There are flashes of bravery in Gavin Hood’s robust direction. The South African native (who won an Oscar for Tsotsi) expertly contrasts the American life of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) — whose very pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) launches a one-woman campaign to find him after he fails to return from a chemical engineering conference — with the underground world he’s disappeared into, one that employs the guilty-until-proven-guiltier tactics of rendition and torture. At once immensely earnest and sharply disingenuous, Rendition aims to be a smart political thriller with a conscience, and falls short of the mark. As a senator who’s both the voice of moral authority and the embodiment of political finessing, Alan Arkin booms that if he took on the administration and intelligence community over “extraordinary rendition,” the test case would have to be rock solid. So too, audiences looking for a movie that encapsulates the topsy-turvy morality of the fear-fueled policies of the Bush administration will just have to wait. This isn’t it.
Vampires in Alaska? Where the sun sets for a month at a time? It’s such an ingenious premise it’s amazing no one thought of it before. But these vampires, led by Danny Huston’s jaw-clacking Nosferatu, aren’t Ann Rice-suave goth. They’re brutally savage beasts that tear your throat out with gleeful abandon. Unfortunately, screenwriters Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson never get any further than their promising setup. The characters are undeveloped, the dialogue is banal and the plotting quickly falls into predictable redundancy. There’s never a sense of consequence or moral dilemma, just events and revelations that pop up to carry the story.
A trio of estranged brothers, Francis (Wilson) Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman), decides to reconnect on a cross-country train ride through India. That these kooky sibs would seek clarity in such a chaotic, overwhelming place speaks volumes about them — even when the screenplay leaves much unsaid. (Their stormy relationship gets fleshed out in a short film that’s available online, which in some ways is better than the feature film — not just because of Natalie Portman’s naked backside — but because it’s too short to ramble on and on.) The trio’s father headed some undisclosed industry, which Francis (the oldest) is struggling to run in dad’s image. Peter is dealing with looming fatherhood himself, and wears pop’s oversize sunglasses, as if they’ll grant him some special foresight. Schwartzman’s Jack is like the fantasy adult that Rushmore’s Max Fisher dreamed of — a dashing, George Harrison-mustachioed, jet-setting author caught in a romantic death spiral with a beautiful femme fatale.
Things We Lost in the Fire is a glossy, inelegant, strangely inert film that boasts terrific performances, moments of real emotion and a third act that avoids cheap posturing and neat conclusions. It’s a decidedly mixed bag, but if Allan Loeb’s highly regarded script is to be commended, it’s for pulling on your heartstrings without shamelessly manipulating your emotions. Grief-stricken Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) struggles to cope with the tragic death of her saintly husband Brian (David Duchovny) by taking in his childhood best friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), a lawyer turned heroin addict. Damaged but decent, Jerry tries to play surrogate father to Brian’s kids while soothing Audrey’s wounded heart. But the monkey’s still on his back and grief’s road is never smooth. Audrey’s heartache turns to anger and emotional conflicts lead to crippling setbacks for both of them.
For the uninitiated, Nightmare is the story of Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town. Bored by his duties and desperate to experience something new, he decides to kidnap Santa Clause and take over Christmas. Putting his ghoulish minions to work, he ends up ruining the very holiday he tried to improve. A sort of "Grinch Who Stole Christmas" in reverse, Jack’s misadventures teach him the value of remaining true to what he is. But what's really surprising is how fresh and original this stop-motion horror fantasia feels after 13 years, cleverly refashioning Yuletide yuletide characters into Edward Gorey refugees. Sure the story is as thin as Jack Skellington’s twiggy legs and Danny Elfman’s tunes are hit-or-miss but the film’s spirit, tone and visuals never cease to delight. And did we mention it's in 3D?
Affleck’s carefully chosen supporting cast is first-rate. Madigan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, John Ashton and little known but equally impressive TV actors Titus Welliver and Amy Ryan, round out Gone Baby Gone with lived-in authenticity. But what makes Ben Affleck’s filmmaking debut rise above similar crime dramas is its layered exploration of human ethics and moral relativism. Gone Baby Gone’s gut-wrenching dilemmas reveal the ambiguity of human nature and test each character’s ethical resolve. Listen to Ed Harris’s fiery monologue about which side he’s chosen and you can’t help but become pulled into the quagmire of emotions and values that drive Lehane’s tragic tale. Everyone here is in a quandary, trading on principles to arrive at the right answer and Kenize’s last act choice distills the age-old impasse: How do you weigh your sense of what’s right against what may be the greater good?
In a stylish setting, bandana-clad sushi chefs vigorously chop and slice at the sushi bar turning out first-rate sushi and sashimi. But for the sushi-shy, there's also an interesting limited array of other Japanese standards. Ronin offers only 5 entrées ($11-$28) but with noodles, fish, fowl and beef, most gastronomic bases are covered. The chilled green-tea noodles in lemongrass oil. Of the 20-odd beers available, nine are on tap, including Kirin Ichiban. Not surprisingly, the bar is well stocked with sake, along with an intelligently selected group of 10 bottles of wine, four of which cost between $20 and $28.