Film Openings

Week of May 5, 2006

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston

An American Haunting. (PG-13) Reviewed in this issue. ARN, CGX, CC12, DP, EQ, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, STCH, STCL, WO

The Devil and Daniel Johnston. (PG-13) In many ways, this documentary is a beautiful work, a painstakingly crafted portrait of a talented self-saboteur — a man consistently done in by a vicious mental illness. But it's not as compelling as one would hope. Despite the inclusion of ample archival footage and audio tapes created by Daniel Johnston, a singer-songwriter and artist who has obsessively documented his own life, Devil never quite gives us a sense of what it's like to be Johnston, of how it feels to live inside his manic-depressive mind. Which makes it hard to care. So many notables have believed in Johnston — Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Tom Waits — that his talent must be real. But in the film, Johnston and his music remain aloof. Instead, the more indelible impression is of his friends and his family, and particularly his parents. Bill and Mabel Johnston are layered, sympathetic figures; far more than Daniel, they grow and change throughout the film, and become its emotional center.
(Melissa Levine) TV

Hoot. (PG) The most important thing to know about this adaptation of Carl Hiaasen's children's book is that it's co-produced by Jimmy Buffett, who also appears in a small role and provides new music for the soundtrack. As one might expect from the king of the Parrotheads, Hoot is essentially a paean to hanging out on the beach in Florida. But because the target audience is a fair bit under 21, there aren't any margaritas or babes in bikinis — though the female lead, played by Brie Larson, is an all-purpose youth fantasy: a blonde bombshell who wears nerd glasses yet is also strong enough to terrify the school bully. Logan Lerman and Cody Linley play the two young teens who, along with Larson, fight a low-key eco-guerrilla battle against evil developers in order to save the burrowing owls whose habitat is in danger. Writer-director Wil Shriner has made Hiaasen's writing blander for the big screen, but it doesn't help matters that, of the three young leads, only Larson has any charisma. (Luke Y. Thompson) ARN, CW10, CC12, DP, EG, GL, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, WO

Mission Impossible 3. Laugh-riot Tom Cruise is back as super-spy Ethan Hunt. Hunt gave up active duty — but then along came Truman Capote, er, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to spoil his linen-suit-wearing, umbrellaed-drink-sipping retirement. Aw. (not reviewed) ARN, CC12, DP, EG, EQ, GL, J14, KEN, MR, MOO, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, WO

The Notorious Bettie Page. (R) Neither a mock-heroic cockeyed success story like Ed Wood nor a Walk the Line-style hagiography, Mary Harron's facile but hugely entertaining black-and-white biopic seems most interested in its subject — a studious southern girl who became the world's most celebrated fetish pinup — as an object. A zippy, startlingly sweet elegy for the relative innocence of postwar smut, it casts Page's early years in fairly conventional lives-of-the-famous terms, briskly sketching her religious roots and unhappy adolescence in Nashville. But the movie's Bettie, played with sunny forthrightness by Gretchen Mol, passes from one eager shutterbug to another, culminating in her "notorious" bondage shoots with photographer Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his mother-hen sister Paula (Lili Taylor). The movie is disappointingly slight as a biography, but Mol makes a bigger impression than she ever has onscreen before, and cinematographer Mott Hupfel's silvery evocation of the 1950s is never less than gorgeous. (Ridley) PF

One Last Thing . . .. (R) Let's say you're a teenage boy dying of cancer. A well-known charity dedicated to helping people like you offers to make your fondest wish come true, so long as it's realistic. Since tumors don't stop gushing hormones, odds are a boy who'll never get to be a man is thinking about one particular rite of passage more than any other. One Last Thing . . . imagines such a boy; Dylan (Sky High star Michael Angarano) is determined to spend a weekend alone with supermodel Nikki Sinclair (Sunny Mabrey, star of Species III). Most everyone around him assumes it's an impossible dream — and it might have been, if Nikki weren't such a self-destructive drunk that she badly needs a bit of good PR in order to stay gainfully employed. Director Alex Steyermark (Prey for Rock & Roll) gets great performances from his actors, but he and writer Barry Stringfellow (Sweet Valley High) occasionally kill the mood with overdone spiritual bits. Still and all, Angarano and Mabrey bring something special to the proceedings, and they make it work. (Thompson) PF

The Promise. (PG-13) Coming closer even than Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers to resembling the Chinese cover art for an Iron Butterfly album, Chen Kaige's movie is clotted with cartoon-poetic imagery: floating ocean goddesses, flying swordsmen, Final Fantasy waterscapes, horse manes dyed red. The assault of chintz is relentless, but it's also wildly campy. The cursed heroine (Cecilia Cheung) is kept prisoner in a giant birdcage that would've pleased Siegfried & Roy; eye shadow, feather boas, and scarlet capes are de rigueur for the men. More effort has been expended on the knights' Vegas-style ensembles than on a coherent narrative (which, reportedly, has been edited up and down from the Chinese version), and the upshot is a new-millennium epic that risks all of its marbles on nonsensical style. Chen's story is harebrained but hardly simple, conflating the fates of Cheung's princess, a likable windbag of a general (Hiroyuki Sanada), and his devoted slave (Jang Dong-gun). But who loves who and why is never made clear, and the mano a mano is managed via quick edits, not the actors' movements. (Michael Atkinson) PF

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