AWAY FROM HER Iris would have seemed to be the first and last word on movies dealing with Alzheimer's disease, yet here comes Away From Her to provide it with troubled company. Like that somber drama, this new picture, which marks the assured directorial debut of 28-year-old actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter), proves to be a difficult, unsettling watch, all the more so for those who have lost someone to that dreadful disease. Yet what both films also share is a commitment to portraying the ravages of that affliction with clear-eyed honesty, tracking not only the effects on its victims but also on the caretakers who provide support even as their loved ones are fading away right before their eyes. Judi Dench was remarkable in Iris, yet it was Jim Broadbent who walked away with an Oscar. Similarly, early reviews have focused on Julie Christie's superlative performance, but it's really the Canadian veteran Gordon Pinsent who holds the film together. As his character watches his wife place a frying pan in the freezer or bond with a fellow patient (Michael Murphy) because she can't recall that she even has a husband, he draws us in with his stillness, his whispered frustrations, his seething impotence. His character's silence is deafening; you can hear his heart break a mile away. ***1/2
THE EX I have no idea how he takes his coffee, but when it comes to comedy, Danny DeVito takes it black -- as evidenced by the string of dark satires he's helmed over the course of two decades. In his hands, one can only speculate how far The Ex would have taken its dark comic undercurrents, but in the mitts of director Jesse Peretz and novice screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman, it doesn't take them quite far enough. Still, The Ex offers enough in the way of laughs to earn it some measure of approval. Zach Braff plays Tom Reilly, who, along with his wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) and their newborn son, leaves NYC for Smalltown, Ohio, to work for his father-in-law (Charles Grodin). The trouble starts immediately when Tom is paired at the office with Chip Sanders (Jason Bateman), a paraplegic who still carries the torch for Sofia from their school days. Hoping to win her back -- and taking an instant dislike to her husband -- Chip sabotages Tom at every turn, embarrassing him in front of coworkers and alienating him from his family. The material is too often played for broad laughs that fail to achieve their purpose, but there's some nasty pleasure to be had in watching the escalating feud between Tom and Chip. It's just a shame the movie cops out by pulling its punch toward the end. By displaying a little more nerve, the filmmakers could have had a vicious pit bull of a comedy, on the order of Kingpin or DeVito's The War of the Roses. But by neutering themselves, they've delivered a comedy whose bark is ultimately worse than its bite. **1/2
FRACTURE For the most part, Hollywood has grown so inept at staging whodunits that it's a blessing to come across a film like Fracture, which lets audiences know from the outset that he-done-it. The "he" in question is wealthy engineer Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), who has just shot his adulterous wife (Embeth Davidtz). With the identity of the villain in place, Fracture can then borrow a page from the Columbo playbook by following the protagonist as he tries to piece together the details of the crime. But the lawman here is a far cry from Peter Falk's lovably rumbled detective; rather, he's Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), a hotshot attorney who's used to winning and who agrees to prosecute Ted because, hey, the man has already signed a confession, right? But in his arrogance, Willy has underestimated Ted, and it's a disastrous move that might end up costing him his career. Fracture has its fair share of plotholes -- enough that you might be tempted to grab a shovel and a bag of cement mix -- but it features an exquisite cat-and-mouse game that makes it easier to overlook its flaws. And for once, here's a film in which it's not instantly obvious to predict every twist resting just over the horizon. The film grows flabby in the midsection thanks to a superfluous subplot involving Willy's romance with his new boss (Rosamund Pike), but once it gets back to focusing on business rather than pleasure, it straightens itself out. Hopkins is solid in a role that veers toward Hannibal Lecter terrain, but it's Gosling who gooses the proceedings with a thoughtful performance. ***
