The Band's Visit

dir. Eran Kolirin

The forlorn comedy The Band's Visit may have been disqualified by the Oscars—it contains too much pidgin English to be considered a "foreign language" film, apparently—but you get the feeling that being snubbed sort of suits it. Not only does it join the noble ranks of this year's fellow rejects (including Persepolis and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), not only is it spared the indignity of losing to yet another Holocaust movie (from Austria, of all places), but it also reinforces the movie's melancholy themes. The Band's Visit is about laboring in obscurity and reaping immaterial rewards. It doesn't need a golden statuette.

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, dressed in identical powder-blue uniforms and lined up like children at a school play, has arrived in Israel for a gig at the opening of a new Arab cultural center. No one meets them at the airport, and so they end up on a public bus to Bet Hatikvah, a sandy outpost with two restaurants, one pay phone, and a roller rink. There's no Arab cultural center, though—that's in Petah Tikvah. Conveniently, the show isn't until the following day.

Bored, sexy Dina (Ronit Elkabetz, last seen as a prostitute mom in Or (My Treasure)), the proprietor of a ramshackle cafe, invites the men to stay the night in town. Her confident stare and cloud of black hair are intimidating, but the courtly bandleader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) eventually assents, and his men fan out into households across town. What follows could be described as a culture clash, but it's more of a culture bump—discomfort, flirtation, fleeting moments of connection, and then more awkward silence. The Band's Visit is clever enough not to offer solutions. Instead, it presents naiveté as a state to which we secretly, futilely aspire. ANNIE WAGNER


dir. Kent Alterman

The Will Ferrell comedy template: Take a profession (anchorman, NASCAR driver, ice-skater), insert at least one scene of Ferrell sans clothing, then pummel the premise with overextended gags and too-few moments of inspired lunacy. Rinse and repeat.

The latest example, Semi-Pro, returns Ferrell to the '70s, this time as Jackie Moon, a one-time one-hit wonder ("Love Me Sexy") and owner of the Flint, Michigan, Tropics, a fledgling American Basketball Association team. Both a player and coach, Moon struggles to keep his franchise afloat until a rumored merger between the flashy ABA and the increasingly dull NBA is finally approved. But when that go-ahead finally arrives, there's the inevitable catch: Only the best four teams in the league will be embraced by the NBA. The rest will be dissolved.

From the cover of this fairly standard setup, Ferrell and company (including Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin, and the great Will Arnett) let loose with a barrage of gags. Some, such as an extended riff involving an unloaded gun, keep upping the ante until you're lulled into laughter. Others, like a romantic subplot that leads to a truly inspired sex scene, are surprisingly fresh. Throughout, director Alterman wisely keeps things moving, rarely letting scenes outstay their welcome; at 90 minutes, the movie feels just right. Much as in Ferrell's high-water mark, Anchorman, what keeps the movie afloat is the constant threat that things will spin into absurdity. Semi-Pro may not be a great comedy—too many predictable digs at the '70s, a third act that tries too hard to be sentimental—but there's enough lunacy on display to eventually win you over. BRADLEY STEINBACHER


dir. Mark Palansky

I'd hoped watching Christina Ricci wearing a prosthetic pig nose for 101 minutes would add at least a grain of amusement to this romantic comedy. I was wrong. Penelope, produced by and costarring Reese Witherspoon—her second such mishap, after Legally Blonde 2—is cloying and dull, a sleeping pill dipped in treacle.

Penelope is a young lady from a rich family who, because of an ancient curse, was born with a snout. To lift the curse and get a human nose, she needs to find another rich kid who will love her for who she is.

And guess who learns to love her. No, really—guess. Ready? Herself. She learns to love herself. Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this film.

But since we must: Penelope interviews a parade of shallow, greedy suitors who are after her dowry. In stumbles the relentlessly debonair Max (James McAvoy), who would be perfect, except he's not an aristocrat. And he has a gambling problem—a serious, up-all-night, hock-the-TV gambling problem that he abruptly and painlessly kicks just in time for the denouement.

The problem with Max's gambling problem is the problem of Penelope—the movie smoothes out all its rough edges, flattens all of its texture, until it looks much like Ms. Witherspoon's promo shots: pastel, glossy, forgettable. (The sole exception: Peter Dinklage, the four-foot, five-inch actor from The Station Agent, as a gloomy reporter. If Witherspoon and Palansky cast a dwarf just to add fairy-tale whimsy—and I wouldn't put it past them—their tactic backfired. Dinklage is the only actor up there who seems human.)

Witherspoon and her associate producers allegedly spent $15 million on the project, which they'll recoup if the IMDb reviews are any indication. ("I LOVED THIS MOVIE!!!") Are people really so excited to see another inferior iteration of the old learn-to-love-yourself story? If so, our national self-esteem is catastrophically low. BRENDAN KILEY

The Other Boleyn Girl

dir. Justin Chadwick

Let's unpack this mediocre movie. It's directed by Justin Chadwick. The script is by Peter Morgan, whose two previous films, The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, won top prizes at last year's Academy Awards. It stars Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. They are supposed to be sisters. They look nothing like sisters. Their mother, Kristin Scott Thomas, looks nothing like her daughters. And the daughters also have nothing in common with their father, Mark Rylance.

And it's not just a matter of appearance, of looking the same; it's more a matter of acting as if you are related. All four don't act in a way that makes it believable that they have spent more than a couple weeks together. Johansson's body language does not communicate with the body language of Natalie Portman. There is a distance between them that the director, the cinematographer, and the performances failed to conceal.

The film also stars Eric Bana, who played Bruce Banner in Ang Lee's Hulk but here plays King Henry VIII. Nothing in Bana's body communicates the power of a king, of a man who has God's permission to dominate an entire country. Those who have watched Ray Winstone's performance of the king in the TV program Henry VIII (also written by Peter Morgan) know the kind of language the body must use to communicate absolute power. The story of The Other Boleyn Girl: Johansson and Portman are sisters whose father talks them into abandoning their normal, aristocratic lives in the country and entering the court to become mistresses of the king. One, Johansson, gives the king a son; the other, Portman, a girl. And Portman pays a heavy price for her failure to give the king a boy. It's good to be the king. CHARLES MUDEDE

City of Men

dir. Paulo Morelli

City of Men is the movie adaptation of the Brazilian television program of the same name, which was a spinoff of Fernando Meirelles's deservedly popular film City of God, which was itself adapted from a novel. Whew. Perhaps you recall the opening scene in City of God, which followed an emancipated chicken on a tear through the maze of a city slum. Unfortunately, there's nothing like that in this new film, directed by one of Meirelles's assistants. It's just a copy of a copy of a copy; and where the style has faded, sentiment has flooded in.

Acerola (Douglas Silvia), known as Ace, and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), or Wallace, are 18-year-olds growing up on the fringes of the street gangs that alternate control of their hilltop favela. Neither has a real father—Ace's is long dead, and Wallace's is probably in prison—and by the way, Ace's own son, who's just a toddler, seems likely to experience the same fate. Not 15 minutes into the movie, Ace ditches his kid at the beach in order to help Wallace search for his father. The irony is crushing.

This kind of laziness is everywhere in City of Men. The same bronze sheen from City of God coats the same sweat-jeweled backs, but the editing is unadventurous, squandering its cuts on copious flashbacks to the television show. The story, which is about deciding whether to be good or bad, is weak; the themes, about fatherhood and responsibility, are transparent. The only things that make City of Men tolerable are the performances of its young leads. ANNIE WAGNER