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THE BLACK DAHLIA Until it derails while heading into its final turn, The Black Dahlia represents Brian De Palma’s most assured moviemaking in at least a decade, a glorious and gritty neo-noir which reminds us that only Scorsese and maybe a couple of others can match this maverick filmmaker when it comes to astonishing feats of technical derring-do. Based on the novel by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), it presents a fictionalized take on the real-life slaying of Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short (touchingly played by Mia Kirshner). Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are the cops on the case, with Lee’s girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) and the mysterious society woman Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) set up as the potential femme fatales. Working from Josh Friedman’s sharp screenplay and backed by tremendous production values, DePalma spins a compelling murder-mystery that clicks until the last act, at which point the movie madly dashes through its messy resolutions, pausing only long enough to succumb to some ill-placed camp. Yet even if the movie had kept its head from start to finish, it still wouldn’t have survived some critical miscasting. Along with Kirshner, Eckhart takes top acting honors, infusing Lee with a sense of moral indignity that might potentially run counter to some less savory qualities. Johansson and Swank are adequate as the women in the cops’ lives, though neither brings enough force of personality to their respective parts to truly make them their own. But it’s the selection of Hartnett that immediately sabotages this picture’s chances at complete success. His Bucky Bleichert doesn’t seem like a detective as much as a Boy Scout shilling for a sleuthing merit badge. But factor in Hartnett’s complete inability to project anything more than glazed befuddlement, and The Black Dahlia has a cavernous hole right where its noir heart should beat.

THE GUARDIAN Isn’t it too soon to be subjected to another showing of Flyboys all over again? At least that’s the sense of deja vu that settled in after viewing the two films in consecutive weeks. Here we have the same running time (an overextended 135 minutes), the same degree of quality in the CGI work (impressive), and the same fortune-cookie-level pontificating about the need for sacrifice, bravery and personal responsibility. Even more than Flyboys, though, this resembles An Officer and a Gentleman, right down to the scene where our handsome hero bursts into his girlfriend’s place of employment to declare his everlasting love (sign of the times: Instead of the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” the soundtrack swells with a treacly Bryan Adams tune). Kevin Costner plays Louis Gossett Jr., the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer instructor whose tough-love approach to training works wonders for the young recruits; Ashton Kutcher is Richard Gere, a narcissistic pretty-boy student more interested in making a name for himself and romancing the local cutie (Melissa Sagemiller) than in actually saving lives. For a long while, The Guardian wears its cliches pretty well, but because this is a Kevin Costner film -- and because Costner spends more time playing mythic, larger-than-life Christ figures instead of ordinary mortals -- we sense this can only end one way. Director Andrew Davis and scripter Ron L. Brinkerhoff tease us by hinting that the final act might actually stray from its preordained path, but no: When push comes to shove, the pair pummel us with the shameless ending we dreaded from the minute the opening credits appeared on the screen. 

THE LAST KISS A major award winner both at Sundance and in its Italian homeland, 2001’s The Last Kiss (L’Ultimo Bacio) tackles the topic of relationships in such a straightforward and emotionally honest manner that by the end, it’s impossible to ascertain whether the film is, at its core, deeply pessimistic or quietly hopeful. An American remake would naturally be expected to dumb down the entire experience. But that’s not exactly what happens with the new stateside take on The Last Kiss. To a startling degree, this version retains many of the prickly elements that made the original so memorable; it only falters at the very end, and even then by a far lesser degree than one would reasonably expect. The Last Kiss places its primary focus on the relationship between Michael (Zach Braff) and Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). Michael is about to turn 30 and elects to have his mid-life crisis about a decade earlier than planned. He’s deeply in love with his longtime girlfriend Jenna, but once she announces that she’s pregnant, he freaks out, deciding that he’s not prepared to cope with either being a husband or being a father. Kim (Rachel Bilson), a college student who’s perpetually perky, spots Michael at a wedding and is instantly attracted to him. Initially, Michael feebly fights off her advances, but soon he’s the one dropping by the campus to see her and making plans to go with her to a party. The situations presented here are strikingly similar to the ones on display in the Italian original, which means that this film rarely backs away from confronting thorny situations head-on. If there’s a key difference, it’s in the personalities of these various players. The characters in L’Ultimo Bacio felt in every sense like real adults, grown people with a passion for life and, for the most part, a determination to ultimately face up to their own shortcomings. This latest Kiss, on the other hand, fits more comfortably into the niche of recent films that portray the American male as a man-child incapable of achieving and/or sustaining the level of maturity and clear-eyed vision enjoyed by his female counterpart. The final sequence is more open-ended than what’s typically served up in American films of this nature, yet I still found myself wishing it had gone farther. It’s been 3-1/2 years since I’ve seen L’Ultimo Bacio, yet what’s stuck with me the most is the nicely ambiguous coda that not only drolly illustrates the dilemma of keeping any given relationship perennially fresh but also beautifully tips the balance in the story’s central skirmish between the sexes. The Last Kiss inexplicably lops off this epilogue, and it’s a regrettable omission. In this instance, imitation wouldn’t just have been the sincerest form of flattery; it would also have been the most honest.

