SHOPGIRL Mourning and melancholia.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
dir. Shane Black

Before Michael Bay first reared his horns and pitchfork, screenwriter Shane Black was the poster boy for the downside of mega-budgeted studio blarney. At first glance, Black's particular arc of descent (makes splash with Lethal Weapon, goes on to collect record sums for the colossal flops The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, vanishes from scene) seems well deserved. What often goes unremarked upon, however, is that within the copious mushroom clouds and homo-bonding of the buddy-action genre, Black's work displayed an intriguingly aware subversive flair: He steadily upped the ante on gargantuan action scenes, while also somehow commenting on the utter ridiculousness of same. (The Last Boy Scout, in particular, functions simultaneously as both narrative and an especially wise-assed Mystery Science Theater pasting.)

Thankfully, one thing Black didn't learn about during his time in exile was the old credo about not crapping where you eat. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black's directorial debut, is a riotously meta piss-take on Hollywood excess. Shifting his sights to the detective story, Black writes and directs like a man attached to a fuse, creating a vulgar wonderland chock-full of both body parts and snappy patter. If, as some have speculated, Satan is indeed involved in Black's career, then Satan deserves a raise.

The plot—low-rent thief turned actor (Robert Downey Jr.) makes his way to L.A., gets tangled up with Val Kilmer's proudly out sleuth—is loopy enough on its own, but what makes it a blast is the director's sly violation of the genre's old corpses. Black's enthusiasm rubs off on his actors, who appear to be having an out-and-out ball (as the decidedly unreliable narrator, Downey has never been so motor-mouthedly appealing). Watching their collective take on the private dick probably won't do your karma any favors, but there may not be a better time in theaters this year. ANDREW WRIGHT

Read a transcript of Andrew Wright's interview with Shane Black.

Shopgirl
dir. Anand Tucker

Adapted by Steve Martin from his novella of the same name, Shopgirl is a film with strangely divided loyalties. You will never doubt which character deserves your sympathy: Mirabelle (played by Claire Danes in my-so-colored tresses) is a lonely, sensitive Vermont native, stuck behind the rarely frequented glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in L.A. She's so desperate for post-collegiate human contact that she'll accept dates from any bachelor—whether eager and oily (Jason Schwartzman's Jeremy) or distant and impeccably attired (Steve Martin's Ray)—who deigns to notice her. The country mouse is pitiful; her suitors ought to love her because we do.

Where the film vacillates is deciding between fidelity to its modern setting and obeisance to the past. It borrows the deliberate pace and resolutely postmodern ennui of Lost in Translation, along with aspects of that film's plot. And the male characters are contemporary: According to the inadvertently comical narration, Ray has a second home in "computer-oriented Seattle, which is the source of his wealth," whereas Jeremy is a slacker who designs fonts.

But in most of its particulars, Shopgirl betrays a fetish for the past. Mirabelle's abject status and occupation would be stock clichés—if she were the heroine of a '20s melodrama. (She's even threatened by a gold-digging rival whose gaudy villainy is painted all over her face.) Shopgirl has an early 20th-century awe of mass production, shown when the camera skids delightedly over row after row of different shades of waxy lipstick. The overly descriptive score, too, is a throwback. In a film more aware of its proclivities, this nostalgia wouldn't be a fault. As it stands, though, the old-fashioned values the film espouses (gallantry, attention to a woman's needs) feel like a cover for historical sins (sexism, annoyingness) that I'd rather time would forget. ANNIE WAGNER

Prime
dir. Ben Younger

How ridiculous can a May-December romantic comedy be, if it attracted the likes of Meryl Streep? Pretty damn ridiculous, if you pay any attention to side plots (one choice tangent involves a dude who can never get a second date because, well, he can't help chucking cream pies at the girls before he asks them out again). But as far as the main girl-boy-mom love triangle goes, Prime has a surprisingly light touch.

New Yorkers Rafi (Uma Thurman) and David (Bryan Greenberg) meet outside of the restroom during a screening of Blow Up (whether this is writer/director Ben Younger's snide comment on the dullness of said movie or his attempt to score easy film-buff points is anyone's guess). She's a rich older WASP, he's a Jewish wannabe painter who still lives with his grandparents. And her therapist Lisa (Meryl Streep) is his mother. After the screenplay establishes a few narrative conveniences—Lisa uses her maiden name professionally, both Rafi and David lie about the age of their paramours—the stage is set for some rich dramatic irony.

