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Are We There Yet?, Zachary Beaver ... 

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Information is correct at press time. Film release schedules are subject to change.

Are We There Yet? (Zero Stars)

Not just a swamp of artificial sentimental claptrap, but a morass of ethnic and gender stereotypes, crotch injuries and inappropriately aggressive herbivores—it’s heartwarming and it’s asinine! Ice Cube “stars” as Nick, a misanthropic 30-something bachelor—kids are “like cockroaches except you can’t squish them,” he says. And then you meet the monsters who belong to the woman he’s chasing (Nia Long), for whom squishing would be too lenient. Mom is a shameless manipulator who commandeers Nick’s new SUV as a taxi, and he lets himself be led around by the appendage he’s hoping Mom will start paying attention to. Certainly, these are people to revile, though those who conceived this disaster deserve scorn, too. The joke about America’s new propensity for torturing prisoners of war is a new low, but a brief one. Worse is the movie’s wallowing in the symbolic castration of Nick—the kids demolish his 6000-pound-penis-extender Lincoln Navigator on a long road trip—as a prerequisite to his learning how to be a family man. It’s enough to drain all the joy from seeing a militantly macho piece of machinery like an SUV get destroyed. Opens Jan. 21 at theaters valleywide. (PG-13)—MaryAnn Johanson

Assault on Precinct 13 *

See review p. 58. Opens Jan. 19 at theaters valleywide. (R)

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town **

The coming-of-age tropes fly fast and furious in this gentle but utterly unremarkable youth yarn based on the book by Kimberly Willis Holt. It’s all about an eventful summer in the life of 12-year-old Granger, Texas, resident Toby Wilson (Jonathan Lipnicki), including the arrival of a traveling sideshow act boasting “The World’s Fattest Boy,” Zachary Beaver (Sasha Neulinger). Lipnicki has long since grown out of his horn-rimmed adorableness, but he’s still an appealing enough performer to anchor this adaptation by John Schultz (Like Mike). There’s just way too much going on here—Toby being abandoned by his aspiring country singer mom (Jane Krakowski), his first young love and a tragic death on top of the Zachary Beaver subplot—and a tone that bounces all over the place. Bonus points for giving a middle-school drama queen a line of dialogue like, “[Mama] just doesn’t like him because he’s 15, and Guatemalan.” Too bad it’s part of a movie that awkwardly attempts to fuse realism with magical ladybugs flying in formation. It feels as overstuffed as its titular character. Opens Jan. 21 at theaters valleywide. (PG)—Scott Renshaw


Calling the Ghosts: A Story About Rape, War and Women

At City Library Auditorium, Jan. 25, 7 p.m. (NR)

The Eagle

At Organ Loft Silent Films Series, Jan. 20-21, 7:30 p.m. (NR)

Slamdance Film Festival

See 24-Seven, p. 31. At Park City and Salt Lake City venues, Jan. 22-29. (NR)

Sundance Film Festival

See cover story, p. 20. At Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance Resort venues, Jan. 20-30. (NR)


The Aviator ***

On a fundamental level, Martin Scorsese’s version of the life of Howard Hughes is nothing more than a series of snapshots of the oft-mythologized millionaire (Leonardo DiCaprio). But snapshots are never as kinetic or riveting as The Aviator manages to be at its best, even if the stretches between the best are bumpy. Covering the two decades of Hughes’ greatest influence, Scorsese creates several brilliant set pieces to accompany Cate Blanchett’s astonishing performance as Katharine Hepburn. He also can’t resist more distracting cameos—Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner—or avoid the problem of DiCaprio in a mustache still looking like a high school student play-acting at being a grown-up. Get past the filler and the stunt casting, and you’ve got vintage Scorsese visual riffs that get more out of a genius-turned-to-madness tragedy than standard biopic rhythms. (PG-13)—SR