GEORGIA RULE On the heels of Jane Fonda's disastrous return to the screen in Monster-In-Law, it's clear that the career resuscitation isn't going exactly as planned. Fonda's Georgia, a family matriarch who runs her household the way a drill instructor lords over greenhorn recruits, is a one-note shrew, and one of this schizophrenic movie's greatest failings is that it never acknowledges that it's this woman's puritanical behavior which started the chain reaction partly leading to the miserable circumstances that plague her daughter Lilly (Felicity Huffman) and her granddaughter Rachel (Lindsay Lohan). Then again, it's not just Fonda's fault that Georgia is a poorly realized character; blame also must be directed at scripter Mark Andrus and director Garry Marshall. Marshall in particular has no clue how to orchestrate the movie's heavy themes involving alcoholism (Lilly), nymphomania (Rachel) and possible child abuse (Rachel claims she was repeatedly molested by her stepdad when she was 12); after all, he's the director who viewed mental retardation as little more than an amusing character quirk in The Other Sister. Here, he tries to lighten the movie's mood by having Rachel give a blowjob to a nice Mormon boy who's seriously trying to serve God (har har) and then painting the lad's girlfriend and her pals as the story's heavies. Worthy mother-daughter sagas reached their zenith with 1983's magnificent Terms of Endearment; Georgia Rule, by contrast, fails to elicit much in the way of any genuine emotion. If there's not a dry eye in the house when Lilly and Rachel finally hug, it's only because audiences will have cleared out by that point. *1/2
LUCKY YOU Director Curtis Hanson has spent the last decade delivering nothing but winning hands, so it's not without a measure of irony that his luck has run out with Lucky You. After the incredible run of the critical darlings L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, the box office hit 8 Mile and the underrated In Her Shoes, Hanson (co-scripting with Eric Roth) finds himself at the helm of a film so disowned by its parent studio (Warner Bros.) that not only has its release date already been changed at least twice, but it ended up serving as the sacrificial lamb chosen to open against Spider-Man 3. In truth, it deserves a less gruesome fate, even if it never reaches its full potential. Eric Bana, nicely underplaying, stars as Huck Cheever, a Las Vegas poker ace who's allergic to responsibility and constantly at odds with his father L.C. (Robert Duvall), a poker champ who abandoned him and his mother decades earlier and now haunts the same casinos as his son. But Huck finds his heart softening -- and his infrequently employed principles hardening -- once he meets struggling nightclub singer Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), whose sincerity and naivety win him over. The romance between Huck and Billie isn't credible, partly because Billie isn't sufficiently fleshed out but mainly because Barrymore delivers an atypically flat performance that leaves her costar stranded. Far better are the scenes between Huck and L.C., and Hanson and Roth make sure to surround this pair with a wide array of interesting characters, including Little Children's Phyllis Somerville as a pawnbroker and Jean Smart as a fellow card enthusiast (even an unbilled Robert Downey, Jr. and Borat's manager make appearances!). But did it all have to climax with, yes, a championship poker tournament? **1/2
NEXT One of the weakest adaptations yet of a Philip K. Dick story ("The Golden Man"), Next is most notable for how it shunts the vibrant, 46-year-old Julianne Moore off to the sides while it gives 43-year-old Nicolas Cage a noticeably younger love interest in 25-year-old Jessica Biel. (In similar fashion, the movie's poster makes it look like Biel's bodacious ta-tas are the leading characters.) Biel is basically filling the same function as she did in last year's The Illusionist, which is serving as girlfriend-pawn to a magician hoping to keep her out of harm's way. Cage's Cris Johnson actually uses his Vegas "magic man" act to cover up the fact that he can see two minutes into his own future and therefore shape his destiny to his liking. Cris considers his gift a curse, but FBI agent Callie Ferris (Moore) believes it can help her locate a Eurotrash terrorist outfit plotting to destroy Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb. Into the mix walks Liz Cooper (Biel), a teacher who's been frequently appearing in Cris' visions and who might hold the key to ... well, something; the movie never bothers to elaborate. Next quickly loses altitude once it becomes apparent that Cris' powers will conveniently come and go as needed to keep the screenplay lurching forward. Yet even this slipshod quality is tolerable until we reach the final portion of the film, a monumental copout on the level of those overused "It was all a dream" stories that our fiction writing professors would urge us not to pen back in college. One plus: It's great to see Peter Falk (now 79) as Cage's confidante, even if his screen time seemingly runs shorter than the end credits crawl. *1/2
