Lions for Lambs

dir. Robert Redford

It's no coincidence that the director of Lions for Lambs also cast himself as a professor of political science. The screenplay for the fall's latest war movie (the second written by The Kingdom's Matthew Michael Carnahan) is structured like a couple of Socratic dialogues, with cheap-looking action sequences to remind us of the consequences of political talk. If this sounds stultifying, well, it is. Except when a picture of Tom Cruise (as an oily Republican senator) is Photoshopped into a manly hug with George W. Bush: According to the preview audience I saw the movie with, the sight of an evangelical hugging a Scientologist is comedy gold.

In the first dialogue, Robert Redford's idealistic Professor Malley stages an intervention with a floppy-haired frat boy (Andrew Garfield) who's been skipping his classes. The frat boy is sassy, but Malley appeals to the memory of two of his former students (Michael Peña and Derek Luke), who've joined the Special Forces and are right this minute—wait for the action sequence—being deployed to a dubious mission in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in the second dialogue, Tom Cruise's senator offers an exclusive interview to political reporter Meryl Streep, who still feels bad about the way her network sold the invasion of Iraq. The scoop is an incomprehensible new strategy involving "forward points" in northern Afghanistan—cut to a sorry mockup of snowy mountains, with Peña and Luke being stalked by faceless "Talis" after they accidentally fell out of their helicopter. Oops.

The most aggravating thing about Lions for Lambs isn't its earnest attempt to instruct. It's that Carnahan didn't do the research that would've made the details remotely plausible. Streep's reporter voices bland liberal reservations about war, but she doesn't ask a single question about the way the senator's vaguely worded "strategy" might play out, or about the Afghan "hearts and minds" he intends to win over. Despite its topical veneer, this is a movie about pure, weightless abstractions: apathy versus action, moral courage versus careerism. It's hardly a fair debate. ANNIE WAGNER

Music Within

dir. Steven Sawalich

Why was this movie made? What is its purpose? To educate us about a man who played a central role in forming and advancing the laws that currently protect the rights of Americans with physical disabilities. If this is why you should watch this movie, for its educational value, why isn't it just a documentary? Why does it have to be a drama? Why the actors? Why a script that employs the techniques and enhancements of fiction to tell a "true story"? Really, why?

All we need is the information: Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingston) was born in the 1950s to a mad and white mother and sad and Chinese father; his childhood was lonely; his mother became even more loony; his father died in a restaurant accident (killed by a barrel of soy sauce). Richard, however, had a gift for public speaking. Because his gift did not translate into a college scholarship, he went to Vietnam; because the war cost him his hearing, he became an activist for disabled people; because of his years of hard work and activism, the Americans with Disabilities Act became a reality.

Now, what more do you want to know about this man's life than these facts? Yes, he had a woman in his life; yes, he had his ups and downs with her. But nothing in all that he went through with her and others close to him has much cinematic value. Richard is no (sweeping) Gandhi, no (heroic) Malcolm X, no (graceful) Queen Elizabeth. Speaking of the queen, the actor, Michael Sheen, who plays Richard's best friend, a wheelchair-bound man suffering from severe cerebral palsy, is the actor who plays Tony Blair in The Queen. I'm not saying anything. CHARLES MUDEDE

Darfur Now

dir. Ted Braun

Darfur Now is a slick, almost uncomfortably optimistic documentary about the human catastrophe currently taking place in western Sudan. It shies away from the dramatic "this is what a genocide looks like" documentation that made the earlier The Devil Came on Horseback so chilling, preferring to envision the pastoral idyll that preceded the coming of the Janjaweed.

In the lovely opening shot, a woman scrubs her hair with a bar of soap in a stream. Later, refugees waiting for NGO trucks to deliver their next meal recite the crops they used to raise in their villages. Children chase after one another down dusty, curving paths. The purpose of these scenes isn't to describe the literal past: Darfur Now doesn't bother much with history, not even to address the roots of the conflict between rebel groups and the government. It's just a gentle way to coax apathetic viewers into action. Sign a postcard to your governor, the movie seems to suggest, and you can restore Paradise.

The film follows no fewer than six individuals: Luis Moreno-Ocampo (prosecutor for the International Criminal Court), Ahmed Mohammed Abakar (a refugee who's become the leader of a massive displacement camp), Adam Sterling (a student activist in California), Hejewa Adam (a Sudanese woman who's joined a rebel militia), Pablo Recalde (from the World Food Program), and Don Cheadle (emoting alongside his buddy George Clooney). With such a crowd of personalities, there isn't much opportunity to get to know anyone in depth.

