dir. Kenneth Branagh
As though being the twin brother of vastly successful playwright Peter Shaffer weren't indignity enough, minor playwright Anthony Shaffer (who died in 2001) suffered another blow last year when his film The Wicker Man was remade into a misogynist pile of shit. Now Kenneth Branagh has wrapped his fingers around Shaffer's last remaining shred of dignity: the 1970 Tony Award–winning play Sleuth, which was first made into a movie in 1972.
The new Sleuth, set in the country mansion of hack crime writer Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine), is cluttered with remote controls and digital gadgets instead of dartboards and analog playthings. But the mechanics of the plot are the same: Wyke's wife's lover, Milo Tindle (Jude Law), comes to the estate to ask Wyke to give her a divorce. Wyke evades the question—with entertaining verbal panache—and then persuades the gullible Tindle to help defraud Wyke's insurance. Diamonds are flashed, wit is dangled, and the act climaxes in Tindle's total humiliation. Next comes act two, wherein we learn Tindle is capable of staging elaborate deceptions of his own.
The film feels even stagier against the modernist angularity of Wyke's new house, which screams more "repertory theater budget" than "millionaire's interior decor." Add Harold Pinter's elegant compression of Shaffer's script and the film's potential audience begins to resemble the Seattle Rep subscriber base. There's really no reason Sleuth had to be made into a movie again, but as long as you're okay with teleplays, it's fun to see verbal wit married to blind personal hatred. Too bad about Jude Law (and his receding hairline), who manages to suggest his character is mentally unstable even though the script doesn't require it. A character study this ain't. ANNIE WAGNER
Dan in Real Life
dir. Peter Hedges
A mopey retread of all the old family-comedy clichés—kids are wise; love is tough; sometimes the guy with all the answers forgets to take his own advice (can you imagine?)—Dan in Real Life isn't a disaster. But it definitely isn't good.
Steve Carell, lovable but unremarkable, stars as the titular Dan, a bundle of all the golden-hearted single-father clichés. Beloved advice columnist by trade, and father to three precocious girls, Dan spends his days (in real life, not fake life, in case you were confused) dispensing drippy platitudes in the newspaper, dispensing drippy platitudes in books, and dispensing drippy platitudes from his melancholy mouth. He also enjoys packing school lunches, harassing 14-year-old suitors, and forbidding his eldest from driving an automobile. "You're a good father," says the tiniest (and, therefore, the wisest) of the daughters, "but sometimes a bad dad." God, I am so bored just typing this.
The story is that Dan and kids head to granny and gramps's summer house for their boisterous annual family retreat. It's in one of those windy, whitewashed New England coastal towns where everything's lonely and boarded up and draped in buoys. Just like Dan. In a lonely, Atlantic, buoy-draped bookstore, Dan meets a pretty lady (Juliette Binoche), and they fall in love. For the purposes of awkwardness, this pretty lady is already taken—by Dan's crappy brother, Dane Cook! Now and then, amid overwhelming ordinariness, Carell will say something unbearably funny, like, "This corn is like an angel to me." Then, everything that you expect to happen happens, in a mild, inoffensive, and okay way.
Dan in Real Life would be perfect if you were home sick with the flu. It would be a good one to watch with your mom. And it's an effective reminder of how fun it is to play touch football in the summertime with your weird cousins. Because it's just normal, and boring, and a little bit funny. Kind of like real life. LINDY WEST
dir. Alex LeMay
An awkward hybrid of Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina doc When the Levees Broke and resettlement culture shock movies like Lost Boys of Sudan, Desert Bayou barely skims the surface of its toxic waters. I'm convinced there's a fascinating film to be made about the 600 mostly black New Orleans residents who were shipped—without their consent—to mostly white Utah in the days following Hurricane Katrina, but director Alex LeMay lacks the light touch and serious analysis needed to do it.
Desert Bayou starts with a summary of the destruction brought by the storm (narrated by Art Hoyle in tones that vary from didactic to patronizing) that makes you pine for the terrible sweep of Spike Lee's extended introduction. But the real focus of this film is what happened to America's "internally displaced persons" after they touched down 1,800 miles from home. Immediately upon stepping off the plane in Utah, the New Orleans residents were searched, ostensibly because they hadn't been screened before takeoff. Hustled away to isolated military barracks well outside of Salt Lake City (which is majority non-Mormon and home to most of the people constituting Utah's less than 1 percent black population), the evacuees were subject to criminal background checks and a strict nightly curfew.
These facts are disquieting, but they're revealed disjointedly, with no sense of the escalation or de-escalation of hysteria. (Person-on-the-street interviews reveal, less than shockingly, that some Utahans are prejudiced blockheads and others are blustering freethinkers.) As for the evacuees, we learn that ex-con Curtis is having trouble finding a construction job, but we never see him interact with his neighbors or prospective employers. We learn that Clifford is good with kids and has gone back to smoking crack, but we never find out how he feels about living in a sea of Mormons. Desert Bayou wastes plenty of time following New York–based radio host Rabbi Shmuley as he insists, without evidence, that the kind people of Utah will welcome the evacuees, but we learn precious little about the experience of the people themselves. ANNIE WAGNER