Avenue Montaigne. (PG-13) Avenue Montaigne is a French soufflé of the old school, a romantic comedy set in Paris' arty district, where neurotic writers and actors wring their manicured hands. For my money, charm comes altogether too easily to the French, and Gallic whimsy only serves to prop up infantile Anglo fantasies about the ceaseless glamour of la vie Parisienne. Still, I make an exception for Danièle Thompson, whose warmly irreverent fluff comes enlivened by her earthy refusal to take the cult of the artist at face value. Here, a television soap actress (Valérie Lemercier) obsesses about landing a movie role while a concert pianist (Albert Dupontel), exhausted by his punishing tour schedule, slips away to play to children with cancer and bumps into an old acquaintance, a cabbie turned art collector (Claude Brasseur) who's putting his multimillion-dollar collection up for auction. The Thompsons clearly know and love this neurotic milieu, but their sensibility is resolutely (and commercially) populist, and in short order a newly arrived country bumpkin (played by Cécile de France) is turned loose among these broody narcissists to act as both ministering angel and brisk reality check. Avenue Montaigne doesn't pretend to be deep, but given the tendency of current cinema to milk our glum mood for all it's worth I say we could use the break. (Ella Taylor) PF
First Snow. (R) Destiny is as loophole-free as an IRS audit in this appointment-in-Samarra yarn from Children of Men screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, in which cocky salesman Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce) risks the love of his doting girlfriend (Piper Perabo), not to mention his life and sanity, to avoid a fortune teller's ominous reading. The presence of Memento's Pearce, the poster boy for narrative dislocation, would seem to herald yet another gimmicky puzzle movie about the interconnectedness of every speck of dust and the hair-trigger whims of the space-time continuum. But first-time director Fergus' film is more a moody, tedious anti-thriller about ineluctable fate, keyed to the hero's dawning acceptance of an inverted bumper-sticker truism: "You die, but life doesn't have to be a bitch." Speaking of fate, is it written somewhere that every indie quasi-noir must include a dripping faucet, ceiling fans, shadows of slatted blinds, and a traveling shot of highway lines? As surely as Fergus' establishing shot of the desert must begin with a tumbleweed. (Jim Ridley) PF
Grindhouse. (R) Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse is so richly evocative of an earlier generation's guilty cinematic pleasures that you can practically smell the faint aroma of bum emanating from the row behind you. With their three-hour doubleheader, Tarantino and Rodriguez are telling us something about what turned them on at the picture show back when the thrills were as cheap as the tickets. Any fears about nostalgia's heavy hand are quickly obliterated (along with just about every living thing onscreen) by Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a 90-minute jolt of zombie mayhem that gets the audience worked up into such a frenzy that you start to wonder how Tarantino can possibly top it. The surprise of Death Proof is that he doesn't even try. Rather, Tarantino mellows the mood with an unpredictable road movie in which laconic passages of girl-bonding give way to sudden bouts of vehicular manslaughter. Death Proof feels especially personal because its main characters are the very movie performers and craftspeople with whom Tarantino clearly feels a special kinship. It may be the most revealing thing he's ever done a full-throttle expression of a singular artistic temperament disguised, like so many gems of grindhouses of yore, as a glittering hunk of trash. (Foundas) ARN, CGX, DP, EG, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, TV, TS12
The Hoax. Reviewed in this issue. CGX
Puccini for Beginners. (Not Rated) One friend short of forming a lesbian repertory staging of Sex and the City, Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) does not lack for a sounding board when she replaces one lover with two: Grace (Gretchen Mol), a straight girl with dreams of becoming a glass blower, and Philip (Justin Kirk), a Columbia professor with a habit of asking his women what they're ordering at restaurants. A Woody Allen devotee, writer-director Maria Maggenti hawks an insular view of New York City where poverty doesn't exist to illuminate the grotesque solipsism of her characters. The sensitivity of this artless production is such that every peripheral character, human and animal alike, is available only to flatter the egos of the story's power dykes, who, given the dimensions of their living quarters, have some nerve accusing each other of being bourgeois. One good labia joke is not enough to disguise the fact that Maggenti is simply buying time until Allegra's two-timing is revealed, suffocating her story with mentions of her favorite novels and dated references to every buzz word from Laura Mulvey's feminist catalog except for "the male gaze." Ugh. (Ed Gonzalez) TV
The Reaping. (R) Those two age-old foes science and blind faith tango yet again in this noxious slice of biblical horror about a series of Old Testament plagues being visited upon a Louisiana bayou backwater. Hilary Swank stars as the resident non-believer, an ordained minister turned university professor recruited by a rural schoolteacher (David Morrissey) to convince the locals that there's a perfectly rational explanation (global warming?) for why their once-crystalline lake has turned into a crimson tide pool. In short order, frogs rain from the heavens, bad CGI cattle drop dead in their tracks, and hideous boils break out on human skin, until Swank starts to wonder if maybe she was wrong to turn her back on the Lord after her husband and daughter were killed on a missionary trip to the Sudan. (Cue overexposed flashbacks of ooga-booga tribesmen.) Two years ago, Paul Schrader's uneven but compelling Exorcist prequel used the trappings of a genre film to explore complex questions of belief (or lack thereof) in a seemingly godless world. For Reaping director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2), the plight of post-Katrina Louisiana and war-torn Africa is just another special effect in a bag of shopworn tricks, and the only real curse is on anyone unlucky enough to buy a ticket. (Foundas) ARN, CMP, DP, EG, J14, MR, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12
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