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October 31, 2008|By Michael Sragow

Rocknrolla ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

Watching Guy Ritchie's British-underworld farce, RocknRolla, is like being compelled to pay attention to a nonstop rock station you normally use as background while you're doing chores. The words are catchy and the beat keeps you awake, though all of it quickly fades. Gerard Butler and Idris Elba star as One Two and Mumbles, respectively, pals who carry the air of a boys' clubhouse into strip bars and clip joints. Attempting to better themselves through London real estate, they wind up in debt to the top fixer in town, Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the self-described criminal headmaster of everything Old School.

With the help of his right-hand man, Archie (Mark Strong), Cole plots the financial mugging of a Russian capitalist, Uri (Karel Roden). Neither Cole nor Uri predict the chicanery of Uri's accountant Stella (Thandie Newton), a class act who's all act. Just as lethal is Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), a drug-addicted rocker savvy and bold enough to stage his own apparent suicide to boost CD sales. He also happens to be Cole's bitter stepson.

Kebbell plays Quid like a zombie with his satanic faculties intact. He enjoys bedeviling his managers (Chris Bridges aka Ludacris and Jeremy Piven) as much as he does sticking it to his stepdad. Even better is Archie. The aptly named Strong lets us see that Archie may be even smarter than he is loyal. We learn that when Archie says a real RocknRolla wants every bit of the good life, he's talking about himself.

Rated R . Time 114 minutes.

Hounddog ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

It's become de rigueur to condescend to Southern Gothic films such as Deborah Kampmeier's Hounddog, the story of a precocious rural girl named Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) who belts out "Hounddog" Elvis-style, with hip-swinging gyrations that rouse the villainy of a young rapist. Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan was dismissed, too, then became a smash on DVD. Hounddog, though moving, even haunting, isn't quite in the same class. With scenes of snakes coiling around the supine heroine and lightning striking her brutal dad, the movie approaches pop mythology and magic realism but never makes the leap. It isn't wizardly enough. It isn't real enough.

Yet Hounddog boasts a distinctive wood-and-emerald look and several crackerjack performances. As Lewellen's rigid, moralistic grandmother, Piper Laurie creates a rooted matriarch vastly different from her operatic spine-tingler in Carrie. Here she's a no-nonsense sharpshooter, whether inspecting Lewellen for ticks or putting a rebellious daughter in her gun-sights. And Fanning is a spellbinder as Lewellen. She creates a confident youth who takes every human mystery in and stores it away until she can make sense of it, in her mind or in her music. She finds the deep blues at the heart of "Hounddog."

Rated R. Time 102 minutes.

Zach and Miri Make a Porno * ( 1 STAR)

Writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks) appears to have poured his creative energy into the cheerful come-on of the title and left nothing in reserve for the movie. He fails to wring any memorable comedy from shoestring porno filmmakers because his own filmmaking is just as amateurish and slovenly. During a dingy Pittsburgh winter, two childhood friends and current roommates, Zach (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), can't pay rent and utility bills. Then Zach gets the big idea of creating a porn movie and selling it to members of their high school class. (They've just had a humiliating 10-year reunion.) With a motley crew and even motlier cast, they attempt a George Lucas parody called Star Whores; that should indicate the quarter-witted level of Smith's script. Instead, they end up improvising after hours in the coffee shop where Zach has been ungainfully employed. The question is: When Zach and Miri make whoopee for the cameras, will they discover that they're really in love?

Smith neglects even the obvious farce payoffs, such as our heroes peddling their porn to fellow alumni. He's too busy turning Rogen into a super-sized teddybear and Banks into a sad-eyed beauty who doesn't know her own amorous strength. Smith lacks the zestful effrontery of Terry Zwigoff in Bad Santa, though when it comes to showering gifts on his cast, he's a very bad Santa indeed. Both Rogen and Banks give blurry, enfeebled performances, and the supporting porno actors (including ex-porn star Traci Lords, current porn star Katie Morgan and frequent Smith performer Jason Mewes) derive their laughs strictly from their erotic specialties. There's nothing special about seeing Zach and Miri making a porno. What would be remarkable is Kevin Smith making a real live movie.

Rated R . Time 101 minutes.

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