the slasher film formula or Hitch adhered to the romantic comedy blueprint. Based on a true story, this finds Dench cast as a wealthy widow who elects to invest in a dilapidated theater in 1930s London. Along with her gently combative partner (Bob Hoskins, faring the best), she decides to turn the Windmill Theater into a showcase for vaudeville revues staged with naked young women. The theater proves to be a raging success, but then World War II comes along to rain on everyone's parade.
THE NEW WORLD **
Any ambience created in tandem by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Terence Malick dissipates in the face of the plodding treatment of fascinating material: the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and, more specifically, the relationship between lithe Native American girl Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and sensitive English settler John Smith (Colin Farrell). As a look at the despoiling of untamed territory by brutish Europeans, this can't touch Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God -- heck, it's not even up to the shaky standards of Hector Babenco's At Play In the Fields of the Lords. Hitchcock once cracked that actors should be treated like cattle, but Malick seems to have adopted that statement as philosophy: His indifference to the accomplished performers milling around the set (Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale among them) is so apparent that one almost wonders why he didn't just cast this with mannequins. He seems equally bored with prose, considering some of the dead-weight exclamations uttered by various characters.
NANNY MCPHEE **1/2
Nanny McPhee may be based on Christianna Brand’s “Nurse Matilda” books, but its cinematic predecessor is clearly the family film that turned “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” into the longest household word ever recorded. Emma Thompson, delivering a sharp performance under pounds of facial latex, plays the title character, a snaggletooth, wart-sprouting nursemaid who mysteriously shows up to help a widower (Colin Firth) contend with his seven monstrous children. As Nanny McPhee helps transform these little devils into little angels, she also becomes involved in the family’s strained affairs with an interfering aunt (Angela Lansbury) and a husband-hunting harridan (Celia Imrie).
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN ***1/2
The secret behind Brokeback Mountain is that, behind its convenient (and infuriating) designation as "the gay cowboy movie," this is as universal as any love story Hollywood has produced in recent times. Director Ang Lee has managed to make a movie that vibrates on two separate settings: It's a story about the love between two men, yes, but it's also a meditation on the strict societal rules that keep any two people -- regardless of gender, race, class, religion, etc. -- out of each other's arms. As Jack, Gyllenhaal delivers a nicely modulated performance that's by turns silly and sullen, as the peppy kid looking forward to life's challenges turns into a frustrated adult. The weakness in his work -- that he doesn't completely disappear into his character -- is only noticeable because his co-star is operating at such a stratospheric level. Ledger, in short, is phenomenal as Ennis, the sort of pensive individual who's so reluctant to speak that it appears as if uttering a syllable is as strenuous for him as lifting a refrigerator is to the rest of us. Thanks to Ledger, Ennis' anguish causes our own hearts to break on his behalf.