This Week's Attractions

CALENDAR GIRLS

Opens Fri., Dec. 19, at Guild 45 and others

Like Winona Ryder, Helen Mirren is a pint-sized slip of a girl who packs a vast pair of stealth breasts. Until she whips 'em out, you'd never have guessed she was, as James Joyce put it, "inclined to fall in the noonday soup plate." In this fact-based ode to the creatively brazen dames of Rylstone, North Yorkshire, Mirren plays the woman who talked her middle-aged friends at a staid ladies' club into posing for the best-selling nude calendar I personally ever sold at Amazon.com. The club's calendar ordinarily featured dull pictures of churches, but here when one of the Rylstone women (Julie Walters) loses her husband to cancer, they decide to raise serious money for the local hospital by undressing for success. Mirren whips 'em out but most pose à la Austin Powers, with naughty bits obscured by strategically placed props.

Many people will love Girls the way they loved The Full Monty, and director Nigel Cole milkssorry!the true story for several solid comic moments and satisfying tears. It's fun to see Mirren and her pals scandalize the prigs. But it's a one-joke premise. As the gals go to Hollywood to appear on Leno and reporters flood their small town, the story grinds to a dead stop. Monty gave you a poignant portrait of a small town and unemployment-humiliated men; Girls vividly sketches the girls but fails utterly to portray their husbands, children, and milieu. All clashes between characters are painfully forced, transparently contrived. It's a meek, superficial film just like Cole's Saving Grace, which milked mechanical laughs by showing small-town, oldish Britons getting stoned on pot. Isn't it funny, seeing oldish ladies doff their tops and hearing their husbands at breakfast blandly say, "Yer nude in The Telegraph, dear"? Yes. For about a half-hour. But this is a 108-minute movie. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

CHARLIE: THE ART AND LIFE OF CHARLES CHAPLIN

Runs Fri., Dec. 19-Thurs., Dec. 25, at Varsity

In this new documentary from Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, Chaplin emerges as a man of many firsts. Certainly the first movie icon to resonate throughout the 20th century, Chaplin was also the first director, Schickel claims, whose maddening attention to detail (and consequent willingness to shoot take after take until he got it right) foretold both Kubrick's notorious perfectionism and modern directing technique in general. In terms of pop culture, Chaplin was the original global cross-marketed multimedia brand, appearing not only in nearly 100 films but also in comic books and a series of Little Tramp toys. (His licensed image is still worth millions today.)

It's this notion of Chaplin as innovator that distinguishes Charlie, although most of Schickel's avenues of inquiry are familiar: interviewing Richard Attenborough, who directed the 1992 biopic Chaplin; consulting various Chaplin biographers, whose sheer number suggests the man's lasting influence; and chatting with his assorted progeny, including actress Geraldine Chaplin. Fortunately, the film does also delve into unexpected territory. An examination of Chaplin's ability to direct without starring (as in the 1923 melodrama A Woman of Paris) spotlights a much-ignored portion of his talent.

What sticks with me about this doc, however, is what Schickel ends with: home-movie footage of Chaplin late in life, clowning with family members in his Swiss exile from America (where he was blacklisted), trotting out the old routines just for the hell of it. The juxtaposition of iconic film clips with this private gag reel suggests that however nimbly Chaplin incorporated the rise of technology (Modern Times) and the fall of his erstwhile glory (Limelight) into his lengthy film career, in the end he could never really change who he was. The aging of this quintessential vaudevillian is described by one commentator as a display of "sad dignity," but compared to other Hollywood fade-outs, Chaplin left the stage as gracefully as could be. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER

THE COOLER

Opens Fri., Dec. 19, at Harvard Exit

In the seedy Vegas casino Shangri-La, when you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, look for Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) over your shoulder. That's Bernie's job: to share the wealth of bad luck that permeates his being and radiates from him like enriched uranium, nuking any winning streak in his general vicinity. Not that Bernie gets no breaks. When he lost a bundle gambling years ago, his friend, the casino owner Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), mercifully let him off with a shattered kneecap instead of a shallow grave in the desert and benevolently let him work off his six-figure debt as a "cooler," patrolling the Shangri-La, leaving losers in his wake.

Nobody could play Bernie better than Macy. Lit from above, his massive eyebrows cast shadows as gloomy as Saint-Gaudens' statue of Clover Adams. Baldwin's death-rattle rasp is ideal for Shelly, and he plays him as perfectly as any part in his considerable career. It's as impressive as his kick-ass cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross, yet more subtle and complex. Shelly is scary, funny, and self-deludedwhen he's at his most sinister, he's convinced he's being as paternalistic as Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol. "I cried like a baby!" he snivels in self-pity, after murdering a beloved employee.

To Shelly, the casino is like a family, and everybody has an important part to play: Bernie, limping around spreading woe; washed-up junkie lounge singer Buddy (Paul Sorvino); and dishy cocktail waitress of a certain age Natalie (Maria Bello). And it's all being threatened by a gung-ho baby MBA (Ron Livingston) who's muscling Shelly to lose the superstition, sack the ruined crooner and doleful cooler, and get with the modern business program.

Here's what really scares Shelly. In some unusually realistic love scenes (who knew cellulite could shake it up so sexy?), Natalie amazingly beds Bernie, ending his fuckless streak and his luckless streak in one go. Now he's a lover, not a loser. He's lost his gift! He struts around the casino all smiles; all the gamblers are in the money. Worse, he plans to run off with Natalie. What's a godfather to do?

The upshot is both too predictable and improbable, and a subplot involving Bernie's long-lost slimebag son (Shawn Hatosy) is flavorful but irrelevant. The Cooler doesn't quite hit the jackpot, but there's a real payoff in grit, wit, snappy dialogue, and superb acting. (R) TIM APPELO

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

Runs Fri., Dec. 19-Sun., Dec. 21, at Little Theatre

News flash: The U.S. government's School of the Americas has trained Latin American despots and military menNoriega and the contras among themwho've brutally oppressed, tortured, and killed their own people. Don't take my word for it? How about Noam Chomsky's? Or Christopher Hitchens'? Or President Bartlet's? The West Wing's Martin Sheen narrates this completely unexceptional, completely unsurprising documentary about the SOA (or "school for dictators"), founded in 1946 Panama and moved to Fort Benning, Ga., in 1984. Bloody autopsy photos are waved and torture victims testify, but no amount of lefty sloganeering can ever proveor disprovewhat's actually taught inside the school (since renamed WHISCas in "Whisk the Commies away!"). There's even a big peace march and bad folk music for viewers so inclined. I just wish Michael Moore had poked his camera inside the SOAyou know, what kind of grades did Noriega get in Torture 101? And did the other cadets tease him about his skin? (NR) BRIAN MILLER

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