THE ILLUSIONIST Set in Austria, The Illusionist stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, an enigmatic stage magician so skilled at his profession that the locals suspect he might actually possess otherworldly powers. One of the few skeptics is Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a cruel ruler who sets out to prove that Eisenheim is a fake. He enlists the aid of the corrupt Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), yet matters become more tangled when it’s revealed that Leopold’s fiancee (Jessica Biel) was once Eisenheim’s childhood sweetheart. For a good while, The Illusionist is topflight entertainment, with its lush period setting, its assemblage of captivating magic tricks, and a delightful relationship between Eisenheim and Uhl, two men sharing a wary respect for each other (both Norton and Giamatti are excellent). But then the film makes the fatal mistake of morphing into a mystery, the type that’s agonizingly easy to figure out even before its gears can really be placed in motion. Viewers who can’t figure out the big twist should dig out those old Encyclopedia Brown paperbacks and begin rebuilding their sleuthing skills from there.

 WORLD TRADE CENTER The most startling thing about World Trade Center is that it’s by far the least controversial movie Oliver Stone has ever made. Conversely, it’s also hard to get terribly excited over the final product. World Trade Center focuses on the Port Authority Police Department officers who would eventually be recognized as two of the only 20 people to be rescued from the rubble of the Twin Towers. September 11 begins as any other day for John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), but like everyone else on that fateful morning, they soon are having to digest incomplete messages involving an airplane crashing into one of the towers. Springing into action, they’re among the men who enter the building with the intention of aiding any potential survivors, even as they try to decipher additional news items suggesting that the second tower has also been hit by a plane. Timing’s not on their side, however, as the towers collapse just as they begin making their way up from the ground to the floors above. Their colleagues lose their lives, but John and Will somehow survive, though at a great price. Meanwhile, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) wait impatiently at their respective homes with other family members, eager to find out whether their spouses are dead or alive. Working from a script by first-timer Andrea Berloff, Stone keeps his rabble-rousing methods fully in check -- even his typically frenetic shooting style has been replaced by a more somber m.o., with lengthy camera holds on saintly faces and nary a rapid jump-cut in sight. Unfortunately, the end result is a movie that feels oddly impersonal. Despite the strong performances by Bello and Gyllenhaal, the numerous sequences centering on the strong-willed wives are no different than similar moments from countless WWII dramas, when the women are seen staring wistfully out of windows while their men are off trying to make the world a better place. Like United 93, World Trade Center also tries to keep politics out of the picture; instead, it focuses on the day as a shining example of American solidarity, before the government began reshaping the tragedy for its own exploitive means. Yet for all of Stone’s timidity, the material brings out some undeniable truths. The movie’s most poignant sequence comes when Stone chooses to briefly show the international community learning about this monstrous terrorist attack. It’s the moment when the U.S. had the sympathy and support of practically every country around the globe, and as we watch this segment, we’re heartbroken upon realizing how the Bush Administration has spent the last five years pissing away all that goodwill, in effect turning us into a country that’s now feared and despised rather than embraced and adored. A political perspective also appears through the character of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a Marine who claims God personally ordered him to Ground Zero. Karnes is clearly a hero -- he’s the guy who found McLoughlin and Jimeno -- yet he’s also the sort of mindless warrior too easily swayed by those in charge. He swears vengeance against those who destroyed the WTC, a sentiment