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Capsule reviews of recently released movies

New Releases

THE NIGHT LISTENER Robin Williams returns once again to the dark side -- no surprise, since in recent years his dramatic turns have consistently earned better reviews than his comedic work. The Night Listener doesn't call on the actor to conjure up as many demons as he did in One Hour Photo and Insomnia, but he still delivers an effectively somber performance in this adaptation of Armistead Maupin's book. Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a late-night radio personality who's feeling glum after his boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) leaves him. As a distraction, he reads a manuscript given to him by an editor friend (Joe Morton); the story, written by a teenage boy named Pete (Rory Culkin), tells of the lad's sexual abuse at the hands of his parents and their accomplices. Moved by the tale, Gabriel strikes up a phone relationship with both Pete and Donna (Toni Collette), the social worker who adopted him. But as Gabriel becomes more emotionally attached to the pair, evidence surfaces which suggests that Pete might be a character manufactured by Donna and not an actual person. Directed and co-written by Patrick Stettner, whose 2001 drama The Business of Strangers (starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles) deserved greater exposure, The Night Listener establishes an appropriately menacing tone and sets up an intriguing cat-and-mouse scenario between Williams and Collette (who's genuinely creepy here). But the deeper the story goes, the more it unravels, leading to a damaging finale that isn't ambiguous as much as it's asinine. **1/2

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? A social document largely structured like a murder-mystery, Who Killed the Electric Car? is the latest nonfiction feature to indict today's twin threat of corporate greed and governmental corruption. If there's any doubt left (and why would there be?) that the bald eagle should be replaced by the gas pump as the symbol of the United States, this movie closes the lid on that case. 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 or oil changes. 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 that (as one person puts it) "could crush their neighbors." And because the EV1 could only be leased rather than purchased (another sign that GM wasn't serious in the first place), it was no problem to recall all of the vehicles and have them crushed or shredded. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Who Killed the Electric Car? 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. ***

Current Releases

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

CLERKS II The sequel to the 1994 film that placed Smith on the indie map in the first place, this Jersey hurl is pretty much what you'd expect from this often crude, often insightful filmmaker, only with too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Twelve years down the road, wishy-washy Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and foul-mouthed Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still minimum wage earners, here flipping burgers for the Mooby's fast food chain. Randal isn't happy that his buddy will be abandoning him for marriage and Florida; neither is Becky (Rosario Dawson, quite delightful here), the Mooby's manager who enjoys her easygoing relationship with Dante. That's more than enough plot for a Kevin Smith feature, since with him, the wordplay's the thing. But the verbal exchanges aren't as clever as in past flicks, and while the romance and the raunch coexisted easily in the wonderful Chasing Amy (still his best film), here they're often at odds. Even those reliable cutups Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) aren't allowed to live up to their potential. **

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