Lisa eventually figures out that Rafi's frisky pup of a boyfriend is in fact her son, but with the help of some stereotypical-Jewish-mother wish fulfillment, she convinces herself the liaison will be brief and not worth interrupting Rafi's analysis. Streep unloads a hilarious arsenal of tics, twitches, and nervous gestures to demonstrate her character's discomfort with frank discussion of, for example, her son's penis. And while the enterprise occasionally suggests a talented actor who's so bored she could kill someone, the characteristic way Streep adjusts her eyeglasses turns up major comedic dividends later on. Prime isn't guilt-free entertainment, but with some nice Manhattan locations and a "Palestinians Do It Better" T-shirt to sweeten the deal, it isn't unpleasant either. ANNIE WAGNER

Where the Truth Lies
dir. Atom Egoyan

Canadian filmmaker Atom (The Sweet Hereafter) Egoyan has long demonstrated an affinity for the underbelly, expertly lodging his films in the gray area between voyeurism and out-and-out sleaze. (His brilliant Exotica, especially, sanctified strip clubs and their denizens to a degree that might give even Greg Nickels pause.) Where the Truth Lies comes off as a bit of puzzle, albeit probably not in the way Egoyan intends. Although the premise—exploring the backstage misdeeds of a thinly fictionalized Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis—would seem to suit the filmmaker perfectly, the results are distressingly hollow. The steps are all there, including a pair of technically impressive lead performances by Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth, but the rhythms are somehow off.

Based on Rupert Holmes's 2003 novel, Egoyan's screenplay blends Dino and Jerry with a pinch of Fatty Arbuckle tragedy: While basking in the afterglow of a successful Labor Day telethon, a beloved comedy duo's rep is permanently soured by the discovery of a dead woman in their shared hotel suite. Fifteen years later, an intrepid, woefully naive reporter tries to get to the bottom of the team's transgressions, both present and past. Muck is soon flung in all directions, including a notorious (and narratively significant) three-way which drew the ire of the ratings board. (The movie is being released unrated, despite the director's repeated appeals.)

Watching idols fall has an irresistible, sour-grape fascination, which makes this film's flatness all the more disappointing. Despite a few glimpses of Egoyan's trademark backbiting, double-edged wit (once revealed, the cliché at the core of the central mystery is either a sly commentary on the moldy state of the whodunit, or a huge f-you to the audience), there's a general sense of punch lines missed and straight men misused. The real Jerry would throw a pie and pitch a fit in protest. ANDREW WRIGHT

Saw II
dir. Darren Lynn Bousman

Remember 2004? Remember how much you liked Saw? Well, madman-with-a-heart-of-gold Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is back (finally!) and he just wants to help. His body ravaged by cancer, he decides to spend his last days giving back the only way he knows how: spreading a little joie de vivre through gruesome torture and mutilation. Hence, Saw II. According to Jigsaw, "those that don't appreciate life don't deserve life." What they deserve, apparently, is to be sliced and poked and gouged and gassed, to have their heads crushed in spiky helmets and their children abducted. Jigga has a mysterious bone to pick with old, balding kid-on-the-block Donnie Wahlberg (surprisingly okay as dumpy Detective Eric Mathews), so he shuts his son up in a big booby-trapped house with a bunch of ne'er-do-wells (including Beverley "Lucy Camden" Mitchell and Shawnee "I guess she was on Becker" Smith). Then all sorts of unpleasant and totally uninteresting things happen.

Saw II is a fable about the importance of teamwork. When trapped in a horrific death house by a vicious murderer, your lungs filling with blood from the deadly nerve gas ("What does he mean, 'gas'?"), it's best to keep a cool head and cooperate with your fellow captives. Also, try to respect your host and follow the rules of his nefarious plan. Remember: There's no "I" in "get me the fuck out of here."

There is nothing about this movie that I didn't hate. Saw II thinks it has something to say—some hack philosophy about yelling at your kids and being a junkie and taking life for granted—but don't be fooled. It's really just about all the worst things you can do to an eyeball. How does it feel to be imprisoned in a dark room and tortured for an hour and a half? I think I'm beginning to understand. Nicely played, Jigsaw. LINDY WEST

Nine Lives
dir. Rodrigo García

Consisting of nine single-shot vignettes (most only tenuously connected), writer/director Rodrigo García's Nine Lives is a bit of a beautiful freak: full of wonderful moments, but constrained by the rigid novelty of its structure. Perhaps inevitably for a film of its episodic nature, the whiffs mingle freely with the hits. You come out wanting more in some places and less in others.

