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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of March 7

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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. ***

THE ARTIST Although its cribbing from Singin' in the Rain, A Star Is Born and more means that this black-and-white silent picture sometimes runs short on invention, it easily makes up for it in style, execution and a cheery disposition that's positively infectious. Jean Dujardin plays silent screen star George Valentin, whose chance encounter with a young fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) contributes to her eventual rise in the industry. The pair clearly harbor feelings for each other, but George finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage (Penelope Ann Miller sympathetically plays his estranged spouse) and relies on his dog Uggie and his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) for companionship. The matrimonial strife soon takes a back seat to a dark development, revealed when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) informs him about the inevitable advent of sound in motion pictures — a revolution that George myopically dismisses as a short-lived fad. Instead, this cinematic breakthrough all but destroys his livelihood. In crafting his homage to the silent era, writer-director Michael Hazanavicius crucially fails to include one of its key ingredients, that go-for-broke dynamism that informed much of the cinema of the time — think, for example, of that house really falling on top of Buster Keaton in 1928's Steamboat Bill Jr., or Harold Lloyd's eye-popping stunts in 1923's Safety Last! and other gems, or just about anything served up by Chaplin. Nothing in The Artist can quite showcase that sort of edgy genius, although a sequence that has wicked fun with sound effects is worth singling out. Yet while it may not match up with the best of the silents, The Artist matches up nicely with the best of 2011. Dujardin and Bejo are both enchanting and irresistible, and Hazanavicius' screenplay has no trouble shifting between mirth and melodrama. As for its visual appeal, the black-and-white images are as crisp and dynamic as anything on view in the year's color explosions, whether it's the luminescent paint jobs in Cars 2 or that vibrant rainbow connection in The Muppets. ***1/2

CHRONICLE The exclusive property of the horror genre, the "found footage" style of filmmaking that's been employed in such movies as The Blair Witch Project and Apollo 18 (to name but three of many) has now been co-opted by Chronicle, a picture that's half science fiction, half teen melodrama. With this first push of the envelope's edge, should we now expect, say, a "found footage" musical or a "found footage" Western? Let's hope not, for one of the weaknesses of Chronicle is that its "ff" format plays exactly like the gimmick it most assuredly is. That proves to be an occasional distraction in this surprisingly adept yarn about three high school boys — Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) — who gain telekinetic powers after stumbling into a hole housing what seems to be the kingdom of the crystal skull. But this isn't a family-friendly superhero flick like The Incredibles or Sky High, nor is it a costume-clad wish-fulfillment fantasy like Kick-Ass or Super. Instead, it grounds its science fiction in high school fact while taking uncomfortable detours into Columbine territory. Because even as Matt and Steve, two all-around popular kids, are enjoying their newfound abilities to fly through the clouds or pull harmless pranks on unsuspecting folks, the socially inept Andrew, suffering from a brutal home life (Mom's dying, Dad's a bullying drunk), can't quite contain his extraordinary power and begins to view it as a way to get back at a cruel and insensitive world. Given the low budget, the special effects are astonishing, but that doesn't mean I wanted them to dominate the final portion of the picture. Unfortunately, writer-director Josh Trank and co-scripter Max Landis allow the film to get away from them, moving from sober-minded intrigue to surface bombast. Still, the two men, both making their feature-film debuts, do enough right to insure that Chronicle serves as a potent calling card. **1/2

