As in their debut, Puffy Chair, Austin's Duplass brothers nod to the low-budget, slice-of-life style of John Cassavetes, but use it this time for a fresh approach to several different genres.
In the simple story of four professionally and sexually frustrated actors who hole up in a remote cabin to write their own screenplay and encounter a mute, menacing figure with a paper bag over his head, the filmmakers cover the realms of satire, relationship movies and horror films. And they satisfy the basic demands of each, all in under 90 minutes.
The whole thing is so slight that it takes a minute to fully appreciate how neat a trick they've pulled, abetted by the cast, who's entirely believable and improvised much of their dialogue. Grade: B+
"Burn After Reading"
The star-studded latest from the Coen brothers is an incomprehensible mess of a paranoid, political-thriller satire that's bound to rival The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty as the biggest misstep in their otherwise brilliant careers. There's a good chance this will become a cult hit because it features so many A-listers (Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich) acting completely insane, but as The Big Lebowski celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it's clear how inferior the new film is in comparison. Grade: C-
Based on Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, director Isabel Coixet's introspective look at male late-life crisis falls somewhere between The Wackness and The Love Guru on the Ben Kingsley quality scale. As a professor experiencing uncertainty and too-strong feelings in relation to his latest affair with a student (Penelope Cruz in her best English-language role to date), the actor gives a solid performance, but the film is a bit too slow and the third act a bit too basic. Grade: B-
The sense of desperation is almost as palpable as the ice-cold temperatures in this stark, moving tale of two mothers (including Melissa Leo, generating Oscar talk for her wonderfully haunting performance) doing what they believe they need to do to provide for their children. That involves smuggling Asians across the Canadian border, but the movie doesn't go into the moral quandaries of the situation, wisely focusing on the gut reactions of the women involved. Their story will stick with you. Grade: A
"The House Bunny"
Talented comic actress Anna Faris is set up with two of the oldest girl gags in the book. First is the blond, brainless bimbo, Faris' ousted Playboy bunny, who finds a new career as a sorority housemother. The second involves her new, nerdy charges, who are just a quick makeover and a few feminist pretensions away from being the hottest girls on campus. The cast does its best not to walk away embarrassed, with Faris' efforts approaching the Herculean, but there's only so much she can accomplish with a script that gives her no respect. Grade: C-
Just like the Broadway play on which it's based, the "plot" of this musical comedy serves solely to work in as many ABBA songs as possible. Why talented actors like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth signed up for its silly tale of a bride-to-be on a quest to find her father is a mystery, and watching Streep prance and writhe in a pair of hideous denim overalls for two hours is a pain. As for Brosnan's musical numbers, you may never be able to look him in the face again. Grade: D-
"Man on Wire"
Some stories are so completely thrilling and compellingly told, they pull you to the edge of your seat even if you already know the outcome. Documentary filmmaker James Marsh has such a story in a self-taught French wirewalker who fulfilled his dream of crossing a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and has a storyteller worthy of the tale in his central subject, Philippe Petit, an impish presence and born conversationalist. Grade: A
"Righteous Kill" NEW!
Given the lackluster quality of work we've seen in recent years from Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (88 Minutes, anyone? Rocky and Bullwinkle?), it was a little silly to expect great things from their long-awaited onscreen reunion. Still, it's disappointing to see two of the greatest actors of all time re-teaming for this clunky and conventional cop thriller.
As longtime partners on the force, they're investigating a string of murders connected by painfully bad poems left at the crime scene. Both actors lose the way-over-the-top demeanor they've adopted in their later years. But Pacino has a lot more fun with his role, while De Niro downplays his part so much, it could've been played by anyone.
It all comes down to a twist ending that has the dubious honor of being both nonsensical and completely predictable. Grade: C-
"Roman de Gare" NEW!
Driving a nice car across the French countryside, a man of mysterious background (Dominique Pinon from Amelie) meets a woman (Audrey Dana) at a roadside rest and agrees to pose as the total stranger's fiance, after the real thing left her by the side of the road on the way to a family get-together.
As their story plays out, veteran French director Claude Lelouch also keeps up with the people who may be looking for the mystery man, including a very successful author (Fanny Ardant), an abandoned wife and a police team searching for an escaped murderer.
Woven together, the threads occasionally verge on becoming a ridiculous tangle, but mostly you'll be kept guessing happily. Grade: B
Cowriter-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff and producer-star Don Cheadle set a more ambitious goal than usual for a summer release, trying to fit in one film an action extravaganza, a crime procedural and a timely morality tale about the evils of generalizing your enemy. It wins points for an intelligent viewpoint and for Hollywood's first devoutly Muslim action hero, well-played by Cheadle, but the weight of its many story elements brings the film to a near standstill. Grade: C
Ben Stiller doesn't skewer the mentally challenged in his new, very funny film, but rather the weird ways of Hollywood. For the most part, his satirical look at a group of pampered stars trapped in a real war hits its marks, and in the role of a ruthless producer, it delivers Tom Cruise's best performance since Magnolia. But Robert Downey Jr.'s surgically darkened Australian Method actor is the best reason to see it. He deserves a special Oscar of his own. Grade: B+
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Opening up under the Spanish sun, Woody Allen uses archetypical characters for a funny, sexy romantic comedy about the chemical reactions that lead us in and out of love. It centers on two American tourists in Barcelona (Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall), the artist attracted to them both (Javier Bardem) and his violent, tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). The dynamic between them is much fun to watch, and the view is enhanced by both the gorgeous natural scenery and the actors' ample physical charms. Grade: B
Writer-director Diane English and long-attached star Meg Ryan turn the light, catty comedy of George Cukor's 1939 all-female classic into something covered in luxury product placement and filled with mixed messages about body acceptance. While English furrows her brows at a skinny preteen girl's weight issues, she makes light of the facelift undergone by costar Candice Bergen. Bette Midler, in a nothing role, is just more flesh tossed to the side. Grade: C