Anything Else. Woody Allen. This new romantic comedy finds writer/director Woody Allen at his most mediocre. The film has its humorous moments and memorable lines, but they'd be a lot funnier if they hadn't been heard before in Allen's earlier, better films. Jason Biggs (in the Woody Allen role) plays Jerry Falk, a struggling writer who falls head over heels in love with a self-centered, manipulative, aspiring actress (Christina Ricci). What he sees in her is a mystery; he spends most of the movie catering to her every whim and trying to rekindle her sexual interest in him. Given the non-storyline, the film doesn't have many places to go. Biggs appears to be trying, but he seems unnerved by the responsibility of having to capture Allen's personality. Ricci gives a mannered, totally unconvincing performance. Danny DeVito and Allen himself play supporting roles, and both are good. DeVito never seems to just phone in a performance; even when the part's not a stretch for him, he gives it his all. Opens Friday, September 19, at multiple locations. (Jean Oppenheimer)
Cold Creek Manor. Mike Figgis. The marriage of Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Leah Tilson (Sharon Stone) is an unhappy one: She's an upwardly mobile executive willing to go downwardly on her boss for a promotion; he's a would-be Ken Burns making documentaries about New York buildings. After their son is nearly run down, they decide to move to the peaceful country and buy Cold Creek Manor, a former slaughterhouse. Everything about the rotting house says "stay the hell away," which, of course, the Tilsons do not, even hiring its former resident (Stephen Dorff), three years out of the joint, as a handyman. Needless to say, they get what they deserve, and director Mike Figgis is more than happy to dish out the horror in a decidedly unscary picture; Figgis can't tell who he hates more: the Tilsons, the audience or the studio that paid for the movie. Opens Friday, September 19, at multiple locations. (Robert Wilonsky)
The Fighting Temptations. Jonathan Lynn. Jonathan Lynn's feel-good musical stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as a phony Manhattan ad exec who must whip a dispirited, small-town Georgia gospel choir into top shape if he hopes to claim an inheritance from his recently departed rich aunt. The plot's a trifle, but so what. Director Lynn (My Cousin Vinny) stages a series of seamless, ebullient show-stoppers that encompass every musical style from gospel and soul to contemporary R&B and hip-hop, and the choreography ranks with anything you'll find on Broadway. The romantic co-star is sweet-voiced Beyoncé Knowles, a founder of Destiny's Child; her sultry rendition of "Fever" puts Peggy Lee to shame. With LaTanya Richardson, Steve Harvey, Mike Epps and T-Bone, among many others. Talk about emotion. You'll float out of the theater on a cloud of lingering backbeat. Opens Friday, September 19, at multiple locations. (Bill Gallo)
Herod's Law. Luis Estrada. The humble denizens of tiny San Pedro de los Saguaros are fed up with corruption and exploitation, so they lynch their rotten mayor, and director Luis Estrada (Ámbar) immediately invites thinking viewers to draw their own parallels. Our anti-hero is a naïve patsy (pitch-perfect Damián Alcazár) installed as the new mayor by the crooked PRI (the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party). He battles the typically dirty local Padre (Guillermo Gil), the temperamental doctor (Eduardo López Rojas) and especially the vital brothel's madam (Isela Vega, terrific) en route to transforming his increasingly ego-mad ravings into law. The emergence of British director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Straight to Hell) as a "fucking gringo idiot" helps prompt Alcazár's insanely hypocritical everyman to become Gollum, George W. Bush and Jim Jones rolled into one -- actually an incredibly refreshing antidote to a stupid simpleton-savior like Forrest Gump. Mexican cinema is presently rocking, but this smart, sassy political diatribe kicks the feisty Y Tu Mamá También right in its adolescent cojones. Opens Friday, September 19, at the Plaza Frontenac. (Gregory Weinkauf)
The Holy Land. Eitan Gorlin. Opens Friday, September 19, at the Plaza Frontenac. Reviewed this issue.
Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola. Opens Friday, September 19, at the Hi-Pointe. Reviewed this issue.
Madame Satã. Karim Aïnouz. It's no given that audiences will embrace a passionately homosexual, drug-abusing male prostitute-cum-drag queen, especially if he happens not to be a particularly nice person to boot. However, the cinematic tale of Madame Satã, a legendary Brazilian drag queen during the first half of the twentieth century, has two big points in its favor. One is a dynamite leading performance by relative newcomer Lázaro Ramos, who brings a burning intensity to the screen. The other is ass-kicking. Satã, a.k.a. João Francisco dos Santos, is no whinging Hedwig, but rather a master of capoeira who can down his adversaries with a couple of kicks. João's nonviolent side comes out when he watches a local cabaret dancer perform scenes from the Arabian Nights -- it's his love of that kind of show that ultimately entices him toward drag. He doesn't become Madame Satã till film's end, but given the movie's title that's hardly a spoiler. Cinematographer Walter Carvalho gives the proceedings a great look, and writer-director Karim Aïnouz looks to have a bright future. Opens Friday, September 19, at the Tivoli. (Luke Y. Thompson)
Secondhand Lions. Tim McCanlies. Writer-director Tim McCanlies' film is cornier than the cornfields spread out in front of the dilapidated rural Texas manse inhabited by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine, playing grumpy old brothers with mismatched accents. Walter (Haley Joel Osment), a quiet teenage nebbish, is forced to spend a 1960s summer with two great-uncles he's never met -- never even heard of -- after his no-account mom, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), strikes out for court-reporting school. They'll make him a man; he'll make 'em human. Problem is, McCanlies has handled this material better already; his Iron Giant covered similar ground and without resorting to sentiment. It seems like such a rookie move to insert into the story line a worn-out circus lion, shipped to the brothers to hunt till they realize it's too old to even crawl out of its crate. It's all Duvall can do to keep from pointing to the lion, turning to the camera and saying to the audience, "This is supposed to be me -- get it?" Opens Friday, September 19, at multiple locations. (Robert Wilonsky)
Underworld. Len Wiseman. Somewhere in the deepest mists of Eastern Europe lies an urban hell shrouded in shadowy azure, where darkly enchanted, black-leather-clad denizens leap about to thudding techno, blurting outrageously melodramatic proclamations in randomly accented English. Erupting anew is a centuries-old blood-feud between the Vampires (superbly solemn Kate Beckinsale, Trent Reznor-like clown boy Shane Brolly) and the wolfy, non-lichen Lycans (Michael Sheen, co-conceptualist Kevin Grevioux). It's The Crow meets The Matrix, gothcore tricked out with wire stunts, and visually it's wild fun, since fledgling feature director Len Wiseman started off in production design, and creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos's diverse credits span from Godzilla to Stuart Little. Yet with Underworld's guilty pleasures come copious clinkers, from its nuts-and-bolts narrative foundation (scientifically explaining vampirism and lycanthropy) to Wiseman's inability to direct actors beyond cartoonish interaction. It's a project made for genre fans, by genre fans, engendering more comradeship than awe. But the Budapest-built project is tight enough, with an impressively oppressive look, boasting a construction crew comprised of four Laszlos and a Zoltán. Opens Friday, September 19, at multiple locations. (Gregory Weinkauf)