THE LIVES OF OTHERS Pan's Labyrinth deserved to win the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, of course, but the Academy's selection of The Lives of Others hardly qualifies as an outrage. While it'd be easy to cynically rack up this film's victory to the fact that the organization's septuagenarians would more readily respond to a film about the good old days of the Cold War than to a fantasy yarn that would require them to use their imagination, the truth is that this German import is both emotionally and intellectually stimulating, a winning combo under any circumstances. Beginning in 1984, the story focuses on Captain Gerd Wiesler (excellent Ulrich Mühe), an interrogator for the East German secret police. Wiesler believes in the principles of the German Democratic Republic, and he dutifully agrees to monitor the activities of a prominent playwright (Sebastian Koch) suspected of traitorous activities. But after learning that the powers of the state are being abused by a high-ranking official (Thomas Thieme) who's only interested in the writer's actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck), Wiesler begins to soften, finally allowing a ray of humanity to crack his rigid dogma. Never mind chronology: Thanks to modern cinema (especially documentaries and films made by a guy named Spielberg), the Cold War feels even more distant and buried in the past than World War II. Yet here's writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck hitting a home run with a frightening drama that expertly evokes a period when spies would routinely come in from the cold. ***1/2
THE ULTIMATE GIFT Mostly filmed in Charlotte, the latest picture from the newly formed Fox Faith, 20th Century Fox's arm dedicated to religious fare, is pretty much what one would expect: a sincere story of redemption delivered with all the low-key execution of one of those Hallmark-backed TV movies of the week. Drew Fuller (TV's Charmed) stars as Jason Stevens, a spoiled rich kid whose only saving grace is that the other members of his extended family are even more rotten. After patriarch Red Stevens (James Garner) passes away, his will rightly shortchanges the other clan members but leaves special instructions for his grandson: If Jason can successfully complete a series of tasks meant to build his character, then he'll receive "the ultimate gift." Jason grudgingly agrees to go along, but his callow nature and shallow outlook are upended by a good-hearted widow (Ali Hillis) and her precocious daughter (Little Miss Sunshine Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin). There's something unsettling about the fact that Jason's "ultimate gift" will still be followed by another gift in the form of a financial windfall (the ultimate "ultimate gift"?), but there are enough affecting moments to temporarily overcome both the fuzzy plotting and the simplistic setups. Charlotte viewers will catch some familiar faces here and there, including local actors Tim Parati and Tonya Shuffler and Mayor Pat McCrory. **1/2
WILD HOGS This simple-minded comedy has the audacity to reference Deliverance in one scene, yet the only folks who'll be squealing like a pig are the ones who fork over 10 bucks, only to find themselves royally screwed after enduring its inanities. Four Cincinnati bunglers (John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy), each suffering though some pathetic form of mid-life crisis, decide to embark on a road trip to the West Coast. They mount their motorcycles with the intent of rediscovering life's little pleasures, but it's not long before these queasy riders are having to cope with menacing bikers, "bomb"-dropping birds and a homosexual highway patrolman (John C. McGinley). The "gay panic" humor is so rampant that it's reasonable to wonder if cast and crew members wrapped each shooting day by beating up a homosexual off-screen. Scatological humor also gets a workout, and there's a late-inning cameo by a Ghost Rider cast member who at this point in his career seems resigned to parodying himself. Speaking of Ghost Rider, there's nothing in this alleged comedy (and companion biker flick) nearly as amusing as the revelation that there's a song on the GR soundtrack called "Satan's Penis." Then again, given all the middle-aged paunch on display in this film, it's perhaps a missed opportunity that no one had the foresight to pen a ditty called "Tim Allen's Beer Gut." *1/2
ZODIAC Refusing to wear out its welcome even at 160 minutes, Zodiac is a satisfying hybrid of a police procedural (think L.A. Confidential), a journalism yarn (think All the President's Men) and a serial killer flick (think The Silence of the Lambs). That it doesn't come close to breathing the rarefied air of the three aforementioned classics isn't necessarily meant as a putdown, but it's clear that David Fincher's new movie doesn't provide the same level of either visceral thrills or sublime plotting as its predecessors. Instead, Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and scripter James Vanderbilt prefer to keep most emotions in check, putting their heads down and dutifully relating the real-life story of how a notorious murderer managed to elude the authorities for decades. Working from a book by Robert Graysmith, the film casts Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith, a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the series of grisly slayings plaguing the Bay Area. Yet Graysmith isn't alone in his fanatical devotion to the case: The mystery also haunts the dreams of Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and as the years march on, the trio's pursuit of justice (or is it merely ego gratification?) begins to take its toll on health, marriage and career. Methodical in its storytelling yet purposely ambiguous in its intentions, Zodiac is a welcome change from the witless murder-mysteries that usually clog our multiplexes. ***
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