FOOL'S GOLD Lord, what fools these Hollywood mortals be! Here they further denigrate the standing of the romantic comedy by presenting this waterlogged flick about bickering ex-spouses on the prowl for sunken treasure off the Florida Keys. In a reunion that no one was exactly clamoring for, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson play Finn and Tess; he's an irresponsible beach bum who's skilled at running up debts, while she's a level-headed lass who's forced to take a job on the yacht of millionaire Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland). Despite finalizing their divorce mere hours earlier, Finn talks Tess into joining him once again on his never-ending quest for 18th century Spanish booty; they persuade Honeycutt to finance their endeavor, but they're working against the clock since murderous rapper-turned-mobster Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart) also has designs on the riches. Eye candy abounds in Fool's Gold: Many women will enjoy the sight of McConaughey taking off his shirt at regular intervals, some men will gaze at the bronzed Hudson sporting teeny bikinis, and ocean lovers (that would include me) can ignore the lame plot at the forefront in favor of concentrating on the shimmering beauty of the water (a modest saving grace also found in After the Sunset and Into the Blue). But the direction (by Hitch's Andy Tennant) is uninspired, the script is bubbleheaded, and the bland leads continue to disprove the notion that some measure of movie-star charisma is required to make it as a romantic draw. Old pro Sutherland provides some lift, but the real spark comes from Alexis Dziena as Honeycutt's trust-fund daughter; she takes the tired character of the young ditz and miraculously makes her funny. *1/2
THE BUCKET LIST If Morgan Freeman and Judi Dench ever made a film together, would the world simply explode? After all, Freeman always plays the smartest character in his movies and Dench always plays the wisest character in her pictures, so wouldn't this fall under some sort of "irresistible force meets immovable object" scenario? At any rate, it's an idea more worthy of discussion than any of the pseudo-weighty nonsense on view in The Bucket List, an interminable film about terminal patients who learn important life lessons before, yes, kicking the bucket. Freeman plays Carter Chambers, an auto mechanic with an IQ equal to that of Stephen Hawking. Dying of cancer, he shares a hospital room with the filthy rich Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), who's beginning to realize that money can buy everything except an extended lease on life. With each man facing less than a year to live, they both elect to go out in a blaze (or at least daze) of glory, by dutifully performing tasks on their self-penned "bucket list" of activities they've always wanted to do. The list includes such items as "go skydiving" and "laugh until I cry"; unfortunately, "entertain audiences who pay to see this Bucket of you-know-what" is nowhere to be found. A lazy and condescending package from top to bottom (with uninspired efforts put forth by director Rob Reiner and scripter Justin Zackham), The Bucket List isn't nearly as torturous as the similar, "laughing in the face of death" Patch Adams; then again, neither is a broken back. *1/2
CLOVERFIELD Chalk it up to literary redundancy among critics, but it's almost impossible not to describe this terror tale as "Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project," as it exclusively relies on the camcorder wielded by one of its characters to capture the rampage of a frightening behemoth as it destroys Manhattan with single-minded determination. Past films that employed this trick often seemed silly – what sane person wouldn't drop the camera in the face of real danger? – yet in our modern-day, techno-crazed world, the need to capture everything on film (as if to validate its authenticity, not to mention provide the shooter with a fleeting 15 minutes of fame) is such a built-in instinct for many people that the actions of the protagonists in this movie rarely come into question. Director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard also effectively tap into post-9/11 anxieties: It's impossible to witness collapsing skyscrapers and the resultant deadly debris hurtling down New York City streets and not be reminded of that fateful day. While some might consider such a tactic to be in extremely poor taste, there's no denying its potency when viewed through fictional horror-film lens – for all its newfangled innovations, the movie shares DNA with similarly themed sci-fi yarns from the 1950s. And like many fantasy flicks, this one also contains a defining "money shot" (a la the exploding White House in Independence Day); in this case, it's the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, forlornly resting on a city street. Heads roll in Cloverfield, and none more startlingly than this one. ***
HOW SHE MOVE A thoughtful, heartfelt drama that can't quite get past the conventions of its plot mechanics, How She Move is the latest dance flick in which motion trumps emotion. That's not to say there isn't a certain amount of poignancy in the central plotline of a young teen hoping to break free of her dire surroundings – it's just that this picture only truly comes alive when its talented young cast is strutting its stuff in rhythm to the music. Reminiscent not only of dance yarns like Take the Lead and the documentary Rize but also of straightforward dramas like Girlfight and Akeelah and the Bee, How She Move focuses on African-American teenager Raya (Rutina Wesley), a student at a private school who's forced to move back to her impoverished neighborhood after her parents spend all the family funds trying (and failing) to save Raya's drug-addicted sister. Deemed stuck-up by Michelle (Tre Armstrong), a sullen classmate with a perpetual chip on her shoulder, Raya tries to keep her head down and solely concentrate on her studies, but she ends up getting drawn back into the world of stepping, a high-energy form of dancing practiced by both Michelle and Bishop (Dwain Murphy), a charismatic guy who hesitantly allows Raya to join his dance team just in time for the annual Step Monster competition. The screenplay by Annmarie Morais saddles the characters with too many scenes revolving around tired dialogue, but director Ian Iqbal Rashid compensates by staging the vigorous dance scenes as if his life – or at least his career – depended on it. **1/2
