01/16/08 12:00am

Any drastic event, let alone the Iraq war, could have triggered the minuscule New York story in Cole’s debut. Exactly three genuine political opinions are uttered, one of which is: “I love the freedom I have here to be a fuck-up.” And that’s about the most sobering thought Day Zero has to offer.

Furthermore, it’s absurd that the three central characters, who each receive 30-day Iraq draft notices, are supposed to be lifelong friends. Rich lefty lawyer Chris Klein tries to use his daddy’s connections to dodge the draft. Tuff-talkin’ cab driver Jon Bernthal chides Klein for his supposed cowardice until a romantic interest (Elisabeth Moss) softens him. Best is Elijah Wood, as a fledgling writer who just wants to skydive and sleep around before serving abroad. Wearing hipster-approved “Croquet Champ” t-shirts and muttering wonderfully irrelevant asides, like — lamenting his sub-A1 body type — ”I’m fat and skinny at the same time,” his self-loathing character belongs in Spike Jonze territory.

Klein and Bernthal are burdened with the heavy scenes, and their overwrought approach confounds Rob Malkani’s already hackneyed script. Klein still registers like a stiffer Keanu Reeves; he can’t even eat a salami slice naturally. As for Bernthal, he expresses anger and pensiveness the same way: through flared nostrils and squints that make him indistinguishable from a sewer rat.

Opens January 18

10/24/07 12:00am

Jim Brown’s rousing but one-sided documentary dotes on Seeger so thoroughly, it makes you want to retreat to his Hudson Valley log cabin and never spend another dime, unless it’s on a Karl Marx book. A banjo prodigy from his early years, Seeger’s trademark songs ("Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and many others captured here in riveting, mostly unseen concert footage) were the framework for the folk movements during World War II and Vietnam. His unwavering, often Communist views earned him simultaneous censure and celebration, yet here, we see mainly the latter. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie wax nostalgic on Seeger’s heyday; lifelong admirer Bruce Springsteen intones on government oppression of anti-establishment beliefs; and, in an electrifying, grainy Johnny Cash Show clip, the Man in Black himself tells Seeger he’s "one of the greatest Americans ever."
Cash’s praise underlines the central point of Brown’s film: how could this tirelessly old-school frontiersman — who still, at age 88, fells trees and lives without running water — be considered "unAmerican"? His feats rival those of saints, from supporting Paul Robeson at the 1949 Peekskill concert riots to purifying the once-stagnant Hudson River; George Pataki even shows up to hail Seeger for the latter act.

Aside from a few mild critiques suggesting that Seeger favors activism over family, the film serves only to extol an already highly extolled figure; it never, for instance, probes more deeply into the effect that Seeger’s steadfast nonconformity had on his children and ever-patient wife. Furthermore, the injustices Seeger faced, such as HUAC scrutiny and blacklisting during the McCarthy era, are presented as if they were small obstacles to his eventual legendary status. Although inspirational, the film’s simple agenda lacks the power of its subject.

Opens October 26 at IFC Center

10/10/07 12:00am

Susanne Bier loves eyes. Call her retina close-ups heart-wrenching, call them empty metaphors, but either way, the gorgeous, often tearing eyes of Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry nearly upstage the stars themselves in Bier’s compassionate yet somewhat inert American debut.

Berry plays a recently widowed mother of two impossibly composed children (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry). Her late husband (Duchovny), shot to death during a well-intentioned but capricious altercation, had been a lifelong friend of Del Toro, now a recovering heroin addict. Frustrated at her exclusion from–yet curious about — their male bonding, she recruits Del Toro to act as a sort of space-filler and gradually discovers an unlikely soulmate in him.

Both stars are uncharacteristically reigned-in and solemn, conveying their characters’ mutual miseries without resorting to histrionics. The kids are innately cute but never become cloying. Alison Lohman, fast becoming one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, is charming as Del Toro’s sweet but impulsive AA buddy. And Duchovny, featured all too briefly, gives his finest performance yet as this lovable yet passive milquetoast.

Bier proves a wonderful framer, wisely beginning Berry’s story at the mid-trauma stage of her grieving and only intermittently pulling back to show the quiet yet troubling flaws of her past marriage. The focus is on the present, on the coping period, and her film expertly evokes  the  hollow anticlimax that can follow a shocking loss. However, Bier is so cautious about withholding forced drama from the movie that, as a result, it loses its early fluidity. Impressively free of sentiment as it is, the film could ultimately use more explanation about Berry and Del Toro’s newfound pact, and more depth, in particular, into why Del Toro and Duchovny were so brotherly to begin with.

In short, what Things We Lost In the Fire needs is more Duchovny, less eyes.

Opens October 19

09/12/07 12:00am

Debuting director/screenwriter Mike Cahill wisely avoids both sentiment and condescension in this poignant, tragicomic depiction of a rather trite Hollywood staple: the lovable loony. Unlike more mawkish and indulgent portraits of this type that prod the audience to marvel at a gentle mental patient’s every whacky move, King of California is just as mindful of its central character’s maddening flaws as it is admiring of his kooky idealism.

Charlie (a very hairy Michael Douglas) returns from a two-year hospital stint to his jaded teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Alarmingly self-sufficient, the high school dropout has been keeping house and subsisting off double McDonald’s shifts (product placement is used cunningly here, in-your-face yet self-mocking). Douglas, adrift in late-60s anti-establishment speak, is discouraged at her resignation to suburban anomie; Wood is alternately amused and exasperated with her father’s constant need to make a dent in this cold, corporate world. But they’re best friends, alone together, ever since a divorce years back that Cahill deftly explains in just one superb line. Through persistence, Douglas convinces Wood to aid him in his latest mission: to uncover ancient Spanish gold he believes is buried under a hardware chain monolith, corrupting the once-undeveloped California valley.

The planning and execution of their "heist" is both cheerfully outrageous and wistful. Surely almost everyone has dreamed of pulling a feat like this, and Douglas’ blind optimism is hilarious. Yet simultaneously, the film pulls back to reveal the devastatingly self-centered nature of most dreamers, the impact their dreams can have on their more sound caretakers. Ultimately, Wood’s story is the most heartbreaking, and therein lies the film’s key misstep. Friendless, her world claustrophobic, her future uncertain, Wood nonetheless seems too calm and self-contained, an unlikely offspring of this grandstanding loony.

Opens September 14