This Week's Attractions

Oscar nominated shorts, East German spies, and more.

Academy Award Nominated Shorts Runs at Varsity, Fri., Feb. 16-Thurs., Feb. 22. Not rated. 77 and 99 minutes. On the whole, the Oscar-nominated animated shorts are a stronger group than the live-action contenders in the shorts category, with even the weakest entries offering a high level of craftsmanship. Disney's handsome The Little Matchgirl, adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story, overwhelms the narrative with a maudlin tone, while Blue Sky Studios' No Time for Nuts incorporates Ice Age's squirrel, Scrat, into a mildly diverting time-travel adventure that boasts incessant child-friendly slapstick. The CG-animated Maestro, directed by Géza M. Tóth, spends five minutes building to its finale joke that you'll probably see coming long before then. On the bright side, Lifted, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, continues Pixar's tradition of superb short films. In this story of a misbegotten alien abduction, the animation is predictably amazing, but it's the precision of the silent comedy that impresses most. Even Lifted, however, pales in comparison to writer-director Torill Kove's glorious The Danish Poet, in which a narrator (voiced by Liv Ullmann) tells the unbelievable story of how her parents met, touching on the mysteries of love, creativity, happiness, and chance with such poignancy and sweet humor that the film's 14 slender minutes feel very nearly perfect. Several of this year's short live-action nominees suffer from high-concept ideas marred by too little follow-through. In The Saviour, writer-director Peter Templeman follows a Mormon evangelist's adulterous affair, but oscillates between feeling superior to his religious protagonist and showing him compassion. The glibly satirical West Bank Story turns the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a West Side Story parody, but instead of seeming brave and astute comes across as too pleased with itself and not nearly cutting enough. The Oscar in this category should go to Spanish director Borja Cobeaga's Éramos Pocos, a black comedy with hints of melancholy around its edges about a spoiled father and son who must finally learn to cook and clean for themselves when Mom abandons them—unless, that is, they can convince her aging mother to move in and take care of them. TIM GRIERSON Breach Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., Feb. 16. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes. In early 2001, FBI traitor Robert Hanssen was finally arrested after selling thousands of secrets to the Russian government for over two decades. His young colleague Eric O'Neill aided in the investigation, even stealing his Palm Pilot to download all the KGB contacts stashed therein. Now O'Neill is played by dead ringer Ryan Phillippeas Hanssen's photonegative—a baby-faced go-getter trying to work his way up the ranks. Hanssen, played by Chris Cooper, is the burned-out veteran who considers the agency to be full of Neanderthals who don't appreciate his genius. (In return, he's called "the Mortician" for his deadly dull demeanor.) The often underestimated Phillippe is perfectly cast, and he positively shrinks in Cooper's presence; there are moments when you forget he's even in the scene. Everyone in the film, including O'Neill's direct supervisor (Laura Linney), speaks to him like he's incapable of deep thought. And Hanssen underestimates him, too. Breach is a spy movie bereft of the genre's usual, casual kicks. Director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) is more interested in dissecting the relationship between O'Neill and Hanssen, who resists the kid initially but then takes him to church and invites him home. The outcome is a given. But Ray, a storyteller in love with liars he wants to hate but cannot, doesn't need a surprise ending. The real one's heartbreaking enough: atragic love story between a ticked-off traitor and a true believer who didn't want to admit that his father figure was one of the world's most dangerous men. ROBERT WILONSKY Bridge to Terabithia Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., Feb. 16. Rated PG. 96 minutes. Don't be fooled by the CGI-laden, Narnia-lite trailers for Bridge to Terabithia. Far from a computer-generated escapist fantasy, this film is an unpretentious and touching tale of preteen companionship and loss. Terabithia is the story of fifth-grade loner Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), whose sensitive, artistic temperament isolates him from the towheaded bullies at school and his hardheaded father at home. Liberation from solitude comes in the form of sprightly Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), whose flair for fiction and exaggerated anime cuteness bring Jess out of his shell. The pair form a bond based on a made-up world called Terabithia, located in the woods behind their homes. Director Gabor Csupo (Rugrats) brings out nuanced performances from both Hutcherson and Robb, whose characters steer clear of cutesy tween stereotypes. But it's Jess' relationship with his father, played by Robert Patrick, that elevates Terabithia from a good kids' movie to a classic contender. JESSICA GROSE The Lives of Others Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., Feb. 16. Rated R. 137 minutes. We Americans complain of Big Brother's unblinking eye in the post–Patriot Act, corporate e-mail era—as well we