Now in theaters: "Shall We Dance," "Stage Beauty," "Being Julia," "Vera Drake" and "Team America: World Police."
Shall We Dance: "Shall We Dance" was a gem of a Japanese film a few years ago that did the Hollywood quick-step into motion picture oblivion.
It was a tiny film about very real people; a smart film that assumed the audience was smart enough to follow a very spare story about a middle-class businessman who works too hard, discovers ballroom dancing (a passion of the Japanese middle-class) and surprises himself -- and his family -- with his talent. The End.
The Hollywood version is stuffed with stars, Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Lopez, and they're all very good. But it doesn't add up to much.
Gere plays a very successful attorney, but he doesn't seem like the sort who gets smitten by ballroom dancing, so we never believe what we see. (Besides, we know he can dance. We saw him in "Chicago.")
This is not just a bad idea, it's a bad idea poorly executed. The very real people in the Japanese original have become the caricatures reflected through funhouse mirrors, every trait exaggerated.
Are Japanese audiences that much smarter than American audiences? If they are, it's because they see fewer Hollywood films. "Shall We Dance?" No thanks, I think I'll sit this one out. Grade: C.
Stage Beauty: Back in the '60s, a man could wear women's clothing on stage without anyone batting an eyelash. Of course, I'm talking about the 1660s, when all theater roles were played by men.
In "Stage Beauty" Billy Crudup is the queen of the London Stage, until King Charles II changes the laws and he becomes a virtual nobody. It's a terrific premise. But we're saddled with a movie script that resembles the Boston Red Sox. It fumbles every opportunity for greatness. Grade: C+.
Being Julia: From "Stage Beauty," fast-forward 270 years, to the 1930s ... Now, Annette Bening is the queen of the London Stage and Jeremy Irons is her producer-husband.
Enter Shawn Evans, who plays the young wide-eyed American. He's smitten with Bening. And his girlfriend, not to be outdone, has an affair with Irons.
Why does Bening say yes when Evans' girlfriend wants a part in her new play? To set up some hysterical backstage backstabbing and prove the show biz adage, "Revenge is the best revenge." Grade: B.
Vera Drake: A prediction: Either Annette Bening or Imelda Staunton will win the Oscar for Best Actress.
Staunton -- a British actress of stage and television -- is little known over here, but she won't be for long. As Vera Drake in London in the 1950s, she takes a bleak, gray city, exhausted after World War II and almost makes the sun shine all on her own.
Drake works as a domestic, taking care of her invalid mom and half dozen other people, including her shell-shocked daughter, Ethel, who she marries off to an equally quiet and lonely fellow.
Drake is also an abortionist, who helps women without charging them, and her work clashes with the mores of her time. Still, this movie is not about politics. There's the sense that everyone is right, and it's not often that a movie presents a moral dilemma and doesn't try to solve it.
This is a great film: Real life edited into drama, and elevated into art. Director Mike Leigh made his cast improvise their parts for months before they wrote the script, maybe that's why you can't believe Staunton's acting. Her performance is so real, you'll swear they found a real person, followed her with a camera and built a film around things she really said. Grade: A.
Team America: World Police: In 1999, when the guys who did "South Park" made their first feature film, it made my 10-best list. Now, they've just gone too far.
In "Team America," a squad of anti-terrorist puppets hunts for weapons of mass destruction in Paris. On the way, they mistakenly blow up the Eiffel Tower, but nobody's perfect.
Some of "Team America: World Police" is funny. In one bit, U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix tells Kim Jung-Il of North Korea that if the United Nations can't inspect his weapons programs, they'll send him a very angry letter. Blix ends up in the shark tank. It's funny.
The set design, the tiny little props, and the 2-foot-tall puppets are all terrific. But so what? I've read the humor described as lewd, rude, and adolescent. The word for this is dirty. It's way over the top, and under the bar.
This R-rated movie looks like a kids' film, and it's advertised for kids. Kids are going to sneak in. I hope they're not yours. This is Hollywood at its most cynical. Grade: C+