"Appaloosa" Ed Harris' latest film as director, cowriter and costar is at once new and old, a fresh Western standoff between law and disorder that throws straight back to its predecessors. Generally, the direct approach works, creating a sturdy, two-hour diversion. But it doesn't serve Harris' stoic gunfighter especially well, or his manipulative love interest, a gratingly artificial Renee Zellweger. Only Viggo Mortensen as Harris' sidekick connects with viewers, owning every scene he's in. Grade: B-
"Blindness" Adapting Jose Saramago's novel of a world suddenly going blind and all Lord of the Flies, Fernando Meirelles plays with reflections, shadows and halo-surrounded frames to make the viewer keenly aware of the act of seeing, the better to feel the disorientation of its loss. As the sole sighted person in a quarantine facility left to food rationing and the filth of its inmates, Julianne Moore makes a strong, empathetic guide. But despite his fascinating, devastating viewpoint, Meirelles' film could use more insight to make it worthwhile. Grade: B-
"The Duchess" NEW! In the past couple of years, we've seen women of history under the gun to produce a male heir in films such as Marie Antoinette and The Other Boleyn Girl. Falling between the confectionary delights of the former and the overcooked melodrama of the latter is The Duchess, a well-built, reasonably compelling portrait of one of Lady Di's real-life, 18th-century ancestors.
Keira Knightley is Georgiana, the new Duchess of Devonshire. After submitting happily to an arranged marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), Georgiana charms his politician friends and the people at large. In the Duke's eyes, however, she is another servant, there to bear a son and put up with his infidelities without question. Considering all things equal, she starts a passionate love affair with rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but equality is out of her reach.
Georgiana's fashion-plate status results in a costume drama with a capital "C," and Knightley holds up well under the mile-high wigs, although Oscar talk surrounding her performance feels like a reach. Surprisingly, it's Fiennes who really gets under your skin with his slimy, all-too-human view of a man taking full advantage of his privilege. Grade: B --Melissa Starker
"Flash of Genius" Greg Kinnear's Bob Kearns is an interesting sort of movie hero -- the wronged inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper wages a true-life David-and-Goliath battle against the big automakers, but he also puts that struggle above everything, including his family. The actor quietly and masterfully conveys Kearns' initial thrill of invention, the angst of realizing his idea had been stolen and the near obsession he falls into as he seeks vindication. Kinnear makes the best of the part, despite a less-than-urgent treatment of the story. Grade: B
"I Served the King of England" NEW! Covering a less treacly area of turf familiar from Life is Beautiful, veteran Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel's charming, thoughtful, sometimes hilarious film considers the Nazis' European clampdown from the perspective of an unapologetically womanizing and materially minded waiter in Prague. Though he's small and fair and gets far more onscreen action, Jan (Ivan Barnev) brings Chaplin to mind as he works his way up in the luxury hotel world and saves toward his dream of being a millionaire.
Told through the flashbacks of his older self (Oldrich Kaiser), who's just been released from years in prison, the story of Jan's youth touches on the horrors of concentration camps and military amputees, things he chose not to see as they were. Menzel's approach to it all is light, surreal, with a touch of his main character's bemusement, which turns out to be a powerfully effective way of imprinting on the audience Jan's hard-learned lesson in civic responsibility. Grade: A-
"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" Despite the title, this feels less like an eternal journey and more like a better-than-average, but still lacking, teen comedy about a dumped and mopey bass player (Michael Cera), a pseudo friend of his ex (Kat Dennings) and the wacky misadventures they have together in New York City. There's a nod to Juno in some of the forced banter, and though the promising Dennings isn't quite up to Ellen Page's level yet, the film does eventually find its own entertaining footing. Grade: B-
"Religulous" Steered by Borat director Larry Charles, comedian and devout skeptic Bill Maher travels the world as an ambassador of doubt in search of believers. Speaking to scholars, church leaders and everyday followers, Maher questions the wisdom of organized religion in general and the specific practices of everything from Christianity to Scientology. On his trip, he reveals the connections between Christ's story and the central figures of other religions, also the judgment practiced by some who preach that only God should judge. Unfortunately, Maher can't cast the first stone in the area of judgment, and he blows an opportunity to discuss why so many different cultures develop similar systems of belief. But for fellow skeptics, there's some very funny stuff here, especially Charles' insidious use of film clips and a chat with a real riot of a Vatican official. Grade: B
Retrospective: David Lean A gorgeous Peter O'Toole is independent-minded British lieutenant T.E. Lawrence, leader of the WWI desert campaign against the Turks in David Lean's stunning Lawrence of Arabia. The British master's best known film, showing Friday, Oct. 10, as part of the Wexner Center's Lean retrospective, will be presented in 70mm. On Sunday, Oct. 12, the series continues on another continent with Summertime. Lean's personal favorite, and another beautiful visual achievement, the 1955 Venetian romance pairs vacationing Akron spinster Katharine Hepburn with an attentive, but married, Rossano Brazzi. Click to WexArts.org for more info. --Melissa Starker