Coach Carter **

It’s uplifting to hear about a man who believed academics are more important than sports, but the movie about that man seems to suggest exactly the opposite. This fact-based story casts Samuel L. Jackson as Ken Carter, who took over as boys’ basketball coach for academically-challenged Richmond (Calif.) High School in 1999, turned the losing program around—then benched his undefeated team for failing to meet strict standards for classroom performance. Director Thomas Carter knows his way around a hoops court, and the film addresses the community’s rough edges with refreshing honesty. But Coach Carter doesn’t trust its “books before ball” message, falling back on sports-movie cliches. That’s particularly inexcusable when the last half-hour focuses on a Big Game that takes place after the team members have already learned their most important lesson. By dragging the narrative out past its true, off-the-court climax, Coach Carter sends pandering mixed signals. (PG-13)—SR

Elektra *.5

See review p. 59. (PG-13)

Finding Neverland ****

Oh, this is a magical film, one that transports us not only to another, more delightful, place and time—a slightly idealized Edwardian England—but to within the vivid flights of fancy of a writer whose fantastical inventions of Neverland, Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell continue to mesmerize us a century after their debut. This isn’t the precisely true story of how J.M. Barrie was moved to write the play, but it does take its inspiration from reality. A perfectly cast Johnny Depp, as the writer and a man immersed in his own imagination, combines the exhilaration of a child at play with an adult melancholy that comes from being profoundly aware of the fleetingness of moments of unbound joy. And director Marc Forster, with a light, playful touch, gives us seamless transitions from reality to fantasy, seeing the world simultaneously through the eyes of both child and adult. (PG-13)—MAJ

Flight of the Phoenix ***

There’s an element of the preposterous in this remake of the 1965 film of the same name—but who cares? It’s a rip-roarer of a flick, bristling with adventure and suspense, pulled off by a director (John Moore, Behind Enemy Lines) who knows what makes a movie too popcorny good to be dismissed. Dennis Quaid deploys his usual charm as the hotshot pilot who crashes his C-119 plane into the ass end of the Gobi desert. He’s carrying a load of oil-rig-worker passengers and their oh-so convenient cargo of welding equipment, gas generators and Craftsman tools—just what’s needed to, say, build a new plane from the wreckage and fly the hell out of there. It’s nowhere near so easy to do, of course, not when fun-scary Giovanni Ribisi’s apparently joonbug-loony airplane designer is the one who suggests such a wacky plan. Absurd it may be, but it’s still wonderfully gripping. (PG-13)—MAJ

House of Flying Daggers ***.5

It’s a skin-deep beauty with some of the most incredible skin we’ve seen in years. After uncorking a virtuoso interpretation of martial arts action films with last summer’s Hero, Zhang Yimou tightens his nearly casual mastery over color and motion in another operatic visual spectacle. In A.D. 859 China, policemen Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) investigate rumors of an anti-government rebel working at the impossibly gorgeous local brothel. It’s Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind girl who’s soon on the run with Jin. Every melodramatic element doesn’t seem so pedestrian when it’s happening in a vibrant forest of changing leaves. In the greatest moment, characters battle while gliding up and down towering bamboo plants with a preternatural grace, while Zhang delights in the sibilant sounds of snapping stalks and the delicate whistle of air through the hollow trunks. You’ve got to see it to believe it. (R)—Greg Beacham

In Good Company ***

The irony of Topher Grace commenting in his as-himself Ocean’s Twelve cameo that he “totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie”—aside from how totally phoned-in Ocean’s Twelve was—is that In Good Company could be the film that proves he’s the next Tom Hanks. Grace plays an up-and-coming ad exec who, after a corporate takeover, replaces veteran sales manager Quaid at a sports magazine. Generational complications ensue—further complicated by Grace dating Quaid’s daughter (Scarlett Johansson)—but the film never plays like a wacky sitcom. Writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) knows how to wrestle smart humor out of the way men struggle with their identities; he was also wise enough to give a showcase to Grace and his impeccable comic timing. The easy chemistry between Grace and Quaid overcomes some overstuffed plotting and anti-corporate sermonizing. Watch your back, Tom—there’s a new “new Jimmy Stewart” in town. (PG-13)—SR

The Incredibles ***

All right, Pixar, this is what you get for setting the standard for contemporary movie magic: You make something that’s only really good, and it feels like a disappointment. Writer/director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) spins the tale of a middle-aged ex-superhero (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) who emerges from forced retirement and suburban hell to face an old nemesis, bringing his super-powered family along for the ride. Beginning with an homage to Connery-era Bond—a late-1960s setting, brassy music, underground lairs—Bird crafts something that’s clever and satisfying. When all is said and done, though, The Incredibles is essentially another superhero action-adventure movie, one that covers thematic ground already hashed out more effectively in Spider-Man and X-Men movies. It’s a fast, fun ride in a world where making a fast, fun ride is too often the goal. We’ll have to settle for mere quality rather than genius. (PG)—SR

