Reel Paradise is a shoestring documentary (i.e., video) by Steve James, whom I will never see the same after Stevie, and to whom I will ever after extend the benefit of every doubt. On this less personal project, he appears to be no more than a hired hand, summoned to Fiji to document the last month of the year-long sojourn of John Pierson, the indie-film "guru" and TV host of IFC's Split Screen, who took along his wife and two children on his "midlife crisis slash mission," to show free movies to the natives of Taveuni Island in a dilapidated fifty-year-old movie house: X-Men 2, Hot Chicks, Bringing Down the House, Jackass, but also Apocalypse Now Redux, a program of student films (for which the natives, even for free, will not sit still), and, as his farewell offering, Steamboat Bill Jr. (Ever the movie man, he self-consciously cites The Mosquito Coast as the model for his adventure.) The results have all of the messiness -- and much of the ridiculousness -- of real life: a burglary of his house while he's away at a screening, a crazy Australian landlord, an unreliable projectionist, a rebellious teenage daughter ("You're just acting for the cameras here," snaps Mom), a contentious evangelical church in competition for Fijian souls, and a protagonist who frankly refuses to adapt himself to the local culture. It's also the messiness of four or five movies' worth of material. More than enough to afford interest. Too much to afford satisfaction.
Some others: Everything Is Illuminated, a road film in a sparse landscape, follows the quest -- the "very rigid search," in the uncertain English of the Ukrainian guide and translator -- for the peasant woman who in WWII saved the life of the late grandfather of a young American Jew (Elijah Wood, looking like one of the Men in Black, an alien even in his native land), but really a quest for quirks, personal oddities, cultural dissonances. Actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber (strictly behind the camera) pushes the absurdism very hard, and the relentless ethnic background music lends a hand and a shoulder, until the climax of straight schmaltz and a musical switch to angelic harps. The Thing about My Folks, more rueful Jewish humor, is pretty much a two-man show, a father-and-son show, written expressly for Peter Falk by Paul Reiser, but written for himself as well, and dripping in shtick, in two contrasting styles: the Method mode of Falk vs. the sitcom mode of Reiser. The generational conflict pales in comparison. Proof, under the direction of John Madden, who previously directed it on the London stage as well, puts on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn, a hoked-up sort of mathematical mystery thriller, not so much a whodunit as a whoprovedit, centered around the mentally shaky daughter of a mentally crumpled math genius: two beautiful minds. (With Philip Glass-y motor-gunning, engine-revving background music by Stephen Warbeck to suggest a churning intellect.) Gwyneth Paltrow -- down the same path as Sylvia, the Plath path -- Anthony Hopkins, and Hope Davis try to make it sound natural, and Jake Gyllenhaal nearly succeeds. Thumbsucker spins out a new metaphor (preferable to Bedwetter no doubt) for the plight of the misfit, a coming-of-age tale, even a coming-to-confidence tale, concerning a feminine teenage boy (Lou Pucci, a blend of Johnny Depp and Scarlett Johansson) who hasn't yet weaned himself off his thumb. The first feature film of Mike Mills falls between the two stools of the sharply satirical and the mushily sensitive. Falls with a splat.