MAD MONEY Around this time last year, moviegoers were suffering through Because I Said So, a Diane Keaton vehicle so horrific that it barely got beat out by License to Wed for the top spot on my year-end 10 Worst list. Luckily, Keaton's new film is much better, simply by virtue of the fact that I wasn't tempted to cram a gun muzzle into my mouth this time around. Keaton stars as Bridget Cardigan, an upper-middle-class wife reeling from that fact that her husband Don (Ted Danson, very good in his best role in ages) has lost his job and they may now be in danger of losing their home and comfortable lifestyle. As a temporary solution, Bridget takes a job as a cleaning lady at the Federal Reserve Bank, where she eventually devises an elaborate scheme to steal the worn-out bills marked for destruction in the building's shredding facilities. She enlists the aid of two co-workers, sensible single mom Nina (Queen Latifah) and vivacious party girl Jackie (Katie Holmes), and the trio set about pulling off the most unlikely of heists. A remake of a 2001 British TV-movie called Hot Money (never made available in this country), Mad Money is a generally entertaining picture, even as it dabbles in implausibilities and often fails to get a firm grasp on its characters. Are there better ways for film fans to spend their own money than using it on Mad Money? Certainly. But there are also worse ways. They could be renting Because I Said So. **1/2
THE SAVAGES How interesting that 2007 produced two pictures about Alzheimer's that approached the subject from diametrically opposite points. Sarah Polley's Away From Her was about a man who dearly loved his wife and was devastated as the disease created an unbreachable gap between them. Tamara Jenkins' The Savages is about siblings who dislike their dad and are upset that circumstances dictate they be responsible for his well-being. Away From Her was a straightforward drama, but The Savages is a black comedy that frequently goes down like the most bitter coffee imaginable. Philip Bosco plays the father figure around which the action stirs: Found smearing his own excrement on the bathroom walls of his Arizona residence, he's eventually placed into the hands of his distant – both geographically and emotionally – offspring, Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney). Jon's a college professor in Buffalo, while Wendy's an aspiring writer in New York City; neither one has the time nor the inclination to take care of the old man – more so since by all accounts he made their childhoods miserable – and they squabble about the best way to handle the situation. Jenkins' screenplay is sometimes too smug for its own good – her reverence for the elderly seems so sincere in many of the film's best passages that it's startling when she occasionally uses these folks for cheap comic effect – but overall, The Savages is a keenly observed study offering believably bruised people making the best out of their rickety lives. The two leads are equally superb. ***
THERE WILL BE BLOOD I'm not sure Daniel Day-Lewis' performance represents the best acting of 2007, but it certainly represents the most acting of the past year. Then again, his oversized turn is right in line with Paul Thomas Anderson's oversized ambitions in creating a modern-day masterpiece, a movie so audacious that it flagrantly apes Citizen Kane and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at various points. But Anderson's latest isn't even up to the standards of what I consider his real masterpiece, the dazzling, dizzying Boogie Nights, though there's enough here to please adventurous moviegoers. Based on Upton Sinclair's Oil! this centers on Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a powerful oilman who has an adopted son in young H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and a nemesis in unctuous preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). There Will Be Blood, therefore, is a story about the feud between Plainview and Eli that doubles as the battle between bald capitalism and insincere spirituality (in that respect, the movie could be set today), as well as a more personal tale involving Plainview and his adopted boy. That the former plotline is more interesting than the latter throws the film off balance, a flaw accentuated by the fact that no attempt to understand Plainview provides the film with a hollow center that separates it from the likes of Citizen Kane and Sierra Madre (wherein we cared about their protagonists even after they took leave of their senses). Still, the picture is a beauty to behold, and there are individual sequences so staggering that a second viewing will hardly be a chore. ***
27 DRESSES 27 Dresses is the filmic equivalent of a baby: cute, pampered, craving attention, and somewhat smelly thanks to all the formula passing through it. A rom-com that dutifully follows down the genre's preordained path rather than ever take off on its own, this casts Katherine Heigl as Jane, a perpetual bridesmaid who (as the title hints) has attended 27 weddings in that capacity. Jane feels that it's payback time – that she should land her own man and her own wedding – and she's long been pining over her boss George (Edward Burns). But he's never shown any interest outside of their business relationship, and once her perky, irresponsible supermodel sister (Malin Akerman) breezes into town, George is hopelessly smitten. Nice-girl Jane refuses to interfere, even though she knows her sister and her boss aren't right for each other, and she's frequently distracted by the unwanted advances of the cynical Kevin (James Marsden), who she knows to be a writer but doesn't realize that – get this – he's the one who writes the heartwarming newspaper wedding columns that she clips out with religious devotion. Director Anne Fletcher and writer Aline Brosh McKenna offer a couple of modest examples of plot tweaking, but for the most part, this is so clichéd that it even includes the standard scene in which our drunken leads persuade an entire bar of people to join them in singing along to a pop hit. In this case, the tune being played is Elton John's "Benny and the Jets," but a more apt selection would have been The Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song." **
OPENS THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14:
DEFINITELY, MAYBE: Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher.
JUMPER: Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson.
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger.
STEP UP 2 THE STREETS: Briana Evigan, Robert Hoffman.