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Film Openings

Week of November 9, 2006

Babel. (R) Time perhaps scrambling it's for Alejandro González Iárritu to stop his narratives. After making an exciting debut in 2000 with Amores Perros, the director apparently decided to devote his feature-film career to telling multi-part stories in initially disconnected fragments. In theory, it's an ambitious gambit; in practice — at least in this schematic new tract on the world's ills — it reduces global unrest to a cosmic game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. In this kaleidoscopic study of tone-deaf culture collision and dislocation, a rifle links the fates of a Moroccan goat-herder's young sons (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid), a grieving California couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), a San Diego nanny (Adriana Barraza) stranded with her privileged charges, and a deaf-mute Tokyo schoolgirl (Rinto Kikuchi). The director and his longtime screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, mean to show the butterfly effects of American arrogance and post-9-11 solipsism throughout the world, but after a strong first hour, the movie settles for cheap ironies and climactic calamities rigged to unfold almost in unison. The result is conspiracy theory masquerading as humanism. (Jim Ridley) CGX, MOO, OF, PF, RON, STCH, TS12

A Good Year. (PG-13) Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) may be out a job, but all is not lost for our haute-bourgeois hero! A letter, lately delivered from a notary in Provence, bears news of an inheritance from his departed uncle Henry: the shabby-chic chateau where Max summered as a lad, vineyard, caretakers, and clichés included. Such is the setup of Peter Mayle's novel A Good Year, the perfect diversion for misogynistic investment bankers whose personal assistants neglected to pack the new issue of Vanity Fair in their Vuitton weekenders. Soon to be ignored at a multiplex near you, the film version arrives courtesy of screenwriter Marc Klein and that unsurpassed master of the effervescent romantic comedy, Sir Ridley Scott. And so pretty people do lovely things in picturesque locales rendered weirdly oppressive by the filmmaker, as Max struggles to enjoy the simple life. Scott can do mayhem, dystopia, and the rampaging alien (extraterrestrial, android, Somali, Demi Moore) with the best of them, but the breezy touch is not his forte. (Nathan Lee) ARN, CGX, DP, GL, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, TS12

Harsh Times. (R) Cops-gone-wild movies and TV shows are the Angry White Guy counterpoint to thug-life melodramas: fantasies of abusing rather than seizing power, operating above the law rather than outside it. This caffeinated fit of antihero worship — the directorial debut of screenwriter David Ayer, who made detective with his bad-cop thrillers Training Day and Dark Blue — straddles the genres: a ballistic ex-Ranger (Christian Bale) strung taut as razor wire misses his shot at the LAPD, only to get drafted by Homeland Security for dirty work in Colombia. To let off steam, he convinces his wary but susceptible buddy (Freddy Rodriguez) to blow off his job search and upwardly mobile girlfriend (Eva Longoria) for a substance-abusing sojourn through South Central. A south-of-the-border invasion ensues, followed by the inevitable cathartic violence. But whatever political statement Ayer intended to make with his Gulf War veteran turned human time bomb is swamped by the movie's obnoxious badass envy. Ayer sets Bale's bad guy up as a racist hothead, yet marvels at his macho nerve, and the actor responds with a gloating display of American-psycho fireworks, the kind of vein-popping showboating that might as well be performed in a mirror. Harsh times? You can't imagine. (Ridley) RON, STCH

The Return. So those crazy dreams that occur from time to time -- you know, that you have a porcupine-like body and are totally unprepared for a high school science test -- are odd, but not necessarily disturbing. Well, what if they were nightmares that led to discover the grisly truth behind a cold murder? We'd guess you'd be praying for the former. Just ask Sarah Michelle Gellar. (NR) ARN, CGX, DP, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

Stranger Than Fiction. (PG-13) Once an actor gets big enough to take whatever role he wants, it makes sense that the biggest stretch imaginable, given his current situation, is the part of a powerless man with no control over the world around him. As The Truman Show was for Jim Carrey, this feathery romantic fantasy is for Will Ferrell. Playing up the moony softness he usually plays against, Ferrell is Harold Crick, an obsessive-compulsive IRS agent who begins to hear his every move narrated by a disembodied voice. Meanwhile, reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) struggles to finish her long-delayed novel — which points toward the death of a mope named Harold Crick. Zach Helm's zig-zagging script layers whimsy upon whimsy. And yet the actors work magic within the story's artificial constructs — Maggie Gyllenhaal as a rebellious baker, Dustin Hoffman as an oracular lit professor. And Ferrell gets at least one marvelous moment: a lovestruck version of Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World." The movie becomes a fable about a creator's responsibility to his/her creations, and under Marc Forster's attentive (if too literal) direction, the performances succeed where Harold fails: gaining a life independent of their author. (Ridley) ARN, CGX, DP, GL, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

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