Film Openings

Week of March 31, 2004

Good Bye, Lenin! (R) Wolfgang Becker. In this charming new film from director Wolfgang Becker, the fall of East German socialism provides the comedic backdrop for a tender story about a boy's love for his mother. It's 1989, and twenty-year-old Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) lives with his mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) in the small East German flat where he grew up. Years before, when Alex's father left, Christiane "married the socialist fatherland," becoming a model citizen and teacher. Now, in October 1989, Christiane has a heart attack and falls into a coma, remaining there for eight months. When she wakens, she must be protected from upset, lest she suffer another attack, so Alex must re-create the East Germany she left eight months before. The coma/amnesia conceit is familiar: In this case, the joke is that, in East Germany in 1989, eight months were equivalent to a lifetime. It's a clever and sweet-humored bit of situational comedy. With lighthearted wit, compassion and an artful attention to detail, the film is winningly funny and humane. Opens Friday, April 2, at the Plaza Frontenac. (Melissa Levine)

Hellboy (R) Guillermo del Toro. Based on Mike Mignola's beloved comic and adapted by Guillermo del Toro, this is fanboy heroin: The cult hero with bright red skin and sanded-down horns and a right hand that fits into the gateway to Hell has been loyally rendered, a gift from one self-proclaimed geek to the legions of worshippers. The story, about Nazis and black magic and doorways to Hell, has been culled from several story arcs. But when the filmmaker becomes caretaker, beholden to the creator who lurks over his shoulder, the audience of nonbelievers is left out in the cold. The movie actually feels so very Alienwithout the terror or MIB without the smirky charm, though Perlman does ham it up like a pound of bacon. Del Toro's movies used to have the eerie feel of someone for whom horror was a mysterious, intangible chill down the spine, not a thudding crack over the skull. Hellboy is as much a wreck as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but they'll never notice down at the comics shop. Opens Friday, April 2, at multiple locations. (Robert Wilonsky)

Home on the Range (PG) Will Finn and John Sanford. Twenty years ago, there was a parade of films about dirt-poor families about to lose their farms to the banks and/or natural disasters, which starred, in some combination, Sam Shepard, Sissy Spacek, Mel Gibson, Sally Field and Jessica Lange. Well, just imagine if someone had set Country or The River or Places in the Heart to music written by Alan Menken, animated them and cast Roseanne Barrnold, Dame Judi Dench and Jennifer Tilly as three cows who try to catch a cattle rustler and collect the reward money to save their bankrupt farm, upon which they reside with other talking-singing-dancing animals and a lonely old woman. There's even a natural disaster or two, too: Cuba Gooding Jr. as a talking horse who fancies himself a real hero and Steve Buscemi as the voice of a creepy little cattle black-marketer who actually looks like Steve Buscemi. Should make about $750, which is how much they need to save the farm, but a little less than Disney CEO Michael Eisner needs to save his job. Opens Friday, April 2, at multiple locations. (Robert Wilonsky)

Latter Days (unrated) C. Jay Cox. Sigh. Another contrived melodrama about gay men and the people who hate (oops, love) them. Vapid party-boy Christian (Wes Ramsey) attempts to seduce the devout and virginal Aaron David (Steve Sandvoss), the mission-ing Mormon in the apartment across the way. There's a bet, an exposure, a weird descent into surrealism and a burdened attempt at making a statement about the spiritual power of love. Writer-director C. Jay Cox erects hackneyed stereotypes in order to knock them down; as a result, the film is plagued with flat jokes, over-the-top earnestness and faux spirituality. Even the (very naked) sex is clunky and dull. There is, however, a star who rises above it all: Sandvoss brings honesty, clarity and blazing compassion to his role. During the actor's scenes with Mary Kay Place (playing Aaron's mother), the movie begins to shimmer with the energy of real people in heartbreaking conflict. Too bad the action wastes so much time on Christian, a boring gym bunny whose acquisition of depth rings hollow and false. Opens Friday, April 2, at the Tivoli. (Melissa Levine)

The Reckoning Paul McGuigan. (R) Opens Friday, April 2, at the Tivoli. Reviewed this issue.

Robot Stories (unrated) Greg Pak. Its science-fiction elements less significant than the title suggests, Robot Stories offers a quartet of light, even quaint, vignettes that are as much about human nature as they are about technology, though filtered through a sensibility that was clearly formed under the influence of 1980s pop culture and the Spielberg/Lucas canon (one episode even involves a mother trying to save her comatose son by restoring his collection of robot action figures). The best qualities of the film are decidedly low-tech, resting on director Pak's excellent work with a largely Asian-American cast, including Pak himself as a frustrated android trapped in a boring office job. Opens Friday, April 2, at the Tivoli. (Robert Hunt)

The Prince & Me (PG) Martha Coolidge. She's a pre-med farm girl intent on administering to the world's suffering children. He's a Danish prince looking to shed the burdens of royal duty. Yes, it's a high-concept romantic comedy, and more than a little derivative (Roman Holiday, of course); nobody would blame you for fearing the worst. What's amazing about The Prince & Me is that, for at least the first hour, it's actually a good movie -- funny, endearing, even a little smart. It's only after the prince (Luke Mably) woos his overachieving princess (Julia Stiles) and the couple faces a perennial real-life dilemma (monarchy or Doctors without Borders?) that things rapidly plunge into dreck. Can Denmark accept a commoner as a royal partner? Can the girl align herself with the rigidity of royal decorum? How long before she awakens to the neglect of her long-held career dreams? And will the queen (a chilly Miranda Richardson) chop off anyone's head? It's too much, and the plot crumbles in a heap. Goodnight, Sweet Prince. Time for a reality check. Opens Friday, April 2, at multiple locations. (Melissa Levine)

Walking Tall Kevin Bray. (PG-13) Opens Friday, April 2, at multiple locations. Reviewed this issue.

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