we can all share. Except a footnote reveals that he served two tours of duty in Iraq -- like so many others, fighting in the wrong war for the wrong reasons. Stone prefers that we don’t think too much of such sticky situations, and that’s his prerogative. This nonpartisan treatment certainly allows the movie’s wholesome humanity to shine through, which in turn leads to some strong sequences detailing the manner in which John and Will deal with their hellish situation. This is often powerful stuff, but in the final analysis, it’s still a sanitized, Hollywood version. For a harrowing experience that feels more like the real deal, United 93 is the one to see.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY Like Spam, energy drinks and the music of Yanni, Will Ferrell is one of those acquired tastes that satisfy devotees while perplexing everyone else. While some folks swear by his 2004 starring vehicle Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, I’m not one of them. This one-note movie struck me as annoying rather than amusing, meaning I wasn’t exactly anticipating Ferrell and director Adam McKay reteaming for a comedy about a NASCAR redneck. My mistake. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is often uproarious, and it’s clever in a way that Anchorman rarely attempted. Like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby is also an egotistical, none-too-bright boor. “I piss excellence,” he declares, and his standing as NASCAR’s best driver certainly signals that he’s excellent at something. He has a best friend (John C. Reilly) who’s even dumber than he is, a blonde trophy wife (Leslie Bibb) who’s always looking to get ahead, and two obnoxious sons named Walker and Texas Ranger (“But we call him TR for short”). Ricky has spent his life trying to work out issues with his deadbeat dad (Gary Cole, delivering the film’s shrewdest comic performance), but that doesn’t excuse his repellent behavior and the way he takes everyone and everything for granted. Clearly, Ricky Bobby is primed to receive a comeuppance, and it arrives in the form of Jean Girard (hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen), a French homosexual race car driver whose prowess on the track leads to Ricky’s fall from grace and his subsequent (and humbled) climb back to the top.

SNAKES ON A PLANE For a while, it seemed like the greatest marketing ploy since The Blair Witch Project, as well as a revolutionary new way to make and promote movies. Come up with a catchy title, cast a way-cool actor, build the buzz over the Internet far in advance of the opening, let the online fanboys think they have a hand in actually shaping the finished product via their suggestions, refuse to hold critics’ screenings not because the product is unspeakably awful (indeed, most post-opening reviews have been positive) but because it guarantees more ink in newspapers, and then settle back as the record-breaking grosses pour in. Well, it all worked out except for that final point. The film’s lackluster box office take (no disgrace, but certainly nothing special) should convince studios that banking on computer-weaned kids to actually leave their keyboards to venture out of the house and pay for a movie was, is and will remain a bad idea. As for the picture itself (yes, there is an actual film buried beneath all the hype), it doesn’t quite deliver on its thrill-a-minute premise -- even star Samuel L. Jackson’s highly publicized quip about the “motherfuckin’ snakes” registers as much ado about nothing (besides, most of the truly classic movie lines arrive honestly rather than being carefully test-marketed, packaged and pre-sold). Jackson stars as an FBI agent assigned to protect an eyewitness (Nathan Phillips) to a mob slaying; once the villains ascertain which flight they’ll be taking to make that important court date, they manage to fill the aircraft with rattlesnakes, cobras, boa constrictors -- indeed, the only snake missing seems to be Snake Plissken. Director David Ellis and his three scripters have the title terrors chomp down on lips, eyes, breasts and even a penis, but given the overall lack of creativity invested in this project, it ultimately feels as rote and joyless as a typical slasher flick. For a more imaginative 2006 release that ably mixes R-rated horror and humor, check out the box office bust Slither, due on DVD October 24. 

