THE FINAL CUT Advancing age just might be the best thing to ever happen to Robin Williams' career. As he continues to grow older, ailments such as arthritis should prevent him from ever again traipsing around with bedpans on his feet or chasing flatulent flubber around a laboratory; this development will in turn allow him to focus on roles that will play to his strengths without forcing him to pander to the yahoo demographic. He's already gotten a head start with his suitably creepy turns in One Hour Photo and Insomnia, and now he's back with this intriguing sci-fi saga that finds him once again tapping into his dark side. Debuting writer-director Omar Naim sets his story in the future, at a point when microchips installed in individuals (usually at birth) serve to record their entire lives. Williams is cast as Alan Hakman, a pent-up man whose job as a "cutter" requires him to go through the memories of recently deceased people, edit out the sins, and present loving montages that can be screened at funerals. Because of his lack of emotion, Hakman has gained a reputation for being able to handle the sleaziest cases; this places him in danger when it turns out that his latest job involves a slimeball whose chip is sought by those who will stop at nothing to obtain it. For a movie that often feels like it's cobbled together from pieces of Minority Report, Blade Runner and a dozen other futuristic odysseys, The Final Cut is weirdly engrossing, and so in thrall with its own big ideas that the occasional plotholes can easily be overlooked. Brian Tyler's score, a channeling of Bernard Herrmann by way of Danny Elfman, adds to the excitement.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS A true-life yarn that was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as "one of the greatest sports stories of all time" has now been turned into one of the dullest sports films of recent years. Actor-director Peter Berg, long a deadening presence on either side of the camera, has adapted his cousin H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's acclaimed novel but in the process stripped it of any complexity, leaving only a generic pigskin tale that predictably relies on a final push during the closing seconds of the Big Game to provide any semblance of a climax. Set in 1988, the story unfolds in the small Texas town of Odessa, where practically every resident is glued to the fortunes of the local high school team the Permian Panthers. It's assumed that the star player (Derek Luke) will take them all the way to the state championship, but an injury forces the coach (Billy Bob Thornton) to rely more heavily on the other members of the team, including a self-doubting quarterback (Lucas Black) and a fumble-prone tailback (Garrett Hedlund). An underlying theme (more prominently presented in Bissinger's book, I would suspect) is that this cracker town's obsession with football is an unhealthy one -- the laser-beam focus is so intense that hardly anybody (on the team or off) seems to care much about bettering themselves -- yet Berg skirts around this important issue simply so he can spend more time on motivational speeches and gridiron heroics -- in other words, the same-old same-old.
THE FORGOTTEN Slumming Julianne Moore stars as a woman who, after mourning the death of her son for 14 months, is suddenly told that she never had a child and that he only existed within her own delusional mind. What begins as an unsettling psychological thriller eventually morphs into a sci-fi curio that becomes less intriguing as it plays out. Certainly, this was one way to go, but scripter Gerald DiPego (whose past exercises in gloppy metaphysics include Phenomenon and Angel Eyes) never plays fair, changing the rules based squarely on the demands of his storyline. Director Joseph Ruben manages to stage some genuinely creepy moments here and there, but they're squandered in a movie that ultimately drowns itself in an ocean of inconsistency.
GOING UPRIVER: THE LONG WAR OF JOHN KERRY This compelling documentary leaves no doubt that John Kerry is clearly more honorable, more courageous and more decisive than the criminal currently occupying the White House, detailing how he went from being a Vietnam War hero to a morally conscientious protestor of the conflict. Voters who've been duped by those preposterous Swift Boat ads concocted by weaselly John O'Neill (seen here in a vintage clip getting one-upped by Kerry on The Dick Cavett Show) may be interested to learn that Richard Nixon's office had formally tapped O'Neill to run a smear campaign against Kerry; indeed, the film's most sobering aspect is its ability to subtly highlight all the uncanny -- and frightening -- parallels between then and now. Yet while its shelf life as a political tool may be limited, the movie will continue to resonate for its moving look at the struggles of those returning vets who had to come to terms with their own personal beliefs. 1/2
LADDER 49 It was probably inevitable -- perhaps even desirable -- for a post-9/11 movie to be made that celebrated firemen, but did it have to be as dull as this one? If there's an original moment in this tedious (if earnest) drama, I must have been rubbing my eyes for a nanosecond and missed it; instead, director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick have managed to cram just about every overused melodramatic device into this one picture. In an effort to elevate these men (played by, among others, Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta) to the level of heroes, Colick has stripped them of most traits, in effect leaving us with a roomful of cardboard characters in a threadbare film so desperate for material that it actually includes a karaoke scene and at least two musical montages. 1/2
SHARK TALE Forget the Finding Nemo comparisons: On its own, this animated dud still only qualifies as so much cinematic chum. Will Smith provides the voice for Oscar, a hip-hopping fish whose dreams of success are realized once he's mistaken for a courageous shark-slayer; he's aided in his efforts at duplicity by Lenny (Jack Black), an out-of-the-closet shark running away from a mob family that doesn't accept his alternative lifestyle. Shark Tale is all about getting jiggy with pop culture references, with much of the weak humor coming from riffs on famous products, famous songs and famous people (amazingly, today's two biggest media whores aren't on hand under the monikers Larry King Mackerel and Stingray Leno). A few clever sight gags pop up now and then, but for the most part, this one smells fishy from the start.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD No mere splatterfest, this cheeky UK import turns out to be a horror film, a romantic comedy, and a social satire all rolled into one. Shaun (played by co-scripter Simon Pegg), normally found getting drunk at the pub, snaps into action when a zombie epidemic suddenly hits town. If George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was able to draw a correlation between modern suburbanites and the post-apocalyptic zombies -- both of whom spend their time mindlessly wandering through malls -- then Shaun equals that feat by presenting its humans as zombies-in-training, aimless people who shuffle through life with no ambitions, no skills and no awareness of the world around them. The film includes the expected in-jokes, yet the comedy quotient makes this more accessible to general audiences than most zombie flicks.
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW A large-scale achievement that's both retro and futuristic, Sky Captain features cutting-edge technology in the service of a storyline that harkens back to the days of Flash Gordon. While the actors are flesh-and-blood -- or, in the case of Angelina Jolie, fleshy-and-bloody-hot -- practically everything around them was created on computers by debuting writer-director Kerry Conran. I wish that Conran's script (and his attendant direction) exhibited a bit more pizzazz, but it's serviceable enough, with heroic Sky Captain (Jude Law) and spunky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) trying to uncover a labyrinthine plot. From German Expressionism to screwball comedy, from The Wizard of Oz to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Conran's influences often make this seem like the fever dream of a hopeless film buff -- it may be derivative, but it's never dull.
WIMBLEDON Like Mr. 3000, here's another generic sports flick that manages to somewhat transcend its mediocrity through some deft casting. Certainly, this romantic comedy is all been-there-done-that, centering on a struggling British player who falls for an American tennis star and finds his game improving as their relationship deepens. Coming from the same outfit that brought us Notting Hill, we expect to see Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts huffing on the court and off; instead, it's Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, and this unlikely match (not to mention the actors' natural charm) provides the necessary bounce to this undemanding trifle. 1/2