BE KIND REWIND The premise of Be Kind Rewind is pure Michel Gondry. The end result is anything but. Here's a guy who marches to his own quirky beat (The Science of Sleep, co-writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and this picture's plot can be pegged as unfiltered Gondry: After a mishap causes all the videocassettes in a rental store to be erased, a shop employee and his buddy must recreate the movies previously found on those tapes. It's an idea that's pure genius, and with Jack Black and the always welcome Mos Def cast as the hapless amateur filmmakers, all the elements were in place for a no-holds-barred comedy, a hilarious satire that would take no prisoners. So what happened? Instead of dizzying comic heights, the film on view is shockingly tame and lazy, and the most dispiriting aspect about it is that the movie spoofs take a back seat to a stale storyline about, of all things, the efforts of land developers to raze the video store and erect a shiny new building in its place. The low-budget "remakes" of Ghostbusters and Driving Miss Daisy are amusing, but many other movies are dismissed with merely one line of dialogue; among the casualties are Boogie Nights and Last Tango In Paris – and just think how funny those spoofs might have been had Gondry been true to his comical cajones. Instead, the movie eventually abandons its high-concept angle altogether and spends the laborious last half-hour centered on the attempts of neighborhood residents to save the video shop. Zzzzzz ... Wake me when it's over, and when Gondry again speaks from his warped mind rather than from an overprotective studio's finance department. **
CHARLIE BARTLETT Even in the canon of high school flicks, Charlie Bartlett seems slight, but like its wide-eyed protagonist, it ultimately wins you over on the strength of its puppy-dog appeal. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a rich boy who's just been kicked out of his latest private school, this time for running a fake-ID operation. Everything Charlie does is simply because he wants to be well-liked by his peers, a challenge that becomes even greater once his booze-and-pill-addled mom (Hope Davis), raising him on her own, is forced to send him to a public school. As expected, Charlie's dapper outfit and shiny attaché case rub the locals the wrong way, and he soon finds himself being dunked headfirst into a toilet. But with an entrepreneurial spirit being perhaps his finest trait, Charlie soon manages to gain control of the situation. Armed with the pills being supplied by his clueless family psychiatrist, Charlie enters into a business partnership with school bully Bivens (Tyler Hilton), whereupon Charlie provides the students with medical advice and Bivens forks over all the prescription drugs – all for a price, of course. In no time, Charlie becomes the most popular kid on campus, a development that doesn't go unnoticed by the burnt-out principal (Robert Downey, Jr.). Though Charlie Bartlett clearly positions itself as a fanciful comedy, it also takes time to comment on the usual stepping stones found in youth-oriented films; there's nothing particularly trailblazing about any of its revelations, unless you include the suggestion that a bully's bad haircut might be all that prevents a pugilist from being a poet. ***
CITY OF MEN The cinematic chain of events that led to the creation of City of Men actually began in the literary world with the publication of Paulo Lins' book City of God, which focused on the lives of young boys growing up in the crime-infested streets of a Brazilian neighborhood. There's been a short film (Palace II), a feature film (City of God), a television series (City of Men), and now a big-screen spinoff of the TV show. I haven't seen the TV program, but compared to City of God, this City feels underpopulated in terms of both acute characterizations and kinetic style. Fernando Meirelles, director of the stunning City of God, has since moved on, and here he functions only as one of the co-producers. His MIA status is clearly felt, as is that of City of God screenwriter Braulio Mantovani; their replacements, writer-director Paulo Morelli and co-scripter Elena Soarez, have crafted a movie that lacks the immediacy, danger and sheer suspense of its feature-film predecessor. Here, the focus is on Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha), decent kids trying to stay alive in a Brazilian slum lorded over by rival street gangs. None of the characters in this film are nearly as magnetic as the teens in God, and whereas the first picture largely succeeded by continually depicting the area as a self-contained war zone with no room for sentimentality, Men takes too many side trips into more familiar territory. This is especially evident in its soggy look at Wallace's relationship with his ex-convict dad (Rodrigo dos Santos), a plotline that ends with a twist that doubtless feels more authentic in the halls of a film school than on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. **
