Just to stay on top of the pile, in preference to under it: Little Children. Todd Field's sophomore directing effort, following up his quietly sensationalized In the Bedroom, is less quietly sensationalized, in other words more blaringly sensationalized, and truly more sophomoric. The adaptation of a Tom Perrotta novel, complete with a snooty third-person-omniscient (i.e., know-it-all) narrator, undoubtedly tells us less about the malaise of our young middle-class suburban parents today than about the jaded palates of our moviegoers and/or moviemakers. An adulterous playground liaison -- between a killingly handsome Mr. Mom (Patrick Wilson, with his Newman-esque blue eyes and jutting upper lip), a graduate of law school but a flunker of the bar exam, and a latter-day Madame Bovary (Kate Winslet, the sleeker edition), who, married to a clod, champions her literary forerunner as a proto-feminist in her book-discussion group -- cannot be considered sufficiently spicy without the added tang of a neighborhood sex offender, a vigilante ex-cop with innocent blood on his hands, and a married Internet porn addict in secret correspondence with Slutty Kay. To have three separate male characters masturbate on screen on three separate occasions must set some sort of record. (I might have exclaimed over the creepiness of Jackie Earle Haley as the sex offender had I not already exclaimed over it in the role of the taciturn bodyguard of All the King's Men, a box-office flop but first in the marketplace all the same.) There is not even any clear evidence of developing skills since the director's freshman effort, which really was praised too highly, perhaps too intoxicatingly. See, for example, the flash-cut fusillade of innocuous bric-a-brac at the outset. Or see the overly choreographed scene at the public swimming pool when the sex offender's arrival in snorkel and flippers gets everyone out of the water faster than if he were a Great White accompanied by the theme from Jaws. Or see the treatment of the night-league amateur football players, through distorting wide-angle lenses, as sneering bruisers suitable for an Adam Sandler comedy. In short, see, all too ostentatiously, the director direct.
The Fountain. Loopy science fiction in orbit around the dream of life and love everlasting, surely the foolhardiest commercial venture in the genre since Steven Soderbergh's Solaris. It unfolds in three different time zones, that of the Spanish Inquisition, the present day, and some indeterminate future inside a floating bubble in outer space. These three spheres are tied together by the presence in each of them of Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman, as, by turns, Queen Isabella and a conquistador called Tomás, commissioned by Her Majesty to find the Tree of Life in the land of the Mayas, and then their apparent reincarnations (or carbon copies or clones or something) in the form of a dying novelist named Izzi, at work on a book titled The Fountain about Queen Isabella's quest for the Tree of Life, and her faithful husband Tommy, a research scientist in quest of a cure, and then, lastly, a ghost of her former selves and an ageless hairless Tom, keeping himself alive artificially (on the bark of a Tree of Life, it would seem) while carrying on into eternity seeking a cure for his wife's death, "a disease like any other." The film has uncommon intensity, even if much of that intensity consists of closeups so close that the faces won't fit on the screen, and much of the rest of it consists of our peering into the semidarkness (a darkness that engulfs science labs, hospital corridors, operating rooms, reading lamps) simply to make out what's in front of our eyes. Writer-director Darren Aronofsky, the Pi man, has worked things out elaborately in terms of visual and verbal motifs (the tree, the ring, the refrain of "Finish it," and so on), but the spectator might be more compelled to sort it out if he were more compelled to look at it. This is a type of science fiction generally restricted to the printed page and banished from the screen, and it does not here establish much of a beachhead.
Volver. (Meaning, if I remember my Spanish, to return.) Almodóvar adds to his familiar sour comedy and mock melodrama the new element of an apparent apparition, a mundane ghost, a flatulent phantom, blended in with the familiar elements in uncertain tone. He shows nary a trace of the erstwhile "bad boy," nothing now but a good, good boy, devoted to mothers in particular, reverential of females in general, the Spanish George Cukor. (The cadaver in the freezer, male, is but a further sign of his respect and his awe.) The result can be recommended to the well-trained legions who are willing to meet this filmmaker seven-eighths of the way. Even the foot-draggers must concede that it's deftly staged and well acted, and that Penélope Cruz, beyond acting well, shines like a star. Or more descriptively, a heavenly body.
Bobby. One day at the former Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the fateful day of June 4, 1968, when Bobby Kennedy, on the campaign trail, was going for the votes in the California Primary, and Don Drysdale, on the mound for the Dodgers, was going for the record of consecutive scoreless innings pitched. A tapestry of lives, from the Mexican menials in the kitchen to the Hollywood headliner in the showroom, woven together in the pattern of Grand Hotel, which is explicitly referenced in the dialogue, or just plain Hotel, which had been released the previous year, 1967. Director (and democratic role player) Emilio Estevez, who was six years old at the time, churns up a lather of nostalgia for political idealism, seemingly missing, now, in a parallel time of an unpopular foreign war. The seriousness of intent does not lessen the hokeyness, though, and the politics tend to load down the soap operatics at least as much as the soap operatics lighten and cheapen the politics. Solid contributions from William H. Macy as the hotel manager, a self-proclaimed "equal opportunity kind of guy," Anthony Hopkins as the retired doorman who still haunts the premises daily, Laurence Fishburne as the head chef, Freddy Rodriguez as a humble kitchen worker with tickets to the big game, and Martin Sheen, the filmmaker's famously Left-leaning father. Among others. All of the women "of a certain age" -- Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Helen Hunt -- exhibit identical gaunt elongated faces, in the Mannerist manner, that appear to have come through the same plastic surgeon's office and spoil the illusion of a period piece. And Ashton Kutcher in a headband and a House-of-Stuart wig looks like a Halloween hippie. Liberal masochists who simply crave an occasion to relive the day, however, will get what they need, especially in the newsreel footage of Kennedy on the stump, and in the agonizingly drawn-out re-enactment of his death, and in the final reprise of one of his eloquent speeches, in which he sounds, first, as if he knows and understands what he's saying, and, second, as if he means it. Wouldn't it be swell to have a President like that?