Capsule reviews of films now in theaters.
"Burn After Reading"
The star-studded latest from the Coen brothers is an incomprehensible mess of a paranoid, political-thriller satire that's bound to rival The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty as the biggest misstep in their otherwise brilliant careers. There's a good chance this will become a cult hit because it features so many A-listers (Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich) acting completely insane, but as The Big Lebowski celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it's clear how inferior the new film is in comparison. Grade: C-
Based on Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, director Isabel Coixet's introspective look at male late-life crisis falls somewhere between The Wackness and The Love Guru on the Ben Kingsley quality scale. As a professor experiencing uncertainty and too-strong feelings in relation to his latest affair with a student (Penelope Cruz in her best English-language role to date), the actor gives a solid performance, but the film is a bit too slow and the third act a bit too basic. Grade: B-
The sense of desperation is almost as palpable as the ice-cold temperatures in this stark, moving tale of two mothers (including Melissa Leo, generating Oscar talk for her wonderfully haunting performance) doing what they believe they need to do to provide for their children. That involves smuggling Asians across the Canadian border, but the movie doesn't go into the moral quandaries of the situation, wisely focusing on the gut reactions of the women involved. Their story will stick with you. Grade: A
The Office creator Ricky Gervais has found the right character for his first big-screen starring role in Bertram Pincus, a distant, uptight little man who discovers after an operating-room mishap that he can communicate with dead people, but hates all the newfound attention. And the actor does right by the role, evolving believably into a love interest for costar Tea Leoni. The rest of the film - sort of a comic reworking of cowriter-director David Koepp's Stir of Echoes - suffers from a strained sense of timing and some obvious scatological gags. Grade: B-
"The House Bunny"
Talented comic actress Anna Faris is set up with two of the oldest girl gags in the book. First is the blond, brainless bimbo, Faris' ousted Playboy bunny, who finds a new career as a sorority housemother. The second involves her new, nerdy charges, who are just a quick makeover and a few feminist pretensions away from being the hottest girls on campus. The cast does its best not to walk away embarrassed, with Faris' efforts approaching the Herculean, but there's only so much she can accomplish with a script that gives her no respect. Grade: C-
Seeking redemption after the Wicker Man remake, director Neil LaBute tries on a thriller about tension between a black veteran cop (Samuel L. Jackson, chomping into his part) and the interracial couple that moves in next door (Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington). In the first half, the film develops a lot of genuine dread out of the racism virtually everyone can cop to but no one discusses, but eventually it becomes just another genre piece - and an overheated, preposterous one at that. Grade: C
"Manhattan Short Film Festival" NEW!
Got questions about the 12 short films selected to screen in this international touring program, making its first Columbus stop this weekend at the Wexner Center? Along with synopses and filmmaker interviews for each selection, the festival's website has a blog page that allows you to ask your own questions of each finalist. Those who come out to watch are invited to join viewers from over 100 cities in a worldwide vote for audience favorite. Click to msfilmfest.com for more info. -Melissa Starker
"Man on Wire"
Some stories are so completely thrilling and compellingly told, they pull you to the edge of your seat even if you already know the outcome. Documentary filmmaker James Marsh has such a story in a self-taught French wirewalker who fulfilled his dream of crossing a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and has a storyteller worthy of the tale in his central subject, Philippe Petit, an impish presence and born conversationalist. Grade: A
Given the lackluster quality of work we've seen in recent years from Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, it was a little silly to expect great things from their long-awaited onscreen reunion. Still, it's disappointing to see the two greats re-team for a clunky and conventional cop thriller, playing longtime partners on the force investigating a string of murders connected by painfully bad poems left at the crime scene. Pacino has a lot more fun with his role, while De Niro downplays his part so much, it could've been filled by anyone. Grade: C-
"Roman de Gare"
A driving enigma (Dominique Pinon from Amelie) meets a woman (Audrey Dana) at a roadside rest and agrees to pose as the total stranger's fiance after the real thing left her by the side of the road. As their story plays out, veteran French director Claude Lelouch also keeps up with the people who may be looking for the mystery man, including a very successful author (Fanny Ardant), an abandoned wife and a police team hunting for an escaped murderer. His story will keep you guessing happily at the connections. Grade: B
Cowriter-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff and producer-star Don Cheadle set a more ambitious goal than usual for a summer release, trying to fit in one film an action extravaganza, a crime procedural and a timely morality tale about the evils of generalizing your enemy. It wins points for an intelligent viewpoint and for Hollywood's first devoutly Muslim action hero, well-played by Cheadle, but the weight of its many story elements brings the film to a near standstill. Grade: C
Ben Stiller doesn't skewer the mentally challenged in his new, very funny film, but rather the weird ways of Hollywood. For the most part, his satirical look at a group of pampered stars trapped in a real war hits its marks, and in the role of a ruthless producer, it delivers Tom Cruise's best performance since Magnolia. But Robert Downey Jr.'s surgically darkened Australian Method actor is the best reason to see it. He deserves a special Oscar of his own. Grade: B+
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Opening up under the Spanish sun, Woody Allen uses archetypical characters for a funny, sexy romantic comedy about the chemical reactions that lead us in and out of love. It centers on two American tourists in Barcelona (Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall), the artist attracted to them both (Javier Bardem) and his violent, tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). The dynamic between them is much fun to watch, and the view is enhanced by both the gorgeous natural scenery and the actors' ample physical charms. Grade: B
Visiting Filmmaker: Phil Solomon NEW!
For Phil Solomon, pre-existing moving imagery is raw material to re-shape into something of unusual beauty. The experimental filmmaker comes to the Wexner Center this week to present a selection of previously seen work and two new installations, including one that seems like an appropriate partner for the current Warhol show.
The installations will take over parts of the Performance Space Sept. 26 through Oct. 1. Empire shares the name of the famous Warhol film now on view in the Wex's galleries and includes images that recall the earlier work. Little else about the world premiere piece has been announced except for one important distinction: Solomon's Empire sprang from the world of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Also scheduled is a looped, 30-minute preview of American Falls, a work in progress for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. For this, Solomon works in classic film footage, unique digital manipulation and the influences of 1930s WPA murals to craft, in the words of the Wex's programmers, "an expressive, poetic vision of American history in constant motion."
The filmmaker arrives Oct. 1 to discuss his work and present a program of short films, including two new pieces. More Solomon films, including his collaborations with Stan Brakhage, will screen Oct. 9 and Oct. 16. -Melissa Starker
Writer-director Diane English and long-attached star Meg Ryan turn the light, catty comedy of George Cukor's 1939 all-female classic into something covered in luxury product placement and filled with mixed messages about body acceptance. While English furrows her brows at a skinny preteen girl's weight issues, she makes light of the facelift undergone by costar Candice Bergen. Bette Midler, in a nothing role, is just more flesh tossed to the side. Grade: C