Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 15 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 15

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BURLESQUE Sorry, camp-classic aficionados: Burlesque is no Showgirls or Staying Alive. Certainly, the film contains some risible moments, but nothing wretched enough to plunge it into the bowels of bad cinema. Ultimately, it's too competently made to be a genuine stinker yet too indebted to hoary show biz clichés to come close to succeeding. Cher, her face as immobile as a kabuki mask (and far less expressive), receives top billing but actually plays second fiddle to Christina Aguilera; the latter is just OK as Ali, who leaves her podunk Iowa town in the hopes of making it in LA. It's not long before she stumbles across an intriguing nightclub called Burlesque. From there, everything proceeds according to formulaic plan: She snags a job at the joint waiting tables, wins the grudging respect of club owner Tess (Cher) and Tess' gay BFF (film MVP Stanley Tucci), lands a hottie boyfriend (Cam Gigandet), clashes with the venue's bitchy star (a miscast Kristen Bell, whose vamp is about as toothless as a newborn baby), and — you go, girl! — gets that big break that turns her into an overnight sensation. About the only thing missing is someone barking, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" ... although I can't guarantee that wasn't in an earlier draft of the script. **

DESPICABLE ME When James Stewart offers to lasso the moon for Donna Reed in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life, it's purely a romantic gesture. When Gru (Steve Carell), the star of the 3-D opus Despicable Me, plots to shrink the moon to a size small enough so that he can make off with it, it's clearly to show that he's the baddest dude around. After all, if a supervillain isn't feared and respected, then what good is he? Despicable Me is a witty, congenial lark that obviously won't have the staying power of Toy Story 3 but serves quite nicely as a pleasing placeholder in the cinematic summer of 2010. Sweet-natured yet also avoiding the cloying sentiment that tarnishes any great number of toon tales, this finds Gru enlisting the aid of three oblivious orphan girls to help him one-up his biggest competitor in the supervillain sweepstakes, a self-satisfied nebbish (Jason Segel) who calls himself Vector. Naturally, Gru knows nothing about children, and just as naturally, the girls will teach him about family and responsibility. But that comes later. First, the movie has to let loose with a volley of inspired sight gags, a smattering of adult-oriented humor (note the homage to The Godfather), and some screen-pushing innovations to justify the 3-D expense. ***

DUE DATE A painful comedy in the lowest-common-denominator mold, this finds Robert Downey Jr. cast as Peter Highman, an architect trying to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles before his wife (a wasted Michelle Monaghan) gives birth. But once he bumps into aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), that's not going to be easy: After Ethan's bumbling lands both of them on the "no-fly" list, Peter is forced to drive cross-country with this eccentric imbecile. Unlike its antecedent Planes, Trains & Automobiles, in which John Candy somehow managed to make his character both annoying and endearing, this never allows us to warm up to Galifianakis' insufferable character, although that has as much to do with the actor's sandpaper personality as it does with a sloppy script credited to four writers. The screenplay presents Ethan as such a buffoon — and spends most of its time mocking him — that it's embarrassing in those moments when it makes a play for audience sympathy. In the midst of all this horse manure, it's almost amazing that Downey manages to concentrate enough to deliver a fine performance. It's disheartening to see him squandering his talents in such a dud, but his professionalism at least prevents the entire picture from devolving into a complete circle jerk. *1/2

EASY A Heathers in the 1980s. Clueless in the '90s. Mean Girls in the noughts. It seems like every decade insists on producing a razor-sharp high school satire centered around the travails of a likable female protagonist. Easy A appears to be this new decade's first entry in the sweepstakes, and while it can't quite compare to its enduring predecessors, it will do just fine until something more permanent comes along. Emma Stone gives a bright performance as Olive, a virginal wallflower who erroneously ends up being tagged as the biggest slut at her high school. Soon, Olive is likening her situation to Hester Prynne's in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and rather than fight the rumors, she starts wearing tight-fitting clothes accentuated by a red letter "A." The Hawthorne comparisons are often clumsy, and Olive's friends and tormentors are a rather nondescript lot. But there's still much to enjoy: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as the Coolest Parents Ever; Thomas Haden Church wearing sensitivity well as a congenial teacher; Lisa Kudrow in a welcome appearance as a shallow guidance counselor; and no shortage of clever retorts penned by debuting scripter Bert V. Royal. Easy A may be about the kids, but aside from Stone's contribution, it mostly benefits from all the adult supervision. **1/2

