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A product placement in a summer or holiday blockbuster is nothing new, but what on earth compelled Kentucky Fried Chicken to partner with writer-director Jordan Roberts for his low-budget debut feature? It certainly wasn’t to attach itself to a quality flick — on the contrary, this family drama is sooo dull and dreary that KFC might want to brace itself for plummeting stocks. Michael Caine, going through the motions, plays an old codger who divides his 20 minutes of screen time between regaling his grandson (Josh Charles) and great-grandson (Jonah Bobo) with homespun homilies and hiding the boners he gets whenever his Danish nurse (Glenne Headly) enters the room. He then drops dead at the local KFC around the time that his long lost son, who’s been cooling his heels behind bars, makes a sudden reappearance; this black sheep is played by Christopher Walken, sporting the same shock-hair that seemed more appropriate for his role in Sleepy Hollow. At any rate, in a posthumous attempt to bring the family back together, the old man has left a will that instructs the three surviving generations to stop at various KFCs on their way to spreading his ashes all over the landscape. Well-intentioned but not even remotely involving, Around the Bend leaves plenty of time for either dozing or daydreaming. My inspired idea during my frequent mental drifts: Given the plotline, how about a KFC promotion in which their chicken is sold in a bucket that’s shaped like an urn?


In this age of cookie cutter thrillers, here’s one that, for better or worse (or a bit of both), stands apart from the pack. Most moviegoers didn’t want to spend even two minutes discussing the imbecilic likes of Taking Lives or Twisted, yet they’ll be endlessly jawboning after seeing this grisly serial killer opus that clearly aspires to be the next Seven. Two men, a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (Leigh Whannell, who co-wrote the script with director James Wan), wake up to find themselves shackled to the plumbing in an abandoned building’s bathroom. Realizing that they’re the prisoners of a notorious serial killer who’s fond of playing mind games with his victims, they decide to work together in an attempt to outsmart their captor. But their suspicions of each other’s motives — as well as the specific guidelines laid out by their torturer — work against their success, and the involvement of an emotionally scarred detective (Danny Glover) doesn’t seem likely to help them in any manner. As director, Wan needs to trust his instincts more — the rapid-speed camerawork and choppy editing occasionally on display prove to be pointless and distracting — and as writer, he and Whannell could have taken more care to plug up some gaping plot holes. Yet the unique setting adds some intrigue, and the twist ending should jolt the majority of moviegoers right out of their seats.


Or, Being Charlie Kaufman, as writer-director David O. Russell tries to expand the parameters of mainstream cinema as much as the scripter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet while Russell’s movie doesn’t quite capture the freewheeling dementia of Kaufman’s output, it’s still a noteworthy effort, with enough engaging hi-jinks — not to mention a high-wattage cast — to distract us from the frequent fuzziness of its psychobabble. Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) handles what is ostensibly the lead role: Albert Markovski, an activist who hires a pair of “existential detectives” (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to help him discover if a series of coincidences is actually an indication of some deeper meaning behind life itself. As the private eyes go about their business, Albert continues to lock horns with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a rising executive with the Huckabees super-store chain and Albert’s nemesis on environmental matters. Brad’s model girlfriend (Naomi Watts) and an emotionally distraught firefighter (Mark Wahlberg) are also drawn into the fray, and matters become even more heated with the arrival of a French anarchist (Isabelle Huppert) whose nihilistic outlook affects Albert. The philosophical musings espoused by Russell’s characters are ultimately about as deep as those found in fast-food fortune cookies, yet the passion with which these folks rail against their unbearable lightness of being is inspiring, and the uniformly fine cast provides shadings that otherwise might not have been there.


The title outfit — super-macho warriors willing to destroy the world in order to stop the terrorist threat (there goes the Eiffel Tower; there go the pyramids) — is a Republican president’s wet dream, as is the notion of depicting liberal Hollywood actors like Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin as anti-American stooges who suffer gruesome deaths for opposing our valiant heroes (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a puppet Sean Penn ripped apart by a kitty cat posing as a panther). But wait, there’s more! A Broadway stage show featuring the song “Everybody’s Got AIDS,” Middle Eastern terrorists who speak entirely in gibberish (though we can frequently make out “jihad”), an explicit sex scene between anatomically incorrect dolls, and perhaps the longest vomiting scene ever recorded on film. Juvenile? Sure. Funny? Certainly — though not nearly as often as one might reasonably expect.


Robin Williams continues his exploration of the dark side of human nature in this sci-fi saga that’s set at a point when microchips installed in individuals serve to record their entire lives. Williams plays Alan Hakman, whose job as a “cutter” requires him to go through the memories of recently deceased people, edit out the sins, and present loving montages that can be screened at funerals. But the stakes are raised when it turns out that his latest job involves a slimeball whose chip is sought by those who will stop at nothing to obtain it. For a movie that often feels like it’s cobbled together from pieces of Minority Report, Blade Runner and other futuristic odysseys, this one’s weirdly engrossing, and so in thrall with its own big ideas that the occasional plotholes can easily be overlooked.


Slumming Julianne Moore stars as a woman who, after mourning the death of her son for 14 months, is suddenly told that she never had a child and that he only existed within her own delusional mind. What begins as an unsettling psychological thriller eventually morphs into a sci-fi curio that becomes less intriguing as it plays out. Certainly, this was one way to go, but scripter Gerald DiPego (whose past exercises in gloppy metaphysics include Phenomenon and Angel Eyes) never plays fair, changing the rules based squarely on the demands of his storyline. Director Joseph Ruben manages to stage some genuinely creepy moments here and there, but they’re squandered in a movie that ultimately drowns itself in an ocean of inconsistency.


A true-life yarn that was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as “one of the greatest sports stories of all time” has now been turned into one of the dullest sports films of recent years. Peter Berg has adapted his cousin H.G. Bissinger’s acclaimed novel but in the process stripped it of any complexity, leaving only a generic pigskin tale. Set in 1988, the story unfolds in the small Texas town of Odessa, where practically every resident is glued to the fortunes of the local high school team. An underlying theme is that this cracker town’s obsession with football is an unhealthy one, yet Berg skirts around this important issue simply so he can spend more time on motivational speeches and gridiron heroics — in other words, the same-old same-old.

LADDER 49 P1/2

It was probably inevitable for a post-9/11 movie to be made that celebrated firemen, but did it have to be as dull as this one? Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick have managed to cram just about every overused melodramatic device into this one picture.


Forget the Finding Nemo comparisons: On its own, this animated dud still only qualifies as so much cinematic chum. Will Smith provides the voice for Oscar, a hip-hopping fish whose dreams of success are realized once he’s mistaken for a courageous shark-slayer; he’s aided in his efforts at duplicity by Lenny (Jack Black), an out-of-the-closet shark running away from a mob family that doesn’t accept his alternative lifestyle. A few clever sight gags pop up now and then, but for the most part, this one smells fishy from the start.