Bowfinger (Universal Pictures). Great reviews for this Eddie Murphy-Steve Martin comedy about a low-rent movie-maker (Martin) and his ragtag stable of actors: “Perhaps the funniest movie for grownups so far this year” (Richard Schickel, Time). Martin, out of desperation, hires a painfully awkward nerd (Murphy) who has no film experience other than being “an active renter at Blockbuster” but who bears a striking resemblance to action star Kit Ramsey (also played by Murphy). “It’s one of those comedies where everything works,” writes Roger Ebert (the Chicago Sun-Times). A few find the film spotty (“likable albeit hit-and-miss”–Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times), but most agree this ranks with Martin’s and Murphy’s best comic works. (Click here to find out more about Murphy and here to find out more about Martin.)
Brokedown Palace (20th Century Fox Film Corp.). In a strikingly similar plot to last year’s Return to Paradise, Kate Beckinsale and Claire Danes star as two recent high-school grads who travel to Bangkok, Thailand, on a whim; they get mixed up with an Australian con artist and wind up in jail with 33-year sentences for drug smuggling. The critics are unmoved: “just another lurid, contrived, xenophobic tale about Americans trapped in hideous foreign prisons” (Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times). A few call Danes’ performance better than the rest of the film but concede that even her nice turn can’t save the film. (Click here to see a boatload of pictures of Danes.)
Illuminata (Overseas FilmGroup). John Turturro directs, co-writes, and stars in a story set in turn-of-the-century New York about an acting troupe whose onstage and offstage lives intertwine. Most critics report mixed reactions: “[T]his handsome, airtight meditation on art, celebrity, love, and rampant repertory-group horniness indulges in a lot of very American navel gazing” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Janet Maslin gives the film its most upbeat review, calling it an “enormously fond homage to the world of acting, beguilingly presented and filled with knowing backstage humor” (the New York Times). Two stars get special note for their performances: Christopher Walken as a flamboyantly foppish critic and Susan Sarandon as an aging but still dynamite diva. (Click here to visit the John Turturro Shrine.)
The Woman Who Cut off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club, by Julia Slavin (Henry Holt). In Slavin’s debut collection of fantastical and surreal stories, characters fall in love with trees, swallow their lawn-care professionals, disintegrate (literally), and–as you may have guessed from the title–cut off their legs at chi-chi country clubs in the Hamptons. Critics respond positively for the most part: “even at their most outlandish these stories never feel forced … Slavin’s uncluttered, room-temperature prose renders the monstrous familiar, even beautiful” (Charles Taylor, the New York Times Book Review). Others note that “[i]t seems to be a common, almost universal, tactic in American literature to depict the suburbs as a duplicitous world where a safe, materialistic, blandly cheerful surface conceals a dark secret life” and that the stories’ predictable outlandishness verges on becoming “precious” (Judy Budnitz, the Village Voice). Or as Kirkus Reviews writes, “Slavin has a warped sense of humor and enjoys rubbing the reader’s nose in it.” (Read the first chapter here.)
Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (HBO; Saturday, Aug. 21; 9 p.m.). Halle Berry’s pet biopic (she stars and executive produces) of Dandridge, the first African-American to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, gets a lukewarm reception: “a devoted but ultimately dull hagiopic” marred by “a flat script and uninteresting narrative” (James Poniewozik, Time). Some of the more sordid parts of Dandridge’s life have been left out, and several critics say that while Berry captures Dandridge’s beauty and glamour, she lacks her heat and sensuality. Berry has said she hopes this movie will launch her into the kind of leading roles that are (as in Dandridge’s day) unavailable to black women; Variety seems to think it will, weighing in with a great review: “an enthralling biopic … her most heartfelt performance to date” (Laura Fries). (Click here to find out more about the movie and here to find out more about Dandridge.)
Detroit Rock City (New Line Cinema). Pans for this tale of four high-school boys and their quest to watch a Kiss concert: “loud, vulgar, cartoonish, obnoxious, dizzying, disposable and more than a little bit shrill” (Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun-Times). Highlight: a tongue-cam point of view from inside Gene Simmons’ mouth.