CONTRABAND A remake of a 2008 Icelandic thriller, Contraband is yet another in a long line of ignoble duds tossed out to help open a new movie year while the previous year's films are still busy collecting all the accolades. As far as January releases go, it's far from the worst — 18 years later, I still have nightmares surrounding the Chris Elliott comedy Cabin Boy — but it's nevertheless poor enough to securely earn its opening-month berth. Its foreign antecedent bore the moniker Reykjavik-Rotterdam, but perhaps mindful that many Americans would mistake these two major European cities for brands of beer, the action has been switched to New Orleans-Panama. But perhaps mindful that many Americans would mistake a movie called New Orleans-Panama for a travelogue, the title ended up being Contraband, which is so generic that it only reveals that the characters must be up to something naughty. The narrative wrongdoing begins with young punk Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who foolishly agrees to transport drugs for the hair-trigger Tim Briggs (perpetually annoying Giovani Ribisi, whose entire career seems like one long epileptic seizure) and then finds himself in hot water when he's forced to dump the entire load. Luckily for Andy, his sister Kate (a miscast Kate Beckinsale) happens to be married to Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), who used to be The Greatest Smuggler Of All Time. Now making an honest living, Chris reluctantly returns to the criminal fold, relying on the help of his best buds Sebastian (Ben Foster) and Danny (Lukas Haas) as he travels from New Orleans to Panama and back again as part of a plan to save his brother-in-law. Director Baltasar Kormakur actually played the Mark Wahlberg role in the Icelandic version, but whatever special insight he must have felt he could bring to this project was apparently lost in translation. There's nothing in Contraband that rises above the flagrantly mediocre, from its doorknob-dull characters to its rote storytelling. Even the casting exudes laziness: Seasoned filmgoers need only glance at the cast list to figure out which of Chris' allies will end up double-crossing him. Still, the script's betrayals pale next to the one perpetrated by filmmakers eager to dupe audiences into thinking they're paying for quality entertainment. *1/2

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

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE The 9/11 melodrama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has been dubbed Extremely Long & Incredibly Dull by industry wags, but in all fairness, it doesn't especially feel overextended (even though it runs 130 minutes) and it manages to retain some measure of interest throughout. No, its problems register more deeply than that. Based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, it seeks to be the definitive film centering on that tragic day but instead feels hopelessly contrived and shamelessly manipulative — a punch to the stomach rather than a balm to the heart. The central character is Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a young boy whose behavior suggests that he has Asperger's syndrome. Inquisitive yet socially awkward, Oskar shares a special bond with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), with his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) clearly placing second in the parental sweepstakes. Thomas is in one of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and it's only some time later, when Oskar discovers a key that apparently belonged to his dad, that the healing process can truly begin. Armed with precious few clues, the lad scours the Big Apple looking for the lock that matches the key, aided in his efforts by a silent neighbor (Max von Sydow) who communicates only through note cards. Marked by improbable characterizations (Bullock and von Sydow are the main victims), constantly tripping over its many gimmicks (a tambourine, a telephone answering machine, those note cards), and doggedly determined to wring tears from every foot of celluloid, EL&IC is a classic case of trying too hard, less interested in examining the legacy of 9/11 than covering every pandering base in an effort to earn those desirable year-end honors. Admittedly, there are individual scenes that register strongly, and the performances by Horn, von Sydow and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright (as a divorcing couple) occasionally draw us into the drama. But for all the chatter about EL&IC serving as a catharsis, that's not only wrong but also simplistic in the face of such a game-changer of an event. Besides, 9/11 has already been tackled with more candor and less sensationalism in such works as The Guys, 25th Hour and, of course, United 93. Those fine efforts soberly noted the horrors and paid tribute to the heroics of that fateful day; by comparison, this new picture mainly pays tribute to its ability to pat itself on the back. **

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

THE GREY After presenting Mexico City as the ultimate hellhole on Earth, Tony Scott's 2004 Man on Fire ended with a credit stating that the city was actually "a very special place." Sydney Pollack's 1993 The Firm assures us that Cayman Island officials look down on the sort of money laundering occurring in the film. And best of all, Irwin Allen's 1978 The Swarm gave a shout-out to our buzzing buddies by adding a credit which noted that "the African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hard-working American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation." Unfortunately, no PSA announcement accompanies The Grey, which presents the often misunderstood wolf in such a vicious and uncompromising light that I expect Sarah Palin will see this film at least a dozen times. Of course, all two- and four-legged creatures are fair game when it comes to presenting them as movie villains — even bunny rabbits and a slobbery St. Bernard had to play the heavies in Night of the Lepus and Cujo, respectively — and the wolves on display here are indeed intimidating. Granted, they often look like animatronic animals on steroids, but they certainly put the fear of God in the human protagonists. The prey in The Grey is a group of oil-rig workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilds. The no-nonsense Ottway (Liam Neeson), whom we first meet as he's sticking his gun in his own mouth (a wolf's howl distracts him from pulling the trigger), appoints himself leader and attempts to lead the other six survivors out of the wilderness — no small task given not only the punishing elements but also the savage wolf pack that's picking them off one by one. To its credit, The Grey tries to add a little substance to its terror-tale premise, but Ottway's soft-gaze flashbacks to his long-gone wife and the religious chats among the men (complete with a scene where Ottway yells at the heavens above) only skim the surface of any true existential analysis. And while there are a couple of good sequences focused on the brutal landscape, the man-on-wolf action is both fleeting and feeble — anemic enough that even Twilight haters might join Team Jacob rather than watch this shaggy undertaking. **

