FILMS IN FOCUS: New and recent releases


HOTEL RWANDA – During the 1994 massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda, hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina sheltered more than 1,000 refugees, repelling murderous boarders with bribes, bluffs, charm and subterfuge. This wrenching, searing film rests on the shattering performance of Don Cheadle, whose Rusesabagina remains the personification of decency and humanity. “Hotel Rwanda” isn’t a tear-jerker; the tears it inspires are earnest and earned and true.

A United Artists release. Director: Terry George. Writers: Keir Pearson, Terry George. Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte and Fana Mokoena. Running time: 2 hr., 1 min. Rated PG-13. 3 1/2 stars.

STRAIGHT-JACKET – Richard Day wrote and directed, immersing himself gaily (both senses) in the sleek hokum and hypocrisy of 1950s Hollywood. Matt Letscher has lip-curled wit as the big movie star whom the studio forces into a sham marriage to cover for a gay scandal (shades of Rock Hudson), with Carrie Preston the adoring ditz who remains clueless. All is stylized like a vintage “happy hour” cartoon of flying entendres, utterly gay in take but not curdled by it. Swell lesbian posturing by Veronica Cartwright.

A Regent release. Director, writer: Richard Day. Cast: Matt Letscher, Carrie Preston, Adam Greer, Carrie Preston, Veronica Cartwright and Victor Raider-Wexler. Running time: 1 hr., 36 min. Unrated. 2 1/2 stars.


BEYOND THE SEA – One of the most genuine tributes ever offered by one artist to another, Kevin Spacey’s “Beyond the Sea” tops the retro fever that has revived Bobby Darin. Spacey, the actor whose love of Darin’s music began with his boyhood LPs and his late mother Kathleen’s enthusiasm for the singer, stars as Darin. He does a remarkable job singing like him (close enough for a good cigar), and also directed, produced and largely wrote a movie that despite “bio pic” touches is sincere, hip and very entertaining. OK, the snag issue: Spacey is 45. Darin, who achieved fame as a wet-lipped rocker and then Sinatrafied swinger in his 20s, died at 37 in 1973. Close-ups remind us that Spacey is not boyish. But since Darin disliked his looks (and much of his “Dream Lover” phase), and was a show baby far past his years in talent and attitude, let’s all cut this ultimate Darin fan some slack – and enjoy his enjoyment. The film tells how Walden Robert Cassotto became hit-maker Bobby Darin, tried to become folk singer Bob Darin, then returned to the clubs and casinos that were his true home before dying of congenital heart illness. The film is also a work of devotion and guts. Though pushed along quickly on a trim budget, this is a stunning salute.

A Lion’s Gate Films release. Director: Kevin Spacey. Writers: Kevin Spacey, Lewis Colick. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Bob Hoskins, John Goodman, Caroline Aaron, Brenda Blethyn and William Ullrich. Running time: 1 hr., 58 min. Rated PG-13. 3 1/2 stars.

THE GREEN BUTCHERS – An impeccably Danish (as in: odd) mood piece, with a wavering but seductive tone. A neurotically ambitious young butcher and his depressed partner in meat surgery open a shop, and find that customers only come once they are provided with a new carnal delight (of course, it tastes like chicken). As the human costs advance, most is left to our imagination, apart from a few shots that spell out the tactics of improvisation. Handsomely shot, capably acted (especially by Nikolaj Lie Kaas as the depressive), Anders Thomas Jensen’s bleak yet tweakingly comical film could turn you into a vegetarian or a more adventurous carnivore. Maybe it’s an attack on capitalism, but why look that deep?

A Newmarket Films release. Director, writer: Anders Thomas Jensen. Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Mads Mikkelsen, Line Kruse and Ole Thestrup. Running time: 1 hr., 40 min. Rated R. 3 stars.

MEET THE FOCKERS – Plastic sequel, like a cheerily crass “American Pie” for viewers over 35 (the title is a direct clue). For all the contrived embarrassments and blatant use of a horny dog and adorable baby, it delivers its quota of silly laughs, via Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Ben Stiller, Teri Polo and Blythe Danner.

A Universal Pictures release. Director: Jay Roach. Writers: John Hamburg, James Herzfeld, Marc Hyman. Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo and Owen Wilson. Running time: 1 hr., 38 min. Rated PG-13. 2 1/2 stars.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU – Fun if you’re in the mood for fluff-hip comedy about a preening Jacques Cousteau ocean celebrity, tuned to the antic wavelength of star Bill Murray and director Wes Anderson. The whimsies are indulged but likeable, and pert participants include Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Bud Cort, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum and Owen Wilson.

