BON VOYAGE The latest from French filmmaker Jean-Paul Rappeneau (Cyrano de Bergerac) takes place during World War II, but don't expect a downer along the lines of The Pianist: A sighting of Maurice Chevalier among its numerous characters would be more in line than an appearance by Oskar Schindler. Bon Voyage possesses the elan and sophistication of those vintage all-star opuses like Grand Hotel, though its spirit clearly rests with Casablanca, another movie in which the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of -- well, you know the routine. Eternally youthful Isabelle Adjani, who clearly must have her own Dorian Gray-styled portrait hanging in her attic (she's 48 and looks anything but), receives top billing as a spoiled movie star able to use her feminine wiles to ensnare any man, yet she's merely one of the many characters flitting about in this story that takes place just as the Nazis are preparing to march into Paris. The largest role goes to appealing Gregori Derangere, cast as a congenial writer who finds himself implicated in a murder committed by the actress, aiding an elderly scientist (Jean-Marc Stehle) and his shapely assistant (Virginie Ledoyen) smuggle contraband material to England, mixing it up with a waffling government official (Gerard Depardieu) and a secretive journalist (Peter Coyote), and somehow still finding time to write his novel. It's all about as believable as those comic shorts in which The Three Stooges smacked around Adolph Hitler -- and no less entertaining.
YOUNG ADAM Whereas most movies sporting a surly protagonist allow him to soften over the course of the story, this adaptation of Alexander Trocchi's novel reverses the flow by providing us with a blank slate and blackening him over the duration of its running time. It's an interesting turnaround of expectations, even if the end result resembles an unfinished sketch. Under the auspices of writer-director David Mackenzie, the plot feels like Polanski's Knife In the Water as told by Ken Loach or Lynne Ramsay, a grubby tale of working-class disillusionment enacted by the three empty souls aboard a cramped sea vessel. Joe (Ewan McGregor) is the young drifter who takes a job aboard the barge owned by Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella (Tilda Swinton); when he isn't busy bonking the haggardly Ella behind her impotent husband's back, he's reflecting on the death (murder? suicide? accident?) of his former flame (Emily Mortimer), a woman who made the mistake of trying to get too close. The sight of McGregor's fleshy lightsaber is obviously what frightened Jack Valenti into slapping this with an NC-17, but unlike the similarly rated The Dreamers, in which the sex was employed as a titillating mind game among the intelligentsia, here it's more akin to the rutting of wild beasts, an instinctive ritual among lower primates. The movie's bleak outlook is gripping to a point, but it never amounts to much more than surface grot. 1/2
THE ALAMO Forget The Alamo... again. John Wayne's 1960 take on the historic battle of 1836 was fairly useless as history and barely involving as entertain-ment, but it at least had the benefit of a sterling cast and a marvelous Dimitri Tiomkin score. This version can't even match those modest achievements -- it's the equivalent of one long drone from a stiff Social Studies teacher who can scarcely be bothered to add any sort of relevancy to the topic. Even with his charisma kept in check, Billy Bob Thornton still fares best as Davy Crockett. The other leads -- Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston, Patrick Wilson as William Travis and especially Jason Patric as Jim Bowie -- resemble waxworks at a history museum; if the characters they're portraying had been this boring, they simply could have lulled the Mexican army to sleep. 1/2
BUFFALO SOLDIERS The Reagans wasn't the only recent film to largely vanish from plain sight because of fears it would anger our Republican friends in charge: Buffalo Soldiers was barely released before being booted to Videoland. (It reaches town via the Charlotte Film Society.) Its crime? It dares to show the military in a less-than-flattering light, as an institution in which some of its officers are incompetent or psychotic and many of its foot soldiers corrupt and drug-addled. While no M*A*S*H, it's still a sharply scripted seriocomedy in which an opportunistic GI (Joaquin Phoenix), running illegal operations under the nose of his inept commander (Ed Harris) right before the end of the Cold War, runs afoul of a hard-nosed officer (Scott Glenn) and escalates the antagonism by dating his daughter (Anna Paquin).
ENVY Simply put, Envy is a steaming pile of celluloid crap. The excrement reference is appropriate, since the plot centers on a loudmouth (Jack Black) who invents the Vapoorizer, a spray that makes dog doo disappear into thin air; his creation makes him rich, which in turn makes his best friend (Ben Stiller) insanely jealous. Barry Levinson, an accomplished director whose bombs are now starting to outnumber his hits, can do absolutely nothing with newcomer Steve Adams' perfectly dreadful script. It really says something when a movie manages to snag the services of both Stiller and Black and then squanders their talents by forcing them to play unlikable, uninteresting characters who come across as irritating rather than amusing. The sooner they Vapoorize this movie from their resumes, the better off we'll all be.