Green Street Hooligans
dir. Lexi Alexander

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With his Frisbee-sized eyes and Hummel figurine complexion, Elijah Wood often seems too delicate to survive outside of the suburbs of Middle Earth. (As far as nonthreatening screen presences go, he ranks right up there with the ghost of Roddy McDowall.) At first blush, casting him in the central role of a movie about maniacal Cockney soccer thugs seems like the stuff of MADtv. Green Street Hooligans, Wood's most recent attempt to free himself from his furry Hobbit feet, cannily uses this disconnect, to satisfying ends.

Cult British author Dougie Brimson's script takes a through-the-looking-glass approach: After getting booted out of Harvard, a straight-laced journalism major goes to visit his Yank sister in England, quickly falling in with the local mob of bumrushing sports fanatics. Before long, he's brushing blood out of his teeth and chugging lager like a fiend. Some locals, however, remain murderously unamused. The epithet "fucking cunt" falls like rain.

On the acting front, there's a lot to like about Green Street Hooligans, from Wood's gamely physical performance to lead goon Charlie Hunnam's amazing duplication of Brad Pitt in Fight Club, right down to the smallest facial tics. Behind the camera, newbie director Lexi Alexander, a former karate champion, manages to find a certain grace among the copious brick-hurling and headbutts. Between rumbles, however, her film is less sure-footed, with a tendency toward overt preachiness. (Violence is bad, apparently.) Thankfully, her occasional ham-handedness can't dispel the fascinating subculture on display, where a swing with a nail-studded two-by-four counts as a friendly man hug. Once it puts up its dukes and stops with the philosophizing, the thing intrigues. Frodo may not have left the building entirely, but his survival in the real world appears fairly sure. ANDREW WRIGHT

Oliver Twist
dir. Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski's newest film Oliver Twist begins and ends with engravings from Gustave Doré's magnificent 19th-century travelogue London: A Pilgrimage. Crossed by dark lines and darker characters, the street scenes teem with anonymous life and work. The pictures are strange bookends, not because they're inappropriate—they instantly evoke the Victorian setting of the Dickens novel—but because the film itself doesn't match their fascinatingly dark urban atmosphere. Oliver Twist was filmed in Prague, and it quotes London landmarks instead of orienting itself by them. Painted backdrops of St. Paul's and other picturesque vistas, cloaked in mist rather than industrial haze, pop up from time to time as Oliver Twist rounds a corner or scampers out of an oddly clean alleyway. These pearlescent vistas are the stuff of storybooks. Polanski is in the business of rescuing the orphan from Doré's vision of city life, not dangling him between its jaws.

In an adaptation of Dickens's Christian consciousness-raising novel, that's not such a terrible thing. Oliver Twist is a sweet movie with a parade of outsized villains. It's made for children (well, children of a robust breed, who are used to the sort of violence found in unexpurgated fairy tales), and it's told from a child's point of view. Eleven-year-old Barney Clark plays Oliver, and he's a classic angel—not as vivid as he could be, but fair in complexion and moist of eye. It's terribly sad when he gets bloody blisters on his feet or has to eat in the corner. Better yet are Harry Eden as the clever young pickpocket Artful Dodger and especially Leanne Rowe as Nancy, the teen prostitute who betrays her fellow criminals to help Oliver wiggle out of a sordid future. The adults, including a heavily made-up Ben Kingsley as the pickpocket wrangler Fagin, are less carefully shaded and therefore less sympathetic. But Fagin is not an overt anti-Semitic caricature, and maybe that's all we can ask. Fables need bad guys, after all. ANNIE WAGNER

The Greatest Game Ever Played
dir. Bill Paxton

After nearly three decades of playing indelible nutballs in films, Bill Paxton made a strong impression as a director with Frailty, a structurally flawed yet deeply weird B-picture. Expectations for his follow-up were high. Factor in a script by Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, and rampant gonzohood seemed all but guaranteed. The biggest shock of the inspirational sports movie The Greatest Game Ever Played is how utterly square it is.

