THE PROPOSITION A cold, hard film chiefly populated by cold, hard men, The Proposition finds director John Hillcoat and scripter Nick Cave (yes, the musician) transplanting what is generally perceived as a quintessential American genre -- the Western -- to the equally sparse Australian terrain. It's an easy and, in retrospect, obvious fit, given that country's own history of settling uncharted territory while simultaneously squashing the dark-skinned natives who inhabit it. In a standout performance, Ray Winstone plays Captain Stanley, the lawman who manages to capture Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson), two-thirds of the murderous Burns clan. But Stanley is really after oldest sibling Arthur (Danny Huston), the pack's leader, and so he tells Charlie that if he can find and kill Arthur, he'll spare the life of the dim-witted Mikey. Early word has compared The Proposition to the Sam Peckinpah oeuvre, and that's apt: This landscape is as merciless and uncompromising as anything seen by cowboy characters like Cable Hogue and Pike Bishop. But along with Peckinpah, this begs comparison to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Tommy Lee Jones' recent The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (to say nothing of Australia's own Outback flicks from the 1970s), mood pieces in which philosophical renegades seek to come to terms with their own restless souls while navigating territories that only serve to enhance their feelings of desperation and disconnectedness. The Proposition is unremittingly violent, yet it's also the sort of movie where ruthless men are as apt to spout poetry or discuss Darwinism as they are to rape women and slaughter Aborigines. Hillcoat and Cave suggest that while a harsh environment can negatively influence a person's actions, grace can still be found within -- provided that person knows where to look. ***1/2
AKEELAH AND THE BEE The pattern holds that every decade's midway stretch gives us an underdog worth supporting. In the 1970s, it was Rocky, in the 1980s, it was the Karate Kid, and in the 1990s, it was Babe. And now here comes 11-year-old Akeelah to carry the torch for the little people. Akeelah and the Bee, which in addition to its underdog roots also manages to come across as a mesh between the documentary Spellbound and Boyz N the Hood refitted with a happy ending, centers on Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), a south LA girl who, with the help of her mentor (Laurence Fishburne), works her way through the national spelling bee circuit. What sets the film apart is the manner in which it details how Akeelah's triumphs end up lifting the entire community: Her success is their success, and it's truly inspiring to watch neighbors from all walks of life throw their support behind her. There's no need to hide that lump in your throat or tear in your eye -- this movie earns its sentiment. ***
THE DA VINCI CODE Forget the comparisons to Dan Brown's monumental bestseller: On its own cinematic terms, Ron Howard's adaptation is a moderately entertaining ride, sort of like the Nicolas Cage hit National Treasure only done with more style and more food for thought. Yet however this might have all played out on the page, up on the screen it simply comes off as one more familiar Hollywood thriller that's heavily dependant on predictable directions taken by the storyline and character revelations that are painfully obvious to astute audience members. Tom Hanks stars in the central role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist who, while being chased for a murder he did not commit, attempts to solve an ancient mystery that, if revealed, could potentially spell the end of Christianity as we know it. Amelie's Audrey Tautou (as Langdon's sidekick), Paul Bettany (as a homicidal monk) and French national treasure Jean Reno (as a persistent cop) lend Hanks support, though it's animated Ian McKellen, as a British scholar, who earns MVP honors. **1/2
DOWN IN THE VALLEY A rebellious teen (Evan Rachel Wodd) meets and falls in love with a much-older man (Edward Norton) whose cowboy duds and "aw, shucks" mannerisms make him an odd figure in the hustle-and-bustle concrete landscape of Los Angeles. She thinks he's the genuine article, while her dad (David Morse) smells a phony -- audience members, on the other hand, can't peg him one way or another, thanks to Norton's finely nuanced performance. For a good while, writer-director David Jacobson's moody drama clicks on all cylinders -- less for its neo-Western trappings than for its look at an ill-fated romance -- and a shocking incident midway through the movie promises to elevate the story to another level. Instead, the film unravels at breakneck speed, degenerating into a mishmash of scarcely credible shootouts and leaden symbolism. It's possible that we're in the early stages of the latest cinematic fad -- the revisionist Western -- but with its crippling second half, this one ultimately turns out to be a brokeback movie. **
JUST MY LUCK The fantasy-tinged plotline posits that Ashley Albright (Lindsay Lohan) is the luckiest woman in the world while the bumbling, stumbling Jake (Chris Paine) is her exact opposite, a guy so plagued by rotten luck that he's constantly being placed in compromising or injurious positions. But after these two strangers meet and kiss at a masquerade ball, Ashley suddenly finds herself the unluckiest woman in the world while Jake -- well, you can figure out the rest. That the key to Ashley's happiness (at least until the unconvincing third act denouement) is directly related to her wealth and status seems lost even to screenwriters I. Marlene King and Amy B. Harris, who apparently thought they were penning a romantic comedy when they were actually writing an ode to materialism. Worse, the pair can't even adhere to the guidelines they themselves established. When Ashley drops a contact lens into a cat's soiled litter box and then scoops it out and puts it in her eye without even rinsing it, this isn't an example of Ashley experiencing bad luck; this is an example of Ashley being a moron. *1/2
