IN THE LAND OF WOMEN It's not quite a case of "like father, like son," but Jonathan Kasdan, the offspring of the excellent writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, shows that he at least harbors some of Dad's easygoing way with words with this engaging if underwhelming comedy-drama. In his first theatrical endeavor as writer-director, the young Kasdan shows plenty of promise in relating the tale of Carter Webb (Adam Brody), a screenwriter of softcore erotica who hopes that by leaving L.A. to stay with his crotchety grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in Michigan, he'll have time to refocus his energy and start on that autobiographical high school tome he's always dreamt of penning. Having just endured a heartbreaking split with a beautiful French model (Elena Anaya), women are the farthest thing from his mind, yet upon arriving in the Michigan 'burbs, the 20something Carter instantly draws the attention of the neighboring Hardwicke women: middle-aged housewife Sarah (Meg Ryan), her teenage daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart), and her precocious youngest, Paige (Makenzie Vega). How Carter copes with this sudden influx of females provides the picture with its spine, as his presence forces all the characters to confront their own foibles and learn to properly relate to one another. Brody's scenes with Ryan are the film's strongest, as Sarah provides Carter with a stabilizing sense of maturity while he allows her to rediscover both her inner and outer beauty. More haphazard are Carter's tête-à-tête interludes with Lucy, which range from authentic to awkward and often betray Kasdan's ear for natural dialogue. **1/2
BLADES OF GLORY Unless he keeps his eye out for innovative fare like Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell might find himself driving his career into a rut. Blades of Glory shows the strains of the comedian trying to keep himself contained in a box: His Chazz Michael Michaels, a coarse sex addict who's also an unlikely skating champion, mines the same comic territory as most Ferrell performances, ranging from Talladega Nights to Anchorman and beyond. Since Ferrell is only playing variations on a theme, it's costar Jon Heder (of Napoleon Dynamite fame) who provides most of the modest chuckles. As Jimmy MacElroy, a rival figure skater who's forced by circumstances to team with Chazz to become the first male-male figure skating team in history, Heder plays up his character's delicate traits to the point that they offer a pointed contrast to Ferrell's predictable boorishness. "You're like a 15-year-old girl," taunts Chazz, "only not hot." After a sluggish beginning, the laughs pick up during the midsection, and I appreciate that Queen's Flash Gordon theme plays a prominent role in the finale. Otherwise, this is one more assembly line comedy by the Ferrell-Stiller-Vaughn-Wilsons conglomerate (Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are AWOL, but Ben Stiller serves as a producer and Luke Wilson pops up in a tiny role). For a similar yet superior film, rent the Farrelly brothers' 1996 bowling flick Kingpin. Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid and especially Bill Murray offer moments of lunacy so inspired, they make Ferrell in Blades of Glory look like a visitor to the comedy genre. **
FIRST SNOW Building upon an impressive indie career, Guy Pearce (Memento, The Proposition) adds another prickly personality to his resume, further revealing that here's an actor who couldn't give a damn whether audiences warm up to his characters. He plays Jimmy, an unctuous salesman who visits a fortune teller (J.K. Simmons) off the side of a New Mexico highway. The palm reader's initial predictions come true, so Jimmy is understandably upset when it's revealed that he won't live long after the first snow falls. Gripped by paranoia, he begins to plan his life around the notion that he will soon die, even as he attempts to do everything in his power to prevent his imminent death. Writers Mark Fergus (also making his directorial debut) and Hawk Ostby both had a hand in the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Children of Men, so they clearly enjoy tackling weighty issues not usually explored in current thrillers. Here, they engage in a metaphysical debate concerning the ebb and flow between destiny and free will, and whether or not an individual's attempts to alter his life only end up limiting his choices even further. The stages of Jimmy's breakdown and rebirth are gripping thanks to Pearce's intense performance, and there are notable turns by Simmons (Spider-Man's J. Jonah Jameson) as the somber psychic and William Fichtner (in a rare good-guy role) as Jimmy's skeptical business associate. The subdued ending might disappoint those hoping for a more lively denouement, but really, it seems just right for a tale as chilly as this one. ***
FRACTURE For the most part, Hollywood has grown so inept at staging whodunits that it's a blessing to come across a film like Fracture, which lets audiences know from the outset that he-done-it. The "he" in question is wealthy engineer Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), who has just shot his adulterous wife (Embeth Davidtz). With the identity of the villain in place, Fracture can then borrow a page from the Columbo playbook by following the protagonist as he tries to piece together the details of the crime. But the lawman here is a far cry from Peter Falk's lovably rumbled detective; rather, he's Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), a hotshot attorney who's used to winning and who agrees to prosecute Ted because, hey, the man has already signed a confession, right? But in his arrogance, Willy has underestimated Ted, and it's a disastrous move that might end up costing him his career. Fracture has its fair share of plotholes -- enough that you might be tempted to grab a shovel and a bag of cement mix -- but it features an exquisite cat-and-mouse game that makes it easier to overlook its flaws. And for once, here's a film in which it's not instantly obvious to predict every twist resting just over the horizon. The film grows flabby in the midsection thanks to a superfluous subplot involving Willy's romance with his new boss (Rosamund Pike), but once it gets back to focusing on business rather than pleasure, it straightens itself out. Hopkins is solid in a role that veers toward Hannibal Lecter terrain, but it's Gosling who gooses the proceedings with a thoughtful performance. ***
"Comes close to the original" "the smartness of the script" What movie were you watching?
Absolutely right about Ox Bow Incident.
Absolutely right about Ox Bow Incident.