Kinsey **

There’s only a little bit of nookie in this profile of pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and it’s a clinical, cringing sort of action. Liam Neeson gives a sharp-eyed portrayal of the film’s humorless, indefatigable subject, the Indiana University human behaviorist who dragged sexual education into the 20th century. But writer-director Bill Condon’s film moves to a standard biopic metronome, with conflicts and dalliances and resolutions proceeding with tidy tedium. Condon then stretches awkwardly to find movie-worthy drama in the third act, detailing Kinsey’s boring battles to find funding, or the petty squabbles among his lieutenants. Sure, you’ll see frontal nudity from Peter Sarsgaard and a killer scene from Bill Sadler as a voracious bisexual pedophile, but it doesn’t shed much light on the research’s impact on the world. Kinsey was many things—but he’s not all that cinematic. (R)—GB

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events **

Using the language of narrator Lemony Snicket, how do we define the appropriate expression for what Jim Carrey does to this adaptation of material from Daniel Handler’s first two Snicket books? Carrey plays Count Olaf, the dastardly actor who becomes caretaker to the orphaned Baudelaire children—14-year-old Violet, 12-year-old Klaus and bite-happy infant Sunny—so that he can acquire the fortune to which they are heirs. This is the stuff of classic kid-lit—orphaned protagonists, dark themes—and when the young stars are the focus, director Brad Silberling’s version occasionally lives up to the source material, despite groan-inducing and sometimes inappropriate captions for Sunny’s babbling. Then Carrey, whose riff-heavy Grinch already spoiled one beloved children’s tale, will intrude with a funny voice or a silly disguise—and no, it’s no excuse that the character is a show-off actor. The appropriate expression is “ham”—a word which here means, “not kosher.” (PG)—SR

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou ***.5

It’s not actually Wes Anderson’s smartly poignant film that’s stuck in the ’70s, though it might seem so at first glance. It’s Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) himself, a once-celebrated maker of nature documentaries now trying to salvage his legacy. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach weave the disconnect between Zissou’s reality and the reality he’s trying to show to the outside world into nearly every scene, creating a funny, sad portrait of coming to terms with who you really are. Throw in weird stop-motion creatures by Henry Selick and great supporting work by Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum, and you’ve got an effort that should even confound those who’ve griped at the ironic distance in Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. This one is all about manipulation of perception to achieve an effect. The Life Aquatic shows that the bravest act is showing the side of yourself that’s not a fictional character. (R)—SR

Meet the Fockers **.5

One takes pleasures where one finds them, and one could do a lot worse than finding pleasure in Dustin Hoffman’s performance in this otherwise tepid sequel to Meet the Parents. Two years later, it’s time for Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) to introduce his future in-laws to his own parents—Barbra Streisand as sex therapist mother Focker, and Hoffman as dad. Much forced clashing between the hippie-fuzzy Fockers and suspicious, tight-sphinctered ex-CIA man Jack Byrnes (Robert DeNiro) ensues, all directed by Jay Roach with an elbow to the ribs. It’s all part of the Theater of Humiliation brand of comedy, but Hoffman’s role as the emotionally open Bernie Focker is a keeper—this clunky contraption feels lighter on its toes thanks to his crinkled smiles. And yeah, La Barbra has fun, too, making it a lot more entertaining meeting the Fockers than meeting anyone we already knew from the original film. (PG-13)—SR

Ocean’s Twelve **.5

For one 15 minute stretch—a brilliant sequence showcasing Julia Roberts as Tess Ocean, now the twelfth member of husband Danny’s (George Clooney) crew—Ocean’s Twelve snaps with the kind of energy and pop smarts that made Ocean’s Eleven such an irresistible treat. But for too much of this sequel—which finds the group reunited when Eleven’s victimized hotelier Andy Garcia tracks them down and demands payback—it feels like the cast is simply riffing and enjoying a European vacation on the studio’s dime. While there are fun bits of business strewn throughout, director Steven Soderbergh and company never find a focus. With every winking cameo appearance, the film appears less concerned with telling a story than with bathing in its own Hollywood cool. Eleven actually felt like a movie with characters; Twelve, amusing though it may be at times, is a feature-length Friars’ Club roast. (PG-13)—SR