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III This fast-paced sequel is a huge improvement over its immediate predecessor and just barely manages to top the first film for sheer excitement. Instead of going for an established director like Brian De Palma (Mission I) and John Woo (Mission II), Paramount and producer-star Tom Cruise elected to take a chance on TV's J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), who pumps new life into the M:I template. "This Time, It's Personal" might as well have been the movie's tagline, as IMF (Impossible Missions Force) agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) finds himself trying to save his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and protégée (Keri Russell) from a murderous weapons dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Mission: Impossible was established as a vanity franchise for Cruise, yet Hoffman's work (his character would have made a formidable Bond villain) marks this as the first time that the attention gets shifted away from the marquee attraction. ***
OVER THE HEDGE Here's yet another charmless animated feature made by profiteers whose historical reference point seems to begin and end with Shrek. In other words, don't look for what was once quaintly referred to as "Disney magic," that timeless, ethereal quality that used to be par for the course in toon flicks like Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians and Beauty and the Beast. With rare exception, today's cartoon characters aren't allowed to be romantic or introspective or lovably quixotic -- usually, they're too busy hyperventilating or passing gas or trying to find ways to screw over their fellow toons. This is more of the same, as an opportunistic raccoon (Bruce Willis), in hock to a grouchy grizzly (Nick Nolte), cons a group of peaceful forest denizens into helping him invade suburbia and steal the humans' junk food. There's a witty sequence in which the raccoon explains how people "live to eat" rather than "eat to live," and a Stanley Kowalski gag make me chuckle out loud. Otherwise, this DreamWorks production feels like a flat-footed attempt to rip off the Pixar template. *1/2
POSEIDON This remake of the 1972 disaster favorite The Poseidon Adventure -- in which several survivors try to make their way to the surface after an enormous wave flips their luxury cruise ship over -- isn't awful so much as it's impersonal: Foregoing the blood, sweat and characters that made the original come to life, this one's all about running cardboard people through the CGI paces. Electing to scrap the characters from Paul Gallico's book and Ronald Neame's earlier film, director Wolfgang Petersen and scripter Mark Protosevich instead serve up all-new players. Petersen describes them as "original, contemporary characters," which I guess is some sort of doublespeak meaning one-dimensional dullards rendered uncomplicated for today's audiences. The sets and effects are also lazily realized, although Petersen, who knows about filming in cramped quarters (Das Boot, Air Force One), does get to display his directorial chops in the more claustrophobic segments, mustering what little suspense the film has to offer. Alas, it's not nearly enough to save this soggy endeavor. *1/2
RV One would have to travel deep into the 1990s to locate a comedic Robin Williams performance that was more than simply incessant shtick. Thankfully, RV finds Williams again merging his patented humor with a recognizably human character -- it's just a shame that the vehicle that carries this engaging performance doesn't offer a smoother ride. The tug-of-war between career and home is too omniscient to ever be ignored by filmmakers looking for an easy angle, and for a while, RV, in which a workaholic takes his family on vacation in the title monstrosity, looks as if it's going to be an effective take on the matter. Instead, the movie reveals an obsession with labored slapstick and potty humor, meaning we get tiresome scenes in which Williams' character falls down hills or finds himself covered head-to-toe in fecal matter. By the end, the crudity is so excessive, it makes National Lampoon's Vacation look as sophisticated as The Accidental Tourist by comparison. **
UNITED 93 It's hard to imagine a less sensationalized 9/11 film than writer-director Paul Greengrass' superb docudrama focusing on the morning when all hell broke loose in the US -- and specifically zooming in on the tragic yet inspiring saga of the one hijacked plane which did not reach its intended target. Perhaps it was imperative that an outsider tell this story, and that's what we get with Greengrass. A British filmmaker who achieved similar verisimilitude with 2002's Bloody Sunday (about the 1972 massacre of Irish civilians by English troops), Greengrass repeatedly refuses to take the bait of making a picture that can be tagged as exploitive, propagandistic or too political. Yet his restraint can only shelter us for so long: Ultimately, there's no defense against our own humanity. I imagine it's impossible to watch United 93 and not be brought to tears on several occasions. Whether such an outpouring of emotion will help the healing or tear open old wounds -- well, that's for each man and woman to decide for themselves. ****
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND The 2000 hit X-Men, which introduced Marvel's band of mutant outsiders to a wider audience and helped spearhead the current boom in superhero flicks, appealed to fans of the comic book but also offered comfort to anyone who could tap into its obvious symbolic gestures (most equating the fantasy world ostracism of mutants with the real world shunning of homosexuals). Director Bryan Singer returned for 2003's X2, and, bucking the trend, managed to make a follow-up that nearly matched its predecessor. Alas, Singer has fled the series to helm Superman Returns, and Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour duo) and his scripters prove to be shaky replacements. Yet it's a testament to the durability of the original comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that the movie survives this hostile takeover. There are plenty of boneheaded decisions plaguing this action-packed chapter -- too many players, stagnant characterizations -- yet there's also enough of merit to earn it a passing grade. **1/2
OPENS FRIDAY, JUNE 9:
CARS: Animated; voices of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION: Garrison Keillor, Lily Tomlin.