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Youth Without Youth, more

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YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH Francis Ford Coppola's first motion picture in approximately a decade fails to recapture even an ounce of his 1970s glory, as this pretentious, impenetrable and deadly dull film never resonates as anything more than an aging filmmaker's feeble grasp at his own lost youth. Based on the novella by Mircea Eliade and kicking off just before World War II, the film stars Tim Roth as Dominic Matei, a 70-year-old professor in Romania who's struck by lightning. Under the watchful eye of his doctor (the always welcome Bruno Ganz), Dominic not only recovers from the incident but discovers that the surge has turned him into a younger man. But now that he appears to be 40, Dominic becomes the focus of a Nazi party interested in studying his miraculous transformation; meanwhile, he also becomes involved with a woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) whose life is as wacky as his. I suppose Coppola deserves credit for choosing something so ambitious as his comeback vehicle (as opposed to, say, a Daddy Day Care sequel), but the writer-director-producer has succeeded only in creating a lifeless artifact that fails to allow any traces of humanity to penetrate its vacuum-sealed ruminations on the allure of youth and the fickle nature of time itself. For a better movie that also offers a fountain-of-youth premise, check out Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain – it may be flawed, but at least it can stimulate the senses and (more importantly) keep the viewer awake. As for Coppola, if Youth Without Youth is the best he can offer, he might want to retreat back into the wine cellar. Look for Matt Damon (star of Coppola's The Rainmaker) in a cameo appearance as a reporter. *

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THE BANK JOB The Bank Job bills itself as being based on a true story, but given cinema's propensity for fudging details every which way, that's not a declaration that I'd be willing to take to the bank myself. But veracity be damned: Even if every detail of this heist flick was drenched in fiction, it doesn't change the fact that it's one compelling package. Set in 1971 London, here's a film that feels veddy British to its core, starting with the casting of Jason Statham, who, thanks to a series of action films, has become the current poster boy for British roughhousing. The Bank Job allows his character, Terry Leather, to use his brains more than his brawn, and this allows Statham to allow a bit more vulnerability than usual – his character even has a wife and two daughters, a break from the image of the emotionless lone warrior. Not that there's much room for the sentimental stuff in this admirably knotty crime flick. Terry Leather is approached by a former acquaintance (Saffron Burrows) to pull off a robbery at a Lloyds Bank that will benefit them both. She has her own reasons beyond monetary gain for making this proposal, and Terry senses that rather quickly. But he and his crew go for it anyway, a decision that involves them in a labyrinthine scandal that involves a black militant, a porn peddler, high-ranking government officials and even a member of the British royal family. Brimming with satisfying twists and populated with colorful characters, this represents a Job well done. ***1/2

DEFINITELY, MAYBE When it comes to a worthy romantic comedy, Definitely, Maybe certainly isn't fool's gold (or Fool's Gold) – on the contrary, it's the real deal, a diamond in the rough that could use some polishing but overall sparkles with warmth and wit. Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin (suddenly more overexposed than fellow moppet Dakota Fanning) plays Maya Hayes, a precocious child whose parents are getting divorced. While staying with her father Will (Ryan Reynolds), Maya begs to hear how he and her mother met, so he turns the bedtime story into a mystery, changing all the names and leaving Maya to guess which of the women from his past ended up becoming his wife. As he details his escapades during the early 1990s – as a fledgling political consultant for the Clinton campaign – he presents three possibilities: his college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), his campaign co-worker April (Isla Fisher), and his reporter friend Summer (Rachel Weisz). By casting three comparably drop-dead-gorgeous actresses in sympathetic and intelligent roles, writer-director Adam Brooks keeps the mystery going longer than might be expected; still, the focus isn't on the identity of Mom as much as it's on Will's romantic travails as he keeps sorting out his shifting feelings for these women as they repeatedly enter his life over the years. Affable Reynolds manages to keep pace with his gifted leading ladies, while an unbilled Kevin Kline makes a welcome appearance as a literary boozehound with an eye for young college girls. ***

DR. SEUSS' HORTON HEARS A WHO! In Horton's world, "a person's a person, no matter how small," but in our world, a mediocre movie's a mediocre movie, no matter how overhyped, overblown and overbearing. There are some who will give this animated film a free ride by virtue of the fact that it's roughly 10,000 times better than the ghastly live-action version of Dr. Seuss' The Cat In the Hat. That's true, but it's also true that a month-old loaf of bread isn't nearly as disgusting as a year-old loaf, and I wouldn't care to indulge in either. There's a reason that the 1966 TV version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! remains the best Seuss on film, and that's because its 26-minute length comes closest to approximating the brief reading time of one of his delightful books. But when stretched out to 90 minutes, a great deal of padding is needed, thereby maximizing the chances of screwing up the source material. That's definitely the case here, since the basic story – Horton the elephant finds himself ridiculed by the other jungle denizens when he insists that a speck on a clover contains an entire civilization – retains its appeal. But the additions are misguided, beginning with a decidedly non-Seussian reference to "poop" (ah, more scatological humor for the kiddies) and ending with an atrocious Pokemon-inspired sequence that must be seen to be disbelieved. And while the animation often captures the intricate details found on the pages, the sense of whimsy is largely missing, replaced by a heavy-handed touch made all the more noticeable by the marquee-value-only casting of Jim Carrey (as Horton), Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and others. **

MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the sort of airy confection that will be dismissed by many as a pleasant but forgettable bauble, and that's OK. But catch it on the proper wavelength, and its pleasures are not only bountiful but durable. It's romantic without being cynical, witty without being puerile, and blessed by two divine performances from Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. McDormand plays the title character, a British maid in 1939 London who all too suddenly finds herself unemployed. Desperate to remain off the streets, she dupes her way into the position of social secretary to American actress Delysia Lafosse (Adams), an opportunistic if sweet-natured starlet whose biggest problem seems to be choosing between two playboys (Tom Payne and Mark Strong) who can advance her career and a struggling pianist (Lee Pace) who truly loves her. Yeah, I know: It's a no-brainer guessing who gets her hand by the fadeout. Yet despite Adam's screwball-style performance – as enchanting as her turn in Enchanted – the film's main source of delight doesn't rest with Delysia's affairs of the heart but with Miss Pettigrew's. A prim woman who lost her beloved during the First World War, Miss Pettigrew has long given up on any chance at romance. That a potential suitor comes along in the form of a successful clothing designer (Ciaran Hinds) seems just right, not only by the demands of the storyline but by the demands of our own hearts. McDormand sells her character with utter conviction, and the only thing possibly more praiseworthy than Miss Pettigrew is the movie that bears her name. ***1/2

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL An often fascinating blend of fact, rumor and outright fabrication, The Other Boleyn Girl feels like an Oscar-bait title that somehow got its DNA mixed up with a daytime soap opera. Based on Philippa Gregory's controversial novel, this tracks the political intrigue and bedroom shenanigans which sprang from the attempts of the Boleyn family to get in the good graces of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Prodded on by the most venal member of the clan, the scheming Duke of Norfolk (The Reaping's David Morrissey, as uninteresting as always), the quivering Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) agrees to offer his strong-willed daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to the king as replacement for his majesty's current wife Catherine (Ana Torent), who has been unable to produce a male heir. But after Anne quickly falls out of Henry's favor, the men serve up Anne's demure sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) instead; a torrid love affair takes place, but when that begins to cool thanks to Henry's growing disinterest, Anne is brought back onto the scene. If Charles Laughton (winning an Oscar for 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII) was the chunkiest Henry VIII ever put on film, then Bana might be the hunkiest, but it's hardly a desirable tradeoff, given the actor's drowsy performance. His female co-stars fare better, though it's hard to accept the physically dissimilar Portman and Johansson as flesh-and-blood siblings; in fact, the whole project frequently feels like little more than celebrities playing dress-up, despite the efforts of scripter Peter Morgan (The Queen) to streamline so much contradictory material. **1/2

PENELOPE An ugly duckling of a movie, Penelope is a sweet but clumsy fable that's pleasing without being particularly distinguished. Christina Ricci essays the title role, a poor little rich girl suffering from an ancient family curse that saddled her at birth with a pig's snout. Now 25, Penelope has been basically kept a prisoner in her own home by her busybody mother (Catherine O'Hara), who only allows blueblood bachelors to visit her daughter in the hopes that one of them will look past her deformity and ask for her hand in marriage (the curse can only be broken when Penelope's loved by "one of her own"). A tabloid reporter (Peter Dinklage) who's forever been trying to get a photo of Penelope hears of this arrangement, and he hires a down-and-out playboy (Atonement's James McAvoy) to gain entry into the home and take the snapshot; needless to say, real feelings develop, hearts get broken, and, as in Babe: Pig In the City, our snout-sporting protagonist finds herself adrift in a major metropolis. A piggy proboscis does little to curtail Christina Ricci's beauty, so the fact that her suitors hurl themselves out of second-story windows in a rush to get away from her is rather absurd; still, this is basically a fairy tale, so exaggerations are expected in the recounting of the fantasy yarn. But despite being blessed with a distinguished cast – Dinklage is particularly sharp, and Reese Witherspoon (who also produced) shows up in a small role as a no-nonsense delivery woman – director Mark Palansky, working from a wobbly screenplay by Leslie Caveny, can only muster so much charm in his muted attempt to make this picture truly take off. **1/2

