HOUSE OF SAND "I see sand, people."

The Illusionist
dir. Neil Burger

It happens every year. A bland piece of consensus cinema is laid at the feet of critics starved half to death on such late-summer fare as Accepted and Step Up. A torrent of wildly unmerited praise then issues forth. The Illusionist is, according to usually staid critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, "a lush piece of romanticism" (read: a sepia-stained triumph of ahistoricism); or, if you prefer to have it from Stephen Holden, The Illusionist "rouses your slumbering belief in the miraculous" (read: Jessica Biel is so boring you'll nod off in your cushioned megaplex seat). I saw The Illusionist (twice) at the Seattle International Film Festival, back before beer bongs and airborne snakes ruled the screens, and I can assure you, with all confidence, that the movie is dumb. Really, really, dumb.

Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, a cabinet-maker's apprentice turned master of illusions and sloshy consonants. In front of adoring, cosmopolitan Viennese audiences, he makes an orange seedling sprout instantaneously into a gnarly little tree. You must forgive yourself for not being equally astounded—you're in a movie theater, where your l'œil is tromped with some regularity.

After dabbling with political danger when he makes out with the soon-to-be-murdered Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel, she of the ever-so-slightly parted lips), Eisenheim starts wowing the crowds with some really spectacular shit: raising Duchess von Teschen and assorted urchins from the dead (throughout, Biel remains entirely comatose). You may wonder idly whether the filmmakers are using CGI or fancy mechanical contraptions to produce their supernatural wisps, but, unless you're 3 years old, you will most assuredly not find yourself pondering the thin membrane between the living and the dead. (And if you are 3 years old and already pondering membranes, you're way too mature for this kind of hokum.)

Norton is creepy and distant; his rival Rufus Sewell is ruthless and distant. Biel is just plain distant. The only character you can summon any sympathy for is Paul Giamatti, the credulous police inspector dispatched to crack down on Eisenheim's mildly subversive act. But his conflict—loyalty to the prince or belief in cruddy magic—isn't particularly compelling, and then even that tenuous opposition is collapsed by the ultimate cheap ending. But what else did you expect? It's just a pretentious magic show. ANNIE WAGNER

The Boynton Beach Club
dir. Susan Seidelman

I wish I could take back everything I ever said about old-people movies being safe and boring and cutesy and barfy. I regret every smug, naive word. Because the old timers have called my bluff—so very, very hard—with Boynton Beach Club, a jaunty geriatric comedy that just happens to be the dirtiest, awkwardest, ickiest smut-pile ever made.

It starts out innocently enough. In the Florida retirement community of Boynton Beach, a nice man named Marty, out for his morning mambo-jog, is squished to death under the car of a platinum-haired busybody. Soon after, his widow, Marilyn (Brenda Vaccaro), heads to the Boynton Beach Bereavement Club for comfort, sympathy, and—just maybe—some hot, hot grandpa tail. At the club, she meets a team of lonely, amorous seniors, including Lois (an emaciated Dyan Cannon), Harry (Joe Bologna), Sandy (Sally Kellerman, mummified) and sweet, melancholy Jack (Len Cariou). Their spouses are dead, and they're ready for action.

Some things about Boynton Beach Club are okay. Vaccaro, Bologna, and Cariou are all charming. Cannon always looks like she's about to fall down, which is pretty funny. And they introduce each character with an adorable photo from the '60s, when they were young and happy and beautiful. I liked that. But then the boobs had to come out.

Listen. I'm all for the old folks doin' it. Especially when "it" is foxtrotting, eating Werther's Originals, talking about the Depression, or giving me $50 for my birthday. And okay, I'm even for old people having sex with each other. But do I have to look at it? Must Bologna wear a novelty apron featuring a gigantic elephant boner? Does Cannon have to watch a porno and talk about her vagina? ("See the girl on the left? Mine looks like hers!") And is it really necessary—REALLY?—for Kellerman's dead naked titties to be all dingle-danglin' in my face?

I liked old people better when they were cute. LINDY WEST

Heading South
dir. Laurent Cantet

This is just a wild stab, but I'll lay odds that French writer-director Laurent Cantet is one hell of a poker player. In his breakthrough film, 2001's workplace shell game/passion play Time Out, the filmmaker trod a thin line between the teasingly enigmatic and perversely blank faced, with an aversion to spelling things out that became more fascinating with every scene. You came away with the impression of a richly controlled intellect willing to trust the audience to connect the dots.

