Two orphaned kids Andi (Emma Roberts) and her mechanical whiz of a younger brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) live in a foster home with a couple of aging wannabe rock stars (Lisa Kudrow Kevin Dillon) who are vehemently anti-pet. Running out of ways to keep their stray pooch Friday hidden in plain sight they stumble on to an abandoned hotel that turns out to be the perfect shelter for Friday – and transform the place into luxury accommodations for all sorts of unwanted pets they spring from the local pound and the streets. But can they stay one step ahead of the law while keeping this United Nations of dogs in line? Human actors don’t have a chance against the gifted assortment of canines. With dogs of every breed from a border collie who loves to herd sheep (don’t ask) to an English bulldog obsessed with chewing stuff the trainers deliver a cast that flawlessly pulls off every dog trick in the book. Fortunately Roberts (Nancy Drew) and Austin are winning and likeable as the two main kids who share a need for family with their four-legged counterparts. Kudrow and Dillon don’t get a whole lot to do in strictly stereotyped roles but Don Cheadle as the kids’ social worker adds a nice touch of dignity and warmth to the story. For his first American feature German director Thor Freudenthal got the supreme challenge: working with kids and animals. Getting this furry menagerie to act on cue could not have been easy but Freundenthal and his talented trainers make it look so. Particularly amusing are the various gadgets and elaborate contraptions Bruce builds to keep the doggies occupied and quiet -- including simulated car windows they can stick their heads out of portable toilets complicated feeding machines and on and on. Just like the current hit Marley & Me it’s a funny and heartwarming family comedy.
Towne’s film is a noble but ultimately flawed attempt to adapt author John Fante’s highly regarded 1930s novel (the screenwriter discovered it and befriended the author while researching Chinatown and spent over three decades trying to bring it to the screen). It tells the tale of wannabe writer and second generation Italian American Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) who comes to the sunny Sodom-by-the-Sea to seek fame and fortune by penning the Great American Novel and collides with a headstrong sharp-tongued Mexican waitress Camilla (Salma Hayek)--a far cry from the beautiful blonde of his romantic fantasies. But she too isn’t looking for an Italian--she longs to marry a WASP and shed her Latin identity. The two tangle--and become entangled--with each other as they try to make their dreams come true in the misnamed City of Angels. It’s a potent premise--a racially charged romance set against a vivid Day of the Locust-style backdrop--that gets off to a stylish start but quickly gets bogged down in a morass of too-familiar oh-so-soap opera sentiment. Looking perfectly fit for a fedora Colin Farrell attacks his role with an abundance of passion wit and verve and the strength of his performance carries the film through many of its rockier trails. As well Salma Hayek practically radiates sensuality AND a keen intelligence in one of most fully realized performances to date. The two strike some very palpable sparks--fireworks even--during both their amusing verbal sparring matches and their highly charged sex scenes (yes both her caliente curves and his bad boy beefcake are on full--and full frontal--display to strong effect). Both performers lift the film to heights it might otherwise not have achieved but are let down by the film’s lugubrious pacing and pat uninvolving third act. Idina Menzel (of Rent fame) pockets nearly every scene she’s in as an eccentric woman obsessed with Farrell’s character delivering a performance that deftly spins its initial quirky comic appeal on a dime into a more moving note of tragedy and sympathy. Towne’s abilities behind the camera--in films such as Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits--have often taken a back seat to his stellar reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest living screenwriters. Still his directorial gifts are considerable as he proves again in Ask the Dust. He adroitly visualizes the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles circa 1939 with the aid of a masterful set built in the unlikely locale of South Africa and his lengthy rehearsal process and trust of actors helped concoct great chemistry between Hayek and Farrell. Where he really trips up is in the editing: the film plays like a screenwriter’s full version if his own final draft. The lack of nips and tucks in the cutting room slows the pace and progression to a fault resulting in scenes that play too long and turgidly. After the too-slow march to the inevitable end you’ll feel like you’re the one who should be brushing the dust off as you leave the theater.
Deep in the ground behind a Jerusalem hardware store a tomb is discovered holding an ancient skeleton that bears all the markings and evidence of Jesus Christ. The Vatican sends out Jesuit Matt Guttierez (Antonio Banderas) to bury the secret (the Catholic Church would rather nobody know that Christ's body wasn't really resurrected). Matt teams up with archaeologist Sharon Golban (Olivia Williams) to investigate and winds up in the middle of a power struggle between politicians religious extremists and terrorists.
Banderas as the devout priest seems to be phoning this one in while Williams as the pragmatic scientist is solid but not terribly memorable. But together their chemistry is pretty good as a man of faith and a woman of science who both find their beliefs tested by what they've found-and by the sexual tension between them. Derek Jacobi is pure Easter ham as Father Lavelle who finds his lifelong beliefs shaken (O how they're shaken!).
Ho hum. What ultimately could've been an interesting story ends up talked over to death. Dry discussions ensue between Matt and Father Lavelle-snore. Who cares? Faith schmaith get to the action already. This might have been better had it concentrated solely on what the discovery of Christ's body could mean politically and culturally to the rest of the world. Instead the film balks jerkily between a half-hearted and predictable conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians (yeah we know they don't get along) and the individual struggles of faith by the characters who naturally end up in the middle of a terrorist scenario.