SEMI-PRO In 1962's Only Two Can Play, Peter Sellers portrays a librarian who's tasked to write a theater review for the local newspaper. He pens the piece beforehand without even seeing the play, using the time he's supposed to be at the theater as a cover for an affair; the only reason he's caught is because the theater housing the production burns to the ground on opening night – after it's too late to stop the edition running his review. Barring a similar disaster happening at the AMC Carolina Pavilion, I probably could have written a review for Semi-Pro without having even attended the advance screening, using the covered time to catch up on my sleep. Will Ferrell as an idiotic guy prone to infantile outbursts – check. Ferrell MAKING LOUD NOISES and running around like a goofball in a desperate attempt to generates laughs – check. Ferrell sporting a laughable hairstyle (this one vintage 1970s) – check. Ferrell surrounding himself with his comedian friends, some with extremely limited talent – check. Ferrell resorting to ca-ca and pee-pee level jokes with alarming regularity – check. Ferrell MAKING MORE LOUD NOISES – check. And so it goes, reaching a point of such creative bankruptcy that Ferrell stands poised to become as tiresome a screen jester as Robin Williams. The plot, as if anyone couldn't guess after watching 10 seconds of the trailer, finds Ferrell cast as Jackie Moon, the self-adoring owner of (and player on) the Flint Tropics basketball team. When it appears that there's a chance for this dreadful squad to join the NBA, Moon does his best to whip his players into shape – but not enough to whip this into a watchable film. *1/2

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES Another movie season, another attempt to jump-start a film franchise aimed at family audiences. Yet The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, is one of the better adaptations in this field, which has taken some severe body blows lately with the dismal failures of the cluttered The Golden Compass and the dreadful The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Smoothly directed by Mark Waters, the miracle worker responsible for Lindsay Lohan's two best performances (Freaky Friday and Mean Girls), Spiderwick displays a lighter touch than other fantasy films of this nature, meaning that its thrills are all the more unexpected – and effective. Freddie Highmore, the talented young star of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, essays the roles of twin brothers Jared (troublemaker) and Simon (bookworm), who, along with mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), take up residence in an ancestral home that harbors some interesting inhabitants. And living in the woods beyond the house are a murderous ogre (voiced by, of all people, Nick Nolte) and his goblin minions, all hell-bent on obtaining a book (presently in Jared's possession) that would wreak havoc both on our world and the one inhabited by fairies and other mystical creatures. The CGI characters (including ones voiced by Martin Short and Seth Rogen) are sure to delight the kids, but for older viewers, they represent the least memorable aspects of this movie; far more affecting (and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's earliest blockbusters) are the sequences that center on the relationships between the Graces – all struggling to cope with Helen's impending divorce – and how the notion of family directly plays into their interactions with the fantasy world in their backyard. ***

10,000 B.C. Approaching 10,000 B.C., it's reasonable to wonder if it will turn out to be one of those long-time-ago movies in which the characters will grunt and growl their way through the entire film. Instead, it proves to be one chatty affair, with the majority of the players communicating via perfectly enunciated English. There would be no harm, no foul in this approach if these folks had anything worth saying, but this turns out to be so crammed with dull and insipid dialogue that it's a shame auditoriums don't come equipped with "mute" buttons next to the seat cupholders. Playing like a cross between Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and the fanboy fave 300, this empty-headed spectacle centers on a young man named D'Leh (Steven Strait), whose bland, pretty-boy countenance makes him a precursor to Malibu Ken (if surfboards had been around in 10,000 B.C., you can bet D'Leh would have been out searching for the perfect wave). D'Leh passes the time by flirting with Evolet (blank slate Camilla Belle), whose heavy eye mascara never gets smeared even after she's been shedding copious tears (who knew Maybelline existed as far back as 10,000 B.C.?). At any rate, Evolet gets snatched by marauders, and it's up to D'Leh to rescue her. During the course of the adventure, he befriends a tribal leader (Joel Virgel), bonds with a cuddly CGI saber-toothed tiger, and takes advice from a sagacious blind man who's brought up on a slab from beneath the surface, where he has spent countless years cooped up in cramped quarters with nothing to keep him entertained. After spending two hours in a darkened theater watching 10,000 B.C., I could relate. *1/2

VANTAGE POINT Imagine the TV hit 24 crossed with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, and you'll get some idea of what to expect from Vantage Point, a dizzying thriller that relates the same catastrophic event from several different POVs. In Salamanca, Spain, American President Ashton (William Hurt), on the verge of making a speech concerning the War on Terror, becomes the target of an assassination attempt, and various occurrences that take place immediately before and after the shooting are filtered through the actions of several participants and witnesses. Chief among these characters are Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), who stopped an assassin's bullet during a prior attempt on the president's life; Barnes' fellow bodyguard, Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox); Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), an American tourist who catches some startling images with his camcorder; and Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), a TV producer whose own newsreel footage might help Barnes crack the case. By splintering the material in such a fashion, writer Barry Levy has added some snap, crackle and pop to what would otherwise be a routine action film had it been presented in chronological order. Even so, director Pete Travis can't keep the momentum going for the entire 90 minutes, with the final act marred by a ludicrous plot twist as well as an endless car chase that drains away much of the narrative tension. **1/2

OPENS FRIDAY, MARCH 28:

MARRIED LIFE: Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams.

RUN FAT BOY RUN: Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton.

STOP-LOSS: Ryan Phillippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

SUPERHERO MOVIE: Leslie Nielsen, Drake Bell.

21: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth.

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