Without any question the first claim on my attention this week should be Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside, one of the five nominees for the foreign-film Oscar, which opened at the Hillcrest last Friday. (Unless it should be Zana Briski's and Ross Kauffman's Born into Brothels, one of the five nominees for the documentary Oscar, which opened last Friday at the Ken and moves over to the Hillcrest tomorrow.) But between my taking my car to the shop, twice, for a new driver's-side mirror, taking my dangling arm to the doctor for an X-ray, and taking my fanny to the couch for Super Bowl XXXIX, I had time barely to see it, not additionally to say something about it. (It's not as good as the New England Patriots, I'll say that much.) The following will have to suffice.
Bride and Prejudice, directed and co-written by Bend It Like Beckham's Gurinder Chadha, is a Jane Austen-pattern fairy tale cut out of the gaudy fabric of a Bollywood musical. After pointlessly altering the first word of the familiar title, the filmmaker aggressively pushes the third word into the realm of race relations, as an Ugly American hotel king, retaining the family name of Darcy, and idly looking to acquire a property in what he views as "Hicksville, India," butts heads with a marriageable but modern-minded native ("I thought we got rid of imperialists like you"), quite impervious to the advice of her conventional mother: "Don't say anything too intelligent." (It is still a fairy tale, for all that, a long way shy of a Kipling-pattern miscegenation tale along the lines of Without Benefit of Clergy or Beyond the Pale.) The American, played or merely represented by the callow, wooden, male-modelly Martin Henderson, is so unappealing that the viewer is apt to root against détente, and is apt to think less of the immensely appealing Aishwarya Rai when she inevitably relents. The song-and-dance number of the four unmarried sisters in their pj's, "No Life without Wife," is the tipsy highpoint, though there are long dry spells during which you can almost forget that the movie is a musical.
The Wedding Date goes straight downhill from its title, a decorous double entendre referring at once to the heroine's paid escort and to the social occasion to which she is being escorted -- her baby sister's nuptials. The reason for the escort -- to enable the heroine to hold up her head in front of family and former fiancé -- has roots in psychological reality, but the roots run shallow: it would be a very cavalier woman, especially when coughing up a fee of $6000, who would wait till she was aboard the airplane to meet the man she intends to present as her new beau. The gigolo's suitability, at a single glance, as a candidate for serious romance in a frothy comedy is a gauge of the movie's superficiality. While he liberally doles out the sort of platitudes that win him the epithet of "the Yoda of escorts," as well as the sort of sweet nothings that clog arteries and rot teeth ("I think I'd miss you even if we'd never met"), his only evident asset is his surface polish. The B-list principals -- Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney -- take us no nearer a sense of reality while taking us much farther from a sense of enchantment. Under the willfully blind direction of Clare Kilner, the movie eventually earns some laughs only when it turns earnest.
Hitch, a more literal definition of a "date" movie, has the opposite problem. Rather than treating a squirmy-making situation as a harmless frolic, it spends a lot of time squirming where there is no apparent reason. An anonymous Date Doctor, working by personal referrals only, dispenses self-help slogans ("With no guile and no game, there's no girl") and empirical pearls of wisdom ("Eight out of ten women believe that one kiss will tell them everything they need to know about a relationship") to a select group of male clients carefully screened for their moral fiber and their honorable intentions. Yet the women in the movie, as the men intuitively fear they will, react to this newfangled advisor to the lovelorn, this better-dressed Cupid, as if he were the satanic spawn of Valmont and Mme. de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Will Smith tries to apologize for his insufferable air of overconfidence by way of a cartoonish depiction of a shellfish allergy (his face swelling like a battered boxer's), a flashback to his days as a collegiate nerd, and a genuinely funny bout of inarticulacy when pleading his case to his steamed girlfriend. Director Andy Tennant sees to it that the star gets his accustomed surplus of closeups. In fact he sees to it that the B-list support team -- Eva Mendes, Kevin James, Amber Valletta, Julie Ann Emery -- get more than their share of closeups, too. In fact he sees to little else.
Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, although Ong-Bak is in point of fact not a Thai warrior, is a tacky Thai martial-arts adventure about a backwater Buddha's head severed and stolen by Bangkok bad guys, and about the acrobatic rube who answers the call: "If we can't recover Ong-Bak's head, our village is doomed." The filmmaking style places a heavy emphasis on instant replays, and the martial-arts style -- which seems to be known as Muay Thai -- places a heavy emphasis on elbows, especially the elbow brought down on the crown of the head like a poleax. Tony Jaa, the would-be next Jackie Chan, has a lot of moves, but no movie around them.
Finally, a couple of brief public service announcements. The first would direct your attention to the Fifteenth Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival, commencing tonight, the 10th, and continuing through the 20th, at the various venues of the AMC La Jolla 12, Mann Hazard Center 7, Ultrastar Poway 10, and the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. There's little I can say beforehand that I haven't said before, including the suggestion to visit www.lfjcc.org for the complete schedule.