RAISE YOUR VOICE (PG, 103 minutes)
Hilary Duff's squeaky clean agenda, to become preteen America's sweetheart in song and on screen, couldn't be more obvious here. This is for Duff's already committed audiences, which presumably consist of the young, the innocent and the commercially acquisitive. Far be it from me to stand between two interested parties. She plays Teri Fletcher, a 16-year-old, church-going, musically ambitious daughter of an overprotective father (David Keith) and a gentle mom (Rita Wilson) and the sib to an impossibly wonderful brother. When a disturbing tragedy occurs, Teri's desire to attend a musical academy's summer program in Los Angeles is hampered by her traumatized feelings. And then there's Dad, who forbids her to go. A plucky lass with a powerful voice and a will to go should follow her dreams, right? Mom and Teri's aunt (Rebecca De Mornay) conspire behind Dad's back to make it happen. What follows is part "Fame" and all Hilary all the time, as she makes friends, learns life lessons, sings and enjoys a bubblegum-ish romance with a sweet-natured fellow student (Oliver James). The movie is going to be fine for PG-ready audiences, assuming they don't have a problem with extremely predictable story turns. Contains a traumatic incident that could disturb young sensibilities. Area theaters.
-- Desson Thomson
RED LIGHTS (Unrated, 106 minutes)
Despite being billed as a thriller, "Red Lights" is less a mystery than a drama about a milquetoast who becomes a man, if only in his own mind. Like a grub larva turning into a beetle, the transformation ain't pretty. Yes, the movie involves the disappearance of the man's wife and his drunken attempts to solve it, but the question of who done it -- or, qui l'a fait, as our quintessentially French anti-hero might say, if he gave a damn -- never seems the point. Centering around a singularly unpleasant protagonist, "Red Lights" is the story of Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, a kind of French Wallace Shawn), a resentful, possibly alcoholic nebbish who manages to lose his wife while en route to pick up their kids from summer camp after stopping at a roadside bar one too many times in an effort to lubricate the constant friction between himself and his much more attractive and successful spouse, Helene (Carole Bouquet). Thinking that she has decided to take the train (a wise choice, given the level of alcohol impairment he has been exhibiting on the drive down so far), Antoine rushes pell-mell to the station, where his failure to catch up with her leads him -- surprise! -- to another bar. (Honey, you won't believe how thirsty I got just looking for you.) There, Antoine picks up a menacing hitchhiker (Vincent Deniard), who, in a feat of cosmic coincidence seen only in movies, serves as a plot link, not to mention unwitting marriage therapist, between Antoine and Helene. Without ruining the film's disturbing climax, let me just say that what transpires between Antoine and his passenger changes everyone's lives, and not all for the good. Perhaps most perversely, it restores Antoine's damaged male ego, but only by allowing him to become a kind of monster. With the film's affectless, nonjudgmental tone, it's hard to know if filmmaker Cedric Kahn (adapting Georges Simenon's novel with co-screenwriters Laurence Ferreira Barbosa and Gilles Marchand) thinks this is a bad thing, a good thing or just a thing. The film, like the cheap double-scotches quaffed down by the central character, leaves a distinctly sour aftertaste that's hard to wash away the morning after. Contains obscenity, physical violence and drug use. In French with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Landmark's Bethesda Row.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
ZELARY (R, 141 minutes)
In wartime Czechoslovakia, Eliska (Ana Geislerova) and her boyfriend, Richard (Ivan Trojan), both members of the resistance, are forced to flee the Nazis. But they are separated, and Eliska is forced to retreat to a mountainous region (called Zelary) and stay with Joza (Gyorgy Cserhalmi), a man to whom she recently donated blood. She adopts a false name, Hana, and marries Joza as part of her cover. Eliska has to learn the ways of rural life and play a dutiful wife. But village existence proves difficult: Some locals are suspicious of this mismatched couple -- the city woman and her older mate. And the Nazis are always at large; and as the war comes to a close, the Russians will prove no less friendly. But Eliska begins to appreciate Joza's true heart and his unpretentious ways. Ondrej Trojan's film is filled to the brim with Czech movie staples: precocious children, wizened hags, every kind of animal, lusty men, hardscrabble housewives and so forth. But the long-take scenes, the beautiful cinematography and sure acting give the movie a naturalistic texture. And there's always a jarring incident to keep you on your toes: attempted rape, sudden death and the gruesome breaking of an arm, to name a few such jolts. The movie's on the long-winded side in the final stretches and seems to stuff five acts into three; but for fans of old-fashioned European filmmaking, this may have its pleasing qualities. Contains violence, sexual content and nudity. In Czech with subtitles. At the Avalon Theatre.
-- Desson Thomson