The conventional wisdom that January is a graveyard for movies can only have sprung, and spread, from the media meccas. In the hinterlands between New York and Los Angeles the trickle-down of the year-end deluge always works to controvert the wisdom. It is unlikely we will experience a better month all year than the one that just brought us Letters from Iwo Jima, Children of Men, Notes on a Scandal, and Le Petit Lieutenant, each officially released in 2006. The trickle still goes on, if less quenchingly.
Miss Potter, the first directing job for Chris Noonan in the eleven years since Babe, is an innocuous biopic on the author and illustrator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, not to mention proto-feminist and proto-environmentalist, who braved the disparagement of gray-souled publishers ("Bunnies in jackets with brass buttons? However do you imagine such things?"), as well as the disparagement of her meddling matchmaking mother, to produce her first book at the spinsterly age of thirty-two. The role encourages Renée Zellweger to behave a bit like a smug chipmunk sitting on the private knowledge of a secret stash of acorns. Or rather, since the actress served also as an executive producer, you could say she encouraged herself to behave like that. The vindication of history, while removing any tension from the proceedings, encourages the viewer to mirror the same smirk. Ewan McGregor is very game and quite charming as the damp-behind-the-ears publisher who gives her her big break and also provides hope (plus the merest wisp of tension) of a matrimonial Happily Ever After. And Bill Paterson, whom I cannot see on screen without wondering what ever became of Bill Forsyth (his director on Comfort and Joy, his best role), models a prodigious set of muttonchops. The touches of animation which bring the drawings of Beatrix Potter to life are too few to have been worth the bother, but not too few to imply dissatisfaction with, if not further disparagement of, those drawings. Must we regard her as a proto- animator, too? Note: the film, scheduled to open on Friday, got postponed at the last instant, in what is becoming business-as-usual in the local movie business. So this particular drip in the trickle has been further delayed.
The Italian, positively opening at the Ken on Friday, has to do with a Russian orphan, aged six, upon whom his fellow orphans confer the nickname "Italian" as soon as he is tabbed for adoption by a couple of that origin. During the waiting period prior to his departure for the sunny South, he, to the disbelief and dismay of everyone around him, becomes tortured by the thought that his birth-mother would never afterward be able to find him, resolves to track her down himself, and, in furtherance of that quest, learns how to read from a gold-hearted prostitute, all in less than two months. The film mines a vein of easy sentiment lying close to the surface and running shallow, and the kid is as cute as you can bear. Harder to do, and done to a turn by filmmaker Andrei Kravchuk, is the sketching-in of the workings of the orphanage (calling it "Dickensian," as some can't resist, would be an overstatement beyond even the reach of Dickens himself), the hierarchy of the staff, the cracked, rusted, run-down physical plant, and the bleak, snowy, foggy, isolated setting. These things afford solid footing beneath the slush.
Smokin' Aces, Catch and Release, Blood and Chocolate are exactly the kinds of new-year releases that have given January its reputation as a graveyard. The first is your basic abomination, a callous and smarty-pants action thriller in the Tarantino mode, or better, Tarantinissimo, revolving around a horde of free-lance bounty hunters and hit persons (a lavishly pierced and tattooed heavy-metal trio, a couple of black lesbians, a scar-faced master of disguise in Mission: Impossible latex, among others) in competition to cut out the heart of a Mob-connected Vegas headliner, Buddy "Aces" Israel, now under the safeguard of the feds. Writer and director Joe Carnahan, easing up on the heel-grinding naturalism of Narc, though not on the finger-snapping tempo, is serious only about that most frivolous thing, tricking the audience at the end, and about that most mindless thing, spraying the audience with bullets and blood. The large cast includes Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Martin Campbell, Matthew Fox, and Alicia Keys, of whom none has so much as a snowball's chance.
The second -- Catch and Release, that would be, in case it has already slipped your mind -- is a romantic seriocomedy to do with a scheduled wedding turned funeral and the stranded bride's posthumous discovery that her intended groom had a secret big bank account and a secret small child. (They had seemed such a perfect couple: she's called Gray, he was called Grady.) If writer and director Susannah Grant had wanted, as she appears to have wanted, to steer the thing toward the Lifetime Channel, she would have been advised to hire a warmer-blooded leading lady than the fish-lipped, marble-skulled, enamel-skinned, steel-eyed Jennifer Garner. It might seem odd, at the same time, to see the indie filmmaker Kevin "Silent Bob" Smith in the cookie-cutter role of the comical tubby Best Friend, persistently plugging Celestial Seasonings teas via T-shirt, mug, quotable quotations from the boxes, and place of employment. (Just for balance, permit me to plug Numi.) Then again, once you begin to recollect his own sorties into the mainstream, be they ever so futile -- Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Clerks II -- it ought to seem significantly less odd.
The third -- check back two paragraphs if you must -- concerns a woman who runs with the werewolves, a young American in Bucharest, where the werewolf, or loup garoux as it is known to French-speaking Romanians, is better understood, properly revered. Any true horror fan should be open to a bit of werewolf revisionism, but this bit of it is open, in turn, only to the MTV demographic. Despite their five-millennia reign in Romania, the present population of werewolves, apart from one pair of parental figures, and pretty hip ones at that, seems to consist solely of the sort of crowd you'd expect to encounter at the local disco. (The German director, Katja von Garnier, is familiar over here chiefly for the punk-feminist Bandits.) The heroine, a chocolatier by day, is the rebel of the pack, a resister of tradition, a quiet questioner; and she finds a kindred spirit, and a verboten beau, in a merely human American expatriate who's researching lycanthrope lore for one of his "graphic novels." Agnes Bruckner and Hugh Dancy are a reasonably appealing couple, as youths go; but no matter how revisionist, there can be no place in a werewolf movie for a pop-song montage of cavorting lovers sunbathing in the park, drenching themselves in a public fountain, etc. The cleverest idea in the movie may be the selection of a film studio as a hiding place from werewolves, sure to be put off by the silver component in photographic processing. But then it doesn't seem quite so clever when one of the parental figures, for that very reason, picks the film studio as the first place to look.