dir. Judd Apatow
It takes a special brand of spinelessness to remain a virgin through your 30s, and Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) more than fits the bill. An avid toy collector who works as an invoice wrangler at an electronics store, Andy is content in his almighty geekdom, shying away from the fairer sex in favor of dusting the original packaging on his action figures. He's the sweetest guy you'll ever meet. He's also a pile of Jell-O, both physically and emotionally.
As often happens, though, shame spurs Andy into action. During an after-hours card game with three of his dunderheaded co-workers, talk turns to sex and, panicked when it's his turn to share, he waxes on about the pleasures of female breasts, which he describes as being like bags of sand. The not-so-secret cat is quickly out of the bag: Andy ain't been laid. And his pals, of course, want to do something about it.
The trailers for The 40-Year-Old Virgin promised yet another lame romp through sexual humiliation—Losin' It with gray hairs. The trailers, however, lied. Surprisingly smart and unashamed of a little jolt to the heartstrings, it's a sly movie, happy to shock occasionally, but happier still to bless its characters with the intelligence sorely lacking from most comedies. As Andy, Steve Carell—who was far and away the best part of director Judd Apatow's last film Anchorman—may be the star of the film, but his performance is little more than the eye of the storm, with a stellar supporting cast (Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, and Seth Rogen as his co-workers; the great Catherine Keener as his would-be love interest) shouldering much of the comedic load around him. The result is a film that, for the time being at least, wrestles comedy from the pimple-faced masses and hands it back to the adults. It's also the funniest movie you will see all year. BRADLEY STEINBACHERRed Eye
dir. Wes Craven
At a time when the bulk of adrenaline cinema seems divvied up between high-stakes Michael Bay mega-orgasms or SciFi channel exclusives starring Lou Diamond Phillips and giant CGI snakes, the lean, stripped-down pleasures of an honest-to-goodness B-picture are sorely needed. Coming in at a fairly miraculous 85 minutes, Wes Craven's Red Eye may not quite have the propulsive clockwork ingenuity of, say, a Breakdown or Pitch Black, but its built-for-speed, no-nonsense style goes a long way toward juicing this summer's dog days.
TV vet Carl Ellsworth's script turns on a monster hook: While suffering through the unique rigors of a late-night flight, an endearingly anal hotel manager (Rachel McAdams) quickly learns that her chatty aisle partner (Batman Begins' Cillian Murphy, he of the unnervingly light-blue peepers) ain't quite what he seems. Mid-air hostage situations, close-quarter combat, and threats to Homeland Security get thrown into the mix in due course, with a refreshing respect for the audience's collective BS detector.
While the progression may ultimately be a little too straightforward to attain classic status, aspiring screenwriters would do well to give it a look-see. Throughout, character motivations are quickly sketched but solid, the comic relief doesn't wear out its welcome, set pieces stay just within the realm of plausibility, and nobody outruns a slo-mo fireball. Such endearingly square proceedings are a particular surprise coming from Craven, a former professor who's often been guilty of overthinking his assignments. Here, he seems content to let the strength of the concept and characters (McAdams is particularly wonderful as the plucky yet fallible heroine) take the reins, while he's steadily turning the screws in the background. By the time he finally gets his ya-yas out and turns the tables in the third act, the crowd rightly goes bananas. A user-friendly thriller, what a concept. ANDREW WRIGHTValiant
dir. Gary Chapman
It's 1944 and Valiant is a young British pigeon who's certainly not fast or strong enough to benefit Great Britain's Royal Homing Pigeon Service in the midst of World War II. Blinded by the service's promise of friendship, adoration, and curvy, sexy doves for nurses, the little birdie nonetheless decides that the life of a war hero is the life for him. So he packs his bags, calms his worrying mother by saying "Mum, there's a war going on and I want to do my bit," and lies his way into boot camp, where four more equally inept birds join him.
During their training, the clumsy and feathered idiots run into one another midair, fail to complete even a single pushup, and hardly have the stamina to outrun the enemy Falcon Brigade while trying to cross the English Channel. But the RHPS is in dire need of fresh blood as all of their best fliers continue to be picked off one by one, and after losing Squadron F somewhere over Belgium, it makes a desperate move to send Valiant and his gang into France regardless of the fact that their training is incomplete and they're still embarrassingly underqualified for the job. I mean, what have they got to lose, right? Just their lives?
Anyway, Valiant breaks down into a simple story about a bird war hero. It makes war look sorta uncomfortable (they show some cartoon bullets), but at the same time it's oh-so-cute and manageable, with happy endings all around. Really, it's a half-assed army recruitment tool disguised as an adorable animated Disney flick, and for that I tremble in fear for our nation's youth. MEGAN SELINGAsylum
dir. David Mackenzie
The fearful, fertile allure of the loony bin has supported and enriched a number of cinematic approaches, from Sam Fuller's magnificently gonzo Shock Corridor, to Cuckoo's Nest's satirical social microcosm, to, most recently, the woefully underseen spooker Session 9. Asylum, the latest entry into the snake pit, begins promisingly, but falters in the stretch. Although wonderfully acted and often compelling on a scene-to-scene basis, it can't quite distinguish itself from the large shadow of its impressively dank environment.
Based on the novel by Spider author Patrick McGrath, Patrick (Closer) Marber's screenplay follows the willful downward spiral of Natasha Richardson, a hugely dissatisfied doctor's wife and mother who apparently subsists on a diet of booze, cigarettes, and scorn. Soon after taking up residence at the titular institution, she begins an affair with a patient (hunky up-and-comer Marton Csokas) with a history of savagely flying off the handle at the slightest hint of betrayal. Before long, an escape attempt (and the vested interests of pervy fly-on-the-wall administrator Ian McKellen) brings things to a tragic head. The gothic quota of dark hallways and clanking cells are met.
As he previously showed with Young Adam, director David Mackenzie knows his way around a realistically grotty sex scene (rarely have quickies been so... quick), but proves rather less successful detailing the progressively self-destructive nature of his characters. As it stands, the lion's share of narrative drive comes largely from the actors. Still, considering the quality of his cast, this isn't a wholly bad thing, particularly when it comes to the fearless Richardson, who invests her character with a heartrending knack for hindsight. Whenever she, McKellen, or Csokas are allowed to hold the screen, the thing cooks. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Brian Herzlinger
Brian Herzlinger, an aspiring documentary filmmaker from New Jersey, wanted to fulfill a long-held crush on Drew Barrymore, and with the help of film-school friends, a video camera from Circuit City that had to be returned in 30 days, and a budget of $1,100 he won on a game show (where his winning answer was—you guessed it—"Drew Barrymore"), he set out to ask the actress on a date. The result is My Date with Drew, which, despite its gimmicky featherweight premise, has some sublimely inspired moments of comedy—from the openly hilarious to the gently melancholic.
Obsession is a tricky thing to portray without tipping into stalker mode, and Herzlinger walks the line quite carefully, pulling back enough to allow the humor and the weird pathos of the self-created situations to carry the film. There are several sequences that show the difficulty of contemporary dating in general which pad out the film and give context to his romantic quest. And, of course, there are plenty of scenes of him navigating a ridiculous phalanx of publicists, agents, and handlers to get close to a celebrity. As with any decent documentary, Herzlinger's film isn't really about its most obvious subject, but about constraints—money, time, and connections—trumped by charm, pluck, and nerve. It's the ultimate corny American story that we all still pin our hopes on. NATE LIPPENS