OFFSIDE Offside is the latest effort from Jafar Panahi, the Iranian auteur who, let's make no bones about this, currently ranks as one of international cinema's most accomplished -- and certainly most important -- filmmakers. Like Zhang Yimou back in the 1990s, Panahi has frequently found himself the target of government interference, with all of his works banned outright from being screened in his homeland. Lucky for us, these humanistic efforts (Crimson Gold, The Circle) have steadily been making their way to U.S. shores -- and, more surprisingly, to the Queen City. This one's about a group of young women who try to sneak into a stadium to see a World Cup match. Since it's illegal in Iran for women to be in the same sports arena with men, they're placed in a holding cell, whereupon they engage in lively chats with their reluctant jailers. Dramatically, this enchanting and illuminating effort is far less punishing than Panahi's previous pictures, which isn't to say it's any less critical of the way things stand in this Middle Eastern nation. Yet for all its railing against archaic (and misogynistic) ideas, it also introduces us to a handful of endearing characters (male and female), in the process humanizing a nation that is only presented to the U.S. as a boogeyman threatening -- what's the popular term? -- "our American way of life." Offside is exactly the sort of movie that George W. Bush and his cohorts in crime wouldn't want you to see, since it reminds us (since we miserably failed to absorb the lesson from Iraq) that women, children and other innocents will be the ones paying for his proposed premature ejaculation of a war. ***1/2
28 WEEKS LATER What is it about the zombie flick that brings out the social critic in filmmakers? George Romero's Night of the Living Dead subtly touched upon racism, while his Dawn of the Dead was a glorious exploration of mindless consumerism. Decades later, Danny Boyle used 28 Days Later to examine the unchecked spread of SARS and similar diseases. Now, here's Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) tackling the sequel (Boyle remains as an executive producer). Working from Rowan Joffe's script, he's made a zombie yarn that also serves as a condemnation of American military might in Iraq. Yet let's put aside the sociopolitical context for a minute: Taken strictly as a full-throttle horror film, 28 Weeks Later delivers the goods. Set months after the original movie, this finds the virus still affecting folks throughout the British Isles. Efforts at containment eventually succeed (i.e. "Mission accomplished"), and the survivors start over in a self-contained city, all under the eye of the U.S. military. Naturally, a security breach occurs, the zombies start overrunning the city, and the American troops begin indiscriminately killing everyone in sight, whether they're zombies (read: insurgents) or humans (read: innocent Iraqi civilians). Moviegoers can take or leave the message beneath the mayhem, but what's on the surface for everyone to enjoy is an expertly crafted terror tale that's heavy on the jolts. And given the film's final shot, 28 Months Later isn't out of the question -- let's just hope it doesn't bring down what's been a bloody good show so far. ***
YEAR OF THE DOG As someone who's been blessed with the company of canines for my entire life, I sat through Year of the Dog seriously wondering if writer-director Mike White has ever owned a pet in his entire life. A grotesque film from a normally accomplished scripter (The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck) also making his directorial debut, this dud is so confused in its intention and execution that it's difficult to know where to begin. Molly Shannon (just fine) plays Peggy, a lonely secretary who finds comfort in the loving paws of her new beagle puppy, Pencil. But Peggy's irresponsibility leads to the dog's death, thus beginning a personal odyssey in which she becomes a vegan and an ardent animal rights supporter. Mostly peopled by caricatures of all stripes, this insufferable film does more harm than good by playing up the stereotype of the foaming-at-the-mouth, bleeding-heart, PETA-supporting loony, and even at the end, White never makes enough of a distinction between being deeply committed to a cause and merely worthy of being committed to an institution. (And for those who have no problem with Peggy's actions: Pretend she's, say, an anti-abortion advocate and see if you still support all of her firebrand methods.) To be fair, many scribes have lavishly praised Year of the Dog, presumably because it's not a cookie-cutter motion picture but instead comes across as something clearly out of the ordinary. Well, yeah, I suppose it is. Then again, elephantiasis of the testicles is also out of the ordinary, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone, either. *
OPENS FRIDAY, MAY 25:
BUG: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom.
WAITRESS: Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly.