ALL OR NOTHING Few filmmakers craft movies as brutally honest about the hardships of everyday existence as writer-director Mike Leigh, yet for the first time, the patented blueprint that has long served him well is starting to look a bit frayed around the edges. Whereas titles like Secrets & Lies, Life Is Sweet and Career Girls spilled over with all the spontaneity and messiness of real life, this latest effort seems more calculated and controlled, as if Leigh's close to exhausting the subject and trying to keep it viable via more artificial means. To be sure, this downbeat drama about the largely miserable lives of a struggling London family and their circle of friends has its share of the emotionally raw sequences we've come to expect from Leigh, and his ability to cast unglamorous actors as characters who look as if they could really be one step away from being on the dole remains unparalleled. Yet too many of the situations feel cribbed from his past pictures, including a forced ending that offers a little more hope than should reasonably be expected. 1/2
THE EMPEROR'S CLUB In the tradition of Dead Poets Society and Finding Forrester comes another inspirational drama that champions the power of education while simultaneously providing air time to the sort of shaky, only-in-the-movies scenario that would leave a true academic guffawing at the simplemindedness of it all. Still, this works better than it probably should, thanks primarily to Kevin Kline's committed performance as a Classics professor whose ability to shape the characters of his young charges meets a serious challenge in a rebellious, irresponsible boy (Emile Hirsch) who eventually forces the prof to compromise his own strict moral code. To its credit, the script by Neil Tolkin (who previously penned the anti-education Pauly Shore vehicle Jury Duty), based on Ethan Canin's short story "The Palace Thief," does acknowledge the reality that some students are simply out of reach of even the most dedicated of instructors. Eventually, though, even the film's thorny issues get buried under the soft gauze of cheery conformity, as all troubles wash away in a sea of grandstanding speechifying and daft plot developments. 1/2
FRIDA First, let us be thankful that it's the Salma Hayek version, not the proposed Jennifer Lopez one, that made it to the screen -- after all, who wants to see a Frida Kahlo biopic that would doubtless find the Mexican artist putting aside the paintbrushes (and putting a part in her unibrow) for a career as a glamorous songbird? Seriously, as far as screen biographies of artistic sorts go (always a gamble, since it's hard for film to accurately convey the creative process at work), this one apparently ended up in the right hands, as director Julie Taymor (Broadway's The Lion King) uses various colorful conventions -- an animated sequence designed by the Brothers Quay, the melding of actual people and artwork, the stunt casting of Edward Norton, Antonio Banderas and Ashley Judd in small roles -- to effectively touch upon the key incidents in Kahlo's life, from the trolley accident that kept her perpetually in pain over the years to her brief fling with Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush). Still, the film's centerpiece is her long, complex relationship with husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, and it's the robust performances by Hayek and Alfred Molina that ultimately give Frida its soul.
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE God bless America. And God bless Michael Moore for caring so much about America. The scruffy guerilla filmmaker who's made a career out of sticking it to the nation's corporate guard on behalf of the little people this time sets his sights on the country's thorny firearm issue. The result is a hard-hitting treatise that offers almost as many laughs as his previous pictures Roger & Me and The Big One but also emerges as a much sadder, wiser piece of filmmaking than its predecessors. Detractors will claim that this film, so skewed that Marilyn Manson ends up coming across as the most logical of all the interviewees, is nothing more than a typical liberal diatribe taking pot shots at easy targets, and they'd probably be right except for one thing. Sure, it's easy for Moore to note that those countries without easy access to firearms don't have our absurdly high murder rate, yet this film muddies the waters by pointing out that Canada, a country also swimming in firearms, has an enviably low murder rate despite the prevalence of weapons, thereby leading Moore (and us) to question whether gun control isn't the issue as much as an arrogant American mindset that feels everything is for the taking for anyone with the means to do so. Bowling for Columbine isn't a subtle film; instead, it makes its case with Magnum force. 1/2