DEFINITELY, MAYBE When it comes to a worthy romantic comedy, Definitely, Maybe certainly isn't fool's gold (or Fool's Gold) – on the contrary, it's the real deal, a diamond in the rough that could use some polishing but overall sparkles with warmth and wit. Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin (suddenly more overexposed than fellow moppet Dakota Fanning) plays Maya Hayes, a precocious child whose parents are getting divorced. While staying with her father Will (Ryan Reynolds), Maya begs to hear how he and her mother met, so he turns the bedtime story into a mystery, changing all the names and leaving Maya to guess which of the women from his past ended up becoming his wife. As he details his escapades during the early 1990s – as a fledgling political consultant for the Clinton campaign – he presents three possibilities: his college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), his campaign co-worker April (Isla Fisher), and his reporter friend Summer (Rachel Weisz). By casting three comparably drop-dead-gorgeous actresses in sympathetic and intelligent roles, writer-director Adam Brooks keeps the mystery going longer than might be expected; still, the focus isn't on the identity of Mom as much as it's on Will's romantic travails as he keeps sorting out his shifting feelings for these women as they repeatedly enter his life over the years. Affable Reynolds manages to keep pace with his gifted leading ladies, while an unbilled Kevin Kline makes a welcome appearance as a literary boozehound with an eye for young college girls. ***
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
JUMPER This fantasy flick may be based on the novel by Steven Gould, but while watching it, I felt like I had jumped back in time to 1986 and was again catching Highlander during its original theatrical run. Jumper is Highlander for a new generation: a cheesy, globetrotting film certain to be savaged by most critics, but also a mindlessly entertaining yarn likely to lead to a string of sequels and/or TV adaptations. Hayden Christensen, still struggling with that wooden aspect of his acting, plays David Rice, a kid who discovers he has the ability to "jump" to any location on the planet in a matter of seconds. In a nice if cynical twist, David doesn't use his powers to benefit mankind; instead, he's too busy robbing banks to finance a lifestyle generally reserved for the rich and famous. But his partying days come to an end once he encounters Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), a member of a secret society ("Paladins") which has spent centuries trying to wipe out all jumpers. David receives some helpful pointers from a more seasoned jumper (Sean Connery's regal Highlander role, here re-imagined as a surly punk played by Jamie Bell), but they may not be enough to prevent Roland from drawing David's innocent girlfriend (Rachel Bilson) into the fray. As a heady piece of sci-fi philosophy, Jumper burrows no deeper than the ends of the eyelashes, as director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and scripters David S. Goyer, Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg are content to make a movie that offers little more than surface thrills. But on that level, Jumper is a fairly effective action tale, with some nifty effects and enough international locales to power a few Bond installments. **1/2
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL An often fascinating blend of fact, rumor and outright fabrication, The Other Boleyn Girl feels like an Oscar-bait title that somehow got its DNA mixed up with a daytime soap opera. Based on Philippa Gregory's controversial novel, this tracks the political intrigue and bedroom shenanigans which sprang from the attempts of the Boleyn family to get in the good graces of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Prodded on by the most venal member of the clan, the scheming Duke of Norfolk (The Reaping's David Morrissey, as uninteresting as always), the quivering Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) agrees to offer his strong-willed daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to the king as replacement for his majesty's current wife Catherine (Ana Torent), who has been unable to produce a male heir. But after Anne quickly falls out of Henry's favor, the men serve up Anne's demure sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) instead; a torrid love affair takes place, but when that begins to cool thanks to Henry's growing disinterest, Anne is brought back onto the scene. If Charles Laughton (winning an Oscar for 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII) was the chunkiest Henry VIII ever put on film, then Bana might be the hunkiest, but it's hardly a desirable tradeoff, given the actor's drowsy performance. His female co-stars fare better, though it's hard to accept the physically dissimilar Portman and Johansson as flesh-and-blood siblings; in fact, the whole project frequently feels like little more than celebrities playing dress-up, despite the efforts of scripter Peter Morgan (The Queen) to streamline so much contradictory material. **1/2
PENELOPE An ugly duckling of a movie, Penelope is a sweet but clumsy fable that's pleasing without being particularly distinguished. Christina Ricci essays the title role, a poor little rich girl suffering from an ancient family curse that saddled her at birth with a pig's snout. Now 25, Penelope has been basically kept a prisoner in her own home by her busybody mother (Catherine O'Hara), who only allows blueblood bachelors to visit her daughter in the hopes that one of them will look past her deformity and ask for her hand in marriage (the curse can only be broken when Penelope's loved by "one of her own"). A tabloid reporter (Peter Dinklage) who's forever been trying to get a photo of Penelope hears of this arrangement, and he hires a down-and-out playboy (Atonement's James McAvoy) to gain entry into the home and take the snapshot; needless to say, real feelings develop, hearts get broken, and, as in Babe: Pig In the City, our snout-sporting protagonist finds herself adrift in a major metropolis. A piggy proboscis does little to curtail Christina Ricci's beauty, so the fact that her suitors hurl themselves out of second-story windows in a rush to get away from her is rather absurd; still, this is basically a fairy tale, so exaggerations are expected in the recounting of the fantasy yarn. But despite being blessed with a distinguished cast – Dinklage is particularly sharp, and Reese Witherspoon (who also produced) shows up in a small role as a no-nonsense delivery woman – director Mark Palansky, working from a wobbly screenplay by Leslie Caveny, can only muster so much charm in his muted attempt to make this picture truly take off. **1/2
