Act of God (Canada/Britain/France, 2009) This artistic documentary looks at a variety of people who have been struck by lightning and gives them a forum to discuss the experience. The film includes numerous shots of lightning-filled skies, but director Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes) doesn't entirely overlook the human dimension. She interviews a poor Mexican woman who saw several of her children die after they were struck by lightening and visits a Canadian guy who gives a very graphic account of his brother's death, which he witnessed firsthand. Novelist Paul Auster opens the movie by recounting the time he was almost struck at age 14. "It's deeply implanted in all the work I've done," he says. His reading of the story he wrote about the experience comes at the film's conclusion, providing a nice bookend for the film. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22. *** (Jeff Niesel)
Afterschool (U.S., 2008) This remarkably accomplished debut feature by 24-year-old Antonio Campos bears the unmistakable stylistic imprimatur of both Michael Haneke (Caché) and Gus Van Sant's "death trilogy" (particularly Elephant), yet still manages to impress with its freshness of vision and rigorous modus operandi. Set in an elite prep school where two students — twin sisters, no less — have died from drug overdoses, the film follows the attempts of loner underclassman Robert (Ezra Miller, superb) to make a commemorative video celebrating their lives. While arguably not for all tastes (some will find its minimalist visual style hypnotic; others may consider it ponderous and affected), Afterschool marks Campos as a distinctive, important new voice in American independent cinema. Look for A Serious Man star Michael Stuhlbarg as a sympathetic, if ineffectual teacher. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23, and 6:45 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24. *** 1/2 (Milan Paurich)
An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank's The Americans (France/U.S., 2009) In this documentary, filmmaker Philippe Séclier retraces the steps Robert Frank took 50 years ago when he put together his photo collection The Americans. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Crazy Heart "I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else," has-been country crooner Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) says with just the slightest tinge of irony at the beginning of this C&W variant on The Wrestler. Writer-director Scott Cooper's debut feature borrows a page or two from such previous twangy sudsers as Tender Mercies and Payday without ever quite finding an identity of its own. Of course, Bridges' majestic, stunningly lived-in performance is more than enough reason to see this modestly compelling sleeper. And as a Tim McGraw-esque country superstar determined to help Blake stage his big comeback, Colin Farrell is equally impressive. Their emotionally charged, exquisitely moving scenes together are the best parts of the film. The only weak link in an otherwise nonpareil cast (which includes Mercies star Robert Duvall as a friendly saloon keeper) is Maggie Gyllenhaal as the single mom/alt-weekly reporter who has a tough-to-swallow May-December fling with daddy surrogate Blake. Cedar Lee Theatre. *** (Paurich)
Disgrace (Australia/South Africa, 2008) This adaptation of a J.M. Coetzee novel tells the story of David Lurie (John Malkovich), a Cape Town professor forced to resign after having an affair with one of his students. Kicked out of the university, David moves to the countryside to live with his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), and his life takes a sharp turn for the worse. And so does the film. A trio of thieves attacks the couple. They rape Lucy, shoot her dogs and pour lighter fluid on David, burning the side of his face. Things only get grimmer as Lucy decides to stay at her rural home, even though she fears the criminals may return, and David takes a job helping the local vet with her euthanasia duties. Originally shown at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, the film never got wide distribution, and it's easy to see why. While it takes a candid look at race relations in post-apartheid South Africa, its bleak outlook and gruesome images of animal cruelty make it difficult to watch. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 6:45 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24. ** 1/2 (Niesel)
In a Lonely Place (U.S., 1950) Nicholas Ray's movie about a self-destructive Hollywood screenwriter shows in a new 35mm print. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24.
Legion Reviewed at clevescene.com.
The Thin Red Line (U.S., 1998) Terrence Malick's visually stunning war movie is based on a James Jones novel about U.S. troops that fought in Guadalcanal during World War II. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:05 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, and 9:05 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22.
Tooth Fairy Reviewed at clevescene.com.
