Film Openings

Week of February 8, 2007

Feb 7, 2007 at 4:00 am

Constellation. (PG-13) Depictions of upper-middle-class African-American life are such a rare screen commodity that one wants to give a movie like Constellation every possible benefit of the doubt. Written and directed by Jordan Walker-Pearlman (whose promising 2001 debut feature, The Visit, starred several of the same actors), the film leapfrogs between present-day Huntsville, Alabama, and 50 years earlier, when a beautiful young black woman (Gabrielle Union) was torn from the white soldier she loved as a result of the era's segregation laws. Now that woman is dead and about to be buried, and as her extended family — her emotionally withdrawn artist brother (Billy Dee Williams), his ex-wife (Lesley Ann Warren), and their two daughters (Melissa De Sousa and Zoe Saldana) — gathers for the occasion, it's as if she is guiding them from beyond the grave to find peace, love, and understanding in their own troubled relationships. Constellation (which was filmed in 2004 and played festivals in 2005) wants to be a sweeping, multigenerational tear-jerker à la The Notebook, complete with endless shots of two characters staring meaningfully at one another while gloppy sentimental music wells on the soundtrack. Only Williams, however, makes any real emotional connection — I'm not sure I'd call it a good performance, but there's something intrinsically fascinating about seeing the man once heralded as "the black Clark Gable" three decades removed from heartthrob status, heavy and sullen-looking, weighed down by the burdens of time and age. (Scott Foundas) J14, STCL

Hannibal Rising. Except for the whole cannibalism thing, Hannibal Lecter was a smart and nice enough fellow. Hannibal Rising follows the people-eater through those awkward teenage years. (not reviewed) ARN, CGX, DP, EG, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. (Not Rated) The ultimate death knell for '60s idealism sounded on November 18, 1978, at Jonestown, Guyana, where Reverend Jim Jones and more than 900 acolytes of his Peoples Temple destroyed their utopian aims in a paroxysm of paranoia, murder and mass suicide. The conventional PBS formatting of Stanley Nelson's documentary only makes Jones' rise from Indiana pet monkey salesman to pansexual socialist megalomaniac more surreal — and heartbreaking, given the noble early goals described by still-dazed survivors. In the end, there's just the grim evidence of the doc's horrifying last half-hour, the on-camera slaughter of a dream: history as Cannibal Holocaust. (Jim Ridley) TV

The Last Sin Eater. (PG-13) Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is arguably the most iconic female villain in film history. The miscasting of Fletcher — still a forbidding screen presence — as a kindly grandmother is only one of many missteps that director Michael Landon Jr. (yes, it's his son) makes in The Last Sin Eater, the tale of a guilt-wracked 10-year-old in mid-19th-century Appalachia. Little Cadi (Liana Liberato) is convinced that she caused the death of her younger sister and obsessed with absolving her crime by finding the "sin eater" — a member of the community who allegedly grants redemption to the worldly. Liberato muddles through a heavy-handed Christian agenda and barely legible plot as the film follows Cadi through the woods on various sin-expunging missions, sometimes accompanied by an imaginary sprite or her pseudo-love interest, Fagan. Toward the end of the film, Cadi and Fagan stumble on a "Man of God," who teaches them — and the rest of the village — that there are no mortal sin eaters: Only Jesus can nosh on your transgressions. (Jessica Grose) OF, RON

The Messengers. (PG-13) Reviewed in this issue. (Ridley) ARN, CGX, DP, EG, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

Norbit. (PG-13) Two Nutty Professor movies and Eddie Murphy still hasn't gotten the split-personality shtick out of his system. Original nut Jerry Lewis would say that comedy is at least half rage, and Norbit, wherein Murphy plays a psychotic, gargantuan wife and the meek, battered husband of the title, is one mean movie. (Murphy's third role is that of Mr. Wong, the tactless owner of a combination orphanage and Chinese restaurant.) Bigger than Martin Lawrence's Big Momma, the violent, bitchy, absurdly abrasive Rasputia floods the bathtub, breaks the marital bed, empties the kiddie pool at a water park, literally squeezes into a purple MG, et cetera. In a movie where everything has its extreme opposite, Norbit's childhood sweetie and true love is Kate (Thandie Newton), an upsettingly thin doll of a woman who may be powerless to prevent her and Norbit's beloved orphanage from being turned by her scheming fiancé (Cuba Gooding Jr.) into a "titty bar" called Nipplopolis. (It's PG-13! Bring the kids!) Aside from the bevy of fat jokes, there are fart jokes, talking-dog jokes, Cadillac license-plate jokes (e.g., "SELLNHOS"), and Baptist church jokes. It's an astonishingly crass and vulgar film: crudely directed on a cut-rate budget by Brian Robbins, never more than almost funny or less than disturbing. (Rob Nelson) ARN, CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12