Film Openings

Benchwarmers. Some adults say that it's never too late for a happy childhood. And others live that out by forming a three-man baseball team to play against entire squads. Still others (hi, David Spade, Norm McDonald and Rob Schneider!) make a movie about this and somehow get Reggie Jackson to appear in it. (NR) ARN, CGX, CW10, CC12, DP, EG, EQ, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, WO

Lucky Number Slevin. (R) Years after the Quentin Tarantino earthquake first hit, slang-fueled screenplays still impress the small-studio suits. And so we have Paul McGuigan's smug but frequently witty crime cartoon, set in a mythical New York City where dueling underworld kingpins (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley) face each other in sealed towers. The plot is a standard one-up grift over The Usual Suspects that seems impossible to untangle until the film explains it all, laboriously, in speeches. We begin with a wheelchair-lounging Bruce Willis in a bus depot (the smirking starts early and does not subside) and then jump to Josh Hartnett's amiable new kid in town, mistaken for his deadbeat friend and put on the block by both bosses. Despite a bubbly rapport between Hartnett's boy-toy and Lucy Liu's flibbertigibbet coroner, the meaningless story mechanics begin locking gears and churning out contrivances, clichés, and pounding glibness. It's a waggish but empty vessel, with time enough for you to consider how Tarantino's babbling influence is at least preferable to that of Joe Eszterhas. (Michael Atkinson) ARN, CGX, CC12, DP, J14, MR, MOO, OF, RON, SP, STCH, WO

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. (Not Rated) As Sarah Palfrey, Joan Plowright plays a widow who, while not necessarily enjoying her widowhood, is at least trying to take advantage of the freedom it entails. The Claremont hotel is something like an old folks' home, and she hates to think that she would ever be there permanently, but a month or two might suffice. One day she takes a walk to the post office and trips on a stray tree root. Quick to her rescue comes Ludovic "Ludo" Meyer (Rupert Friend), a sensitive young writer. He bonds with Mrs. Palfrey and agrees to join her for dinner in the Claremont's wretched dining room the following Sunday. However, when Mrs. Palfrey tells her fellow residents that a guest is coming, they assume it will be her grandson Desmond. Mrs. Palfrey does not dissuade them from this idea, and Ludo, who aims to please, is eager to go along with it, pretending to be Desmond to impress the neighbors. Plowright is thoroughly believable as a distinguished lady left behind by time, but Friend less so as The Perfect Man. (Luke Y. Thompson) PF

Phat Girlz. Fat and happy: Is that such a bad thing? It's how people look at America anyway, but that doesn't mean it's always easy. Phat Girlz centers around Jazmin Biltmore (Mo'Nique), who's trying to make it as a plus-size fashion designer. We'd get into it more but the other plot lines are just too...wait for it...heavy. (NR) CW10, CC12, DP, EQ, J14, OF, RON, STCH, STCL, WO

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. (Not Rated) Reviewed in this issue. (Jean Oppenheimer) PF

Summer Storm. (Not Rated) This German coming-out drama is solid but flawed. Often a sensitive portrayal of a very difficult process, it eventually succumbs to melodrama, and its protagonist isn't easy to like. Tobi (Robert Stadlober) is an accomplished young oarsman whose rowing team depends on him for motivation and leadership. Over the years, he's formed a very close bond with Achim (the lovely Kostja Ullmann), his best friend. In fact, Tobi flirts desperately with Achim, and he gets away with most of it, since even engaging in parallel jerk-offs falls under the rubric of teen-boy play. But as the boys head to summer rowing camp, Achim's relationship with his girlfriend heats up, and he begins to lose patience with Tobi's cloying affections. And at camp, the boys encounter an all-gay crew, which sends a twitter of discomfort through their team. There's a lot to like in Summer Storm, including a superb scene between Tobi and his neglected girlfriend, but the film could do with a bit more subtlety and a protagonist who isn't so moodily self-obsessed. (Melissa Levine) TV

Take the Lead. (PG-13) Reviewed in this issue. (Thompson)ARN, CPP, CGX, CC12, DP, EG, EQ, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, WO