Avatar It's been a dozen years since king of the world James Cameron won a boatload of Oscars for Titanic. He apparently spent the downtime thinking about how to revolutionize movies with Avatar, his bloated and exhausting sci-fi epic about a tribe of tall, tailed and blue-hued creatures called Na'vi. It's also one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. The film is set in 2154 on the forest planet of Pandora, where wheelchair-bound marine Jake Scully (Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington) is recruited for an ongoing project that fuses human and Na'vi DNA, resulting in "avatars" that look like Na'vi but retain human thoughts. It's all very scientific, confusing and geeky. With a new body capable of sprinting as fast as any animal on Earth, Jake's mission is to infiltrate the Na'vi so the military can mine the precious minerals their homes are built on (again, it's all very scientific, confusing and geeky). It doesn't take long for Jake to fall for one of the Na'vi (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek's Uhura) and rethink his assignment. Avatar is pure sci-fi hokum with one-dimensional characters, heavy-handed narration and an unsurprising love story. But you've never seen a movie like this before. *** (Michael Gallucci)
The Book of Eli Written by Gary Whitta and directed by the Hughes Brothers, The Book of Eli does a good job of walking the middle ground between the pulpy entertainment of The Road Warrior and the more serious-minded vision of the end of the world seen in The Road. Its story revolves around Eli (Denzel Washington), who walks through a post-apocalyptic United States carrying with him the last surviving copy of the Bible. He believes he has been charged by God to deliver the book to a place where it will be safe, though he doesn't know where that might be other than to the west. Looking for supplies, Eli stops in a small town of survivors that's governed by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has been looking for a copy of the Bible because of its power in social control. The two predictably come into conflict. Washington and Oldman are excellent. So is Mila Kunis as the film's female lead, proving she's just as adept at drama as she is at comedy. *** 1/2 (Robert Ignizio)
Daybreakers This vampire film's old-school European sensibility comes through in its dialogue-free opening scene, which follows our bloodsucking hero Dr. Dalton (Ethan Hawke) as he goes to work, driving a black high-tech vehicle that protects him from the sun's harmful rays. Directed by Peter and Michael Spierig (Undead), the film has a good twist. Vampires have overtaken the world, and humans are such a minority that a crisis has ensued. It seems the vampires are running low on blood, and Dalton is trying to find a blood substitute. Dalton, however, is more sympathetic to humans than his vampire peers, particularly his money-loving, human-hating boss, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), and his human-hunting brother Frankie (Michael Dorman). So when Dalton has a chance encounter with a group of refugee humans led by a guy named Elvis (Willem Dafoe), he decides to help them out, especially since they have seemingly found a way to transform vampires back into humans. While the film's bloodbath finale doesn't add anything new to the genre, the Australian movie has a unique look and feel to it. ** 1/2 (Niesel)
Leap Year Directed by the estimable Anand Tucker (Shopgirl, Hilary and Jackie) in a somewhat lighter mode than usual, the film owes a huge debt of gratitude to its pixie-ish leading lady, two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams. As Anna, a Boston real-estate sharpie who travels to Ireland just so she can propose to her yuppie doctor boyfriend (Adam Scott) on February 29th, the adorable Adams makes a fairly pedestrian script by husband-and-wife writing team Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (Made of Honor, Can't Hardly Wait) seem far brighter, smarter and wittier than it really is. Very little of what transpires in this featherweight romantic comedy is remotely surprising or fresh, yet Adams keeps you happily glued to your seat from start to finish. Helping matters considerably is Tucker's deft and blessedly restrained hand while tackling even the hoariest rom-com conventions (the meet-cute scene, the tacky motel-room It Happened One Night moment, etc.). And if Matthew Goode (playing Adams' hate-him-at-first-sight Irishman suitor-to-be) lacks the megawatt charisma and virile studliness that, say, Colin Farrell might have brought to the role, he's still immensely winning. *** > (Paurich)
The Lovely Bones If you adored Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, don't expect much from Peter Jackson's much-delayed screen version. Rachel Weisz and Saoirse Ronan are all perfectly OK for Abigail and Susie Salmon, but Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Sopranos alumnus Michael Imperioli all seem dead wrong for the roles of father Jack Salmon, murderer George Harvey and detective Len Fenerman. As it turns out, Jackson's overuse of special effects to recreate Sebold's vision of the afterlife and some peculiar casting decisions are the least of the film's problems. The major reason The Lovely Bones leaves an acrid taste is that neither Jackson nor co-adapters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens seems to have understood the appeal of Sebold's bestseller or why it was so emotionally devastating for its legion of fans. The heart-wrenching tale of a 14-year-old girl brutally raped and murdered by an odd-duck neighbor in her central Pennsylvania neighborhood in 1973 — and her post-death observance of how her surviving family members grieve (terribly), and learn to rebound and move on — was primal, bawl-your-eyes-out stuff. Jackson's decision to vulgarize Sebold's story by turning it into a hokey serial-killer thriller basically shits on everything that made it special. ** (Paurich)
Nine This musical adaptation of Fellini's 8 1/2 is set in 1965 Rome, where "maestro" Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis with an Italian accent) is struggling to get his latest movie started. The press is hounding him, his producer is itching to begin filming and his star (Nicole Kidman) won't show up until she sees a script, which Guido hasn't written yet. Coming off a string of flops, he's sick, tired and stressed-out. So he anonymously checks in to a secluded hotel for rest. But soon the press, the paparazzi, his producer, his wife (Marion Cotillard, so good as Johnny Depp's girlfriend in Public Enemies) and his mother (Sophia Loren) show up. So do the various women who've paraded through his life. The movie sizzles during the stylish set pieces (mostly fantasy sequences) featuring half-dressed, gyrating women. The stars throw themselves into the material. Kidman, Penelope Cruz (as a mistress), Kate Hudson (a reporter) and Judi Dench (Guido's long-suffering costume designer) don't have great pipes, but their energy during the musical numbers powers the film. *** (Gallucci)
The Spy Next Door If you're a longtime Jackie Chan fan hoping for another Police Story or even a Rush Hour, you can probably skip The Spy Next Door. The plot is standard-issue, the performances are flat and Brian Levant's direction can best be described as competent. The movie basically skates by on Chan's likability, martial-arts skill and knack for comedy. The film centers on Bob Ho (Chan), a Chinese secret agent on loan to the CIA to help apprehend Russian criminal Poldark (Magnus Scheving). Having completed his mission, Bob wants to retire from the spy game and settle down with his neighbor, hot single mom Gillian (Amber Valletta). Unfortunately, Bob's cover as a boring pen salesman has worked a little too well, and Gillian's three kids all think he's a loser. Further complicating matters, Poldark escapes from captivity and sends his goons after Bob to retrieve a computer file containing information vital to his nefarious plans. Of course, the kids wind up getting entangled in this mess, and the expected fight scenes and stunts ensue. Still, there are a few laughs, and even the tame fight scenes are reasonably entertaining. ** 1/2 (Ignizio)
Youth in Revolt While on a family vacation in Ukiah, California, Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) meets jaded, decidedly non-virginal hipster chick Sheeni (Portia Doubleday). The two bond over their mutual boho tastes and disdain of parents. After returning home, Nick devises what he thinks is a foolproof plan to get his mom (Jean Smart) to let him return to Ukiah (and Sheeni). One of the most amusing features is the alter ego Nick adapts in his bid for emancipation. Gallic-accented Francois Dillinger is a real hoot (and a nice stretch for Cera, who seems to be having a ball playing a bad boy), as well as an extremely bad influence on poor Nick. Arson and grand theft auto are just a few of the crimes he gets talked into committing by tres debonair Francois. Adapted by Charlie Bartlett scenarist Gustin Nash, the film does a nice job of making Nick thoroughly likable, even relatable, throughout. *** (Paurich)