Judged against its lofty predecessor, Cantet's follow-up, Heading South, comes off as something of a disappointment. The director still has chops, particularly in the way that he fashions a sense of clinical detachment—which also occasionally doubles as universal empathy. Provocative subject matter and a rather magnificent performance by Charlotte Rampling aside, the occasional flickering hint of deeper meaning isn't enough to sustain interest this time around. Set in the late 1970s, the narrative follows a trio of upper-class women vacationing in Haiti. Lounging on beach chairs just miles from abject poverty, the ladies delight in renting the affections of the local teenaged males. Before too long, however, interior squabbling and exterior political forces combine to bust up their private paradise, but good.

Cantet's film has garnered some impressive advance buzz, most notably from older female moviegoers thrilled by the sheer audacity of a movie that suggests that women over 50 might occasionally enjoy a roll in the hay. (The fact that the main characters here treat their conquests like living dolls, however, may prove to be a bit of a sticky wicket for audiences in the mood for purely guilt-free hedonism.) Novelty aside, it's difficult to see what drew such a talented filmmaker to material that feels unaccountably shallow. This ain't his game. ANDREW WRIGHT

dir. Jay Chandrasekhar

You've seen the story a hundred thousand times before, from The Bad News Bears to Dodgeball: scrappy little misfits (Americans in colorful sweats) up against big bad champions (Germans in black leather, of course), fighting for their country, their honor, and the ancestral brewery that is, by rights, theirs.

It begins when our heroes, two brothers, stumble into a clandestine world beer-games championship (think Bloodsport with chugging contests, quarters, and beer bongs) while touring their ancestral home to partake in Oktoberfest and spread their father's ashes. They get creamed by the vicious German hosts—who happen to be distant relatives, and who also happen to hate, hate, hate the American wing of the family, which apparently stole a secret beer recipe and besmirched the family name. The Americans stumble home, call their old college buddies (one's a scientist, one's a male prostitute, one's an eating-contest champion), and start training for next year's contest.

Director Jay Chandrasekhar, of the sketch-comedy group Broken Lizard, is also responsible for Super Troopers, Club Dread, and a few episodes of Arrested Development, which are a good indication of Beerfest's comic pedigree. There are the required adolescent snickers: comically revealed boobies, urine drinking, a straight guy in a dress (hee-haw!), the drunk character who thinks he's going home with a hot chick and wakes up next to a (horrors!) fat chick. But the actors, many also from Broken Lizard, work really well together, have good timing and that nice ensemble feel. There are wiener schnitzel jokes, a Das Boot satire, and gallons and gallons of beer—it's about as funny as a barroom belch. BRENDAN KILEY

House of Sand
dir. Andrucha Waddington

If you want to see sand dunes, but can't afford the buggy and can't abide nature documentaries, then the languorous House of Sand is for you. It contains many beautiful shots of sand. Sand whipped into thick clouds and raining dust everywhere, sand smudged into pores, sand advancing and retreating like a blank-eyed army. Strangely, though, you never get the feeling that all the sand you're seeing has any real substance. It's not gritty. It doesn't squeak aggravatingly between your teeth. The cinematographer favors wide-angle shots that make sand look like a solid, or close-ups in which it moves like a liquid: pooling like rain, or sliding down the dunes in heavy, paint-like glops. The film envisions sand as something ethereal, not earthly. It is, as one character says, what's on the surface of the moon.

There is no real story to speak of, only the outline of one. The outline goes like this: Áurea (Fernanda Torres) is married to a man who buys a sandy plot somewhere on the coast of Brazil. He moves Áurea, their unborn child, and her mother (Fernanda Montenegro) to this wasteland, where he promptly dies, leaving three generations stranded. The trio adopts opposing stances to their predicament (disgusted, promiscuous, and devoted, respectively). Periodically, an outsider brings news of the world (general relativity, the substance of the moon's surface), but then fails to spirit them away. House of Sand feels all the more vacant because its points of reference are so ambitious. The only thing it really demonstrates is that sand is nice. ANNIE WAGNER

Conversations with Other Women
dir. Hans Canosa

There's nothing to it, really. Two unnamed first loves, played by Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter, reunite unexpectedly and painfully at a wedding. The woman is now married. The man is not. Both are lonely ("Everyone's lonely"). As circumstances dictate—alone, far from home, drunk on wedding toasts— they fall into old patterns, both conversational and physical.