THE IRON LADY Taking Meryl Streep out of The Iron Lady and replacing her with just about any other actress would be akin to removing the meat out of a beef Stroganoff dinner and replacing it with a Hostess Twinkie. The result would be a thoroughly indigestible mess, worthy only of being flung into the garbage bin. Yes, Streep delivers yet another note-perfect performance (even if it atypically seems as much surface mimicry as heartfelt emoting), but move beyond her eye-catching work and what remains is a poor movie that does little to illuminate the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, the controversial British Prime Minister who held the position throughout the 1980s. Forget for a minute the movie's soft-pedaling of its central character. Since filmmakers usually desire to be as demographically friendly as possible in order to attract audiences of all stripes, it's no surprise that director Phyllida Lloyd and scripter Abi Morgan fail to devote much time to Thatcher's ample failings, including her abhorrent attitudes toward the poor, the unemployed and even her fellow women. Yet even her few strengths (rising from modest origins, sticking it to the boys' club of British politics, reinstilling a sense of national pride much like her BFF Ronald Reagan was doing stateside) are treated in CliffsNotes fashion, since an oversized amount of the picture focuses on her waning years as a lonely woman suffering from mild dementia, believing she's being frequently visited by her deceased husband Denis (a wasted Jim Broadbent). With so much history and personality to draw upon, it's infuriating that so much of the running time is wasted on mere speculation involving an elderly person's flights of fancy (a problem that also plagued Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar); these sequences, popping up every few minutes, effectively destroy any sense of pacing or continuity and ineptly attempt to soften a world figure who didn't exactly earn her titular nickname by publicly surrounding herself with Paddington Bear dolls. *1/2

SAFE HOUSE Actors often like to brag about how they performed their own dangerous stunts on a particular picture, but how many A-listers can actually claim to have been waterboarded as part of the deal? Yet here's Denzel Washington and his co-workers on Safe House, all revealing on the interview circuit how the two-time Oscar winner refused a stunt double for the scene in which his character, former CIA agent Tobin Frost, gets tortured via a technique that's all the millennial rage among U.S. government leaders. It's an intense sequence, one of the few in a movie that otherwise hits all the familiar marks as it hurtles toward the end credits. Still, a little professionalism can go, if not a long way, at least enough distance to make the ride a painless one, and Safe House is nothing if not slick and steady. Washington's apparently traitorous agent tests the patience of noble novice agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) as both men flee through Cape Town, South Africa, evading the usual band of nondescript thugs. These ruffians are in the employment of — gasp! — a dirty double-crossing official in the Central Intelligence Agency. Could it be the no-nonsense head suit, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard)? The brusque Catherine Linklater (Vega Farmiga)? Or the gracious and sweet-natured David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson)? Honestly, why do scripters even make an effort to hide the identity until the end, when it's apparent from the get-go who will be revealed as the villain? Given the perpetual obviousness in these films, they might as well include a character named Professor Plum, usually found brandishing a lead pipe in the conservatory, and be done with it. **

THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY An adaptation of Mary Norton's classic novel The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty hails from Japan's Studio Ghibli, the only toon factory comparable to Pixar. It's understandable that the original Japanese voices have been overlaid with English ones for many international markets, but considering this dubbing already took place for the picture's UK release — and with noteworthy actors like Atonement's Saoirse Ronan and Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong, to boot — did stateside distributor Disney really need to replace those British voices with American ones? Were they afraid Yank audiences might be too dumb to decipher the King's English? Whatever the daft reason, it's a good bet this film would still work even in Pig Latin, given the usual warmth and attention to detail invested in all Ghibli efforts. The story revolves around the title character (Bridgit Mendler) and her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), inches-tall people who live in their own makeshift home underneath a real house. Warned to avoid human contact at all costs, Arrietty nevertheless strikes up a tentative friendship with a sickly boy (David Henrie), a bond that inadvertently draws the attention of a cruel housekeeper (Carol Burnett). Leisurely related and lovingly crafted (I love how the miniature family uses canceled stamps as wall paintings), The Secret World of Arrietty is an oasis of calm in the normally hyperactive world of toon entertainment. ***