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST At 145 minutes, Dead Man’s Chest ends up providing too much bang for the buck. That’s just about the same running time as its predecessor, but that film wore its length better, given that the screenplay had its hands full establishing setting, introducing characters, hammering out its weighty plot, and still finding time to include action scenes in the best swashbuckling tradition. Certainly, those expecting amazing feats of derring-do won’t be disappointed by this new film. The effects-driven action scenes are clearly the picture’s highlights, and they alone make Dead Man’s Chest worth the price of admission. But on the heels of Superman Returns, a movie of substance that nevertheless made sure not to skimp on its adventure quota, this one too often rings hollow. The first Pirates felt like both a stand-alone movie and the theme park attraction on which it was based; this one just feels like a roller coaster ride, full of momentary thrills but leaving little in its wake except a sudden desire to rest for a minute. Those who found Curse’s plot a bit on the convoluted side might as well not even attempt to unscramble the goings-on this time. The central thrust finds Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) tangling with the ghostly Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) in an effort to save his own soul from damnation; it’s possible that his scheme will require sacrificing his friends Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), but that’s a compromise the self-serving Jack can accept. Depp’s still a lot of fun as the scurrilous Sparrow, but a headline-grabbing performance that seemed blazingly original the first time around no longer has the power to surprise, and there’s no effort on the parts of scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to make up for that by deepening the character in any way.ƒnBut the best fantasy tales are often the ones in which the special effects are subservient to the characters, not the other way around. Depp’s still a lot of fun as the scurrilous Sparrow, but a headline-grabbing performance that seemed blazingly original the first time around no longer has the power to surprise, and there’s no effort on the parts of scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to make up for that by deepening the character in any way. Bloom’s Will and Knightley’s Elizabeth are even less developed, and except for a couple of quips (him) and tirades (her), it’s hard to remember anything of substance that they do during the course of the film. Instead, it’s the makeup-sporting actors who steal this one, particularly Nighy as the ruthless Davy Jones and Stellan Skarsgard as Will’s spectral father, “Bootstrap” Turner. A word of warning: Since this is the middle film in a proposed trilogy, it follows the lead of The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future II and The Matrix Reloaded. In other words, there’s a beginning and a middle, but no end: In true cliffhanger fashion, the picture concludes with one final twist, requiring viewers to come back in a year to see how the storyline plays out. Here’s betting that this will be one return engagement that audiences won’t skip. 

MONSTER HOUSE The eighties may be disparaged in some quarters for giving us eight Friday the 13th installments and the notion of Judd Nelson as a movie star, but it also provided us with endless hours of imaginative, unpretentious fun in the form of roller coaster movies that left audiences breathless rather than exhausted (compare Raiders of the Lost Ark to the current Pirates of the Caribbean sequel to understand the difference). Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis were two of the leading practitioners of this form of slam-bang entertainment -- Spielberg with E.T. and the Indiana Jones trilogy, Zemeckis with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit -- so it makes complete sense that they’re attached as executive producers to the new animated adventure Monster House. At its best, this film harkens back to the fantasy flicks of that period, movies in which innocent children leading sheltered suburban existences often had to cope with the supernatural terrors that lurked around every corner and often even under the bed (other examples include Poltergeist, Fright Night and The Lost Boys). Monster House’s protagonist, DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), is recognizable from just about any cinematic time period: a shy outcast who’s light on the brawn but heavy on the brains. He’s the only one in his neighborhood who realizes that something’s not right within the creepy house across the street, a rotting mansion owned by a nasty old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). After Nebbercracker suffers a heart attack and is whisked away to the hospital, DJ, his obnoxious best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) and savvy new pal Jenny (Spencer Locke) all come to the realization that the house itself is alive, perhaps inhabited by Nebbercracker’s cranky spirit. People as well as objects begin to disappear, leading the three kids to summon up the courage to put a stop to these otherworldly occurrences. What initially appears to be a straightforward haunted house tale morphs into a haunting tale about love, retribution and acceptance. This is that rare toon flick that’s been slapped with a PG instead of the customary G, and while that’s because the material might easily frighten very small kids, it also signals that, when it comes to its themes and emotional content, this mature movie isn’t mere child’s play.  ƒçƒn