When a 14-year-old prostitute dies while delivering her baby, London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) vows to track down her family. Her only clue is the dead girl’s diary, written in Russian, and a business card for a posh Russian social club left inside. So, as Anna’s elderly uncle sets about translating the journal, she meets with Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the club’s sinister owner, hoping to learn more. What she doesn’t realize is that Semyon is actually the boss of the vory v zakone — a murderous Russian mob that trades in nefarious deeds. He wants the diary, he says, because it implicates his ne’er-do-well son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). But Anna, fearing the newborn will end up lost in foster care, will only trade the diary for information about the girl’s family. Her naively brash confrontation with the underworld attracts the interest of Kirill’s driver and right-hand man, steely-eyed Russian mobster Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), who makes small gestures of friendliness. Morally ambiguous but obviously lethal, both Anna and the audience are unsure of his motivations. Is this mysterious thug a sympathetic ally, a goon on the make, or someone scheming to use her for plans of his own?
What does it take to strap a backpack full of explosives to your body and become a human bomb? Reducing the question to an exercise in abstraction, Russian-born filmmaker Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night tries to provide a context-free answer but is undone by postmodernist affectation and art school minimalism. Set over the course of 48 hours, the film follows a young, ethnically ambiguous woman (Luisa Williams) as she prepares herself as a suicide bomber. From terminal to waiting car to nondescript hotel, the regimen leading up to the nameless woman’s mission is as portentous as it is banal; a shower, eating, waiting for the next phone call and its set of instructions. Eventually, her handlers show up. The next day, “she” sets off for Times Square during rush hour, ready to fulfill her destiny. Or is she? What begins as an eerily mesmerizing experience in narrative austerity becomes a tedious exercise in post-modernism, playing more like performance art or an art gallery’s video installation than a feature film.
Writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) employs a cool, minimalist style — without bombast or heated rhetoric — to create a devastating portrait of the casualties of war on the home front (based on the 2003 death of Specialist Richard Davis). What makes In the Valley of Elah so effective is its straightforward directness, embodied in the person of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a no-nonsense, spit-and-polish military lifer. A Vietnam veteran and retired member of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division, Hank has seen two sons follow his footsteps into military service. With so powerful an example at home, his wife (Susan Sarandon) asserts, the die was cast early on. So when Hank receives word that youngest son Michael (Jonathan Tucker) has returned safely from Iraq, but has gone missing and is reported AWOL, he knows something’s not right.
Coming off the critical success of his debut, The Matador, filmmaker Richard Shepard steps into the difficult-to-master arena of political satire with The Hunting Party and comes up short. The shaggy-dog mishmash of cynical black comedy, male-bonding road trip, political commentary and cautionary tale, concerns Simon Hunt (a jaunty Richard Gere), a washed-up TV war correspondent who, after an on-air meltdown during the Bosnian war, was fired by his network and now travels from one war torn nation to the next scraping together jobs.
The current kings of the gross-out romantic comedy (that’s Judd Apatow and crew) have nothing to fear from Good Luck Chuck. Neither do former kingpins the Farrelly brothers — though director Mark Helfrich’s debut film here tries to mimic There’s Something About Mary. Good Luck Chuck has a great central premise, but suffers from a lack of anything resembling heart. Charlie Logan is a successful dentist and serial dater (always avoiding the three little words his girlfriends want to hear), who begins to notice a strange pattern in his life: After he breaks up with a woman, she goes on to meet her ideal mate and quickly gets married. Screenwriter Josh Stolberg sets Charlie up as a basically decent guy who must contend with the gift/curse of giving women what they (presumably) want most without ever falling in love himself. Ron Livingston or Luke Wilson could juggle Charlie’s warring impulses and make him endearing, but Dane Cook isn’t up to the task.
Amanda Bynes stars as a salt-of-the-earth high-school grad who enters college with dreams of joining her late mother’s sorority, which is now overrun by a totalitarian witch and her cabal of elitist buxom blondes. So she bands together the nerd fraternity to take down the Greek establishment while converting her frat-boy love interest.
Despite its simple furnishings, casual dress policy and reasonable pricing, J. Baldwin’s fare is decidedly uptown. Entrées include six chicken options (ranging from Southern-fried to a low-carb almond-crusted variant in tomato-basil over zucchini linguini), several steaks (with Kobe flatiron an attractive option), a good number of sea-food items and several daily catches, jambalaya and, for vegetarians, portabella ravioli and mushrooms in a tomato-basil sauce. There's also a full array of imaginatively dressed, round and deep-dish designer pizzas that can be eaten in house or ordered in a half-baked state to cook at home. Most of the non-reserve wines are fairly marked up from $28 to $34, and though only Bud Light and Bass Ale are on tap, Baldwin compensates with an extensive list of quaffs by the bottle. Baldwin has every reason to be proud of his own restaurant. He has made it possible for ordinary folk in jeans and shorts to sample dishes he created when he labored in an entirely different gastronomical milieu.