Matthew Lickona 3 p.m., Jan. 20
Sydney Pollack's name on a topical thriller offers no guarantee, but it offers at least a promise. A promise, to be more specific, of tweedy dullness and liberal softness: Havana, The Firm, Absence of Malice, Three Days of the Condor. And was Random Hearts a thriller as well? Hard to tell. The pre-credits sequence in Africa, the furthest thing from a James Bond pre-credits sequence, tells us precisely how to adjust our sights: a bit of that indigenous choral chant that proclaims the catholicity of the filmmaker's soul, a gruesome spectacle of slaughtered bodies in the bowels of a tumbledown soccer stadium, and the addition of a couple of new bodies to the pile. We will not be startled to find that the unfolding events take us into the areas of ethnic cleansing, land mines, terrorist bombs, political assassination, and a renewal of faith in the postwar ideals of the United Nations. Though the tweedy dullness and liberal softness are delivered in bulk, the episode of the bomb-on-a-bus (reminiscent of Hitchcock's Sabotage) generates some genuine suspense, with three separate suspects and their Secret Service shadows converging on the same conveyance. ("What's goin' on?" "I don't know, but it don't feel good.") Pollack gets good mileage elsewhere, too, out of the cross-cutting technique employed there. Even if he doesn't get much tension or pace out of it, he at any rate gets complexity. But the best reason to see the film is unquestionably for the cinematography of the Iranian-born Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Seven, The Ninth Gate, et al.), the smooth, sleek, polished surface of the image, the clean, fresh air within (remarkably so for New York City), the warm, moist, and radiant flesh tones. The best reason to see it, in other words, is simply to see it. You can't ask for less. Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener. 2005.