Dumb ‘Double,’ Clammy ‘Skin,’ Medium ‘Tower,’ Raunchy ‘Christmas,’ Stately ‘Sister’

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F.S.
Contributing Writer

 

“The Double”

Richard Gere and Topher Grace star in the spy action film, “The Double.”

A spy movie that’s simultaneously convoluted and strangely dull, “The Double” (wide release) revives old Cold War cliches to little effect.

Richard Gere stars as a retired CIA agent brought out of retirement by his pal (Martin Sheen) – now the head honcho – to track down ‘Cassius,’ a legendary Soviet assassin long believed dead who’s apparently reappeared with murder on his mind.  Gere is reluctantly teamed with Topher Grace as the obligatory wet-behind-the-ears analyst who’s made himself an expert on the Russian killer.

The movie springs its biggest twist about midway through, but so lackadaisically that you’ll have guessed it long before.  Then, at the end, it tries another, but one so preposterous that it’s likely to leave you amazed not at its cleverness but at its absurdity. And some major plot holes are left conspicuously unfilled.

Gere and Grace do their best, but their efforts can’t save this old-fashioned hokum from its own ridiculousness.
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“The Skin I Live In”

Pedro Almodovar is one of the most celebrated filmmakers working today, and some of his pictures ­– like “Bad Education” – have been remarkable.  But “The Skin I Live In” (Angelika) is a disappointment.

Antonio Banderas plays a skin-transplant specialist who decides to take a perverse form of revenge on the womanizing young man who came on to his emotionally fragile daughter, leading to her suicide.  His scheme is literally nonsensical from a surgical perspective, but feeding as it does into the director’s persistent theme of gender identity, it creates a genuine mood of unease.

Ultimately, however, in this case Almodovar’s characteristically extravagant technique – complete with chronological fragmentation – feels like an affectation.  The movie is basically a 1950s mad-scientist flick done up in the florid, brightly-colored soap operatic trappings of a Douglas Sirk melodrama – the sort of thing Bela Lugosi might have starred in during his declining years, if he’d been blessed with a big budget.

Still “The Skin I Live In” holds a sort of morbid fascination, even if in the final analysis it doesn’t amount to much more than a creepy horror show.
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“Tower Heist”

Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller play as Josh Kovacs and Slide in “Tower Heist.”

With the exception of the “Ocean’s Eleven” series, lighthearted robbery movies aren’t as prevalent as they once were, and, as an attempt to revive the genre, “Tower Heist” (wide release) doesn’t reach the heights.  But thanks to a fine ensemble, it’s moderately enjoyable and also manages to touch humorously on the conspicuous income disparity that’s become such a political issue in the U.S.

An unusually restrained Ben Stiller plays the leader of the bumbling, ad-hoc gang of would-be thieves, a bunch of employees at a posh Manhattan high-rise whose hard-earned pension funds have been wiped out in the schemes of a sleazy Madoff-like investment guru (Alan Alda) they trusted their money to.  So they enlist a street hustler (Eddie Murphy) to school them in the criminal techniques they’ll need to break into the fellow’s penthouse suite and crack the safe they believe contains his undiscovered cash stash.

Oddly, it’s the first half of the movie – the plan-preparing section – that works best, with lots of amusing throw-away banter.  When it moves into the robbery itself, however, the picture turns into the sort of standard-issue action comedy that director Brett Ratner specializes in, and, despite lots of spectacular set-pieces, it collapses in illogicality and implausibility.

Still, there are enough laughs along the way to make “Tower Heist” tolerable even at its lowest points.  And at least it’s not gross.
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“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”

John Cho and Kal Penn play as old friends in the comedy, “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.”

That can hardly be said of “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” (wide release), the third installment in the stoner franchise.  In it the two stooges stumble into a series of misadventures trying to replace a tree they’ve accidentally destroyed on Christmas Eve.

A melange of mild blasphemy, sniggering sexual business and pervasive drug humor (including one story thread that involves child endangerment), the movie will be offensive to many, but what’s equally sad is how tedious and torpid the whole thing is.

This “Christmas” brings no holiday cheer.
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“Mozart’s Sister”

It’s a relief to turn to “Mozart’s Sister” (Magnolia), a lovely, though very deliberately paced, period piece focusing on the Mozart family’s travels through Europe in the 1760s going from court to court to show off their eleven-year old prodigy’s amazing gifts.

Marie Féret stars as Nannerl Mozart in “Mozart’s Sister.”

The focus, however, isn’t on young Wolfgang but his older sister, who might have possessed equal talent but was stifled by the gender constraints of her day from expressing it. Even when engaged in fictional friendships with members of the French royal family (including the strange, tormented Dauphin), she’s forced to suppress her personality – at points having to dress as a man to conceal her identity.

This is obviously a feminist fable, but more importantly the film portrays a loving family headed by a stern patriarch committed to exploiting his son’s extraordinary abilities in an age when an artist’s success still depended entirely on the patronage of the privileged classes.

And though made on a limited budget, it’s a feast for the eyes – as well as, given the subject, for the ears.

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