So director Ted Braun soon culls the crowd and settles on the only campaign with any chance of achieving success in a timely fashion: Sterling's effort to get California to divest its pension plan from Sudan. Sterling supplies the film with a happy climax (complete with a grinning Arnold Schwarzenegger), but it rings a little hollow. Perhaps Braun has figured correctly, and an uplifting ending is necessary to get anybody to do anything—but that calculation is depressing in itself. ANNIE WAGNER

Terror's Advocate

dir. Barbet Schroeder

The tantalizing title of Barbet Schroeder's new documentary profile is really a bit of marketing mischief—the French title uses "avocat," which generally means "lawyer." (It can also mean "advocate," as well as "avocado." Terror's Avocado—now there's a movie I'd like to see.) The French attorney Jacques Vergès is the go-to guy for accused terrorists and war criminals of a bewildering array of persuasions: first, anticolonial Algerians, and then, anti-Zionist Palestinians, and later, in rapid succession, radical German leftists and the notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie. Before the trial of Saddam Hussein, the now-82-year-old lawyer had offered to defend him, too. But is Vergès really advocating all the various positions his clients espouse? It hardly seems possible.

The elegant, cigar-fondling Vergès isn't about to give up his mystique so easily, so Schroeder sets the stage by finding some really bad guys to claim Vergès as their friend. Voilà: various retired leaders of the Khmer Rouge, complimenting their buddy enthusiastically. (Apparently Vergès befriended Pol Pot when they were both active in anticolonial student groups in Paris.) The documentary then recounts Vergès's thrilling, confounding career, spiking its talking-head testimonials with illustrative film clips. Sultry scenes from The Battle of Algiers describe the tactics of his client and first wife, the beautiful Algerian bomb-planter Djamila Bouhired. If we find these things exciting in the movies, Vergès finds them sexy in person. After abandoning Bouhired and their two children, he courted yet another client, the dark-haired, blue-eyed radical German leftist Magdalena Kopp.

Terror's Advocate is riveting not because it explains Jacques Vergès's motives (he's inscrutable), or because it condemns him as evil (boring)—and certainly not because it absolves him of any moral stain. It's fascinating because the unsavory, even antisocial glamour that Vergès depends on for his life's work is exactly the stuff that makes for a chilling international thriller. Vergès was made for the movies—the only trouble is, he also exists in real life. ANNIE WAGNER

Fred Claus

dir. David Dobkin

Once upon a time, Kathy Bates lived in a hut. Then, even though she was approximately 76 years old, she went ahead and gave birth. "It's the fattest baby I've ever seen!" screamed the Bavarian forest doctor. "I promise to be the best big brother in the whole world," said some other kid. "Sometimes it's easier to make promises than to keep them," warned the condescending narrator.

That fat baby's name was Nicholas. He scampered around the forest—Delta Burke thighs straining the seams on his red long johns—doing incredibly "saintly" stuff like falling down chimneys, murdering birds, and dragging dirty trees into the living room. This behavior, for reasons unexamined, delighted Kathy Bates and caused her to HATE the other bowl full of jelly that fell out of her shriveled womb. His name was Fred.

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Fast-forward nine million years: "In manhood [Nicholas] literally became a saint." Hmm, that's weird! Wouldn't he be dead by now, narrator? Nope? It's a "little-known fact" that when you become a saint, you "freeze in time!" And so does your ENTIRE FAMILY! Yes, this is obviously correct. In fact, I recently purchased a George Foreman Grill on Craigslist from St. Augustine's uncle, Kevin Augustine! Wait! No, I didn't! Oh my god I hate this lying sack of shit movie so much!

Christmas is in peril, as usual. Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn), now estranged, has become a ne'er-do-well and a naughty-kid apologist. St. Nick (Paul Giamatti) and his huge, shiny sausage fingers are in danger of being "shut down" by "the board" for the purposes of "efficiency." (Wait, what?) Also, his back hurts! But who will deliver this year's rigidly gender-biased gifts? "There's a rule: Only a Claus can deliver the presents," cock-a-doodle-doos some gay elf. Oh, well if there's a rule... LINDY WEST