After an odd Scottish prologue, Frost's script (based on his 2002 book) focuses on the sainted by sports junkies 1913 U.S. Open, where dirt-poor teen caddie Francis Ouimet (The Battle of Shaker Heights' Shia LaBeouf, growing up nicely) took on British trick-shot master Harry Vardon, generally regarded as the best player in the world. The final results won't surprise anyone who's seen a movie before (Disney produced, after all), but there's a lot to be said for the delivery. The director occasionally jazzes up the visuals with newfangled special effects (one especially nice bit has Vardon wishing away his distractions to a featureless limbo), but otherwise seems deeply committed to honoring the time period, with a sincere gee-whiz approach to the material. With his wide-eyed approach, the film's title seems less immodest, and more factual.

Family films have a way of attracting critical guff, but the old corn still sometimes has a place. Barring the occasional ripple (Elias Koteas, as Ouimet's stubborn coal-miner father, seems to have wandered in from a Bob and Doug McKenzie sketch), Paxton has fashioned an all-ages movie with an admirable lack of pretense. Way to avoid the sophomore slump, Bill, but don't be afraid to let your freak flag fly in the future. ANDREW WRIGHT

Serenity
dir. Joss Whedon

Reviewing a project by Joss Whedon—particularly when the review will be republished on the web—is not something that a sane person undertakes lightly. For the uninitiated, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has amassed one of the most zealous fan bases in recorded history, with legions quick to embrace and/or assault outsiders to his created universe. Such fan loyalty makes possible the existence of Serenity, a continuation of Whedon's short-lived space cowboy television series Firefly. Cancelled after 11 episodes, Firefly sold well enough as a DVD set to warrant an unprecedented shot on the big screen.

Speaking as someone who never quite managed to keep up with the show, I'll admit Whedon may very well be a genius—albeit one possibly taken best in small doses. His concepts and riot grrrl tendencies are killer, and his grasp of character is stellar, but his hyperliterate, pop-slangy style wears thin after a while. (Overheard from a newcomer afterwards: "Is he always that quippy?") The film's scenario makes only the barest effort to include those not already up on the characters: building on plot threads developed through the series, Whedon's script catches up mid-quest with a ragtag bunch of outlaws searching for the origin of their youngest crewmember. For those not already in the know, figuring out what's happening may be tough going if not borderline impossible.

On the plus side, Whedon displays a nicely quirky visual sense, and gets strong performances from show regulars Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, as well as Whedonverse newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor as a strangely courteous villain. In the final accounting, Whedon's six-gun space oddity comes recommended, but you may want to brush up on the series before venturing into the theater. For God's sake, don't let the hardcore fans smell virgin blood. ANDREW WRIGHT

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
dir. Dai Sijie

Based on his bestselling novel, director Dai Sijie's deeply romantic nostalgia piece manages big magic with a few simple elements, chiefly a gorgeously primeval mountain landscape that belies the early-'70s setting. Amid the semi-absurd backdrop of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Dai fashions a memoir that earns its occasional lapses into sentiment.

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Set within a rehabilitation camp in the Chinese highlands, the story follows two reluctant inductees—one a burgeoning concert violinist, the other a playboy dentist in the making—as they try to adapt to their exciting new lifestyle of carrying manure up a hill. Under the increasingly suspicious noses of the surrounding peasants, the duo tries in vain to let off some capitalist steam. Soon, a love triangle (or quartet, if you count a cache of forbidden books) develops between the two educated boys and the beautiful, illiterate peasant girl of the title (Beijing Bicycle's Zhou Xun). As the seamstress becomes more aware of the allure of the West, the trio finds their allegiances severely tested.

The stuff of sap, possibly, but an unbridled love story in a society where even cookbooks are regarded as reactionary propaganda proves fascinating. (In one of the loveliest conceits, the trio sneaks off to a condemned movie, only to later refashion the plot as a pro-Mao fable for the entertainment-starved village.) An epilogue (not present in the novel), in which one of the boys returns to the now flooded-out camp, is a tad too much, but until then, Dai's idealized memory soars. For folks skeptical of the whole subtitle thing, this is an ideal starter film. ANDREW WRIGHT