THE CONSTANT GARDENER Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles seemingly came out of nowhere to make his mark on international cinema with the powerful City of God, and it's nice to see that he hasn't cut himself any slack with his follow-up feature. Strong enough that it should have been held for year-end release rather than tossed away during the waning days of summer, The Constant Gardener is a gripping film that somehow manages to make its central romance even more compelling than all the attendant global intrigue. Based on the novel by John Le Carre, the film stars Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, a mild-mannered British diplomat living in Kenya with his outspoken activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz). They don't seem like the most compatible match, and after Tessa is murdered, further details emerge that cast a dark spell on her fidelity and paint their marriage as a troubled one. Unfazed, Justin is nevertheless determined to solve the mystery of her death, and what he uncovers is a scandalous affair involving pharmaceutical conglomerates, low-life assassins and high-ranking British officials. With its unblinking (and accurate) examinations of the soulnessness of corporations and the grotesque manner in which the western world continues to ignore the plight of impoverished African nations (an angle it shares with Hotel Rwanda and The Interpreter), The Constant Gardener reverberates with a torn-from-the-headlines urgency. Yet what's most startling about the movie is the gale force of its love story, featuring characters so vividly brought to life (both Fiennes and Weisz are terrific) that you leave the theater with a lump in the throat to accompany the fire in the belly. 3.5 stars.
A SOUND OF THUNDER Half the pleasure of time-travel flicks is the opportunity to engage in post-screening discussions in an attempt to straighten out the pretzel plot, but this only works when the movie's internal logic makes sense (see: Back to the Future, The Terminator, Twelve Monkeys). In the case of A Sound of Thunder, it's apparent that even the film's creators have no idea what sort of drivel they're spewing, thereby making a hasty retreat to the parking lot the best post-viewing option. A loose adaptation of Ray Bradbury's decades-old story, this casts Ben Kingsley (atypically hamming it up in a desperate attempt to make his presence known) as a billionaire who, in the movie's setting of 2055, runs an outfit that for an exorbitant price enables its clients to journey back to prehistoric times to shoot their very own dinosaur. The leader (Edward Burns) of the expedition presses the rule that nothing in the past can be changed lest it sets into motion events that could alter the course of history. Of course, something goes wrong, and soon the future world of 2005 is overrun with all manner of deadly creatures, including ones that look like baboons dipped in shellac. From the manner in which the evolutionary changes come about to the hasty (and illogical) denouement, there's very little in this Jurassic dork of a movie that works -- least of all the laughable CGI critters. 1.5 stars.
BROKEN FLOWERS Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, Jim Jarmusch's latest takes Bill Murray's accidental tourist from Lost In Translation and drops him into About Schmidt Americana territory. Here, Murray plays Don Johnston, whose catatonic existence receives a much-needed jolt when he learns he may have a son he never knew about. He embarks on a road trip to locate the mother -- the candidates are played by Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton and Frances Conroy -- but as he moves from woman to woman, the mystery of the son becomes almost incidental; more prominent is the manner in which the hostilities increase the further he travels, as if by opening the door to his past ever wider, he risks permanent damage to the roiling emotions he's kept bottled up. This is a movie of wry humor and wry observations, and because Jarmusch never feels the need to spell out every character nuance or tie up every narrative thread, it's certain to strike many viewers as much ado about nothing. But for those who appreciate the delicacy with which Jarmusch can spin a tale, the film will seem like that proverbial rose by any other name. 3.5 stars.
THE BROTHERS GRIMM Terry Gilliam, the former Monty Python member whose peculiar brand of genius doesn't always translate comfortably to his motion picture endeavors, has concocted an overstuffed boondoggle that's miles removed from the mind-bending highs of Brazil or Twelve Monkeys. Wrestling with a muddled screenplay by Ehren Kruger (The Ring Two), Gilliam has created a noisy and nonsensical eyesore that quickly morphs from a movie into an endurance test. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are cast adrift as the title characters, con artists whose ability to fool the local yokels of Germany with their fabricated yarns gets put to the test once they encounter genuine monsters. A bright idea threatens to surface every now and then, but it's quickly bludgeoned to death by the rest of this fractured fairy tale. 1 star.