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Short Takes On Current Releases 

Masters at Work Irrepressibly charming and so beautifully performed by its lead actors (the incomparable Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson) that it's like watching a master class in screen acting, Last Chance Harvey snuck into theaters at the end of 2008 in the hopes of gaining some awards-season traction. It didn't, but that's no reason to turn up your nose at one of the most enjoyable romantic comedies in recent memory. While en route to London for his daughter's wedding, New York music-jingle composer Harvey Shine (Hoffman) learns that he's about to be phased out of his ad agency. Already depressed, Harvey soon discovers that his daughter (Liane Balaban) has asked stepdad Brian (James Brolin) to walk her down the aisle. Ouch! Deciding to skip the post-nuptial reception and make a quick getaway after the ceremony, Harvey makes the acquaintance of fortysomething singleton Kate Walker (Thompson at her most deliciously imperious) at an airport lounge. Although Kate has no patience at first for the gregarious, supremely needy American tourist - she's perfectly content to bury her nose in a book - Harvey ultimately wins her over during an impromptu lunch. Deciding to book a later flight, Harvey impulsively whisks Kate off to the wedding reception where this supremely odd couple becomes the hit of the party.

Afterward, they (chastely) spend the night together, walking the streets of London and getting to know each other. But since Harvey is still scheduled to leave for New York in the morning, is there any hope of a lasting connection between these two kindred spirits, both yearning for love and succor in their own quasi-dysfunctional way? So slight and winsome that it's liable to be dismissed by hard-hearted cynics, Last Chance Harvey - written and directed by relative newcomer Joel Hopkins, whose only previous feature was 2001's Jump Tomorrow - is as refreshing as a tart lemon soufflé served after a groaning board of overcooked holiday leftovers. - Milan Paurich

 

When Poppy (Sally Hawkins) has her bicycle nicked at the beginning of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, her only response is a melancholic "Ahhhh - we didn't have the chance to say goodbye." Poppy (short for Pauline) is so exuberantly Pollyanna-ish she even seems to enjoy being jostled while riding mass transit, something she's forced to do after the theft of her bike. It's not surprising to learn that Poppy is a primary-school teacher, since she has the easy, unfiltered enthusiasm of a kid herself. How you respond to Poppy - and Hawkins' performance - is a good litmus test for Happy-Go-Lucky. If you think Poppy's got a screw (or two) loose, the film and the character can be endurance tests. But if you're tickled by her incessant joie de vivre, you'll probably love Poppy and the movie. As someone who quickly grew tired of Poppy/Hawkins' Cockney chirpiness, I clearly fall into the former camp.

Leigh has had such a brilliant career (Life Is Sweet, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets and Lies, et al.) that it's easy to cut him the occasional slack. His unconventional filmmaking technique - Leigh basically "workshops" his films for months before shooting begins, using improvisation to help the actors fine-tune their characters and his script - can be akin to capturing lightning in a bottle. This time, I'm wondering how he didn't realize the error in building an entire movie around someone as fingernails-on-a-blackboard grating as Poppy. As part of a typically busy Leigh ensemble piece, Poppy/Hawkins might have been bearable. As basically the entire show, not so much. The only scenes that really work are the ones between Poppy and Scott (the brilliant Eddie Marsan), her clearly out-of-his-gourd driving instructor. Or maybe it's because Scott's seething exasperation with Poppy mirrored my own. - Paurich

Not Easily Broken

 

When I was a kid, I would wake up on Sunday mornings while it was still dark, and the only thing on TV were these strange, low-budget dramas in which someone was saved from a life of drink, a gambling habit or a troubled marriage by finding God. Not Easily Broken, an inspirational African-American drama directed by Bill Duke and based on a T.D. Jakes novel, reminds me of those old religious soap operas. Like them, it is quite watchable, despite some plot weaknesses. Muscular heartthrob Morris Chestnut plays Dave Johnson, a former high-school athlete who works construction and can't please his wife Clarice (Taraji P. Henson, so good in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Their marriage is strained by Clarice's materialistic ambitions and Dave's unfulfilled desire to have kids. Clarice, who sells real estate, is jealous of the time Dave spends with "his boys," which includes not only his buddies, but also the Little League team he lovingly coaches. The Johnsons have forgotten the words of the Bishop (Albert Hall) who married them and told them they were bound by three unbreakable cords, the third of which is God. The Almighty steps in with a car accident that seriously injures Clarice and prompts her mean, meddlesome mom (Jenifer Lewis) to move in and drive the couple apart. Dave is drawn to Clarice's blond, blue-eyed physical therapist, Julie (Maeve Quinlan), until a sudden tragedy causes Clarice to take the Bishop's advice and try to repair her marriage. The scenes are threaded together with meditations on God, fate and the need for men to feel like heroes. This is a very traditionally minded parable that blames marital problems in part on women not making men feel manly enough. The argument is stacked against Clarice, who is screechy and demanding, while Dave is almost saintly in patience and kindness (he even makes his angry ex-con friend into a better father). The story has some ragged edges: Clarice's physical recovery takes place with miraculous speed and Dave's near-tryst with a white lady is a red herring - Julie becomes a sacrifice to the marriage's salvation. Still, when many black-oriented films patronize audiences with noisy pratfalls, a spiritual drama is not a bad thing. The movie is thoughtful and sympathetic - with moments of emotional power, most notably a scene in which Clarice confronts her bitter mother. - Pamela Zoslov

Splinter

Somehow, it's not surprising that Splinter director Toby Wilkins' next opus is a direct-to-DVD sequel to The Grudge. It seems fated that straight-to-Blockbuster follow-ups to Cabin Fever and Saw beckon this horror-specialty filmmaker, whose Splinter ought to sate gorehounds looking for more-of-the-same-just-a-little-different weekend diversion. This minimalist torture porn is kind of like an Eli Roth splatterfest scripted slightly up to grad-student level. Setting is some unnamed old-growth forest in the boondocks (filmed in Oklahoma). A camping couple, a mild-mannered biology PhD (Paolo Costanzo) and his incongruously sexy girlfriend (Jill Wagner), are taken hostage by a misunderstood white-trash desperado (Shea Whigham) and his junkie girlfriend (Rachel Krebs). Then all four run afoul of a fungus-like organism that rapidly and insidiously spreads by contact with the black sliver-like spines that sprout on its victims, who crunchily transform into lurching, marionette-like zombies.

Aside from some B-movie scientific mumbo-jumbo about its feeding habits (which you may or may not even hear properly, thanks to mumblecore dialogue), there's no explanation for the hideous contagion - just a no-frills overnight battle for survival in an isolated gas station besieged by the living dead (or bits of them). Viewers not desirous to see amputations and mutilations should stick with Marley & Me. For horror-genre fans, Splinter is markedly better than the big-budget adaptation of the rather similar The Ruins that infected mainstream theaters around this time last year, and the use of jerky digital video helps cover up the limited creature FX while conveying the same sense of blind panic it did in 28 Days Later. At just over 80 minutes, Splinter doesn't overstay its welcome, even if it never quite … grows on you. - Charles Cassady Jr. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17 and 9:15 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18

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