Conversations with Other Women is one of those movies built entirely on ponderous chitchat. The flirtatious, melancholy banter is a little hollow, a little precious, a little too glib to be believed (example: "My heart was broken," says Carter. "So you married a cardiologist," Eckhart replies.). Carter's dark, witchy waifishness seems an odd pairing for corn-fed Latter-Day hunk Eckhart, but the mismatch makes their forbidden tryst all the hotter—and emphasizes, deftly and sadly, the distance of intervening years. It's embarrassing, but I'm a sucker for melodramatic dwelling on the past. When Eckhart utters the hugely silly line, "All this land was once mine, and now it belongs to somebody else," I'll admit I felt a little twinge.

The reason to see Conversations with Other Women—the film's big thing—is that it unfolds entirely in split screen: an annoying, disorienting gimmick that I totally liked. An overly literal he-said she-said, the two sides inform and enhance and contradict each other in an organic and charming way. Sometimes they're in sync. Usually they're not. Sometimes the differences are slight. Sometimes they're vast. Sometimes one side will lapse into shiny, refracted memories, while the other one dwells on the shittiness of right now. How very lonely. LINDY WEST

dir. Ericson Core

Sports movies, especially the ones based on real-life events, aren't exactly the first place to look for innovation or subversion. Audience expectations are rarely thwarted (though at least in the '70s, the teams would occasionally lose at the end). Still, it would take a fairly grinchy cynic to deny that the formula does occasionally pay off, with movies like Miracle or The Rookie managing to find small bursts of inspiration within all of the thundering manipulation.

Thankfully, Invincible, the new biopic about the late-'70s Philadelphia Eagles walk-on sensation Vince Papale, has a fairly healthy awareness about its hardwired limitations, and manages to go down easy. Led by Mark Wahlberg at his most underdoggedly appealing, this is about as soft sell as this prefab genre gets.

Set against a constant backdrop of K-tel hits, the thinly fictionalized story follows the 30-year-old Papale's rise from broke bartender to surprise member of the '76 Eagles. Throughout, debuting director Ericson Core gets a fair amount of mileage out of the bad mustaches and terrifyingly short shorts of the period (Core, working as his own cinematographer, gives the film an interesting, rusty-steel, beer-can retro glow), and capitalizes on the surprising chemistry found between Wahlberg and Greg Kinnear, as the horrifyingly haired coach Dick Vermeil. Slight and formulaic and shamelessly button pushing as it all is (the actual 6' 2" Papale may have had a slightly easier time on the field than the considerably stockier Wahlberg, but this is Hollywood, after all), the results are still somehow more enjoyable than its various pieces would suggest. When it comes right down to it, I suspect I'm probably just genetically incapable of being too hard on a movie that cranks Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" during the climatic game. Sue me, man, it's the Nuge. ANDREW WRIGHT

How to Eat Fried Worms
dir. Bob Dolman

Boys are the coolest when they're 10 years old. At that age, they're old enough to start making dirty jokes but young enough to still think that worms are the grossest things on the planet. They're stupid enough to believe everything they're told, too, even the really obvious lies like that the old lady in the neighborhood is actually carrying a head in her bag or that there's a kind of poison that can soak through your skin and kill you. Ten-year-old boys are so dumb, and dumb boys are the most entertaining thing in the world. That's why The Sandlot is such a good movie. How to Eat Fried Worms is all about 10-year-old boys, too; therefore How to Eat Fried Worms is awesome.

If you're not familiar with the story (the movie is based on a popular kids' book), let's recap. As a way to make some friends in a new school, this kid, Billy, accepts a dare to eat 10 worms in one day without puking. Ewww!! Worms! SOOO GRODY! To up the puke factor, the school bully and his motley crew decide the worms need to be prepared using various and disgusting forms of cookery. Cookery? Sure, let's say cookery. There are worms in a blender! Worms in a vat of hot lard! Worms in an omelet! Worms on a plane! Oh wait...

Anyway, the whole "10-year-olds running amok in the neighborhood" montage ensues and it's pretty funny. It's not good enough to see on your own (it's a goddamn kids' movie for chrissakes) but if you're stuck with the niece or nephew for an afternoon, Fried Worms is a much better option than that stupid fucking Barnyard movie. MEGAN SELING