FAIR GAME By now, it's accepted by all but the most deluded right-wing zealots that the Bush administration took this country to war under false pretenses. There was a point when the vessel of justice could have been righted and a course for a better tomorrow could have been charted, but instead, lies were upheld, misinformation was spread like so much manure, and the moment was gone. Fair Game is a film about that moment. Naomi Watts stars as Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA operative whose undercover status was blown in retaliation for her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) writing a New York Times op-ed piece in which he revealed that the justification for going to war with Iraq was a fabrication on the part of the war criminals in the White House. The film tracks the lives of the Wilsons professionally and personally, showing how the political fallout was placing a severe strain on their marriage. The most fascinating element of this important picture is the philosophical difference that exists between the couple. Joe is an idealist, honestly believing that he can take on the neocon thugs and win; Valerie is a realist, realizing the futility of any such efforts. It's an interesting dichotomy, because while our hearts side with Joe, our minds know — and our current history proves — that Valerie was right. ***

FASTER The basic outline sounds simple enough, as a taciturn man billed as "Driver" (Dwayne Johnson) is released from prison and begins bumping off those responsible for his incarceration as well as the death of a loved one. As he carries out his mission, he's pursued on one side by "Cop" (Billy Bob Thornton) and on the other by "Killer" (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). But Faster isn't merely interested in upping the body count. Driver spends a lot of time thoughtfully listening to a religious radio program, a plot device far more integrated and effective here than in the recent Stone. Cop is a hardcore drug user who's treated with disdain by everyone from his skilled partner (Carla Gugino) on the job to his estranged wife (Moon Bloodgood). And Killer is a wealthy computer genius who became a hit man out of sheer boredom with his life, only finding satisfaction with a girlfriend (Maggie Grace) whose idea of foreplay is firing off a few rounds in the backyard. An inexplicable close-up of a photograph two-thirds through the picture blows any chance at keeping the twist ending under wraps, and this unfortunate error somewhat tempers the mounting tension. But despite this miscue and a few lapses into illogicality, Faster largely succeeds as an efficient actioner. **1/2

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST The European equivalent of The Matrix Revolutions, this third chapter in the late author Stieg Larsson's "Millennium trilogy" finds a once-vibrant saga largely coasting on the fumes of its well-regarded predecessors. The raging "girl power" aesthetic so dominant in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire noticeably slips in this so-so entry, as punk protagonist Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) spends practically the entire picture confined to hospital beds and prison cells. Relegated to a subservient role in her own adventure, Lisbeth concedes all the sleuthing to friend and journalist Mikael Blomkist (Michael Nyqvist), who continues to uncover evildoing that reaches far and wide. (Confused? Don't ask, don't tell, just rent the previous two installments.) There's still pleasure to be had from watching the good guys take down all manner of murderers, rapists and other societal scumbags, but this series always worked best when it kept the focus tight. With an expanded array of villains (the scowling old men are moribund rather than menacing) and drawn-out legal proceedings, this eventually loses its sting. **1/2

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 We won't know until July 15, 2011, whether or not the final book in J.K. Rowling's franchise really needed to be divided into two movies. But until the release of Part 2 on that forthcoming day, the evidence based on Part 1 leads to an inconclusive verdict. This is the first picture in the series that actually drags — it's not a disastrous debit since the majority of the film is so strong, but it does suggest that some judicious trimming might have given us the final chapter in one fell swoop. The coasting comes in the middle, which is fortunate since it leaves the production with a vibrant opening act and a powerhouse final hour. Fans will immediately be swept up in this latest chapter, which begins by killing off one of the good guys and sending Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) on a crusade to locate specific items that might help them vanquish the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). The movie spends an awful lot of time on the teens as they set up camp in an isolated area, and the romantic yearning between them, usually a highlight of the series, here settles into soap opera mundaneness. Yet once the story leaps past this narrative hurdle, it again gets back to the intriguing dynamics that have long defined this series. ***

LOVE & OTHER DRUGS For all the pleasure it reportedly provides, Viagra does flirt with potential side effects, including headache, upset stomach and blurred vision. Similarly, while Love & Other Drugs offers its own pleasures, this adaptation of Jamie Reidy's Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman results in such possible side effects as irritation, frustration and disgust. For the most part, this is an intelligent piece in which cocky pharmaceutical salesman Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to make his mark in business while also engaging in a no-strings-attached relationship with the no-nonsense Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway). The picture is initially as light and carefree as their romance, but as their mutual commitment deepens, so does the film, with Maggie's medical misfortune — and Jake's reaction to it — resulting in some standout sequences and coaxing a knockout performance from Hathaway. Alas, the idiotic character of Jamie's odious brother (Josh Gad) cheapens an otherwise mature seriocomedy, and some formulaic romcom trappings feel equally out of place. The mental and emotional stimulation caused by the film is strong enough to recommend it, but had some flaccid passages been trimmed, its studio could have had an awards contender on his hands. ***

MEGAMIND 2010 has brought us two animated features about a supervillain who eventually discovers his long-buried humanity, yet viewers who check out Megamind needn't have seen Despicable Me to feel slightly let down by this similar outing. Will Ferrell handles vocal duties as the title villain, whose joy at finally destroying his arch-nemesis, the preening Metro Man (Brad Pitt), soon turns to depression once he realizes there's no one around to challenge him. He ends up creating his own superhero (Jonah Hill), but it isn't long before the supposed do-gooder realizes it's more fun to be bad and sets about destroying the city and kidnapping TV reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey). Megamind now finds himself in the unlikely position of having to save rather than terrorize the civilians who have long feared and despised him. Megamind is perfectly fine for the kids, but adults might find their own megaminds wandering at various points throughout a film that doesn't compare to The Incredibles when it comes to affectionately tweaking the superhero genre. Certainly, there are some moments of delightful inventiveness — I love how Megamind occasionally disguises himself as Marlon-Brando-as-Jor-El-in-Superman — but all too often, safe and sentimental scriptwriting proves to be this film's fatal Kryptonite. **1/2

MORNING GLORY Morning Glory is basically Working Girl for dummies. (Or Broadcast News for dummies; take your pick.) But even dummies need movies — and better ones than genuine rotgut like Due Date or The Bounty Hunter — and this comedy has enough charm, poise and class to satisfy viewers of all IQ levels in the mood for something lighthearted. Rachel McAdams stars as Becky, a TV news producer who's just been tasked with saving a cellar-dweller morning show called Daybreak. Her idea is to pair Daybreak anchor Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) with former news giant (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), but he finds it beneath him to appear on a show revolving around mind-numbing nuggets of infotainment. Ford's been mostly squandering his talents in dismal efforts for well over a decade now, so it's a treat to watch him deliver an amusing and robust performance as an insufferable curmudgeon in a film that's actually entertaining. He's well-matched by Keaton, even if the movie fails to fully capitalize on the antagonism between their characters. The second half's increasingly busy plot mechanics drain away some of the fun, but McAdams remains engaging throughout, a young actress showcased in all her comedic glory. ***

127 HOURS Let's be honest with one another. I'd be dead. You'd be dead. Almost everyone we've ever known would be dead. But not Aron Ralston. After five days of slowly withering away while his right arm remained lodged between a boulder and a rocky wall in a Utah canyon, Ralston did the unthinkable and used a small, dull knife to cut off the arm so that he might continue to live. 127 Hours, based on Ralston's memoir, is writer-director Danny Boyle's mesmerizing account of those fateful days in the outdoor enthusiast's life. But while a stirring parable about the indomitability of the human spirit, this story doesn't quite lend itself to a cinematic rendition — it just sounds too simple, too constricted. But Boyle and co-scripter Simon Beaufoy expand the picture in all sorts of marvelous ways. Visually, the film is always hopping with the same energy as its protagonist (played in a career-best performance by James Franco), relying on split-screen techniques and other lively tricks of the trade. And thematically, the picture doesn't settle for the expected "man vs. nature" route, instead realizing that it isn't nature that's at fault but one man's own near-fatal folly. By turns funny, frightening, inspiring and, yes, nauseating, 127 Hours turns cinema into an extreme sport, leaving us satisfactorily spent. ***1/2

THE OTHER GUYS It makes sense for a film like, say, An Inconvenient Truth or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to end with a plea to our sense of activism or with a mountain of hard data about the evils of unchecked capitalism. But what to make of The Other Guys, featuring closing credits that are packed with statistics concerning government bailouts and the glaring discrepancy between the average salaries of CEOs and the rest of us poor clods? No matter: The film's ample laughs had already dried up long before this ode to Michael Moore muckraking. That's a shame, because for its first hour, The Other Guys is a very funny movie, as two desk cops, meek Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and hotheaded Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), are provided a chance to step up once New York's finest (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson) are put out of commission. Ferrell holds his excesses in check more than usual (though still not enough to my liking), and he and Wahlberg prove to be an amusing team — whether scripted or improvised, their banter is often top-grade. But humor largely vacates the premises during the second half, as the emphasis is placed more on autopilot action sequences and, worse, a topical, torn-from-the-headlines scam that's an ill — and dull — fit for this sort of raucous outing. **1/2

RED One of the better action spectacles of recent vintage, Red is a smart, slick endeavor that gets added mileage from its cast of seasoned screen vets. How seasoned? The arithmetic mean of the five top-billed stars' ages is 59; throw 93-year-old supporting player Ernest Borgnine into the equation, and the calculator starts to overheat. Based on the DC comic book, this plays like a wink to Danny Glover's classic line from the Lethal Weapon series: "I'm too old for this shit." In Red, these aging ex-agents (played by Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren) are definitely not too old for the challenges placed in front of them, all of which stem from the fact that they've been marked for termination for shady reasons. Frank Moses (Willis) is one of these former CIA hotshots trying to save his own skin, a task made more difficult by the fact that he also has to protect the innocent woman (a winsome Mary-Louise Parker) inadvertently mixed up in these dangerous dealings. By employing imagination in all facets of the production, Red manages to avoid being lumped together with another recent title with AARP credentials: the generic, geriatric The Expendables. Besides, in a celebrity smackdown between Sylvester Stallone and Helen Mirren, my money's on the great Dame. ***

SECRETARIAT Until the Sports Illustrated subscription runs out at the Walt Disney Studios offices, I expect audiences will continue to be privy to cookie-cutter yarns centered around notable achievements in the sports world. Secretariat is the latest from the studio stable, and it relates the truly remarkable story of the magnificent racehorse that set records while winning the Triple Crown in 1973 (and simultaneously appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated while doing so). The races are exciting, but to get to these sequences, we're forced to wade through a lot of vanilla material about the difficulties faced by Secretariat's determined owner (typically reliable Diane Lane) and flamboyant trainer (John Malkovich, taking neither his role nor the movie seriously). Despite these tepidly staged interludes, the overall picture isn't quite as bland as, say, The Rookie or Miracle. Still, the staidness made me long for the studio's earlier sports flick Alive — at least that one had rugby players munching down on each other. **1/2

THE SOCIAL NETWORK Like the screwball comedies and film noir staples of yore, The Social Network exhibits an extraordinary gift for gab. Words fly like machine gun strafes, and arguments generally end with the more verbally adroit speaker standing over the other person like a wave that's managed to tumble a surfer. If screenwriting was considered a sport, Aaron Sorkin's script wouldn't just be competing for movie awards but for Olympic gold as well. One of the best films of the year, this is the fascinating story of how Harvard nerd Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) created Facebook and in the process became the world's youngest billionaire. Yet this isn't an inspiring movie about an underdog beating the odds as much as it's a prickly mishmash of how one person's insecurities led to material gains even as his personality remained stuck in an arrogant, off-putting zone. Director David Fincher keeps the proceedings moving at a rapid clip, a task made easier by Sorkin's breezy, biting dialogue and great performances by the entire cast. But a quick pace isn't the same as a hurried one, and The Social Network takes its time in showing how one loner was able to unite 500 million friends, even as he remained perpetually hidden on the other side of the cold, glaring screen. ***1/2

TANGLED Pixar came into power circa the same time that Disney lost its hold on the toon crown, and while the former animation giant may never reclaim its title, its acquisition of John Lasseter's trendsetting outfit suggests that it at least might be able to ascend from its status as court jester to a more regal standing. Tangled follows last year's The Princess and the Frog (both executive-produced by Lasseter) as an indication that, after years of dreary product (Chicken Little, anyone?), old-school Disney might be making a comeback. Yes, the animation is CGI rather than hand-drawn, but both Frog and Tangled benefit from strong storylines that stir memories of the outfit in its distant prime. In this case, it's a loose retelling of the saga of Rapunzel, she of the loooong golden hair. Forced by an evil woman she believes to be her mother to stay hidden in a tower 24/7, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) reluctantly complies until the day a devil-may-care thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) comes along. This one's no classic-in-the-making, but it's certain to remain a best bet for family entertainment, with a pleasing mix of music, mirth and oddball supporting characters. Even the kid-oriented comic relief, Rapunzel's right-hand chameleon, is likely to charm the adults, further designating Tangled as silky-smooth entertainment. ***

THE TOWN While The Town doesn't quite match the giddy pleasures of Gone Baby Gone (which, after all, was second only to No Country for Old Men on my 10 Best list for '07), it aptly illustrates that writer-director Ben Affleck won't have to contend with either the label of "beginner's luck" or "sophomore jinx." A crackling drama with a fine sense of both spacial relationships (thank Affleck the director) and character relationships (thank Affleck the writer), this adaptation of Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves (co-scripted by Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard) is set in a section of Boston known for producing more bank robbers than anywhere else in the country. One of these heist-happy fellows is Doug MacRay (Affleck), who leads his accomplices on a caper that results in the masked bandits briefly taking a hostage, bank employee Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Electing to keep tabs on Claire to insure she doesn't get too chummy with the FBI, Doug strikes up a friendship with the unsuspecting woman, a camaraderie that quickly turns into love. A genre flick like this can't avoid all the clichés, but it manages to sidestep some of the biggest ones — at any rate, it's the little moments that make this stand out. The film can quickly shift from funny to frightening, and it plays out in ways not entirely expected. ***1/2

UNSTOPPABLE The inspired-by-true-events Unstoppable isn't unwatchable like far too many movies helmed by Tony Scott, but viewers hoping that their hearts will be racing as fast as the film's runaway train may find themselves disappointed by how frequently the picture brakes for tedium. Denzel Washington, who should have steered clear of trains after the ill-advised remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, plays the saintly, sage engineer at the end of his career; Chris Pine, Star Trek's new James T. Kirk, plays the brash, brawny conductor on his first assignment. Ultimately, it's up to these two to stop an unmanned train that's barreling along while carrying tons of explosives. It's as straightforward as an action flick gets, but even at a trim 98 minutes, its lack of substance and variety limits its appeal, with lame backstories for both characters slowing it down even more. Because this is a 20th Century Fox production, Fox News plays a starring role, with huge chunks of the action being shown via the network's live news coverage. But because the studio wants the film to score with all demographics, it pulls its political punches — after all, in the real world, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity would be frequently interrupting the live feed to squarely place the blame for the runaway train on Obama. **

WAITING FOR "SUPERMAN" Davis Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, here presents another inconvenient truth: The United States public school system just isn't working. This comes as a shock to absolutely no one, but because it's a universal issue that affects legions of folks across the country — particularly the children — it's the sort of film that begs to be seen. This documentary, heavy on the outrage and frustration and light on the inspiration and hope, often focuses on a hero (education reformer Geoffrey Canada), an anti-hero (controversial former chancellor Michelle Rhee) and a villain (the self-serving American Federation of Teachers), but the heart of the film of course rests with its youngest subjects. Central are five students (in LA, NYC and DC) whose best chance at having a bright future lies in whether they'll be randomly selected in their respective locales' education lotteries to be transferred from their low-performing neighborhood schools to successful charter schools. While this climactic section of the picture proves to be the most schematic (whose name or number will pop up next?), it's impossible not to be left either elated or heartbroken, depending on which way the (lottery) ball bounces. ***

YOU AGAIN There's a lot about You Again that's instantly disposable, from its generic title to its bland leading lady to a storyline that's as weightless as a sponge cake. But leave it to the old pros in the cast to prevent this from completely sinking into the abyss of immediately forgotten comedies. Kristen Bell, only fitfully succeeding in making an impression, plays Marni, who's shocked to learn that her brother (Jimmy Wolk) is marrying Joanna (Odette Yustman), the girl who made her life an endless hell back in high school. Everyone in Marni's family thinks Joanna is the greatest, so Marni makes it her mission to expose her as malicious and deceitful. For her part, Marni's mom (Jamie Lee Curtis) is aghast when she discovers that Joanna's aunt is a former school chum (Sigourney Weaver) with whom she had a falling-out decades ago on prom night. The Marni-Joanna clashes offer little that's new, so the fun is in watching those exquisite older actresses, Curtis and Weaver, square off against each other. Throw in the always-welcome Victor Garber as Curtis' husband, an amusing Kristin Chenoweth as a spirited dance instructor, and a cameo by a former Dallas star that almost made me fall out of my seat, and you may want to give You Again a chance. But only if Mean Girls isn't playing on cable. **1/2

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER Woody Allen's 1972 gem Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) features such outrageous — and outrageously original — gags as a gigantic, Kafka-by-way-of-Roth breast terrorizing the countryside and a sperm (played by Allen) afraid that his host body's masturbatory ways might result in his ending up on the ceiling. In this new film, what passes for Allen's idea of an innovative sex gag? Anthony Hopkins' doddering character Alfie counting down the minutes until the Viagra tablet takes effect. Alfie isn't the only one who has trouble getting it up: One of Allen's worst films, this is a flaccid piece centering on a group of insufferable people making each other miserable in London. Alfie has left his grating wife (Gemma Jones) to marry a young prostitute (Lucy Punch), while their daughter (Naomi Watts) contemplates an affair with her boss (Antonio Banderas) at the art gallery even as her novelist hubby (Josh Brolin) eyes the neighborhood cutie (Freida Pinto). Allen used to display enormous amounts of warmth toward his characters, but in this dour, ugly movie, he holds them all in contempt. As a result, the humor tastes like curdled milk, while all notions of romance have been replaced with aggravating heartburn. *1/2


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