THE ILLUSIONIST Set in Austria, The Illusionist stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, an enigmatic stage magician so skilled at his profession that the locals suspect he might actually possess otherworldly powers. One of the few skeptics is Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a cruel ruler who sets out to prove that Eisenheim is a fake. He enlists the aid of the corrupt Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), yet matters become more tangled when it's revealed that Leopold's fiancée (Jessica Biel) was once Eisenheim's childhood sweetheart. For a good while, The Illusionist is topflight entertainment, with its lush period setting, its assemblage of captivating magic tricks, and a delightful relationship between Eisenheim and Uhl, two men sharing a wary respect for each other (both Norton and Giamatti are excellent). But then the film makes the fatal mistake of morphing into a mystery, the type that's agonizingly easy to figure out even before its gears can really be placed in motion. Viewers who can't figure out the big twist should dig out those old Encyclopedia Brown paperbacks and begin rebuilding their sleuthing skills from there. **1/2
SNAKES ON A PLANE For a while, it seemed like the greatest marketing ploy since The Blair Witch Project, as well as a revolutionary new way to make and promote movies. Come up with a catchy title, cast a way-cool actor, build the buzz over the Internet far in advance of the opening, let the online fanboys think they have a hand in actually shaping the finished product via their suggestions, refuse to hold critics' screenings -- not because the product is unspeakably awful (indeed, most post-opening reviews have been positive) but because it guarantees more ink in newspapers -- and then settle back as the record-breaking grosses pour in. Well, it all worked out except for that final point. The film's lackluster box office take (no disgrace, but certainly nothing special) should convince studios that banking on computer-weaned kids to actually leave their keyboards to venture out of the house and pay for a movie was, is and will remain a bad idea. As for the picture itself (yes, there is an actual film buried beneath all the hype), it doesn't quite deliver on its thrill-a-minute premise -- even star Samuel L. Jackson's highly publicized quip about the "motherfuckin' snakes" registers as much ado about nothing (besides, most of the truly classic movie lines arrive honestly rather than being carefully test-marketed, packaged and pre-sold). Jackson stars as an FBI agent assigned to protect an eyewitness (Nathan Phillips) to a mob slaying; once the villains ascertain which flight they'll be taking to make that important court date, they manage to fill the aircraft with rattlesnakes, cobras, boa constrictors, vipers, pythons -- indeed, the only snake missing seems to be Snake Plissken. Director David Ellis and his three scripters have the title terrors chomp down on lips, eyes, breasts and even a penis, but given the overall lack of creativity invested in this project, it ultimately feels as rote and joyless as a typical slasher flick. For a more imaginative 2006 release that ably mixes R-rated horror and humor, check out the box office bust Slither, due on DVD Oct. 24. **
TRUST THE MAN Julianne Moore is such a fabulous actress that I'm willing to degrade myself by invoking that moldiest of clichés: Yes, I would even watch her read the phone book. What I will not do, however, is sit through Trust the Man a second time -- even her formidable talents can't compensate for the sheer wretchedness of this indie effort, about as bad as any major-studio item released this year. As far as recent films about modern relationships are concerned, it's a long way from Friends With Money -- hell, even The Break-Up is more than a hop, skip and jump away from this insufferable mess. Moore plays Rebecca, a respected New York actress whose sex-crazed "house husband" Tom (David Duchovny) dallies with online porn and a luscious single mom (Dagmara Dominczyk) since his wife isn't willing to boff him twice a month, let alone his desired quota of twice a day. Meanwhile, Tobey (Billy Crudup), Rebecca's brother and Tom's best friend, is bummed because his girlfriend Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal) wants him to not only grow up (he's 36 but acts like he's 12) but also to marry her and father her child. Those who accuse Woody Allen of making movies that exist in a hermetically sealed bubble should take a peek at this effort by writer-director Bart Freundlich, who makes Allen seem as intercontinental as Bernardo Bertolucci by crafting a film that seems to exist in an NYC devoid of reason or reality. Trust the Man is a Big Apple production that's rotten to its core, with banal dialogue, loathsome characters (Tom and Tobey) and ludicrous scenarios assaulting us at every turn. Except for a grasping Crudup, the lead performers ably keep their heads above water, but what possessed them to sign up for this arduous tour of duty? Moore, at least, has an excuse: She's married to the writer-director and couldn't exactly say no. *
THE ANT BULLY It used to be Oscar-bait productions that had no trouble snagging the A-listers. Now it's the kiddie flicks that have them lining up to sign on the dotted line. But the problem with the high-powered lineup on view here -- Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti -- is that it promises a viewing experience that never materializes. Writer-director John A. Davis' slender screenplay might have well been produced by a committee well-versed in mining the usual kid-friendly clichés. Forget comparisons to Antz or A Bug's Life (both superior to this): The Ant Bully, in which a little boy gets shrunk to ant size and learns all about friendship and teamwork from the busy little bugs, is indistinguishable from any other subpar toon flick that mixes bodily function gags with snooze-inducing "lessons" and believes it's being profound and inspirational. Alas, the only thing it inspired in me was a sudden urge to spray the screen with Raid. *1/2
