Short Subjectives 

Capsule reviews of films by CL critics

Page 3 of 5

THE COOLER (R) Director Wayne Kramer takes a humorous premise -- a man so unlucky that a Vegas casino pays him to jinx (or "cool") more fortunate gamblers -- and inexplicably treats it as the stuff of serious drama. The film features tender, insightful bedroom scenes and substantial acting from Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin and William H. Macy in the title role, but its morality tale of honor in Vegas gambling dens never convinces. If The Cooler were a bet, you wouldn't take it. --CH

ELF (PG) Will Ferrell plays an ill-adjusted man-child raised by Santa's helpers then sent to New York City to find his long-lost father and -- surprise! -- save Christmas in the process. Director Jon Favreau (Swingers) should end up on the naughty list for producing such pointless holiday pabulum. --Tray Butler

GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (PG-13) Exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Eduardo Serra in beautiful homage to 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, this captivating film is also true to the covert personal and political issues that backstoried classical oil painting. Director Peter Webber's calm, subtle, but fascinating adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's best-selling work of historical fiction, speculates on the class and sexual issues that might have informed Vermeer's (Colin Firth) creation of one of his greatest works, "The Girl with a Pearl Earring," using a humble, virginal housemaid (Scarlett Johansson) as his muse. --FF

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (R) Its melodramatic, grandiose conclusion is an odd match with its previous flat-line rhythm, but the grim House of Sand and Fog is greatly enhanced by Ben Kingsley's memorable performance as an Iranian immigrant who battles with a depressed woman (Jennifer Connelly) over her former house by the sea. Connelly's zombie-like, unengaging performance, as well as the film's emotionally mismatched first and second half, account for its inability to work, despite some interesting content. --FF

IMAX THEATER: Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey (NR) This world music sampler with the emphasis on percussion was filmed on five continents by the creators of the stage musical Stomp. The Stomp cast is augmented by a dozen acts representing the sounds that have influenced them, performing for about two minutes each. For all the time, money and effort involved the result should have been better. Through Feb. 6. Roar: Lions of the Kalahari (NR) The "circle of life" plays out in the Botswana desert in an unusually focused IMAX documentary, as two male lions fight for domination over a water hole. Kudos to Tim Liversedge, a rare filmmaker with the balls to set his camera in the middle of a pride of lions. Don't always believe what the narrator tells you and juxtaposed shots appear to show. Just be amazed by what you actually see. Through Apr. 30 Fernbank Museum of Natural History IMAX Theater, 767 Clifton Road. 404-929-6300. www.fernbank.edu. --SW

IN AMERICA (PG-13) My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan builds his partially autobiographical tale of an Irish immigrant family on sweetness and sentiment, but without sugar-coating or safety nets. Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine give emotionally complex performances as the parents dealing with the death of their youngest child, while their two daughters find their first year in New York to be thrillingly exotic. Musical choices like "Do You Believe in Magic" overemphasize the themes of miracles, but In America feels like an honest attempt to transform painful personal experience into an accessible artistic catharsis. --CH

IN JULY (NR) Fatih Akin's romantic comedy resembles an early John Cusack with German subtitles -- Das Sure Thing, perhaps. A free-spirited young lovely (Christiane Paul) road-trips across Central and Eastern Europe with a stuffed-shirt (Moritz Bleibtreu) who gradually falls in love with her. At times the director clumsily imitates the Hollywood formula, but mostly In July offers a charming homage to screwball comedy and a fascinating travelogue to places tourists rarely visit. At Madstone Theaters Parkside. --CH

THE LAST SAMURAI (R) Edward Zwick's samurai epic falls short of its potential with the miscasting of Tom Cruise as boozing, battle-weary soldier hired to help put down an insurgency (led by the charismatic Ken Watanabe) in 19th century Japan. The film's last act, with its lavish battle scene, lives up to its ambitions, but Cruise never conveys the haunted gravitas of his role, and only emphasizes the overly simplistic, romanticized screenplay. --CH

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (PG-13) The final chapter of director Peter Jackson's sprawling adaptation of Tolkein's trilogy feels less like a self-contained film than the crescendo of a single, nine-hour fantasy epic. By alternating between the spectacular battle scenes of a war film and the terrifying suspense of a horror movie, King's intensity builds to a nearly unbearable pitch, while its close attention to character earns its profound feelings of release and closure. Admittedly exhausting, the three films join the company of The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and other classics of imaginative cinema. --CH

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