The Cooler (April 27) Like Joe Btfsplk in the old Li’l Abner comic series, Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is shrouded in bad luck, so much so that casino boss Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) pays him to hang around gamblers on hot streaks and — through some kind of aura-osmosis — “cool” them into losers. But when the affections of a cute cocktail waitress (Maria Bello, who could pass for Sharon Stone’s kid sister) pull Bernie out of his melan-choly funk, his power to induce misfor-tune leaves him.
At this point, what had been a rather charming movie about serendipitous love turns mean, and nobody does “mean” more effectively than Alec Baldwin. That said, he’s the biggest inconsistency in the movie — a sadistic kneecap-breaker we’re supposed to care about.
Calendar Girls (May 4) Based on a true 1999 story of a “proper” English ladies club that raised money for its do-good projects by having members pose for a calendar in various stages of undress, this moderately engaging (for me; my mother would split her sides) comedy stars Helen Mirren — a “mature” actress always eager to take her clothes off — as the club rebel who, Sister Act-style, persuades 11 of her body-shy colleagues to strip for charity. If you like benign, this one’s fine.
Girl With a Pearl Earring (May 4) You pretty much have to know and love Johannes Vermeer’s paintings (and oil painting in general) to fully appreciate this film, which concentrates on the title work but also re-creates, as mise-en-scene, rooms and objects that appear in other Vermeer paintings — an extra kick for the artist’s fans. Filmmaker Peter Webber treats color and light with the same reverence his subject did. The plotline — about a sheepish housemaid (Scarlett Johannson) who stirs Vermeer’s inner fire and incurs the wrath of the artist’s highly volatile wife — doesn’t exactly gallop along, but the performances of Essie Davis, who plays the wife, and Tom Wilkinson, who plays Vermeer’s creepy art patron, fuel the movie’s energy, and Johannson, whose perfectly oval face and placid demeanor could also have inspired Modigliani, is sublime.
The Triplets of Belleville (May 4) The title of this bizarrely imagined (and mostly mimed) animated feature from France refers to a trio of aging former jazz-singing sisters, once the rage of 1930s Paris, who now live in run-down New York tenement housing and subsist on swamp frogs they kill with hand grenades. They rescue a Tour de France cyclist who was kidnapped mid-race and shipped to America to serve as a slave in a giant gambling operation run by gangsters in the wine industry. Pretty weird, huh? Yes, but it’s awfully sweet, too, and not to be missed.
The Fog of War (May 11) “How much evil must we do in order to do good?” asks regret-ridden former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he recounts his roles in the Vietnam War, which he directed until 1968, and in the Pacific theater of World War II, where — under Gen. Curtis LeMay’s command — he helped conduct the mass napalm bombing of 67 Japanese population centers to weaken the enemy’s will to continue fighting. This stunningly grim interview documentary, intensified by an anxiety-as-music Philip Glass score, won’t sit well with America-firsters (and screw the rest), but then it wasn’t made to sit well with anyone.