BON VOYAGE The latest from French filmmaker Jean-Paul Rappeneau (Cyrano de Bergerac) takes place during World War II, but don't expect a downer along the lines of The Pianist: A sighting of Maurice Chevalier among its numerous characters would be more in line than an appearance by Oskar Schindler. Bon Voyage possesses the elan and sophistication of those vintage all-star opuses like Grand Hotel, though its spirit clearly rests with Casablanca, another movie in which the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of -- well, you know the routine. Eternally youthful Isabelle Adjani, who clearly must have her own Dorian Gray-styled portrait hanging in her attic (she's 48 and looks anything but), receives top billing as a spoiled movie star able to use her feminine wiles to ensnare any man, yet she's merely one of the many characters flitting about in this story that takes place just as the Nazis are preparing to march into Paris. The largest role goes to appealing Gregori Derangere, cast as a congenial writer who finds himself implicated in a murder committed by the actress, aiding an elderly scientist (Jean-Marc Stehle) and his shapely assistant (Virginie Ledoyen) smuggle contraband material to England, mixing it up with a waffling government official (Gerard Depardieu) and a secretive journalist (Peter Coyote), and somehow still finding time to write his novel. It's all about as believable as those comic shorts in which The Three Stooges smacked around Adolph Hitler -- and no less entertaining.
YOUNG ADAM Whereas most movies sporting a surly protagonist allow him to soften over the course of the story, this adaptation of Alexander Trocchi's novel reverses the flow by providing us with a blank slate and blackening him over the duration of its running time. It's an interesting turnaround of expectations, even if the end result resembles an unfinished sketch. Under the auspices of writer-director David Mackenzie, the plot feels like Polanski's Knife In the Water as told by Ken Loach or Lynne Ramsay, a grubby tale of working-class disillusionment enacted by the three empty souls aboard a cramped sea vessel. Joe (Ewan McGregor) is the young drifter who takes a job aboard the barge owned by Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella (Tilda Swinton); when he isn't busy bonking the haggardly Ella behind her impotent husband's back, he's reflecting on the death (murder? suicide? accident?) of his former flame (Emily Mortimer), a woman who made the mistake of trying to get too close. The sight of McGregor's fleshy lightsaber is obviously what frightened Jack Valenti into slapping this with an NC-17, but unlike the similarly rated The Dreamers, in which the sex was employed as a titillating mind game among the intelligentsia, here it's more akin to the rutting of wild beasts, an instinctive ritual among lower primates. The movie's bleak outlook is gripping to a point, but it never amounts to much more than surface grot. 1/2
THE ALAMO Forget The Alamo... again. John Wayne's 1960 take on the historic battle of 1836 was fairly useless as history and barely involving as entertain-ment, but it at least had the benefit of a sterling cast and a marvelous Dimitri Tiomkin score. This version can't even match those modest achievements -- it's the equivalent of one long drone from a stiff Social Studies teacher who can scarcely be bothered to add any sort of relevancy to the topic. Even with his charisma kept in check, Billy Bob Thornton still fares best as Davy Crockett. The other leads -- Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston, Patrick Wilson as William Travis and especially Jason Patric as Jim Bowie -- resemble waxworks at a history museum; if the characters they're portraying had been this boring, they simply could have lulled the Mexican army to sleep. 1/2
BUFFALO SOLDIERS The Reagans wasn't the only recent film to largely vanish from plain sight because of fears it would anger our Republican friends in charge: Buffalo Soldiers was barely released before being booted to Videoland. (It reaches town via the Charlotte Film Society.) Its crime? It dares to show the military in a less-than-flattering light, as an institution in which some of its officers are incompetent or psychotic and many of its foot soldiers corrupt and drug-addled. While no M*A*S*H, it's still a sharply scripted seriocomedy in which an opportunistic GI (Joaquin Phoenix), running illegal operations under the nose of his inept commander (Ed Harris) right before the end of the Cold War, runs afoul of a hard-nosed officer (Scott Glenn) and escalates the antagonism by dating his daughter (Anna Paquin).
ENVY Simply put, Envy is a steaming pile of celluloid crap. The excrement reference is appropriate, since the plot centers on a loudmouth (Jack Black) who invents the Vapoorizer, a spray that makes dog doo disappear into thin air; his creation makes him rich, which in turn makes his best friend (Ben Stiller) insanely jealous. Barry Levinson, an accomplished director whose bombs are now starting to outnumber his hits, can do absolutely nothing with newcomer Steve Adams' perfectly dreadful script. It really says something when a movie manages to snag the services of both Stiller and Black and then squanders their talents by forcing them to play unlikable, uninteresting characters who come across as irritating rather than amusing. The sooner they Vapoorize this movie from their resumes, the better off we'll all be.
