Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in Notes on a ScandalNOTES ON A SCANDAL

In Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal, Judi Dench appears to be having an amazingly fine time playing an evil harridan. Why does the movie itself have to be such a dud? In the film, Dench portrays prickly history teacher Barbara Covett, who becomes pathologically obsessed with Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a younger colleague in the art department. (As Barbara's last name suggests, Eyre's film, based on the novel by Zoë Heller, won't be much concerned with subtlety.) When Barbara discovers that the married Sheba has been carrying on with a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson), she uses the knowledge to surreptitiously gain Sheba's trust, in the hopes of turning their friendship into something more, shall we say, Sapphic. Subsequently, threats are made, careers are jeopardized, relationships are destroyed ... and why oh why isn't the movie more fun?

The opening half hour is intensely promising, as we luxuriate in Dench's divinely malicious voice-overs - all of which underscore her character's hatefulness and delusion - and her penetrating, icy stare; the role is pure pulp, but Dench invests it with a fierce conviction that suggests Lady Macbeth. And the actress gets a wonderfully tentative rapport going with Blanchett, who manages to simultaneously suggest Sheba's ethereal radiance and her fundamental stupidity. Even though there are hints that the film won't be as good as you're hoping - Simpson exudes a distracting lack of charisma, Philip Glass' insistent score telegraphs every plot development - the leading performers seem completely invested in their roles, and Patrick Marber's dialogue contains some juicy kickers; you're eager to give Notes on a Scandal the benefit of the doubt.

But you're soon forced to admit that the movie just isn't working, mostly because you can't believe a damned thing that's happening in it. It's one thing for Notes on a Scandal to be filled with contrivances - characters continually, "unexpectedly" appear at the exact moment they need to for the story to press forward - but the people on-screen behave so foolishly that the plotting quickly becomes incoherent. Why, during a scene of Barbara begging for Sheba's comfort, does the formerly agreeable Bill Nighy (as Sheba's husband) suddenly launch into a vicious tirade against his wife's friend? (His annoyance hadn't even been hinted at previously.) Why, when it's desperately obvious that Barbara is at the heart of her troubles, does Sheba seek refuge in her adversary's apartment? By the time we get to the movie's insufferable finale - with the spidery Barbara spinning a new web for another entrapped "innocent" to fall into - you realize that the fervor of Dench's and Blanchett's acting has been masking a depressingly weightless and nonsensical undertaking; Notes on a Scandal is a campy soap opera masquerading as Art.


Penelope Cruz in VolverVOLVER

By contrast, Pedro Almodóvar's Volver (in Spanish with English subtitles) is a campy soap opera that's thrillingly proud to be a campy soap opera. In this wildly overstuffed concoction, Penélope Cruz plays a working-class woman whose teenage daughter murders her father; Cruz assumes responsibility and hides the body in a restaurant freezer. Blanca Portillo plays her cancer-stricken friend who believes that her mother's sudden disappearance is tied to the mysterious deaths of Cruz's parents. And Carmen Maura plays the deceased mother who, it seems, has returned from the grave and is as feisty - and flatulent - as ever. Add to this two separate incestuous encounters, a film crew that descends on Cruz's neighborhood, and a zaftig hooker with a penchant for mojitos, and we'd seem equipped with an entire season's worth of daytime drama. ¡Viva Pedro!

However, the writer/director's unwavering talent for making the ridiculous not only believable but deeply emotional makes his latest endeavor an infinitely more honest piece of work than Notes on a Scandal. (Infinitely more entertaining, too.) Almodóvar adores his characters in all their mad eccentricity, and that adoration is reflected in the warmth of his writing, and in José Luis Alcaine's rich, evocative cinematography; with assistance from his superior design team, the Spanish auteur has an almost unparalleled gift for making the lurid gorgeous. Volver - a heartfelt ode to female loyalty and love - casts a radiant glow, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the bewitching performance of Penélope Cruz. It won't take more than a few minutes for all memories of Cruz's unfortunate appearances in American movies to vanish from your mind, perhaps forever; the actress is so staggeringly confident, so emotionally open and blisteringly alive, that it's almost as if you're seeing her on-screen for the very first time. (And no actress has ever looked quite so spectacular in heavy eye-liner.) Volver would be worthwhile under any circumstances, but for presenting us with a Penélope Cruz who is not only exceptional but - who woulda thunk it? - likable, Almodóvar's latest stands as one of 2006's most inspiring entertainments.


Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, and Maury Sterling in Smokin' AcesSMOKIN' ACES

Nothing makes the slightest bit of sense in Joe Carnahan's ultra-violent, exhaustingly "hip" action-thriller Smokin' Aces, so to give you a fair indication of what to expect, let me just pinpoint one scene - one character, really - who seems to embody the film as a whole. The movie concerns a series of outré bounty hunters and mobsters who are attempting to kill a Las Vegas showman (a feral Jeremy Piven), and in a mid-film sequence, one of these men - severely bloodied and missing a few fingers - finds himself recuperating in the bathtub of a trash-talking grandmother. The woman's grandson - who looks about 12, sports martial-arts regalia and an eye patch, and is most obviously off his Ritalin - is eager to demonstrate his nunchaku skills for the hapless bounty hunter. And while the kid spins his sticks in the hunter's face, and curses with nearly demonic glee, the guy in the tub, cringing from this ADD onslaught, takes a moment to register the boy's erection. That's Smokin' Aces - a movie so turned on by its thuggish brutality that it doesn't seem to realize how embarrassing it is.


Sophia Bush and Sean Bean in The HitcherTHE HITCHER

A couple of years back, it was The Amityville Horror. Last year, it was When a Stranger Calls. Now, horror fans find themselves "treated" to a grim, desperately obvious re-tooling of 1986's The Hitcher. How depressing that film critics are now routinely put in the position of defending original works that were crap to begin with. For die-hard fans of the genre - and once upon a time, I actually was one of them - director Dave Meyers' grim shocker offers a few good scares; there's an opening splat! that earns a deserved jump-and-laugh, and The Hitcher's signature scene, involving an 18-wheeler that serves as a de facto torture rack, is duly replicated here. But the rare frights don't make up for the film's beyond-witless execution, or the fact that this cast doesn't hold a candle to the original's. Where we once had Rutger Hauer, now it's Sean Bean. Rather than Jennifer Jason Leigh, it's Sophia Bush. And instead of C. Thomas Howell, we get Zachary Knighton. So, okay ... the remake's better than the original in one regard, at least.

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