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Film Openings

Week of January 4, 2006

Children of Men. (R) In Alfonso Cuarn's dank, hallucinated, shockingly immediate version of P.D. James's novel, humanity is facing its own extinction — not through nuclear proliferation or global warming, but through the end of fertility. Like James's book, the movie opens with the violent death of the world's youngest person (18-year-old "Baby Diego," stabbed by an irate fan in Buenos Aires) and imagines what might happen if the human race were granted a miraculous second chance. The year is 2027, but the mood is late 1940. "The world has collapsed," a BBC newsreader explains. "Only Britain soldiers on" — barely. The U.K. is a mecca for illegal immigrants, as well as a bastion of neo-fascist homeland security. London's smog-shrouded smear of garbage, graffiti, and motorcycle rickshaws is the shabbiest of havens. Armed cops are ubiquitous, and refugees are locked up in curbside cages. Clive Owen plays a wry and rumpled joker whose warmth is such that everyone trusts him, including a mysterious young woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who needs to be smuggled through the countryside. It's a measure of Cuarn's directorial chops that Children of Men functions equally well as fantasy and thriller as it attempts to fuse contemporary life with pulp mythology. (J. Hoberman) CGX, GL, OF, RON, SP, STCH

Freedom Writers. (PG-13) Neither Half Nelson nor all bad, this white-teacher-uplifts-poor-kids-of-color drama aims to favor the students' stories, which are based on those of real-life Long Beach high-schoolers who wrote their way out of oppression and anonymity in the mid-'90s. But those diary entries too often take a backseat to the film's "Ms. G," played by two-time Oscar-winner and Chad Lowe-survivor Hilary Swank, who makes instantly credible her character's preference of work over marriage to a boring man-behind-the-woman (Patrick Dempsey). Pearls around her neck, our eager-beaver heroine suffers the kids' sarcasm, fails to earn their respect by bringing in a Tupac tape, then wins them over in a crucial scene that, fact-based or not, rings as false as anything in Dangerous Minds. Reaction shots of the class' befuddled white boy are played for cheap laughs, but writer-director Richard LaGravenese otherwise keeps it real by recruiting cinematographer Jim Denault (Our Song) from Indieville High and Imelda Staunton — here playing Bitchy Old Department Head — from Vera Drake. And though an early field trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center strains credibility by occurring on the weekend, it doesn't detract from the movie's most effective lesson: that teaching isn't just for teachers. (Rob Nelson) ARN, CGX, DP, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL

Happily N'Ever After. (PG) With shtick as dull as it is ill-natured, this appallingly dumb and tasteless inversion of the Cinderella story features the voice of Sigourney Weaver as a generically shrieky wicked stepmother who discovers she can tinker with fairy-tale endings, notably that of Cinders (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who sports a short black Audrey Hepburn 'do and a mistaken crush on a narcissistic prince (Patrick Warburton) brazenly ripped off from Beauty and the Beast's Gaston. Remember those fabulously giddy bits in Shrek that riffed on just about every fairy-tale character known to Western man? Well, here director Paul J. Bolger and screenwriter Rob Moreland have drained the affectionate wit out of the Shrek franchise's satire, giving us instead a barely-sketched-out story line involving an inept fairy godmother, a sulky dishwasher (Freddie Prinze Jr.) headed straight for love interest, two run-of-the-mill critters with little to do but try to seize the attention of the under-fives by force, and quantities of unimaginative CGI. I spent the movie scratching my head over which audience the filmmakers are hoping to tap with this noisy rubbish. YouTubers? Tots with ADD? (Ella Taylor) ARN, CMP, DP, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

Notes on a Scandal. (R) Reviewed in this issue. (Robert Wilonsky) CPP, PF

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. (R) A multimillion-euro adaptation of a best-selling German novel, Perfume relates the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), born in 18th-century Paris with a uniquely puissant sense of smell. He begins life as an orphan, sold into servitude to a brutal tanner, but in Toucan Sam fashion follows his nose into the rarefied world of perfumers, where his superhuman gift proves highly valuable. After a brief yet intense infatuation with the bodily smell of a comely fruitmonger leads to her sudden death, Grenouille becomes obsessed with discovering the means to create a permanent record of an individual's scent and to concoct the most powerful perfume possible. The pungent plot may sound preposterous, and indeed it's hard not to snicker early on, when Grenouille is introduced as a mere nose hanging in darkness, his inner life revealed via a digital zoom up his nostril. But Perfume's hyper-fragrant world strives beyond mere physical sensuality toward a spiritual erotic. It's a noble experiment in pushing the limits of cinema, but one too many sequences of ruffling silks and dreamy flower bouquets evokes little more than the ad-agency clichés of an elongated Chanel No. 5 commercial. (Ed Halter) CPP, PF, RON

 
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