Flying under the radar in this new movie-awards season is something called "Stone."
It might better be titled "Sinks Like a " based on the size of its audiences.
This, despite co-starring one of the greatest actors of his generation, Robert De Niro, along with a guy who might make the same claim for the next generation. Edward Norton gets my vote, at least so far this year, for the best performance by an actor.
As the title figure, Gerald "Stone" Creeson, Norton is mesmerizing as a motor-mouthed, cornrow-haired convict pulling out all the stops to get an early release from De Niro's no-nonsense parole officer, Jack Mabry. Stone's not above using his seriously sexy wife. Lucetta (scene-stealing Milla Jovovich) as bait in the psychological chess match the two men play, mostly sitting on opposite sides of Jack's aluminum desk in this seedy drama directed by John Curran from Angus MacLachlan's screenplay.
"Stone" is one of those movies that doesn't evaporate once you leave the theater. Instead it stays with you in nagging, haunting, troubling ways more or less the same effect Stone, not to mention Lucetta, have on buttoned-down Jack.
One of the problems here is, after seeing "Stone," you're not quite sure what it was about. You're less sure, the more you think about it. While it's certainly about being led into temptation, the constant stream of Christian talk radio on the soundtrack suggest its religious concerns run deeper.
And while Stone is definitely a brilliant manipulator with cunning instincts, he undergoes changes as the story progresses that transform him into one of the most unlikely seekers of truth you'll ever encounter on a movie screen. Unless that's a con, too.
It's this dimension of change that makes "Stone" such a unique - and I'm tempted to add, great - film experience. Change affects all the characters - including Frances Conroy as Jack's long-suffering wife. None of them remain the same as they were at the beginning of the movie. This results in superb performances of uncomfortably familiar human realities - and a film that deserves better than its title or its place on the box-office charts would suggest.
"Stone" isn't the week's only new movie with sex on the brain. "Love and Other Drugs" is selling the stuff. Literally. It comes in the form of little blue pills called Viagra, the latest item in the sample case for slick but likable pharmaceutical salesman Jake Gyllenhaal in this romantic comedy set in the '90s.
Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie also hawks sex in the not infrequent scenes Gyllenhaal and his even more photogenic co-star Anne Hathaway spend wearing a minimum of clothes in bed or on the floor, depending on whether they could wait.
The stars "researched" a lot of erotic cinema for this project, although their chemistry stems as much from the humor and ease they share on-screen. That's a good thing since the contrast between Jake's Porsche-driving ambition and Anne's carefree bohemian lifestyle is something you've seen on-screen before. Too many times.
The fact that she's suffering from an incurable disease also has a familiar - that's a polite term for clichd - ring, as does the presence in his apartment of his slobby, self-absorbed brother. Josh Gad plays the role, probably because Jonah Hill or Zach Galifianakis weren't available.
Throwing in these plot tangents suggests that the script didn't have much going for it, even before it ran out of gas in the third act. Still, the chance to get lost in Anne Hathaway's big brown eyes is a treat under any circumstances -as evidenced by the recent announcement that she'll co-host this year's Oscars.
"Burlesque" is another movie that considers its screenplay little more than an excuse to get some beautiful, talented people together on-screen to sing and dance about sex. Imagine "Cabaret" with a cast of valley girls, "Moulin Rouge" at Sunset and Vine, "Showgirls" meet "Dreamgirls," and you can connect the dots of the screenplay yourself.
Christina Aguilara plays the Iowa farm girl who heads for Hollywood; Cher is the hussy with the heart of gold who hires her in the bump-and-grind (but classy) club that provides the film's title. Stanley Tucci is Cher's "just between us girls" right-hand man.
Cher's about to be foreclosed on, but she keeps refusing the buyout offer from smarmy real estate developer Eric Dane. Practically painting on a mustache and a sign saying "villain" over Dane's heart, writer-director Steve Antin never pretends that he believes the script, either.
Rated PG-13 (go figure), "Burlesque" is a very entertaining product of a mind-set where naughty is a more potent concept than explicit, teasing is the point, and melodrama is as subtle as it gets.
That's more than enough, when you've got screen-filling talents like Aguilara and Cher, lots of long-legged ladies, and the subject is sex.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.