THE BUCKET LIST If Morgan Freeman and Judi Dench ever made a film together, would the world simply explode? After all, Freeman always plays the smartest character in his movies and Dench always plays the wisest character in her pictures, so wouldn't this fall under some sort of "irresistible force meets immovable object" scenario? At any rate, it's an idea more worthy of discussion than any of the pseudo-weighty nonsense on view in The Bucket List, an interminable film about terminal patients who learn important life lessons before, yes, kicking the bucket. Freeman plays Carter Chambers, an auto mechanic with an IQ equal to that of Stephen Hawking. Dying of cancer, he shares a hospital room with the filthy rich Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), who's beginning to realize that money can buy everything except an extended lease on life. With each man facing less than a year to live, they both elect to go out in a blaze (or at least daze) of glory, by dutifully performing tasks on their self-penned "bucket list" of activities they've always wanted to do. The list includes such items as "go skydiving" and "laugh until I cry"; unfortunately, "entertain audiences who pay to see this Bucket of you-know-what" is nowhere to be found. A lazy and condescending package from top to bottom (with uninspired efforts put forth by director Rob Reiner and scripter Justin Zackham), The Bucket List isn't nearly as torturous as the similar "laughing in the face of death" Patch Adams; then again, neither is a broken back. *1/2
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY The apex to The Bucket List's nadir, this French effort from director Julian Schnabel takes a comparable blueprint – how a person moves forward with life after his body fails him – and makes it come alive via a startling visual style, knotty characterizations and a terrific central performance. Based on a true story, the film centers on Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the cocky editor of the French Elle magazine who suffers a stroke at the age of 43 and thereafter finds himself in a paralyzed state. The only part of his body he can move is one eye, but while wags may want to dismiss this as My Left Eye, Bauby's story and Schnabel's approach turn this into a different type of biopic than the Daniel Day-Lewis Oscar winner My Left Foot. Propelled by Ronald Harwood's delicate script (which gives us access to Bauby's inner monologues in a crisp and believable manner) and camerawork (courtesy of Saving Private Ryan lenser Janusz Kaminski) that allows the film to break away from the tale's inherently claustrophobic atmosphere, this steadfastly avoids reducing the notions of perseverance and heroism to convenient catchphrases. Amalric is excellent in a tricky role, and there are further stellar contributions by Emmanuelle Seigner as his devoted wife and especially Max von Sydow as his father – the latter's two scenes are the emotional high points of the film. ***1/2
THE ORPHANAGE Juan Antonio Bayona's directorial debut arrives with the "Pan's Labyrinth Seal of Approval" – that is to say, it received the blessing of Pan writer-director Guillermo del Toro by way of a "produced by" credit – and it's clear that the newcomer deserves such a lofty honor. Frequently, the screenplay by another newbie, Sergio G. Sanchez, seems like it's merely a compendium of stellar moments from other horror hits: In addition to Pan, there are elements that strongly recall The Devil's Backbone (also by del Toro), The Others, The Innocents, The Omen and – I hesitate to add – Friday the 13th. Eventually, though, the homages coalesce to create a deeply absorbing and heavily atmospheric yarn that offers several noteworthy plot pirouettes. In a commanding performance, Belen Rueda stars as Laura, who returns to the now-abandoned orphanage where she was raised as a child. With her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) in tow, she moves into the building with the hopes of reopening it in order to serve ill and handicapped children. But the bumps in the night begin almost immediately, with Simon insisting that anything abnormal is being caused by his new imaginary friends. As Laura digs deeper, she learns that the unusual circumstances tie back to incidents that occurred around the time she herself was a young girl residing at the institution. There are a few moments that employ the tried-and-true shock technique, but for the most part, Bayona expertly builds upon the unsettling sense of menace that's established from the start. ***1/2
STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING Frank Langella has aged beautifully, hasn't he? A bit of a dullard in his younger years (I never understood the appeal of his drowsy turn as Dracula back in the 1970s), he's lately been knocking it out of the park in choice supporting roles in Good Night, and Good Luck and the otherwise disposable House of D. He's now been entrusted with the central role in this adaptation of Brian Morton's novel, and the result is a perfectly modulated performance in a film so quiet that just the crunch of buttered popcorn might drown out some of its subtleties. Langella stars as Leonard Schiller, a once-prominent author who's been forgotten over the course of time. Working on his fifth novel, Leonard is visited by Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a graduate student urging him to be the subject of her thesis. Leonard refuses until he acknowledges to himself that any publicity might be a boost to his now-invisible career; this leads to a rocky relationship between the pair, as the 70-ish author and 20-ish student embark on an unorthodox May-December romance in which the older man refuses to completely open up to scrutiny and the younger woman fluctuates between literary companion, loving fan and sly opportunist. With this modest picture, writer-director Andrew Wagner and co-adapter Fred Parnes offer an elegy of sorts to the continual passing of the New York intellectual, and Langella movingly embodies this literary lion as a rigid disciplinarian so out of step with modern-day vulgarities that he might as well have stepped out of the 1850s. ***
CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR It hasn't helped that all recent films about wartime politics have been promoted with all the appeal of a plate of vegetables being plopped in front of an 8-year-old (i.e. "It's Good For You" cinema), so trust canny old lion Mike Nichols to recall how to do it right. Charlie Wilson's War is sterling entertainment punched across with enough glitz to sell it but not too much to bury it. Working from a sharp script by Aaron Sorkin (from George Crile's nonfiction book), Nichols has crafted a winning if occasionally facile work whose level of intelligence is measured by how much each viewer wants to put into it. Minimum-effort audiences, therefore, will be happy to roll with the engaging performance by Tom Hanks, but those digging a little deeper will recognize its merit in sniffing out that snatch of history that might serve as the missing link between the fall of Communism and the rise of Middle Eastern terrorism. Kicking off in the 1980s, it follows blustery Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) as he becomes interested in Afghanistan's ineffectual attempts to oust the invading Soviet army. Charlie's spurred to get involved at the insistence of his politically savvy friend (Julia Roberts, little more than serviceable), but it isn't until he teams up with a prickly CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman, marvelous) that the ball gets rolling and the Afghans are able to defend themselves. But at what cost to the future? The film doesn't answer its own question, preferring instead to let viewers mull over the response. No Supreme Court tampering is necessary this time around: Charlie Wilson's War is an outright winner. ***
THE GREAT DEBATERS The Great Debaters is being positioned as an Oscar contender, and it already has a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture (Drama) to aid it in its journey. Yet Denzel Washington's previous film as director, 2002's admirable Antwone Fisher, failed to grab the Academy's attention, and I suspect the same fate will befall this inspiring if overly familiar story that owes its allegiance not so much to history (it alters many facts) as to Dead Poets Society, Hoosiers and countless other "Carpe Diem" flicks. Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, the coach of the debate team at an all-black college in 1930s Texas. With four members under his tutelage – played by talented thespians Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker (no relation to co-star Forest Whitaker, who plays his stern father), Nate Parker and Jermaine Williams – Tolson is determined that his squad will emerge as one of the best, if not the best, in the nation; to accomplish that goal, however, he and his charges will have to contend not only with the racism of the time but also with tensions within their own ranks. PC to a fault – I love how in the debates, Tolson's team conveniently always gets to argue the right side of any given topic (poverty, equal rights, etc.) – The Great Debaters is nevertheless sincere in its belief in the power of education and in the importance of language. Co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, it's naked in its shameless desire to make audiences wince at every setback and cheer at every victory. The strength of the movie is that it gets away with it almost every time. ***
I AM LEGEND Will Smith may be the only one receiving star treatment for this apocalyptic sci-fi yarn, but he's hardly the one who runs away with the film: Abbey delivers a terrific performance that probably deserves an Oscar. Granted, there's the small technicality that Abbey's a dog – a German shepherd, to be exact – but still ... Abbey (and Kona, also listed in the credits as playing Samantha; perhaps Abbey's stunt double?) is a wonderfully expressive animal, and once the canine's screen time decreases in the picture's second half, the rapport between man and his best friend – a reassuring motif in a movie about a world that otherwise has gone to hell – dissipates to make room for the usual testy relations between frightened humans as well as their attempts to ward off the evil entities that reside in the darkness. I Am Legend is based on Richard Matheson's novel of the same name, and while it's not the first version of the time-honored tale (other takes starred Vincent Price and Charlton Heston), it's certainly the best. As Robert Neville, the scientist who appears to be the sole survivor in New York after a virus has wiped out most of humankind, Smith brings the right mix of vigor and vulnerability to the part, and director Francis Lawrence maintains tension as long as Neville (and moviegoers) can't size up the shadowy menace. But once the bloodthirsty creatures show themselves, they're disappointingly conventional (at least by CGI zombie standards), and the film has trouble continuing its momentum through a lackluster final half-hour. Still, Abbey makes this worth seeing. Not to mix animal kingdom catchphrases, but this dog is the cat's meow. **1/2
NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS Given the emphasis on history in the National Treasure franchise, this follow-up to the 2004 original reminded me of a line from the Herman's Hermits tune about that jolly historical figure Henry the Eighth: "Second verse, same as the first." In other words, NT2 is essentially the same movie as its blockbuster predecessor, meaning it's a draggy combination of The Da Vinci Code and old-style serials. Only Nicolas Cage's Benjamin Franklin Gates is no Indiana Jones, and (like the first flick) this isn't Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moving ahead at breakneck speed and with no time for rhyme or reason, it's a disjointed yarn in which Gates, in an effort to prove that his great-great-grandfather wasn't one of the conspirators behind Abe Lincoln's assassination, must locate a legendary lost city of gold by uncovering clues hidden on historical artifacts in Paris, London and at the White House. Practically the entire principal cast returns from the original film – Jon Voight as Gates' dad, Diane Kruger as his girlfriend, Justin Bartha as his sidekick, and Harvey Keitel as the sympathetic FBI agent hovering around the margins (a role that exists for no discernible reason) – and they're joined by a slumming Ed Harris as a shady treasure seeker and a slumming Helen Mirren as Gates' feisty mother. It should be noted that this marks Mirren's first screen appearance since winning an Oscar for The Queen. Granted, that's not nearly as shocking as Shirley MacLaine turning up in Cannonball Run II immediately after her Terms of Endearment Oscar victory, but it's nothing to brag about, either. **
P.S. I LOVE YOU It's possible for this to have been a winner had its running time been capped at 100 minutes. That way, it could have focused on the most interesting aspect: the palpable sense of loss a wife experiences after her husband dies of a brain tumor, and efforts to insure that she doesn't forfeit her life to misery. This is prime tearjerker material, and Hilary Swank and (to a lesser degree) Gerard Butler demonstrate that they're capable of pulling this off. Instead, this runs 126 minutes, and that extra half-hour bloats the material into an ugly mishmash in which the attempts at comedy are excruciating and the drama gets diluted by needless set-pieces (Swank not only sings along to Judy Garland's "The Man That Got Away" in her living room but also merits two karaoke scenes). The central thrust, dopey but sweet, is that Butler's Gerry knows that Swank's Holly will have a hard time coping with his passing, so he arranges for her to receive a series of letters after his death to help her cope. Yet it's hard to focus on this storyline when, for instance, Lisa Kudrow (as Holly's cock-hungry friend) regularly shows up to lust after stray men, or when Holly and her best buds (Kudrow and Gina Gershon) get stranded in a fishing boat in the movie's worst scene. And don't get me started on Harry Connick Jr.'s maddening performance as Daniel, a potential love interest who's either A) mentally challenged; B) autistic; C) suffering from Tourette's syndrome; D) auditioning for a "This is your brain on drugs" TV spot; or E) a serial killer. So does the possibly psychotic Forrest Gump get the girl? Only suckers who shell out for this pap will ever know. *1/2
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET Sweeney Todd is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway smash, but it hides its stage roots so thoroughly that it often feels like a piece created exclusively for the screen. There's no trace of the often limiting theatricality that has marred other stage-to-screen transfers, though that's hardly a surprise given that Tim Burton remains one of our most visually adept filmmakers. In refashioning Sweeney Todd for the movies, he and scripter John Logan have created a big, bold musical that functions as an upscale slasher film: It's bloody but also bloody good, with the gore tempered by the melancholy love stories that dominate the proceedings. Johnny Depp delivers a haunted performance as a barber who returns to London after 15 years in prison to exact his revenge on the judge (Alan Rickman) who ruined his life; he's aided in his efforts by lonely widow Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). As partners-in-crime, they're matched beautifully: He slits the throats of all who sit in his barber's chair, while she grinds up the corpses to use in her popular meat pies. Burton's decision to stylize the film to within an inch of its life (his most theatrical flourish is to retain a Grand Guignol sense of the melodramatic) was a sound one, resulting in a visual feast that dazzles even through the setting's necessary grime. And while neither Depp nor Carter are classically trained singers, both are just fine belting out Sondheim's tunes. More importantly, they provide this rousing musical with the emotional heft necessary to prevent it from merely becoming an exercise in Gothic chic. ***1/2
OPENS FRIDAY, JANUARY 11:
THE BUCKET LIST: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman.
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner.
FIRST SUNDAY: Ice Cube, Katt Williams.
IN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE: Jason Statham, Burt Reynolds.
THE ORPHANAGE: Belen Rueda, Geraldine Chaplin.
THE PIRATES WHO DON'T DO ANYTHING – A VEGGIETALES MOVIE: Larry the Cucumber, Pa Grape.
STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING: Frank Langella, Lili Taylor.