Film Openings

Week of September 28, 2006

Facing the Giants. (PG) The separation of church and cinema amounts to a long yard at most, in this high school football sermon from Georgia-based Baptist pastor Alex Kendrick, an actor-director who could be said to tackle the lead role here — unless, of course, you believe that we're all supporting players on His gridiron. Shiloh Christian Academy coach Grant Taylor — who sounds miraculously like the Gipper fan known as Dubya — begins his seventh season sporting not only a girly-boy roster, but a low sperm count, a sputtering car, and a literally stinky starter mansion for him and his sweetly subservient wife, Brooke (Shannen Fields, who happens to be a coach's spouse in real life). A little drill-sergeant-style barking on the field and preaching in the locker room bring speedy benefits to Coach, including points on the board, a brand new Ford truck from an anonymous donor, and, science be damned, morning sickness for Brooke. Save for being divine, the clichés are intriguingly identical to the ones in Remember the Titans; shooting in HD video, Kendrick even knows his way around a Hail Mary pass, though the spirit too often moves him to take a knee. (Rob Nelson) ARN, CGX, DP, OF, RON

Heading South. (Not Rated) Heading South deals with the hot-button issue of middle-aged women discovering their sexuality anew thanks to the efforts of muscular black men with exotic accents whose standards of female beauty are more flexible than those of your average American dude. Set in the late 1970s at a resort in Haiti, it's the story of Brenda (Karen Young), returning three years later to the site of her first orgasm at the hands of a Haitian teen (Ménothy Cesar), who nowadays pleasures middle-aged white tourists full-time. Director Laurent Cantet, known for socially conscious French films like Human Resources, tries to make a link between crime and poverty in Haiti and the sex trade, implicitly blaming the women's actions even as he sympathizes with their desires. But the connection is never properly made. Tragedy occurs late in the game, but other than the fact that it happens near the resort, to an employee, there's no direct cause and effect. Part of the plot confusion may be because the screen story is an amalgamation of several different tales by Haitian writer Dany Laferrière. (Luke Y. Thompson) TV

Open Season. (PG) A pleasantly restrained Martin Lawrence voices the likable grizzly-bear hero of this computer-generated feature. Raised by a ranger, he's lost when exiled to the woods, thanks to a wild-eyed mule deer (Ashton Kutcher, channeling Donkey from Shrek). As is usual in computer animation, the film's look is overbright, its green world appearing as natural as supermarket produce under fluorescents. Directors Roger Allers and Jill Culton don't trust their material in the two big comic sequences, a sugar-fueled rampage in a convenience store and a flood, and cut them too quickly for all the jokes to register. On the plus side, Open Season enjoys a clear narrative, real rooting interest, and good interspecies rapport. On the downside, there's a surfeit of cruel bunny-rabbit gags. The film ends with a goggle-eyed rabbit being thrown right into the camera. Are we watching a Shrek knockoff, or Fatal Attraction? (Gregg Rickman) ARN, DP, GL, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL

School for Scoundrels. (PG-13) The latest from Old School director Todd Phillips updates the 1960 original (which was based on Stephen Potter's series of how-to-get-ahead novels) about a man of little confidence who enrolls in a class he believes will teach him self-reliance; in short, it's Bad Santa meets Napoleon Dynamite, quite literally. The latter, Jon Heder, plays a New York City parking-enforcement officer named Roger. Heder plays Roger not so much as someone devoured by insecurity, but as a kindly simpleton who wears kiddie pajamas and mumbles whenever in the presence of the woman down the hall with whom he's infatuated (Jacinda Barrett). A friend suggests Roger enroll in a class taught by a mysteriously monikered Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton); in it are other neutered man-children who live with their grandmothers and take no for an answer. But Barrett's character is the MacGuffin with the charisma of a McMuffin; she's just there to bring together and yank apart Roger and Dr. P, who spend the film's final half fucking with each other until the inevitable scream of "Uncle!" Their shenanigans, though, are never terribly nasty; Phillips at least has that much in common with the first man to direct School in 1960, Robert Hamer — an affinity for restraint in the drawing of blood. (Robert Wilonsky) ARN, CPP, CGX, DP, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL

The Science of Sleep. (R) Sweet, crazy, and tinged with sadness, Michel Gondry's new feature is a wondrous concoction. The tricksy romantic narrative — in which Gael Garcia Bernal plays a hapless, Chaplinesque mad man — may be reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The look, however, harks back to Gondry's music videos. This is a movie of bizarre costumes, collage landscapes, herky-jerky object animation, fake perspectives, and wild creative geography. A mental traveler, Stephane (Bernal) spends his nights dreaming himself the host of a one-man television show. In the waking life that he processes each night on his show, Stephane has returned from Mexico, where he lived with his late father, to the family apartment in Paris. Cross-cutting between Stephane's dreams and reality, reprising material in a variety of different contexts, The Science of Sleep is an extraordinarily playful movie. The mood is borderline fey. But no less than its hero, the film is too strange and even infantile to be whimsical. Stephane fantasizes adult success and suffers from unrequited love. The final fantasy of Stephane and his soul mate, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), riding off together on a Gumby horse across a crumpled cellophane sea is less apt to warm your heart than break it. (J. Hoberman) TV

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