KILL BILL VOL. 2 The inability to notice that the emperor had no clothes -- not even a bandanna -- helped turn Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 into a critical darling and a favorite of fan-boys everywhere. But although originally conceived as one movie until the length dictated the creation of two separate flicks, the Kill Bill volumes couldn't possibly be further apart -- in style, tone or content. Volume 1 diehards will inevitably feel let down by the emphasis on talk rather than action, but Volume 2 is nevertheless the superior movie. It's better written, better acted (especially by Uma Thurman and David Carradine), and more emotionally involving, although it's still obvious that Tarantino should have taken the scissors to his project and carved out a single kick-ass movie instead of two bloated ones. 1/2
LAWS OF ATTRACTION The 1950 comedy Adam's Rib cast Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as husband-and-wife lawyers who end up on opposite sides of a major case; this clearly hopes to be its modern-day equivalent, but it's so inconsequential that it wouldn't even cut it as Adam's Hangnail. That's a shame, because the star pairing of Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore promises much more than this movie actually delivers. Brosnan is as casually charismatic as always, while Moore, taking a break from award-friendly projects, gleefully throws herself into her change-of-pace role. They're an engaging team, which makes it all the more frustrating that they're let down by a trite screenplay.
MAN ON FIRE This is a remake of a forgotten 1987 flick starring Scott Glenn; that version barely ran 90 minutes, and it's a sign of director Tony Scott's arrogance that this ugly revamping clocks in at 140 minutes. The movie starts off OK, with Denzel Washington effectively cast as a former government assassin whose constant boozing is interrupted once he agrees to serve as the bodyguard for an American girl (Dakota Fanning) living with her parents in Mexico City. Scott's meaningless stylistics immediately grate on the nerves, but the strong work by Washington and Fanning -- and the bond they create together -- cuts through all the hipster b.s. and draws us into the picture. But once the child gets kidnapped and is then believed to be dead, this turns into a tedious revenge yarn. 1/2
MEAN GIRLS Like Heathers and Clueless, here's that rare teen comedy that refuses to be pigeonholed as a teen comedy. Even more remarkably, it's also that rare Saturday Night Live-sanctioned film that's actually funny. Scripter Tina Fey elected to adapt Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, along the way turning a nonfiction book into a fictional story spiced up with her own pithy, piercing observations. Lindsay Lohan stars as a naive teen who, upon making her public school debut after a lifetime of home schooling, finds herself being courted by the "bitch-goddess" crowd. Director Mark Waters and Lohan previously worked together on the Freaky Friday remake; I'm not prepared to elevate them to the level of Kurosawa-Mifune or Scorsese-De Niro, but they've clearly got a good thing going.
THE PUNISHER One of the most popular of the latter-day (read: 1970s onward) Marvel Comics heroes, this one-man killing machine first saw his exploits translated to film in a 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle that went straight to video. Now here comes the more polished and more expensive version (with Dreamcatcher's Thomas Jane in the lead), and perhaps the best that can be said about it is that it's more watchable than the equally sadistic Man On Fire. It's tolerable junk if viewed in the right frame of mind, if one is willing to overlook the poor dialogue, John Travolta's colorless villain, and the ludicrously overplayed death scenes.
13 GOING ON 30 Starting off in 1987, this engaging comedy centers around 13-year-old Jenna Rink, an awkward girl whose only desire is to be "thirty, flirty and thriving." She magically gets her wish granted, waking up in 2004 at the age of 30 and not remembering anything that has transpired over the course of the last 17 years. As she begins to piece together the missing years, she realizes that she doesn't like the person she's become. Jennifer Garner, the versatile star of Alias, is irresistible here -- she possesses the flair and instincts of a screwball comedienne -- and if her performance ultimately isn't quite as moving as Tom Hanks' in the thematically similar Big, that might be because the script by Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa doesn't delve as deeply into the dark side of being a child trapped in a grownup's body.
VAN HELSING Never mind comparisons to the classic horror flicks: Watching this movie, you begin to wonder if anybody involved has ever actually held a book in their hands, let alone read one. The text of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley is treated as nothing more than toilet paper in the outhouse of writer-director Stephen Sommers' imagination, soiled and shredded beyond all recognition. Van Helsing, a movie whose contempt for its predecessors is matched by its condescension toward its audience, exclusively draws from modern touchstones of pop culture: It's Indiana Jones and James Bond and Star Wars and Alien and so on, all presented as an endless video game with no human dimension but plenty of cheesy CGI effects. As monster killer Van Helsing, Hugh Jackman has been stripped of all charisma, while Richard Roxburgh may very well deliver the worst performance as Dracula in film history.
WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF This curious piece of whimsy casts Jamie Sives as Wilbur, a Glasgow resident who's generally giving those around him the cold shoulder when he's not busy devising new ways to commit suicide. His eternally patient brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) devotes himself to Wilbur but also finds time to romance single mom Alice (Shirley Henderson), yet once they're wed, Harbour is forced to confront his own medical misfortune while Wilbur and Alice explore their mutual attraction behind his back. The gallows humor is the film's strongest suit, followed by its gallery of sympathetic characters simply seeking companionship in a cold world. Less successful is its eventual segue way into melodrama, with an inherently tearjerking development bucking awkwardly against Lone Scherfig's chilly direction.