should. But as The Lives of Others makes plain, things could be worse. It's set in East Berlin circa 1984, when one in 100 citizens of the German Democratic Republic was a government informant. Eavesdropping on an allegedly subversive playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), from the discomfort of a frozen attic, secret police Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) sits in his down jacket and...sheds a tear. In the years before the wall fell, it had started to crack. Leave an East German spy in the cold too long, and he might long to thaw. Recently nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Lives is the first feature by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Cleverly reflexive, his movie suggests that occupational spying might have been something like having a front-row seat at every performance. Wiesler trains his steely blue eyes on Dreyman's latest play, with its assembly line of female factory workers shuffling their feet on a depressingly spare stage, and sees an enemy of the state. And one carrying on an affair with the play's fashionable lead actress (Martina Gedeck). Mühe (the besieged patriarch in Funny Games) here lends his translucent skin and hollowed-out facial features to the role of a man who clearly needs to get out more. He even takes notes when the playwright kicks a soccer ball around with some kids. Jealousy appears to be a key motivating force here, both for the agent and the Stasi. Fear is contagious in this environment. As we see in a cocktail party, celebrity equals influence, even under totalitarianism, but no one's safe from being branded a traitor. In the end, von Donnersmarck gives Wiesler the faint hint of a heart, which may be a bit of a whitewash for the whole GDR system. Wiesler claims it takes 40 hours of interrogation to break down a suspect, yet von Donnersmarck manages to dismantle him in a mere two hours and 15 minutes. Then, as now, we see the Teutonic model of efficiency. ROB NELSON Music and Lyrics Opens at Metro and other theaters, Wed., Feb. 14. Rated PG-13. 96 minutes. You remember Andrew Ridgeley, don't you? He was the other guy in Wham!, the one who found himself stranded in 1986 after George Michael broke up the act. In Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant plays Alex Fletcher—"the other guy in Pop!," an '80s new-wave act. Twenty years later, still squeezing into tight trousers and singing the oldies, Alex has gone on to a dispiriting life of county-fair and high-school-reunion gigs, living comfortably in Manhattan off the royalties. Grant seems like the absolute right man for the job of washed-up pop star: a man pretending he's 15 years younger than his birth certificate, but who still displays a weariness smeared across his face like yesterday's eyeliner. Then he opens his mouth and becomes instantly less believable, looking less like Alex the has-been and more like Hugh Grant lost in a lame new movie. After getting the backstory out of the way, writer-director Marc Lawrence (Two Weeks Notice) introduces a rather preposterous meet-cute scenario, with the additional lure of a second chances for Alex. He's offered a job writing for a Shakira-style pop star who wants Alex to write her a hit song in less than a week. By wacky coincidence, natch, he's paired with his plant-watering lady, Sophie (Drew Barrymore), who provides grade-school lyrics. Barrymore, so adrift of late in bar-code romantic comedies that she herself lambasted the genre on SNL recently, has little to do here except click-click-click her pen, make eyes at Grant, and occasionally fall into a funk whenever she spies a photo of her ex (Campbell Scott), who's made their long-ago love affair into a best seller. Well, no sale here. Music and Lyrics feels as though it were made to fit a date on a studio's release schedule, a machine-crafted Valentine's Day bonbon. Like everything on the radio these days, the movie is negligible and forgettable. ROBERT WILONSKY Opal Dream Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Feb. 16-Thurs., Feb. 22. Rated PG. 85 minutes. Rush screaming from anything that announces itself as "a movie for children and grown-ups of all ages." Slight and shamelessly saccharine, Opal Dream is devoted to the proposition that it takes an Australian outback village to validate the imaginary friends of a blond child who is too sensitive for this world but not, alas, for this sappy movie. Adapted from what I suspect is a much better children's novel by Ben Rice, the story turns on a family composed of two dreamers and two sensible helpmeets. Eight-year-old Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce), an arty type who takes after her precious-stone-prospectingdad (Vince Colosimo), does the pale-and-consumptive thing when her ethereal buddies Pobby and Dingan disappear. Everything goes wrong, until suddenly everything goes right when Kellyanne's practical brother Ashmol (Christian Byers) and their long-suffering mum (Jacqueline McKenzie) rustle up every crusty salt-of-the-earth type in their dusty village to bond in sympathy for the vanishing dreams of children large and small. Awkwardly directed by Peter Cattaneo, who also made The Full Monty, Opal Dream is burdened with lashings of that movie's schmaltz, but none of its raucous comedy. Pardon my disbelief, but even G-rated tots will roll their worldly little eyes. ELLA TAYLOR

 
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