Movie reviews in brief

  • Updated: August 21, 2008 - 3:17 PM

ELEGY

★★★★ out of four stars

Rated: R for sexuality, nudity and language.

Theater: Edina.

In place of etchings, Professor David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), an aging lothario, brings nubile female students home to see a letter from Kafka, mounted on a wall. He has been practicing serial tomcatting for decades and knows that flattering a woman's intellect goes far.

Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz) is his latest acquisition. He wins her over by comparing her eyes to a Goya painting.

At this point you might be wondering: Do we really need another movie about a May-December romance? In the case of "Elegy," the answer is absolutely. It's in the same league as "The Lovers" and "Last Tango in Paris" in conveying passion that approximates the real deal. The first time David and Consuela touch, pushed together by a partygoer at his New York loft, you can practically feel the voltage. The joy they take in lovemaking is captured in the actors' expressive faces.

"Elegy" turns out to have quite a pedigree. It's based on the novella "The Dying Animal," by Philip Roth, who wrote the book on male sexual angst. To hear Roth's words adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Meyer ("Time After Time") and spoken by Kingsley is a treat.

Spanish director Isabel Coixet ("My Life Without Me") displays a reverence for the material. You can imagine her whispering on the set. She brings out the absolute best in her top-notch cast.

"Elegy" refuses to conform to expectations about how this kind of movie should play out. The screenwriter, or maybe it was Roth, resists the temptation to tie everything up neatly. You leave the couple reluctantly, like old friends you hope to hear from soon.

RUTHE STEIN, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

the rocker

★ 1/2 out of four stars

Rated: PG-13 for drug and sexual references, nudity and language.

Fortysomething wannabe rock star worms his way into his teenage nephew's band. How many times do you think Will Ferrell and Jack Black have turned down that pitch? I'm guessing approximately eleventy billion.

Rainn Wilson (of TV's "The Office") can't afford to be so choosy. Playing a paunchy workaday drone chasing one last shot at rock 'n' roll glory is the kind of dues you gotta pay when you're working your way up from cameo player to feature film star.

Wilson plays "Fish" Fishman, a has-been drummer from Vesuvius, an '80s rock band that dumped him the very day it hit the big time. Fish has been nursing his grudge for two decades, and when a co-worker raves about the group and plays a track from their latest smash album, he runs amok. Dominoes fall as he gets fired, loses his girlfriend and moves in with his sister's family in Cleveland.

Wouldn't you know that his loser nephew's high school band lost its drummer right before the prom? Who could possibly fill in on such short notice? Through an inexcusably dumb chain of events, the band becomes a YouTube sensation and goes on tour. Christina Applegate, playing the guitarist's hot momma, tags along as the youngsters' chaperone and Wilson's unlikely love interest.

"The Rocker's" screenplay (by the husband-and-wife team of Maya Forbes of "The Larry Sanders Show" and former "Simpsons" writer Wally Wolodarsky) holds some interest as a storehouse of used comedy ideas. But mostly, this film is just another hairball clog in the seasonal glut of dumb comedies.

COLIN COVERT

DEATH RACE

★ 1/2 out of four stars

Rated: R for strong violence and language.

"Death Race" is not smart or graceful or inventive, but it delivers what it promises, a kinetic outpouring of energy, blood and destruction. Photographed almost exclusively in hues of battleship gray and fireball orange, the film is set in near-future postapocalyptic America. This time the catastrophe was economic, and the corporations that operate all the nation's penitentiaries have developed a lucrative sideline in gladiatorial auto races. Driving muscle cars pimped out with hood-mounted machine guns and napalm nozzles in place of turn signals, prisoners blast each other on pay-per-view, competing for the chance to win their release papers.

Granite-browed Jason Statham and glowering Tyrese Gibson play rival drivers; Joan Allen is the Machiavellian warden, and Ian McShane plays Statham's wily mechanic and mentor. The real stars, however, are the armor-plated race cars that ram into each other almost continuously. Director Paul W.S. Anderson tosses in some grisly, well-timed jokes, but the film's overall mood is grim urgency. In the brief periods between laps around the booby-trapped track, the inmates take turns pounding one another with huge wrenches and lengths of chain. While I admired the film's craftsmanlike sheen, I felt similarly worked over.

COLIN COVERT

trumbo

★★ 1/2 out of four stars

Rated: PG-13 for a sex-related commentary.

Theater: Lagoon.

Blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. said it all in his eulogy for fellow Hollywood exile Dalton Trumbo: "At rare intervals there appears among us a person ... who so subordinates his own ego drive to the concerns of others, who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not."

A confrontational, curmudgeonly communist, and a prolific and respected scenarist, Trumbo was exiled from Hollywood after refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1947, he was cited for contempt of Congress and jailed for 10 months. For more than a decade he wrote using pseudonyms; his script for "The Brave One," under the name Robert Rich, earned a 1957 Academy Award, which went unclaimed. That embarrassment helped weaken the blacklist and Trumbo came roaring back with full credit for the 1960 blockbusters "Spartacus" and "Exodus."

This biography is celebratory to a fault. There is scant context about the history and political climate that led to the blacklist. Beyond Lardner's puckish assessment, there is scarcely a critical word spoken about Trumbo; his worst foible would appear to be a lack of a sense of proportion. He was renowned for his eloquent letters of complaint (read here by Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson and Paul Giamatti, among others), lobbed at political antagonists and impatient creditors alike. From ideological protests to passing grievances, he always fired heavy artillery. While he's sometimes been called a martyr of the blacklist, "Trumbo" shows him as an indomitable brawler who never turned the other cheek when he could deliver a verbal roundhouse.

COLIN COVERT

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