Focusing on different facets of the modern L.A. woman, García's brief, sparsely populated scenarios draw marvelous performances from the likes of Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek, Amy Brenneman, and, on the male side, Deadwood's Ian McShane. (Meanwhile, watching Dakota Fanning successfully hold her own with Glenn Close for 10 uninterrupted minutes may further convince skeptics of her alien heritage.) Best-of-show honors, however, go to Robin Wright Penn. She and Jason Isaacs share an early scene as past lovers who have a chance encounter in a supermarket. Penn, an actress who has come off as overly closed in the past, uses her recessiveness to devastating effect here, with quick, darting glances that contain emotional multitudes. Taken solely on its own, her performance more than justifies the ticket price.

The director (the son of novelist Gabriel García Márquez) displays an intriguingly incomplete narrative style, allowing loose ends and backstories to dangle without explanation. Although his touch is commendable, there's still something frustrating—and almost self-satisfied—about his reluctance to move beyond brief vignettes and into a longer form. Too often for comfort, his scenes come off as dynamite audition pieces. This represents García's third stab at a similar framework, after the earlier Ten Tiny Love Stories and Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her. He's successfully staked his own niche, although it may be narrower than he thinks. ANDREW WRIGHT

Loggerheads
dir. Tim Kirkman

Loggerheads is fond of its symbolism, so far be it from me to ignore the weighty title. A loggerhead is a turtle, native to North Carolina, that returns to its sandy birthplace to nest. Colloquially, to be "at loggerheads" is to take opposite and intractable positions in an argument. Loggerheads is a movie about wanting to go home again but being prevented by human stubbornness and pride.

Mark (Kip Pardue) is cute, indigent, and HIV-positive when motel owner George (Michael Kelly) picks him up off a North Carolina beach and gives him a place to stay. Through concurrent but asynchronous storylines, we learn that his biological mother (Bonnie Hunt) gave him up for adoption unwillingly and is searching for him, and that his adoptive mother (Tess Harper) is having second thoughts about the way her husband, a self-satisfied minister, treated their son before he fled their household. The script provides both with plenty of silent time to contemplate their regret. Mark, who isn't much given to reflection, gets ample opportunity to train his night-vision goggles on turtles scrabbling to the shore.

The film moves a little like these turtles—not just slowly, but ponderously. Loggerheads is Tim Kirkman's first narrative feature (he previously directed a first-person meditation on Jesse Helms), and it has the earnest close-ups (and loud acoustic soundtrack) of a student film. The three main characters aren't in control of their destinies—one is still under her mother's thumb, another defers to her husband, and Mark chooses to submit to the natural course of his disease—and it's a challenge to identify with actors who are primarily acted upon. But the performances hold up under the camera's suffocating focus, and by the end, the subtle not-quite convergence of the three storylines proves surprisingly affecting. ANNIE WAGNER

The Legend of Zorro
dir. Martin Campbell

1998's The Mask of Zorro was an entertaining, if completely unremarkable, reinvention of a franchise nobody remembered. It jump-started Catherine Zeta Jones's unfortunate career, rescued (however briefly) Antonio Banderas's, and offered audiences a chance to watch Sir Anthony Hopkins play dress-up as a mobile human being. Where the film succeeded was in its dedication to an old-school style of adventure, one where CGI trickery was kept at a minimum, and all thrills (and spills) were left to the torn ligaments and snapped bones of an army of stuntmen. In other words, it was a real movie.

Now, seven years later (and far too late for sane people to remember the original) comes The Legend of Zorro. Banderas and Zeta-Jones are still on hand, as is the first film's director, Martin Campbell. What's missing this time around is that dedication to flesh and blood filmmaking. Gone are the impossible stunts—in their place are impossibly bad green-screen effects, extra doses of slapstick, and a palpable laziness from everyone involved. As a result, what little heart the first film achieved has been completely obliterated, and replaced, lamely, by the cardinal sin of all sequels: a case of the cutes.

The story is pure retread (of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, specifically), involving an evil Frenchman (of course), a crackpot scheme (of course), and a dangerous soap (huh?). Swords clang, the music swells, and things go boom—with pulse-deadening results. Added into the mix this go around is Zorro's wretchedly annoying son, whose predictable arc helps to completely capsize the entire project. Children may be our future, but they are, without a doubt, the death of our movies. When you're rooting for a villain to run a saber through an 8-year-old, the producers may have miscalculated. BRADLEY STEINBACHER