Racing Stripes **

At last, a movie for everyone who thought that all Babe was missing was a few more fart and poop jokes. Widowed ex-racehorse trainer Bruce Greenwood rescues a baby zebra left behind by a circus, bringing Stripes home to be raised by his teen daughter (Hayden Panetierre). But—get this!—the animals talk to each other when people aren’t around, allowing Stripes (Frankie Muniz) to voice his dream of racing against thoroughbreds. Dustin Hoffman, Joe Pantoliano and David Spade are among those who supply other critter chatter, mostly consisting of puns and nudging pop culture references amidst the perfectly acceptable lessons in following your dream and not being species-ist. It might have been harmlessly enjoyable, if not for the obligatory scatology. Memo to parents who fume over Nicolette Sheridan’s bare back yet drag their 4-year-olds to see bad taste passed off as kid-friendly humor: You’re part of the problem, too. (PG)—SR

Sideways ****

Director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Election) moves to the head of his class of American filmmakers with this exquisitely nuanced tale of nearly-middle-aged male bonding. During a weeklong trip to central California wine country, a frustrated writer named Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his actor friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), indulge in booze, women and Xanax—and Payne creates humor and enlightenment out of a rather ordinary road trip setup. With hungry actors reveling in their meaty roles, with a thousand Easter eggs of character development hidden within his frames, Payne makes a film that vibrates with authenticity, warmth and optimism. His four films are a small chorus of our time, with a thousand voices saying beautiful small things in a language we all speak. Oh, and his script is also funny as hell. In a movie about stalled lives, everything is in perfect motion. (R)—GB

Spanglish **.5

James L. Brooks couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate title for his film: It tries hard to say two things at the same time, and ends up saying neither of them particularly well. It’s framed as the story of Flor (Paz Vega), a single mom Mexican immigrant whose desire for a better life for her daughter leads her to Los Angeles, and eventually a housekeeping job with the wealthy Clasky family. They’re played by Adam Sandler (as a sweetly understanding chef) and Téa Leoni (as his super-achiever wife), and Brooks sets us up to think the story of their marital crisis will matter as well. But the Claskys’ tale is never resolved, as though TV veteran Brooks is setting up a next episode that will never come. While Brooks knows how to craft great punch lines, great individual scenes and impressive comic performances, everything in Spanglish is about bits and pieces. (PG-13)-SR

A Very Long Engagement ***.5

This labor of love for Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet combines a particularly Gallic comic sensibility with the nightmare of the Great War trenches. It leaves you not despairing at the cruelty of humankind, but inspired by the hopeless hope that allowed those caught up in it to survive. That wonderful weirdness and ruthless barbarism can coexist here without lessening the appeal of the first or the enormity of the second is a triumph to be savored. You’ll be tempted to ask for a cheat sheet to keep track of the sprawling cast of characters and the enchantingly convoluted, time-jumping plot, but you won’t need it. This small, lovely story against an enormous background is filtered through Audrey Tautou’s quick but dreamy Mathilde, who is searching for her lover who was lost on the battlefield but may not be dead. If you’re along with her for the ride, you’ll be fine. (R)—MAJ

White Noise *

There may be a horror film to be concocted from the daily harassment we face at the hands of modern communications appliances—cell phones, boom boxes, televisions, and the like—but this is not it. Though, oh, how mightily it tries to make you jump out of your skin with radios that turn themselves on mysteriously and ghostly figures that emerge from TVs to toss apartments like rampaging kindergartners on a sugar high. Mostly, this is 101 minutes of poor Michael Keaton, clearly atoning for some horrible sin, becoming increasingly obsessed with staring at his TV, fiddling with the VCR and enhancing the recorded static on his computer, convinced that his dead wife is trying to communicate with him from beyond the beyond. If you think watching your own videotapes rewind is boring, you can only imagine how much more snooze-inducing it is to watch someone else rewind his. (PG-13)—MAJ

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