SEMI-PRO In 1962's Only Two Can Play, Peter Sellers portrays a librarian who's tasked to write a theater review for the local newspaper. He pens the piece beforehand without even seeing the play, using the time he's supposed to be at the theater as a cover for an affair; the only reason he's caught is because the theater housing the production burns to the ground on opening night – after it's too late to stop the edition running his review. Barring a similar disaster happening at the AMC Carolina Pavilion, I probably could have written a review for Semi-Pro without having even attended the advance screening, using the covered time to catch up on my sleep. Will Ferrell as an idiotic guy prone to infantile outbursts – check. Ferrell MAKING LOUD NOISES and running around like a goofball in a desperate attempt to generates laughs – check. Ferrell sporting a laughable hairstyle (this one vintage 1970s) – check. Ferrell surrounding himself with his comedian friends, some with extremely limited talent – check. Ferrell resorting to ca-ca and pee-pee level jokes with alarming regularity – check. Ferrell MAKING MORE LOUD NOISES – check. And so it goes, reaching a point of such creative bankruptcy that Ferrell stands poised to become as tiresome a screen jester as Robin Williams. The plot, as if anyone couldn't guess after watching 10 seconds of the trailer, finds Ferrell cast as Jackie Moon, the self-adoring owner of (and player on) the Flint Tropics basketball team. When it appears that there's a chance for this dreadful squad to join the NBA, Moon does his best to whip his players into shape – but not enough to whip this into a watchable film. *1/2
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES Another movie season, another attempt to jump-start a film franchise aimed at family audiences. Yet The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, is one of the better adaptations in this field, which has taken some severe body blows lately with the dismal failures of the cluttered The Golden Compass and the dreadful The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Smoothly directed by Mark Waters, the miracle worker responsible for Lindsay Lohan's two best performances (Freaky Friday and Mean Girls), Spiderwick displays a lighter touch than other fantasy films of this nature, meaning that its thrills are all the more unexpected – and effective. Freddie Highmore, the talented young star of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, essays the roles of twin brothers Jared (troublemaker) and Simon (bookworm), who, along with mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), take up residence in an ancestral home that harbors some interesting inhabitants. And living in the woods beyond the house are a murderous ogre (voiced by, of all people, Nick Nolte) and his goblin minions, all hell-bent on obtaining a book (presently in Jared's possession) that would wreak havoc both on our world and the one inhabited by fairies and other mystical creatures. The CGI characters (including ones voiced by Martin Short and Seth Rogen) are sure to delight the kids, but for older viewers, they represent the least memorable aspects of this movie; far more affecting (and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's earliest blockbusters) are the sequences that center on the relationships between the Graces – all struggling to cope with Helen's impending divorce – and how the notion of family directly plays into their interactions with the fantasy world in their backyard. ***
VANTAGE POINT Imagine the TV hit 24 crossed with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, and you'll get some idea of what to expect from Vantage Point, a dizzying thriller that relates the same catastrophic event from several different POVs. In Salamanca, Spain, U.S. President Ashton (William Hurt), on the verge of making a speech concerning the War on Terror, becomes the target of an assassination attempt, and various occurrences that take place immediately before and after the shooting are filtered through the actions of several participants and witnesses. Chief among these characters are Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), who stopped an assassin's bullet during a prior attempt on the president's life; Barnes' fellow bodyguard, Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox); Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), an American tourist who catches some startling images with his camcorder; and Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), a TV producer whose own newsreel footage might help Barnes crack the case. By splintering the material in such a fashion, writer Barry Levy has added some snap, crackle and pop to what would otherwise be a routine action film had it been presented in chronological order. Even so, director Pete Travis can't keep the momentum going for the entire 90 minutes, with the final act marred by a ludicrous plot twist as well as an endless car chase that drains away much of the narrative tension. **1/2
OPENS FRIDAY, MARCH 14:
DOOMSDAY: Rhona Mitra, Malcolm McDowell.
FUNNY GAMES: Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt.
HORTON HEARS A WHO!: Animated; voices of Jim Carrey, Steve Carell.
NEVER BACK DOWN: Sean Faris, Djimon Hounsou.