Driving Lessons

dir. Jeremy Brock

In this sublimated Harold and Maude, Rupert Grint (better known as Harry Potter's redheaded chum) plays Ben, a shrinking-violet vicar's son who falls into the benevolent clutches of retired actress Evie (Julie Walters). Oppressed by a life spent trotting meekly after his mother (Laura Linney, terrifying) as she pursues her weekly regimen of good works, Bible study, and boinking the stud playing Jesus in the church pageant, Ben jumps at the opportunity to work as the personal assistant to a fallen lush. Evie introduces Ben to wine and tent camping and 16th-century poetry. Life, in all its rouged glory, blooms before his beady eyes.

There is nothing so predictable as this formula, in which a boy pushes off his mother's clammy dock to splash into a sea of salty feminine culture. But Grint has learned to let the occasional glimpse of personality flash between his shortsighted squints, and Walters is just the kind of outsize personality you could imagine anchoring an '80s soap opera called The Shipping Magnates.

Sadly, Driving Lessons grinds to a near stop when Evie convinces Ben to chauffeur her to a distant literary festival. The drinking, the age-appropriate seduction, the sudden bout of stage fright—all these developments are distractions from the main conflict: the contest of wills between Laura Linney and Julie Walters, with poor, shaggy Rupert Grint caught in between. ANNIE WAGNER

The Architect

dir. Matt Tauber

Although it may seem to be a no-brainer in concept (hey, the script's already written!), going from play to film can be a dicey proposition. When the mixture is right (as in director Stuart Gordon's rather astonishing recent Mametverse entry, Edmond), the frisson can often enrich the existing work. Otherwise, look out: staginess ahead.

Unfortunately, first-time filmmaker Matt Tauber's The Architect falls in the latter category. Despite the best of intentions, it skids mightily in the transition from three to two dimensions. Based on David Greig's acclaimed play, Tauber's script focuses on an imperious Chicago builder (Anthony LaPaglia) too intent on the good life to notice the growing fractures within his family—from fed-up wife (Isabella Rossellini) to burgeoning sexpot daughter (Heroes' Hayden Panettiere) and tailspinning, possibly closeted college dropout of a son (Sebastian Stan). His obliviousness is brought into sharp relief with the appearance of a fiery projects dweller (Viola Davis) intent on seeing the destruction of his cherished design for a South Side housing development. Greig's socially conscious narrative has a lot on its plate—maybe too much, actually. While The Architect certainly isn't hurting for provocative ideas, the hustle and bustle never allows the viewer to get a sense of what this family was like, pre-implosion. Without that critical connection, the copious speeches just come off like, well, speeches.

In his defense, Tauber does demonstrate a nice rapport with his actors. LaPaglia is solid, as always, and Soderbergh vet Davis brings an unpredictable heat to her potentially didactic character. Even with their efforts, though, it's hard not to feel like something major was lost in translation. Greig's immediate, in medias res style of storytelling may very well work like gangbusters on the stage, but it takes some major rejiggering to fly in a three-act cinematic structure. ANDREW WRIGHT

The Holiday

dir. Nancy Meyers

Wait, I'm confused. Is Cameron Diaz supposed to be good at acting? Am I supposed to enjoy looking at her and listening to the words that come out of her stupid squishface? Did somebody pay her money to screech and pout and harrumph all over the movie screens, and then ask me to pay money to experience it?

Hmm, that's weird, because homegirl is basically unwatchable in The Holiday, the latest seasonal life-waster from Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give). Diaz is Amanda, a rich, frigid Hollywood type who hasn't cried since she was 15 (oh, but she tries—hnnnnnnggg!). After splitting with her boyfriend (Ed Burns), Amanda has a typically female meltdown, shattering the glass ceiling with quips like, "I want to eat carbs without wanting to kill myself. I want to read a book. Not a magazine, but an actual book!" (Though she does, in fact, go on to eat carbs, actual-book reading remains beyond Amanda's grasp.)

Meanwhile, in jaunty Londontown, Iris (Kate Winslet, tragically excellent) suffers a crisis of her own when the manipulative dicklick she's in love with announces his engagement to someone else, describing his relationship with Iris as "square peg, round hole." Um, gross.

So the gals decide to switch houses for two weeks: Iris lounges by the pool in L.A. and learns about gumption from a walker-bound old-timer (scoot, scoot, scoot!); Amanda bitches about how the bathtub is too small in Iris's magical elf cottage and gets herpes from Jude Law (I wish). Too rarely, a forcibly restrained Jack Black appears and tells unfortunate non-jokes such as: "I've had too much of the Manischewitz. I'm going to have to be cut off." Hahaha—zzzzzzzzzzzz.

Each scene in The Holiday is more annoying than the last. Another soliloquy about how love is complicated? Obnoxious. Cameron Diaz lip-synching to the Killers? I have an ulcer now. The best part is one minuscule aside, when Jack Black, singing a little song, says "froodely," as in, "froodely-doo," and then says it again. It's cute.