THE DESCENT With rare exception, Hollywood has lost its ability to create memorable or meaningful horror flicks, which makes this British import all the more welcome. One of the finest terror tales in many a full moon, writer-director Neil Marshall's gory gem follows six outdoor enthusiasts -- all female -- as they embark on a spelunking expedition deep in the Appalachian mountains. The competitive Juno (Natalie Mendoza) leads the outfit while Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) tries to overcome a recent tragedy in her life; along with the others, they descend deep into a cavern that's frightening even before its cannibalistic occupants (who all look like Gollum's cousins) show up and start tearing into human flesh. The Descent is so expertly made that it more than holds its own as a full-throttle horror flick, yet it's Marshall's decision to provide it with a psychological bent that puts it firmly over the top. The film addresses guilt -- specifically, survivor's guilt -- in a welcome manner and imbues its protagonists with messy moral dilemmas that allow them to alternate between heroine and villain, survivor and victim, wallflower and warrior. It's just a shame they didn't keep the original British ending. ***1/2
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE In the rocker "We're a Happy Family," The Ramones present a dysfunctional family in which "Daddy's telling lies, Baby's eating flies, Mommy's on pills, Baby's got the chills." The clan at the center of this Sundance hit isn't much better off. But one thing brings the members together: the chance to support sweet, 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), who's been selected to compete in the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant in California. Essentially, this is yet another road picture about bickering family members, and if that sounds a bit too prefab (or at least a bit too RV), screenwriter Michael Arndt, his dialogue backed by an excellent ensemble cast (including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell), manages to adroitly mix up the expected comic shtick with moments of great clarity and insight. The movie climaxes as it surely must -- at the competition -- and Arndt and the husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris sharpen their claws for this portion, allowing the characters to engage in a final act of flagrant punk defiance. Joey Ramone would have been proud. ***1/2
TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY Like Spam, energy drinks and the music of Yanni, Will Ferrell is one of those acquired tastes that satisfy devotees while perplexing everyone else. Yet even folks who weren't entertained by his 2004 starring vehicle Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy should dig this latest offering -- while it never reaches the giddy highs of last summer's premiere stupid-smart comedy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it's consistently pleasurable and offers a surprisingly steady stream of laugh-out-loud moments. Like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby is also an egotistical, none-too-bright boor. "I piss excellence," he declares, and his standing as NASCAR's best driver certainly signals that he's excellent at something. But his strained relationship with his deadbeat dad (Gary Cole, delivering the film's shrewdest comic performance) and the arrival of a formidable opponent, a French homosexual race car driver (hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen), leads to his fall from grace and his subsequent (and humbled) climb back to the top. The Highlander quips alone are worth the ticket price. ***
WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? A social document largely structured like a murder-mystery, this is the latest nonfiction feature to indict today's twin threat of corporate greed and governmental corruption. With the usual mix of talking heads and vintage footage, the film details how during the 1990s, California elected to fight its smog by passing the Zero Emissions Mandate. General Motors led the charge in coming up with a way to work for cleaner air by creating the EV1, a revolutionary car that ran on a battery and therefore required no gasoline. But almost immediately, a fearful GM began sabotaging its own product, aided by the oil companies, the Bush administration, the shady head of the California Air Resources Board and uninformed consumers who opted for gas-guzzling SUVs. Like An Inconvenient Truth, this isn't a partisan project -- even right-wing Mel Gibson is shown extolling the virtues of the EV1, along with the leftie likes of Tom Hanks -- but rather a depressing look at how the welfare of this country is repeatedly sabotaged by the avarice of those wielding all the power. ***
WORLD TRADE CENTER The most startling thing about this 9/11 drama is that it's by far the least controversial movie Oliver Stone has ever made. There's practically nothing in the way of gonzo filmmaking, political commentary or outrageous acting -- instead, the entire film operates at a hushed level, its nobility standing tall in every frame. It's hard to find any trace of potentially incendiary material; it's also hard to get terribly excited over the final product. The picture focuses on the police officers (played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) who would turn out to be two of the only 20 people rescued from the rubble of the Twin Towers. Stone and scripter Andrea Berloff manage several powerful moments, but the end result is still a movie that feels oddly impersonal. That's in striking contrast to United 93, the superb docudrama that provided audiences with a you-are-there immediacy. Every second of United 93 related in some way to the specific events of that day. On the other hand, replace these real-life characters with two fictional guys trapped in a collapsed building, and what you're left with is a 1970s-style TV movie-of-the-week, the sort that invariably starred the likes of Christopher George or Lee Majors. **1/2
OPENS FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1:
CRANK: Jason Statham, Amy Smart.
CROSSOVER: Anthony Mackie, Wayne Brady.
THE ILLUSIONIST: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE NEW YORK COSMOS: Documentary.
THE QUIET: Elisha Cuthbert, Camilla Belle.
QUINCEAÑERA: Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia.
TRUST THE MAN: Julianne Moore, David Duchovny.
THE WICKER MAN: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn.