★★ 1/2 out of four stars
Rating: R for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use.
By-the-numbers suburban alienation. The setting is late 1970s Long Island, N.Y., where deer ticks are spreading a mysterious new illness. Lyme disease here is a marker for Me Decade restlessness, which is running at near-epidemic levels. Dad (Alec Baldwin) is a striving real-estate developer whose contemporary house designs reveal his impatience with restrictive traditions -- marital fidelity, for example. Mom (Jill Hennessy), a traditional Catholic girl, longs for the old certainties of life back home in Queens. She seals 15-year-old Scott (Rory Culkin) with duct tape at his collar and cuffs to protect him from the contagion that is driving their community paranoid. Neighbor Charlie (Timothy Hutton) has a severe case of the yips. Maybe it's because of the ticks, maybe because he's been out of work too long, or maybe it's because his wife (Cynthia Nixon) is having an affair with Scott's philandering dad. Whatever: He's spending way too much time wandering the back yard with a loaded rifle.
Writer/director Derick Martini finds telling parallels between Scott's struggles with puberty and first love and the adults' no less messy lives. Baldwin shows us the glimmers of humanity in a character who is simply reprehensible on the page; you can understand why his son sides with him (at least initially). Culkin and his real-life sibling Kieran make believable brothers, and Hutton looks genuinely miserable as the diseased guy next door. Overall the film feels like "The Ice Storm" or "American Beauty" on training wheels, but Martini's next efforts could be well worth watching.
★★★ out of four stars
Unrated; in Arabic and Hebrew, subtitled.
New neighbors Salma and Mira would have a lot to talk about if they weren't separated by language, politics and a 9-foot cyclone fence. Salma is Palestinian, widowed young and scraping by on the proceeds of her lemon grove. Mira, the Israeli defense minister's wife, leads a privileged life in her new McMansion, yet she is as hemmed in by her husband's security detail as Salma is by her community's patriarchal busybodies. They both know a thing or two about unfaithful men. When the minister's bodyguards order Salma's trees chopped down, she goes all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court to argue the case. Mira admires Salma's determination and sides with her in the press. The women come tantalizingly close without ever getting to know how much they have in common.
Israeli director Eran Riklis sees the Mideast conflict in human terms, a matter of competing rights where there are no good outcomes, simply some that are less bad. "Only American movies have happy endings," cautions Salma's lawyer; rather than facile cheer, "Lemon Tree" offers the bittersweet satisfaction of understanding a thorny situation a bit better. In a uniformly strong cast, Hiam Abbass ("The Visitor") is outstanding as the proud, lovely Salma.
NEXT DAY AIR
1/2 out of four stars
Rating: R for pervasive drug content, harsh profanity, graphic violence, sexual content and brief nudity.
A fiasco. A flop. A failure's failure. "Next Day Air" aims low but still misses the target. It's modeled on Guy Ritchie's English crime comedies, in which a dozen colorful cutthroats intersect haphazardly until fate shuffles them together for a big shootout over a pile of money. This caper transplants the helter-skelter structure to ghetto L.A. and Philadelphia. A Mexican drug king overnights 10 bricks of cocaine to an East Coast flunky. Leo (Donald Faison), a no-account delivery driver, brings the package to the wrong address, and the inept crooks who sign for it race to unload the narcotics through their own channels. The Latinos strike back, threatening a blood fiesta.
Director Benny Boom offers endless shots of Benjamins, blow and booty, but fails to construct a story around it. The plot wanders in circles, stumbling over its own shoelaces. Relationships and plot strands are introduced and forgotten, the shlock dialogue feels improvised on the spot. Faison has a winning presence, Mos Def brings a sly wit to the part of his cagey coworker, and Debbie Allen exudes tart impatience in the throwaway part of Leo's aggravated mother. You hope that they'll play some role in the finale, but the conclusion feels like a reel from a different movie. When it's over, you can't believe that's all there is.