So. Things you'll get out of The Holiday: Cameron Diaz is annoying, England is a Thomas Kinkade painting, and "froodely-doo" is the best. Other things you could do with $8: buy several delicious doughnuts, mulch your garden, Xerox your "round hole," or make a hobo smile. Skip The Holiday. Think of the hobos. LINDY WEST


dir. Neil Armfield

In the wake of the still-startling Trainspotting, modern smack cinema has settled into a near-Kabuki form—grotty lofts, designer bedsores, Leonard Cohen—readily apparent to even the most blitzed viewer. Punishing as these films can be, what's generally missing is any sense of what makes this stuff attractive in the first place. The ratings board would likely cry foul at any attempt to make the consumption of illegal substances look fun (to get that, you'd have to go back to the bleary '60s output of Roger Corman), but a little more narrative balance between high and low might make the ultimate tragedies seem more... tragic.

The new Aussie import Candy doesn't deviate much from the downward-spiral norm, but benefits hugely from an atypically loose performance by Heath Ledger. Adapted from the novel by coscriptwriter Luke Davies, director Neil Armfield's flashback-intensive film follows the tragic romance of Dan (Ledger) and Candy (Abbie Cornish), a sweetly bohemian couple feeding their heroin need with small-time scams and occasional boosts from a kindly chemist/sugar daddy (Geoffrey Rush). Then, one day, she decides to start skin popping, and down they go.

The narrative path can be easily guessed from there, but Armfield's film, to its credit, eschews the relentless in-your-face quality of Requiem for a Dream in favor of a more subdued, realistic tumble. Mostly, though, what it has in its favor are its performances. Cornish, a former Australian-TV actress (recently seen in the indie Somersault and Ridley Scott's A Good Year), brings a genuine, fresh-faced quality to her character, which makes her decline especially poignant. (When her beauty starts to fade, it's difficult not to look around for a rewind button.) And then there's Ledger, an actor whose American performances have often come off, to my mind, as excessively mannered. Here, though, he crafts a hazily indelible portrait of a likeable, easygoing guy torpedoed by his very amiability. Clichéd as the structure may be, Ledger gives it a new riff: He can kinda sorta glimpse the endpoint throughout, but likes feeling good a little too much to do anything about it. ANDREW WRIGHT

Mutual Appreciation

dir. Andrew Bujalski

The New York Times has already declared writer-director Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha) the voice of his generation, and on a purely surface level he is. The conversations in his new film, Mutual Appreciation, are casually awkward, with stumbling sentences and stalling for time—ums and uhs and I means. It sounds true, like eavesdropping on boozy kitchen chatter at a house party. Even better, it's Bujalski's second film on a microbudget—and he's distributing it himself.

But dig past the natural performances and indie cred and Mutual Appreciation feels slightly smug. The story follows Boston musician Alan (Justin Rice) who, after losing his band and his girlfriend, moves to Brooklyn to regroup. Many evenings and bottles of wine later, he discovers a shared attraction with his friend's girlfriend. Much talking, on, through, and around topic, ensues—all of it honest, familiar, and ultimately unremarkable.

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Bujalski shot the film in 16mm black and white, keeping the frame boxy and the edits rough. This no doubt helps fuel those Cassavetes comparisons. But Alan and his friends are so casual about their dilemma, and everything is kept so light and nonthreatening, that it starts to feel a little pointless. You want to root for Mutual Appreciation, but the characters let you down. Not because they're unlikable, but because they're so good-natured it's hard to think of them as anything beyond a pleasant distraction. At one point, Alan breaks up with a girl only to find she didn't think they were dating—no harm, no foul, which is exactly how the film feels. Bujalski's made an entertaining, often outright funny second movie. I don't know if I'll remember a frame of it this time next year. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Unaccompanied Minors

dir. Paul Feig

It's Home Alone! In an airport! Only the parents in this movie didn't forget their kids on accident—standing them up for the holidays—they fucking got rid of the little brats on purpose!

See, when parents divorce, kids are often caught in the middle—bouncing back and forth, back and forth, between the two like ping-pong balls. And that's what this movie is about—ditched kids, who've already suffered enough thanks to selfish and lame parents, who are now forced to suffer even more by flying alone during the holidays in order to get from one dumb mom or dad to another dumb mom or dad.

Enter snowstorm! Now the gang of abandoned tweenagers is stranded in a holiday-hating airport run by a staff of scrooges and dipshits (including Lewis Black from The Daily Show—the scrooge—and that exchange-student dude from That '70s Show—the dipshit). With feet and feet of snow falling at record levels, all the already slightly damaged kids are forced to crowd into a room with a bunch of other slightly damaged kids. And boy, can kids be mean!

So instead of putting up with that shit, that fat kid from Bad Santa (who RULES, by the way), a snotty rich girl, a geeky black kid, a girl who's a younger version of Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club, and an overly emo sissy boy break outta the "jail cell" and try to save Christmas for Emo Boy's unbelievably obnoxious little sister.

They get lost in the luggage sorting room (betcha didn't see that coming), they break into "lost luggage" storage and play with all the abandoned shit, they dance, they hook up in an innocent PG way, and then, of course, they SAVE CHRISTMAS! Hooray! MEGAN SELING