Film Openings

Week of September 14, 2006

Sep 13, 2006 at 4:00 am
The Black Dahlia. (R) Reviewed in this issue. ARN, CPP, CGX, DP, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH

Everyone's Hero. (G) Tactfully credited to Christopher Reeve, this old-fashioned tale of the meek inheriting the earth, or at any rate the outfield, was actually put together after Reeve's death by animators Daniel St. Pierre and Colin Brady, from a story that IDT Entertainment chairman Howard Jonas wrote for his children. But you can see what Reeve, who had more reason than most to grin and bear it, saw in this Depression-era saga of Yankee Irving, a skinny little baseball fan (voiced by Jake T. Austin) riding the rails around America to return Babe Ruth's lost bat and in the process recover his own father's job minding the pitch at Yankee Stadium. The boy's Midwestern adventures, in which he gets help from some cheerful bums and spends quality time with the Negro Leagues, are fairly pro forma, and the message — plug away, be ye ever so humble, and glory will surely follow — is all but exhausted in animated children's movies. Still, what a relief that the banter emanates not from farmyard animals, but from the bickering mouths of a disillusioned foul ball (Rob Reiner) and a Southern Belle bat (Whoopi Goldberg). The movie's antique Rockwellian look is its greatest pleasure. (Ella Taylor) CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL

Gridiron Gang. (PG-13) Former pro wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who always made a good show of selling fake violence, stars in Phil Joanou's well-meant trifle as an idealistic corrections officer who starts up a football team at a juvenile detention center in L.A. Never mind the obvious parallels to The Longest Yard and Remember the Titans; what we get here is one huge, indigestible sports-movie platitude. The troubled, belligerent teenagers are variously appealing — Jade Yorker as a gangbanger who shot his mother's abusive boyfriend, Paul Higa as the team's talented but insecure quarterback, Trever O'Brien as the token white boy, etc. — but what we have here is another overdose of inspiration, pure and simple, about Winning and Losing. As The Rock himself would have to acknowledge, it means to be the Charging Double-Leg Spinebuster of football-coach hero stories. (Bill Gallo) ARN, CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, MR, OF, SP, STCH, STCL

Half Nelson. (R) Unawarded at Sundance despite ample acclaim, this indie drama drags the white-teacher-inspires-black-students movie onto the mat and pins the flabby genre in the first round, such is the film's acute understanding not only of its opponent's weaknesses, but its own. "What can I teach them?" Ryan Gosling's Brooklyn junior-high history instructor wonders aloud in the bar after school — as well he might, given that this lefty intellectual crack addict, called daily to stand and deliver at the podium, isn't exactly the image of stability. Neither is he an entirely plausible protagonist, but, as Gosling's Mr. Dunne likes to employ metaphor in the classroom, so first-time feature-maker Ryan Fleck instructs us to see his wannabe-activist basehead as a symbol of American do-gooding gone bad — or at least gone woefully undirected. Whereas authority is generally expected to have the answers, Half Nelson is more than honest enough to settle for genuine uncertainty: It asks whether genuine uncertainty — the vague sense that the world is too complicated to address or even understand — is going to cut it in these divisive times. (Rob Nelson) TV

The House of Sand. (R) Set in the Maranhao desert of northern Brazil and spanning six decades (from 1910), Andrucha Waddington's admirably pretentious epic of woman in nature makes the rare attempt to impart a purely visual experience: Sensual shots of gargantuan sand dunes appear at least as important in storytelling terms as the faces of three women — mother, daughter, and granddaughter (Fernanda Montenegro plays all three in old age) — who are forced to traverse this barren landscape in search of somewhere to settle. Waddington, a veteran of 200 TV commercials (and the ho-hum Me You Them), delivers no shortage of trailer-ready images (major elements include sun, sky, wind, rain, and hair), which in succession do become hypnotic. The movie naturally works best without dialogue, although the presence of one or two men in Waddington's forbidding landscape compels some verbal foreplay en route to the universal language of softcore. The current scarcity of art-house cinema that favors poeticism over plausibility works to the great advantage of a film that's old-fashioned even in its thematic concerns, including what it means to come and go when one's home is not a house, but the earth itself. (Nelson) PF

The Last Kiss. (R) Reviewed in this issue. ARN, CPP, CGX, DP, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL