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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Jan. 11

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THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN Finally, here's one seven-year itch that can be scratched. When 2004's The Polar Express made film history as the first animated movie to be created wholly by employing the motion-capture process, we instantly recognized that we were in the presence of something ghastly. Awkward and unsightly, the ersatz innovation rendered all characters stiff, clammy and lifeless — anything but animated. Even as recent as two years ago, with the release of the Jim Carrey vehicle A Christmas Carol, it was clear that the format had not yet hit its stride. But thanks to director Steven Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson and their crack team of technicians and artists, The Adventures of Tintin emerges as the first motion-capture movie to fully fulfill the promise of this hyped advent in animation. Based on the internationally beloved comic series created by Belgian writer-illustrator Hergé (I myself enjoyed them as a lad, even though French writer René Goscinny's Asterix was my main Euro-fix), this finds squeaky-clean boy reporter Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), accompanied by his clever canine companion Snowy, acquiring a model ship that in turn is being sought by the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Tintin's curiosity eventually lands him on a real seafaring vessel that belongs to the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), and together, they set out to distant lands to locate hidden treasure. While the stop-motion process still isn't as pleasing to the eye as either old-school Disney or new-school Pixar, its employment in The Adventures of Tintin still qualifies as leaps and bounds ahead of its use in the unwieldy antecedents in this field. What's more, with the overseer of the Indiana Jones franchise at the controls, this cartoon cliffhanger manages to consistently serve up the breathless thrills. Even the 3-D, hardly ever worth the effort (or higher admission price), works for the greater good of the picture, at one with Spielberg's kinetic and imaginatively designed set-pieces. ***

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS Folks who worship at the altar of Aardman Animations as much as they do at the temple of Pixar (raising my hand here) will quickly realize — say, 20 minutes into the movie — that Arthur Christmas won't come close to matching the giddy heights of the British studio's Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit films. Its characters are more commonplace, its plotline is more conventional, its sentiments are more predictable. What this means, though, is that instead of blazing its own path, the film instead manages to beat the other studios' efforts at their own game, effortlessly rising above the filmic fray involving Gnomeo & Juliet, Puss in Boots and other 2011 'toon disappointments. Most of the major laughs come toward the beginning of this clever contraption in which the present Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent) might finally be ready to retire, set to pass along the reindeer reins to his technically savvy son Steve (Hugh Laurie). The doddering Santa doesn't even consider his other son Arthur (James McAvoy) for the position, since the gangly youth is obviously too clumsy and awkward for such a responsibility. Yet when a wayward present means that a little girl in Cornwall won't be receiving a gift this year, it's Arthur, not his dad or sibling, who does everything in his power to insure that she receives the present. The idea of a Santa with a non-American accent will probably irk the same stateside folks who bristle at the thought of a non-Caucasian Jesus, but the mostly British cast has been carefully selected, with an unusually animated (in both senses of the word) Bill Nighy especially enjoying himself as the long-retired Grandsanta. There are sharp sight gags galore — I especially like the handheld device that gauges a child's naughty-or-nice ratio and fills the stocking accordingly — and while this all leads to a predestined ending, at least said conclusion goes down as smoothly as marshmallow-endowed hot chocolate on Christmas Eve. ***

THE DESCENDANTS The must-see George Clooney vehicle of 2011 — The Ides of March sure wasn't it — The Descendants might be set in Hawaii, but it's hardly a film defined by its postcard prettiness. Right at the start, director and co-writer Alexander Payne (adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel) shows us a downtown as gritty as that of any sprawling metropolis, while George Clooney's character, Matt King, informs us that Hawaiians have the same miserable problems as those of us living in the contiguous United States. With all romantic notions dispelled, the movie gets down to business. Matt's having a rough time of it, with life coming at him hard from all directions. His wife has had a boating accident and now rests in a coma; to make matters worse, he later learns that she had been having an affair with a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and was possibly going to leave him. His daughters, rebellious teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and socially awkward Scottie (Amara Miller), don't respect his authority. And as the family member legally entrusted with prime acreage that has belonged to the clan for generations, he must decide between selling it to capitalist opportunists and making himself and his relatives millionaires or holding onto it and winning the approval of those who would hate to see this beautiful land razed. Payne, who also was a guiding force behind Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, has made another terrific movie about recognizably flawed people and the decisions they make that either improve or irrevocably damage their lives. No situation is ever easily digestible in his complex films: Here, Matt doesn't know whether or not he should forgive his wife since she's in a coma, and his children, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Alexandra's boyfriend (Nick Krause) alternate between infuriating us and earning our sympathies. Marked by stellar performances (particularly by Clooney, Woodley and Judy Greer as the realtor's wife) and an incisive screenplay, The Descendants packs a real Hawaiian punch. ***1/2

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Think of it as the "close but no cigar" brand of cinema, where American adaptations of foreign hits prove to be better than expected yet don't quite trump their predecessors (e.g. Let Me In, The Departed). But now there's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which manages the impressive feat of emerging as superior to the internationally admired Swedish version from 2009. In many ways, this adheres closely to what audiences witnessed in the first version (both were based on the book by the late Stieg Larsson, the first installment in his Millennium trilogy). As before, two characters leading separate lives find their destinies intertwined: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a punkish, bisexual computer expert who's suspicious of everyone around her, particularly men; and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a wrongly ostracized journalist who accepts a personal assignment from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-removed disappearance of his niece. Only when Mikael realizes he needs an assistant does Lisbeth enter his life, becoming unlikely allies as they solve the mystery together. The 2009 Swedish version is a fine film, but this one is nevertheless an improvement, right from the dazzling opening credits (perhaps the best I've seen during 2011) to an epilogue that's unexpectedly poignant. Director David Fincher works in a crisp, efficient manner, and while the original's Noomi Rapace made for a memorable heroine, Mara is even better, retaining this great character's steely resolve and unfiltered intelligence but confident enough to allow us to see the hurt child residing within. After helming the zeitgeist hit The Social Network, Fincher has been accused by some critics of slumming with this pulpy material, but I beg to differ. Just check out the climactic scene that's set to Enya's "Orinoco Flow" — perhaps not since Michael Mann employed Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" at the end of Manhunter has a filmmaker so imaginatively, and perversely, merged music with moving imagery. ***1/2

HUGO Movie mavens startled by the fact that Martin Scorsese has elected to direct a family film when he's exalted for his string of hardcore crime flicks clearly know little about either the man or his achievements. Scorsese has hopscotched between genres far more often than he's given credit for — the costume drama The Age of Innocence, the religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ and the black comedy After Hours represent just a sampling — and when he's not helming motion pictures, he's often championing the cause of film preservation. Scorsese has always been a student of film as much as a teacher and practitioner — how I love to hear him passionately discuss classics of cinema! — and with Hugo, he manages to incorporate all facets of his persona. Even more so than The Aviator, this adaptation of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a product steeped in cinema lore, drunk on the fumes of a bygone era yet canny enough to channel its nostalgia through modern innovations. Set in a Parisian train station in the 1930s, the story concerns itself with young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a parentless child who tends to the building's giant clock while constantly avoiding the grasp of an inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) hellbent on sending him off to an orphanage. Connected to his late father (Jude Law in a small role) by an automaton that needs repairing, Hugo steals the parts needed from an elderly man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who runs a toy store in the station. Eventually caught by the ill-tempered gent, Hugo becomes drawn into his life, befriending his ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, of Kick-Ass/Hit Girl fame), learning about his past as a film pioneer, and discovering the key — literally — that binds past and present together. Despite registering as a glorious celebration of Méliès, Scorsese hasn't merely made an ode to cineasts; rather, his picture is a moving exploration of the manner in which individuals seek out love and companionship in an effort to form their own version of a nuclear family (every character, even Cohen's bumbling inspector, wages a war against loneliness). The 125-minute running time, leisurely pace and lack of Muppets will probably cause many tots and grown-ups alike to grow fidgety before long, but for the rest of us, we'll always have Paris — and the enchanting movie set therein. ***1/2

THE IDES OF MARCH Friends, Charlotteans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Clooney, not to praise him. It's not that I love Clooney less, but that I love good movies more. And for huge chunks at a time, The Ides of March is a good movie. What's more, director-producer-cowriter-star George Clooney is not only a fine filmmaker but also a fine American, espousing the progressive ideals that, when adopted by those in charge, help make this country great. These ideals are regurgitated in this slick motion picture (adapted from Beau Willimon's play Farragut North), with the suave leading man using his charisma to punch across the character of Governor Mike Morris, a presidential aspirant locked in a heated battle with another Democrat for the party's nomination. His press secretary, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), believes in him and works hand in hand with campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to insure victory. Stephen is ambitious and intelligent, so it's no surprise that the opponent's campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) tries to lure him to their side, that a New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) turns to him for insider info, and that a cute intern (Evan Rachel Wood) climbs into bed with him. But Stephen gets blindsided by dirty politics — literally — and is further stunned to discover a secret that could derail the whole campaign. This is basically Gosling's movie, which is a good thing since Clooney's character largely just shows up to deliver speeches that reflect the actor's real-life liberal leanings. It's not that I disagree with what's being spoken, but there are more inventive ways for a film to lay out its agenda without resorting to ham-fisted proselytizing (see: Bulworth; Bob Roberts). Yet ultimately, the movie's simplistic view of the political landscape is no worse than the melodramatic turn it takes late in the game. Still, despite its faults, there's much to enjoy, starting with the superlative performances by old pros Giamatti and Hoffman and the still-rising Wood. The Ides of March is satisfying and frustrating in equal measure; just mark it down as a split ticket. **1/2

IN TIME Can a movie survive on premise alone? That would be a resounding no, since its success also rests squarely on the shoulders of the execution. Yet in the case of In Time, the premise is ingenious enough to cut some slack elsewhere. The movie may not probe as deeply into its subject as desired, but it's nevertheless an enjoyable watch, full of propulsive action and intriguing scenarios. Comparisons to Logan's Run are absurd, since this picture sports its own ideas on what the future might hold. It's a world order in which everyone is genetically designed to live until 25 years of age, at which point they're given one extra year to keep for themselves or use as currency. Because in this story, time literally is money, as a cup of coffee costs four minutes, a bus ride costs two hours, and so on. The rich have the means to acquire hundreds of years to tack onto their lives, while the poor barely have enough time to struggle from day to day. In Time focuses on one of the 99%: Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), whose life is turned upside down after a disillusioned millionaire (Matt Bomer) transfers a full century to him. Amanda Seyfried co-stars as the rich kid who joins Will on the lam, Cillian Murphy plays the Timekeeper (aka lawman) who's in hot pursuit, and writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) is the one who deserves credit for crafting this heady mix of science fiction and social commentary. ***

JACK AND JILL Less than 48 hours before I embarked on the courageous journey to attend the screening of Jack and Jill, a co-worker offered his theory that Adam Sandler deliberately makes movies out of the stupidest ideas he can conjure, simply to prove that his fans will see him in anything. I stated that the comedian's next film will be Diarrhea Man, about a guy who spends his entire life sitting on a toilet making flatulent sounds, and the fact that my colleague couldn't tell whether I was joking or not says everything anyone needs to know about the cesspool of cinema known as the Adam Sandler Oeuvre. Jack and Jill certainly ranks near the very bottom; it's stupid and infantile, of course, but it's also lazy and contemptuous, a clear sign that Sandler and director Dennis Dugan (his seventh Sandler film; stop him before he kills again!) aren't even trying anymore, safe in the knowledge that audiences will emulate Divine in John Waters' Pink Flamingos and chow down on whatever dog shit is presented to him. Here, the stench is particularly potent, as this story about an obnoxious ad man (Sandler) and his whiny, overbearing sister (Sandler in drag) is a nonstop parade of scatological bits, prominent product placements, faux-hip cameos (Johnny Depp, welcome to the halls of whoredom), wink-wink chauvinism, racism and xenophobia, icky incest gags, annoying voices (not just Sandler as Jill but also the made-up language spoken by the siblings), and the usual small roles for Sandler's beer buddies (including, groan, David Spade in drag). Al Pacino co-stars as himself, inexplicably smitten with Jill; he provides the film's only two or three chuckles (especially a line about the Oscars), but even long before the sequence in which he raps about doughnuts, it's clear that he's become an ever bigger sellout than Robert De Niro. Now that's saying something. *

J. EDGAR As J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial Federal Bureau of Investigation director and one of the most powerful figures of the 20th century, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is interesting, respectable, measured, unfussy and just a touch dry, qualities he shares with the ambitious picture surrounding him. It's always hard to encapsulate an entire life in one running time, but director Clint Eastwood and scripter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for penning the excellent Milk) give it a shot — make that scattershot. Saddled with a worthless framing device in which an elderly Hoover recounts his career for the biographers, the film moves back and forth through different eras to show Hoover's start at the Bureau of Investigation in 1919 (the "Federal" was added in 1935) right up through his death in 1972. Many of the watermarks surrounding Hoover and his G-Men are included, albeit accorded different measures of importance: The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby is given ample screen time, but his persecution of radicals and civil rights groups — his real legacy, as far as many people are concerned — never truly takes center stage (Martin Luther King is mentioned, but hardly a whisper is uttered about the Black Panthers), and several career blunders are sidestepped in order to present a fair and balanced portrait. But the same problem affects J. Edgar that affected Oliver Stone's Nixon and W.: We aren't dealing with fair and balanced individuals, and the bending over backwards in an attempt to muster tears — even crocodile tears — is an unfortunate decision. As for the personal aspects of Hoover's life, the rumors that he was a closeted homosexual who entered into a lifelong companionship with fellow FBI suit Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, less dynamic here than as The Social Network's Winklevii) were never substantiated, so Black is forced to make up his own history; the focus, for better or worse, renders this less a comprehensive biopic, more a Brokeback Bureau. **1/2

LIKE CRAZY Three-quarters twee and one-quarter Glee, Like Crazy won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance shindig, beating out a slate of 15 other titles that included Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene. If nothing else, this stands as proof positive that even the film festivals can be as misguided in their selections as the notorious Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. The film won a second Sundance honor for the lead performance by Felicity Jones, an acceptable selection given that she's the best thing about this film in which LA college kid Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and British exchange student Anna (Jones) hook up, only to be separated by the ocean after she willfully extends her visa stay illegally and is booted back to the UK (that these adults would be so stupid in this post-9/11 age of stringent airport laws is a daft narrative concept, but we'll let it slide). The whole thrust of the film is that these two people should be together no matter what — think Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Titanic's Jack and Rose, Brokeback Mountain's Ennis and Jack — but director Drake Doremus (scripting with Ben York Jones) doesn't make a very compelling case for his lovebirds. While it's easy to see Anna's adoration, Jacob won't even consider moving to England to be with his presumed soulmate, preferring instead to remain stateside and periodically take up with a co-worker (a wasted Jennifer Lawrence) who deserves better than the treatment he doles out to her. Ultimately, Like Crazy is a love story about two often annoying people who don't have much discernible chemistry and are mostly bonded by their mutual love for Paul Simon. The singer's Graceland is referenced, but as these two prattled on, I only desired to hear the sound of silence. *1/2

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL There's a scene in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in which Tom Cruise's agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt must climb up the outside of a tall building with only the aid of a pair of electronic gloves that fasten themselves to any given surface. It isn't enough that it's a towering edifice — it has to be Dubai's Burj Khalifa, merely the tallest building in the world. And it isn't enough that a pair of gloves seem like scarce supplies for a climbing expedition — one of the blasted things must malfunction during the ascent, meaning a single hand is all that prevents Ethan from falling to his doom a hundred-plus stories below. And did I mention that, during the descent, he's a few stories shy of reaching safety, meaning he has to swing around wildly like a pinata that's been whacked a few times in the hopes of propelling himself into an open window? It's utterly ridiculous — and also utterly exciting. The fourth M:I film based on the classic TV series — and the third to be worth a damn (only the second one was a letdown) — this wisely continues the tradition of assigning a different director to each chapter, going from Brian De Palma to John Woo to J.J. Abrams and now to Brad Bird. In making his live-action debut, Bird demonstrates that he's not going to allow a real-world setting to hamper an imagination that had been instrumental in making toon tales like Ratatouille and The Incredibles. The plotline is so hoary that it might as well have come from a 1960s-era Bond flick: A Russian madman (Michael Nyqvist) plans to cleanse the earth via a nuclear war, and it's up to the only active members of the Impossible Missions Force (Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg), plus a government analyst harboring a secret (Jeremy Renner), to take him down. At 135 minutes, the film admittedly overstays its welcome — the coda is particularly draggy, even if it does offer a pair of pleasing cameos — and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is more inscrutable than ever. But for action buffs desperate for a hit to jump-start their hearts, here's a Mission impossible to refuse. ***

MONEYBALL Like a businessman settling into his recliner after a hard day's work, Brad Pitt has slid into middle age with an ease that's both pleasurable and enviable to watch. Pitt's always been a fine actor, of course, but around the turn of the century, he's really upped his game, from his quirky turns in Snatch and Burn After Reading to his scene-stealing subterfuge in those Ocean's films to his thoughtful interpretations in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Tree of Life. (Go figure that my least favorite Pitt performance of late, as Benjamin Button, is the one that nabbed him an Oscar nomination.) Moneyball, directed by Capote's Bennett Miller and adapted from a true story by the powerhouse team of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), finds Pitt as his most dynamic; he's cast as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who in 2001-2002 is tired of losing both games and star players to better funded baseball teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox. Refusing to continue adhering to the old-school philosophies preached by his assemblage of geriatric scouts, he instead discovers a newer religion being espoused by Peter (Johan Hill), an economics major from Yale who possesses a love for the game and a head for numbers-crunching. Employing a math-based system (sabermetrics, created by Bill James) that finds the value in underappreciated players deemed as too old/awkward/iffy by other organizations, Beane starts collecting these diamond castoffs as if they were baseball cards in the hopes that they'll coalesce into a winning team. Whether or not one subscribes to the "moneyball" philosophy — it's worked well for some teams, not so great for others — is irrelevant when it comes to enjoying a motion picture that takes a potentially arid subject and makes it sing on screen. Its success has less to do with Bennett, whose mise en scenes show little variance (a similar staidness also dogged Capote), than with the scripters and the actors, all of whom exhibit a quicksilver strategy in keeping this thing popping. Put this one in the W column. ***

THE MUPPETS Yes, it may be true that The Muppets is a film for the whole family, but here's a cruel suggestion: Hire a babysitter and leave the kids at home. After all, what grownup weaned on a steady diet of Muppet episodes and movies wants to interrupt their jaunt down memory lane by having to escort weak bladders to the bathroom or hungry mouths to the concession stand? Jason Segel, a self-proclaimed Muppet devotee who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, plays Gary, who takes his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and his equally Muppet-obsessed brother Walter — who, incidentally, happens to be a puppet himself — to Los Angeles for vacation. When they stop at the old Muppet studio, they're shocked to see it dilapidated and abandoned; they're even more upset when they discover that ruthless businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the property, tear down the studio and drill for oil. In an effort to save the hallowed ground, the trio head off to find Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the gang. On the down time, Walter's pretty much a drip, both as a character and a Muppet, and instead of even creating him in the first place (when you think about it, he's not really necessary to the overall arc), I would rather Segel and Stoller had spent more time on the already established puppet personalities. And the cameos, by and large, are a disappointing lot. 1979's The Muppet Movie gave us comedy titans like Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Bob Hope and Madeline Kahn; this film can only counter with Ken Jeong, Zach Galifianakis, John Krasinski and Selena Gomez. Running the risk of sounding like Statler and Waldorf, though, I had best stop with the naysaying. At any rate, the majority of the film is pure pleasure, full of knowing winks to the franchise's time and place in history: the bouncy "Mahna Mahna"; Kermit's celebrity Rolodex, long outdated ("May I speak to President Carter?"); the lovely "The Rainbow Connection" (just try and not tear up during that moment); and the creation of '80s Robot, whose computer-related gag provided me with the biggest laugh I've enjoyed in a theater this year. ***1/2

NEW YEAR'S EVE This waste of energy proves to be even tougher to take than director Garry Marshall's previous all-star holiday romp, Valentine's Day. As in that film, numerous familar faces take part in superficial vignettes all centered around the title holiday. Although it squanders any intriguing potential for a May-December romance, the storyline in which a cocky messenger boy (Zac Efron) helps a depressed woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) fulfill her New Year's resolutions is the best episode primarily thanks to Pfeiffer, the only person in this entire film investing any genuine emotion into her character. At the other end of the spectrum is the thread in which two pregnant women (Jessica Biel and Sarah Paulson) and their husbands (Seth Meyers and Til Schweiger) are eager to win the sizable cash prize given by a local hospital to the couple who produces the first baby of the new year; this is the most godawful of all the segments, and not just because someone yells out, "May the best vajayjay win!" Among the other less-than-scintillating tales are a real snoozer in which a sympathetic nurse (slumming Oscar winner Halle Berry) tends to a dying man (slumming Oscar winner Robert De Niro) whose only wish is to see the ball drop; the dramatically inert episode about a glitch in the Times Square ball, made watchable only by the likable turns by Hilary Swank, Hector Elizondo and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges; a piece in which a slacker (perpetually annoying Ashton Kutcher) who hates the holiday is trapped in an elevator with a singer (Lea Michele) desperate to escape; and a piece in which a caterer (perpetually annoying Katherine Heigl) is angry at the boyfriend (Jon Bon Jovi) who ran away from her a year ago but has now reentered her life. I can hardly wait for Marshall's Arbor Day. *1/2

PUSS IN BOOTS Stanley Roper was arguably the funniest character on the long-running TV series Three's Company (not a difficult feat, admittedly), but that didn't mean it was wise to yank him and the missus out of their supporting stints on that hit show in order to place them front and center in a sitcom (The Ropers) that barely lasted a year. Similarly, Jennifer Garner's Elektra worked well in tandem with Ben Affleck's blind superhero in Daredevil, but absolutely no one cared when she was given her very own starring vehicle. So even though Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots owned the Shrek franchise from the moment he was introduced in the second film, that was no reason to elevate him to, erm, leading-cat status in Puss in Boots. Certainly, the fault doesn't rest with Banderas, who's as game as ever. But this animated effort wants to have it both ways: It retains the sort of tiresome, snarky humor that defined the Shrek series while also trafficking in the type of obvious morals found in more traditional toon fare. The end result is a listless movie that doesn't have much to offer beyond keeping the kids quiet for 90 minutes. The plot concerns the uneasy alliance between Puss, the equally accomplished Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, re-teaming with her Desperado co-star) and the annoying Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) as they attempt to first steal three magic beans and then the fabled Golden Goose. There are a handful of amusing exchanges ("I thought a cat always landed on its feet." "No! That's just a rumor spread by dogs!"), but for the most part, the stale wisecracks are on the order of "First rule of Bean Club: You do not talk about Bean Club." With soft lobs like this, it's clear Puss in Boots is one movie that was declawed before it even got close to the screen. **

REAL STEEL Not nearly as awful as its premise and previews might lead one to believe — hey, how's that for a ringing endorsement? — Real Steel should prove to be a modest surprise to those who had been expecting nothing more than a Transformers-style blend of CGI cacophony and callow characterizations. Although loosely based on a Richard Matheson story ("Steel") that was previously dramatized in a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone starring Lee Marvin, Real Steel has been described in some quarters as Rock'em Sock'em Robots: The Movie and in others as an update of 1987's Over the Top, the lame Sylvester Stallone vehicle about a wash-up who travels the country entering arm-wrestling competitions while trying to bond with his estranged son. Neither viewpoint is exactly a stretch, but Real Steel has a Weapon X in Hugh Jackman, who delivers a rousing performance as Charlie Kenton, a former fighter who's now reduced to promoting robot boxers on the underground circuit (in the film's near-future setting, all boxing matches are between robots, not humans). Charlie is surprised to learn he has a young son, Max (Dakota Goyo), but the kid proves to be an asset as Charlie tries to move up in the sports world. Whether it's the chemistry between Jackman and Goyo or the guiding hand of noted humanist filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis (both on hand as producers), Real Steel mines some real emotion out of its hopelessly cliched father-son tale. As for the effects, they're excellent, effortlessly placing the computer-generated 'bots in real-world surroundings. Sincere but silly — I could have done without the cringe-worthy dance routines between boy and robot — Real Steel is a rocky version of the Rocky template, but it exhibits a beating heart under all that heavy metal. **1/2

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS If I wanted to see a movie featuring Indiana Jones, I would watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. If I wanted to see a movie featuring James Bond, I would watch Goldfinger. If I wanted to see a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes, I would watch — well, certainly not Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which might as well be a period Expendables prequel for all the reverence given to the legendary sleuth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Baker Street brainiac remains one of literature's greatest detectives, but because actions always count more than words in today's Hollywood, 2009's Sherlock Holmes reinvented the character as a kick-ass macho man, more Rambo than Miss Marple. Nevertheless, the freshness of Robert Downey Jr.'s exuberant portrayal as Holmes and the measured counterpoint provided by Jude Law as Dr. Watson managed to overpower Guy Ritchie's hyperkinetic direction. Not this time. Ritchie's showoff stylistics are often embarrassing to behold — this is particularly true in the action sequences, of which there are countless. As he battles his deadly nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) and his minions, Holmes most often applies his formidable smarts not to uncovering clues but to enhancing his advantage in hand-to-hand skirmishes. Is this Sherlock Holmes or Muhammad Ali? Some silly asides, such as Holmes' camouflage coat, are best forgotten, but the steady bickering between Holmes and Watson has yet to reach the straining point (thank the ingratiating actors for that). And while Rooney Mara adopts the Lisbeth Salander role for the Yank version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the original's Lisbeth, Noomi Rapace, turns up here as a gypsy fortune teller. Her character's services aren't required to predict that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows will emerge as an international blockbuster, with audiences flocking to see a dizzying swirl of furious fisticuffs, blazing gunfights, and theater-rocking explosions. Me, I'll be home watching my Columbo box sets. **

TOWER HEIST Cineastes won't allow something as trivial as Tower Heist to dislodge Dassin's Rififi or Kubrick's The Killing as their caper film of choice, but as far as seasonal multiplex blockbusters go, this one's not bad at all. The much maligned Brett Ratner, whose last two features were the godawful Rush Hour 3 and the series-sapping X-Men: The Last Stand, basically stays out of the way of his four writers and 10 stars, allowing them to strut their stuff in this comedy about a group of working stiffs who decide to take financial revenge on the crooked Wall Street fat cat (Alan Alda) who swindled them out of their savings. The characters are far more interesting than the actual heist that eats up the final portion of the film, so it's a good thing we're allowed to spend plenty of time getting to know them during the first hour. Ben Stiller is fine as the building manager who plots the robbery; Eddie Murphy displays some of that '80s brashness (long buried under family-film complacency) as a career criminal who lends a hand; and Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe contribute some well-timed laughs. Then there's Tea Leoni as a diligent FBI agent; her drunk scene is one of the highlights of the film and makes me wish that Hollywood would remember to employ her on a more consistent basis. ***

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN — PART 1 TTS:BD-P1, the latest in Stephenie Meyer's wildly successful page-and-screen franchise, opens with 18-year-old Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) preparing to marry the considerably older — but still Tiger Beat pinup-worthy — vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Although she plans to allow Edward to eventually bite her and turn her into a fellow vampire, she decides to remain human for the honeymoon — a fact that disturbs romantic rival and part-time werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Jacob believes that hanky panky between a vampire and a human might lead to the latter's death, a theory he possibly picked up from enjoying too much hentai. At any rate, the inadvertent S&M sessions between the newlyweds yield something more unexpected than a few bruises on Bella: a pregnancy that will result in either a human baby, a vampire suckling or some ungodly combination of both. Writer-director Bill Condon, who deservedly won an Oscar for penning the adaptation of Gods and Monsters, has only been assigned helming duties here, with Melissa Rosenberg retaining her job as scripter of all the films. They both deserve equal blame for the first half of this picture, which plays like a drably lit, monotonously written and indifferently acted soap opera. But as the movie is set to reach a point of no return (around the time Bella and Edward gaze into each other's eyes for, oh, the 268th time), some interesting dynamics come into play. Jacob's love for Bella forces him to side with the hated Cullens against the rest of the wolf pack, while the Rosemary's Baby-esque drama results in some modest tension. Even during the superior second half, there are so many pop tunes crammed onto the soundtrack that viewers might feel like the movie was made only to support CD sales, and a sequence involving talking wolves ranks among the most risible of the year. But critiques really have no weight when it comes to movies like this. The haters are gonna hate, the fans are gonna love, and everyone else will check the movie listings and their own wallets before deciding if this is the best option for a night on the town. **1/2

WAR HORSE Steven Spielberg is no novice when it comes to presenting moviegoers with the horrors of war, whether it's the muted screams of Schindler's List, the frontline carnage of Saving Private Ryan or even the knotty retaliations of Munich. While all those films deservedly earned R ratings, don't be fooled into thinking the PG-13 War Horse takes a softer approach to the subject at hand — with one specific scene, Spielberg establishes that his World War I epic, like some of the platoons marching through it, won't take any prisoners. Before that sequence arrives, we're introduced to the majestic title animal, a horse (named Joey) who bonds with youthful farmhand Albert (Jeremy Irvine) before being sold to the British army. A sensitive captain (Tom Hiddleston) promises Albert that he'll take good care of Joey, but the horse doesn't remain in the officer's hands; instead, Joey finds himself passing between soldiers and civilians, between Brits and Germans, between kindly souls and abusive monsters. A young girl offers him a home; a German officer plans to work him until he drops dead; soldiers from each side team up to save him. And so it goes. Based on the smash stage hit, War Horse has been opened up in breathtaking fashion for the screen, vibrantly bringing each vignette to life and allowing them to collectively address how war diminishes not just humankind but irrevocably destroys surrounding environs. War Horse is a movie of rage, but it's also one of empathy and understanding — it's to Spielberg's credit that he knows the storyline is emotionally wrenching enough that he doesn't need to manipulate tears out of anyone (believe you me, many viewers won't need any coaxing to reach for those hankies at the appropriate moments). Only with the final shot selections does the director succumb to the sort of artistic grandstanding that's sometimes in his nature, but these screensaver images hardly negate the power and the fury of the hard-charging movie that precedes them. ***1/2

WE BOUGHT A ZOO While the concept of dotting the i's and crossing the t's is a wonderful one to pass along to small children just learning how to write, it earns Cameron Crowe a failing grade for rigidly applying it to We Bought a Zoo, a film whose fussiness about every single detail results in audience members not having the luxury to think or feel for themselves. Based on a true story, this stars Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who decides, in cornpone Green Acres fashion, to quit city life and move into a country home. As the new owner, he's required to take care of the failing zoo on the expansive property, so he relies on a motley crew of staffers to show him the ropes and bring him up to speed. Eventually, he falls for the lead zookeeper (Kevin James — whoops, wrong movie; Scarlett Johansson). Watching this movie, it's hard to believe Crowe once helmed such finely crafted pictures as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and the underrated Vanilla Sky. As both director and co-writer (with Aline Brosh McKenna), he stumbles right at the start, when he fails to immediately establish essential information regarding the zoo (its parameters, the types of animals it houses, etc.). Instead, he's too busy working overtime to make sure we're visually and emotionally led by the hand so we don't miss anything. If Benjamin says something idiotic, there's a monkey ready to smack his own forehead in exasperation. If Benjamin fondly recalls his dearly departed wife, she's ready to appear in ethereal form. Clearly, Crowe doesn't trust viewers to make it from Point A to Point B without stumbling or getting lost. Damon and Johansson are reliable as always, and Thomas Haden Church contributes a few chuckles as Benjamin's skeptical brother. But the zoo crew, meant to be quirky, is merely tiresome, the so-called villains (a smarmy inspector, a backstabbing accountant) are laughably manufactured, and the animals are rarely shown in all their glory. But hey, at least they're not burdened with the gift of gab. *1/2

YOUNG ADULT In an effort to prove she was more than just a pretty face, Charlize Theron was horribly made up for Monster and dowdily dressed down for North Country, consequently winning an Academy Award for the former and a nomination for the latter. In Young Adult, Theron has no need for such transformations: She looks weathered but beautiful, and it's easy to believe that her character, Mavis Gary, was one of the most popular girls at her high school back in the day. Make no mistake: Mavis is ugly, but that unattractiveness emanates solely from the inside. And Theron, ever the trouper, is only too happy to bring it to the surface in this wicked, biting seriocomedy. The Juno team of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman have reunited for another movie about an idiosyncratic individual, but Mavis Gary is the polar opposite of the sensible and intelligent character played by Ellen Page in that 2007 gem. An unkempt, hard-drinking ghostwriter for a popular "young adult" franchise now on its last legs, Mavis leaves her Minneapolis stomping ground and returns to the dinky Minnesota hometown she detests, with the sole purpose of landing the one that got away. That would be her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and what Mavis ignores in her quixotic quest is that Buddy is happily married to the sweet Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and they've just welcomed a baby into the world. Dismissive of the wife and kid ("I've got baggage, too!"), Mavis continues her pursuit, despite the advice of former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) to cease and desist. Theron is excellent in the central role — never once does she angle for audience sympathy — yet the real ace might be Oswalt, who's terrific as a guy who's endured genuine hardships in his life. Like Mavis, he's also trapped in the past and needs to grow up, but his good heart and sensible brain suggest that, of the pair, he's the one who stands a better chance of belatedly snagging the senior superlative, Most Likely To Succeed. ***

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