THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES Why should fictional movie characters be the only ones to have any fun in being placed at the center of madcap "mistaken identity" farces? The Emperor's New Clothes, adapted from Simon Leys' novel The Death of Napoleon, dumps the legendary French leader into an innocuous comedy that largely stays afloat through the considerable efforts of Ian Holm. Holm has essayed the role of Napoleon on two previous occasions (Time Bandits and a television production) and he slips comfortably into the part yet again, investing the diminutive ruler with ample reserves of sweetness and sensitivity. Set after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and his exile to the island of St. Helen, the film posits that a peasant with a remarkable resemblance to the emperor managed to switch places with the conqueror, thus enabling him to escape undetected from his island prison and make it back to the streets of Paris to wait for his chance to regain power. But a series of events ends up altering Napoleon's plans, and instead he finds himself spending quality time with a young widow (Iben Hjeile) who knows nothing of his true identity. The historical slant provides this with a small measure of inventiveness; otherwise, it's nothing you haven't seen (and seen done better) on AMC or TCM. 1/2
K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER Not to be confused with K-9 (a Jim Belushi bomb), K-2 (a mountain-climbing dud) or even K-PAX (a Kevin Spacey disaster), the fact-based K-19 is nevertheless strictly DOA. If there's anything to add at this late date to the venerable sub-genre of sub flicks, hack director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) and writers Christopher Kyle and Louis Nowra don't even come close to finding it, preferring instead to trot out a creaky vessel that seems stitched together, Frankenstein-style, from past underwater adventures. Sean Connery was smart enough not to bother to attempt a Russian accent in The Hunt for Red October, but here are Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson limply using now-you-hear-them-now-you-don't accents as the two top dogs on a Soviet submarine sent out to sea under perilous conditions during the height of the Cold War. What ensues is a half-hearted Mutiny On the Bounty, with the no-nonsense captain (Ford) squaring off against his more compassionate second-in-command (Neeson) as they both profess to do what's best for the sailors under their command. The usual themes pertaining to honor among men and courage under fire are repeatedly brought to the surface, along with the expected scenes featuring malfunctioning machinery, unsettling water leaks and a bombastic score that tries to bully our emotions at every turn. It's all too familiar to be even remotely effective.
LOVELY & AMAZING Six years ago, writer-director Nicole Holofcener made her feature debut with Walking and Talking, the sort of off-the-radar charmer that nobody ever hears about unless they happen to take a chance on a bargain rental at the video store (at which point they then rave about it to friends who couldn't care less). Her belated follow-up may meet the same fate, but regardless of this auteur's obscurity, here's clearly a filmmaker who cares about exploring what ordinary people do and say in the course of trying to improve their lot in life. Less satisfying than Walking but still overwhelmingly generous in spirit, this stars Catherine Keener as a struggling artist who's merely one eccentric cog in a self-doubting family that also includes her mother (Brenda Blethyn), who's recovering from liposuction; her cute sister (Emily Mortimer), who wonders if she physically has what it takes to become a big actress; and her 8-year-old sibling (Raven Goodwin), an adopted African-American girl mulling over the things that make her different from the rest of her family. Holofcener doesn't gloss over her characters' insecurities and occasionally antisocial behavior, meaning their actions aren't always easy to take; on the contrary, she believably details how each person's lack of self-confidence creates problems where none may otherwise exist and makes the struggle to connect with others all that much more difficult to navigate. Keener is excellent (though she largely plays the same role in the upcoming Full Frontal), but it's Mortimer who steals the show with an emotionally and physically bare (talk about full frontal) performance. CURRENT RELEASESEIGHT LEGGED FREAKS Superb sound effects have enhanced many a sci-fi flick or war epic, but has a motion picture actually ever been ruined due to an ill-advised aural decision? Eight Legged Freaks certainly makes the case for such a claim. There's never been a truly great "spider" movie (1955's Tarantula probably comes closest, though even that pales next to many of the era's more accomplished sci-fi outings), and it's fun to imagine what a filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven could have done with this subject matter and an R rating. But as befits its title, this PG-13-rated piffle is ultimately as threatening as that Snuggle Fabric Softener bear, and except for an isolated scene here and there, even arachnophobes shouldn't have a hard time sleeping after sitting through this thing. In depicting its tale of a small town overrun by overgrown spiders (mutation courtesy of a radioactive spill), the movie features all jokes all the time, a ploy that worked well in Abbott and Costello's monster mashes but one that often falls flat here. As far as the actual spiders go, the special effects are decent enough, and just the sight of these creepy-crawlies bouncing all over the screen might have been enough to elicit a shiver or two were it not for those infernal sound effects. Rather than stalking in silence, these arachnids continuously make non-threatening yelps and chirps that bring to mind the Star Wars saga's Jawas and Ewoks as well as those Gremlins chatterboxes. It may be true that children should be seen and not heard, but it's safe to say that this idiom also applies to cinematic super-spiders.