A Buena Vista release. Director: Wes Anderson. Writers: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach. Cast: Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon and Bud Cort. Running time: 2 hr. Rated R. 3 stars.

FAT ALBERT – TV-taste snack from producer and main writer Bill Cosby, based on the cartoon show. As Albert, Kenan Thompson drops his bulk load of charm into an insipid plot, in which he emerges from a TV to help a lonely girl, then is more involved by her popular friend. Black talents are used vanilla cuties, with even a gag about them losing color; Cosby’s idea of family entertainment plods into piffle.

A 20th Century Fox release. Director: Joel Zwick. Writer: Charles Kipps, Bill Cosby. Cast: Kenan Thompson, Kyla Pratt, Jermaine Williams, Dania Ramirez, Bill Cosby and Shedrack Anderson III. Running time: 1 hr., 20 min. Rated PG. 2 stars.

BAD EDUCATION – Pedro Almodovar’s murkily plotted but involving movie about love-hungry men, film mania, noir intrigue, gender twisting, priestly pedophilia and Spain’s hangover of Franco Catholicism. His unique style bravado is served well by Gael Garcia Bernal (three identities), Fele Martinez, Lluis Homar as an ex-priest, though the early Almodovar fizz has sobered.

A Sony Pictures Classics release in Spanish subtitled. Director, writer: Pedro Almodovar. Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Daniel Gimenez Cacho and Lluis Homar. Running time: 1 hr., 45 min. Rated R. 3 stars.

THE AVIATOR – Other films have drawn much more from his life, and seem “Scorsesean,” but “The Aviator” is the most delectably entertaining movie Martin Scorsese has made. Even in a few sags, we can enjoy the cocky swing and creamy rush of Scorsese’s take on Howard Hughes (as acted by Leonardo DiCaprio). A fabled movie maniac, Scorsese adores the young Hughes as Hollywood wildcatter and his amateurish, “visionary” plunge into the business. Old news footage and film clips merge into gorgeously edited re-creations of the era, the color often imitating early color processes. The best scenes are of Howard’s affair with Katharine Hepburn. DiCaprio is terrific with Cate Blanchett, who is completely enticing and credible as Hepburn (Blanchett could win the first Oscar for playing an actor who won an Oscar). Now, treating an eccentric genius in astonishing times, Scorsese at 62 has relaxed into his most supple work in years. “The Aviator” flies – as Hughes would say, it has flush rivets.

A Miramax Films release. Director: Martin Scorsese. Writer: John Logan. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale, Ian Holm, Alan Alda, Gwen Stefani and Danny Huston. Running time: 2 hr., 20 min. Rated PG-13. 4 stars.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA – Groaning lumber in the “Star!” and “Paint Your Wagon” tradition, the Lloyd Webber score pouring sonic gravy over actors already drowned in florid decor: pretty Emmy Rossum as diva Christine, Gerard Butler as a goth-mannequin Phantom, Patrick Wilson as hunk Raoul, Minnie Driver hamming as a diva. Joel Schumacher directed so that kitsch writing, singing and acting are locked in worst-in-show combat, which runs on forever.

A Warner Bros. release. Director: Joel Schumacher. Writers: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joel Schumacher. Cast: Emmy Rossum, Gerard Butler, Patrick Wilson, Minnie Driver and Miranda Richardson. Running time: 2 hr., 23 min. Rated PG-13. 1 star.

LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS – Another almost dictatorially designed theme park as movie franchise, with three charming kid actors as the Baudelaire orphans, fighting off fiendish goof Count Olaf (Jim Carrey’s showmanship again makes acting beside the point). Imposing in a crepe-goth way, yet the plot is just a series of events.

A Paramount Pictures release. Director: Brad Silberling. Writers: Robert Gordon, Daniel Handler. Cast: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Timothy Spall, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Billy Connolly. Running time: 1 hr., 48 min. Rated PG. 2 1/2 stars.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS – Zhang Yimou’s stretched but elegantly made Chinese sword epic, with emotive throbs and gazes worthy of the silent era, clearly made to top Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Though less fun, the bold use of settings, weather and leaping Zhang Ziyi gives it a grip that is fated and beautiful.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director: Zhang Yimou. Writers: Wang Bin, Li Feng, Zhang Yimou. Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau Tak Wah. Running time: 2 hr. Rated PG-13. 3 1/2 stars.


4 STARS – Excellent.

3 STARS – Worthy.

2 STARS – Mixed.

1 STAR – Poor.

0 – Forget It.

NR – Not Rated.

Capsules compiled from movie reviews written by David Elliott, film critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune, and other staff writers.

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