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. **

THIS MEANS WAR When it comes to the twin businesses of sexual politics and romantic revelations, the number of modern-day comedies that have managed to smartly upend all the tired stereotypes and withering clichés is a dismally small one, sporting a losing ratio comparable to that of the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. This Means War is yet another casualty, losing the battle almost from the start. Chris Pine and Tom Hardy respectively play FDR and Tuck, crack CIA agents who are BFFs until they both fall for the same woman. That would be Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a lonely workaholic who goes from having no boyfriends to having two guys fighting over her. With her best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) offering her dubious advice, Lauren simultaneously dates both studs in order to determine her best match. For their part, FDR and Tuck are utilizing all the espionage tools at their disposal (satellites, wiretaps, etc.) to thwart the other fellow in his amorous advances. In popcorn-picture terms, it has promise, and indeed, there are a couple of sequences in the midsection that fulfill the film's potential. But for the most part, the movie is a clumsy mess, replete with a worthless subplot involving a cardboard Euro-baddie (Til Schweiger) seeking revenge. As far as the characterizations are concerned, they follow the same outdated playbook that's generally kept under lock and key by Katherine Heigl to use in her films. Lauren comes across as a ninny, FDR is insufferable, Trish is like all married women in movies (alcoholic, bitter, and living vicariously through her hot, young, single friend), and Tuck's ex (Abigail Leigh Spencer) has no interest in a sensitive, caring father until she learns he can beat the living hell out of people. It's safe to assume that only Hardy (and his pursed lips) will escape from this debacle unharmed. As for the resolution of the romantic dilemma ... well, let's just say that the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to come up with a worst ending. But then they tack on a ghastly epilogue, and what seemed near-impossible becomes a harsh reality. *1/2

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY Many viewers might find it easier to wade through quicksand while sporting cement blocks on their feet than understanding just what the heck is going on during the opening half-hour of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Author John le Carre's 1974 novel required a seven-part miniseries that ran over five hours when it premiered on the BBC back in 1979, yet here's an attempt to compress all this intel into a shade over two hours. The early stretch of this chilly Cold War drama will indeed be tough going for moviegoers acclimated to the comparative simplicity of the Bourne trilogy (to say nothing of the 007 oeuvre), but those willing to pay attention will be rewarded with a film of unexpected intricacy and various small pleasures. Tackling the role that Alec Guinness owned in the miniseries, Gary Oldman is quietly effective as George Smiley, a key member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6, aka "The Circus"). So taciturn that he's likely to be mistaken for a character in the silent film The Artist, Smiley initially remains on the sidelines as the SIS head, known only as Control (John Hurt), deduces that one of the organization's top men is actually a mole working for the Russians. But a sabotaged mission leads to the mandatory retirement of both Smiley and Control, and it's only after the latter passes away that Smiley is brought back to ferret out the leak. The central material concerning the four suspects (played by Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik) actually proves to be the least compelling part of the picture, and the unmasking of the traitor is more apt to elicit shrugs than gasps. What makes the movie cling to our senses are the soulful transgressions of other key characters: the maverick agent (a wired Tom Hardy) who falls in love at the wrong time; the assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose personal life proves to be as dependent on secrets as his professional one; the bureau's discarded expert on Russia (Kathy Burke), wistfully drawing on nostalgia-tinged memories; and the field agent (Mark Strong) quietly shattered by betrayal. As far as le Carre screen adaptations go, I much prefer 1965's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and 2005's The Constant Gardener, although it probably should be noted that the author himself considers this the best filmization of one of his works. Conversely, Bret Easton Ellis Tweeted about the awfulness of this movie. Le Carre vs. Ellis — considering that's the mental and literary equivalent of a brawl between Godzilla and Jar Jar Binks, I'd say it's safe for discerning viewers to give this a shot. ***

THE VOW Channing Tatum's best shot at being taken even semiseriously as an actor would be to only make movies with Rachel McAdams for the rest of his life. A fine performer with a vulnerable and disarming beauty, McAdams has previously been romantically linked on screen to Ryan Gosling, James Marsden and Owen Wilson (among others), but it's no major feat to generate chemistry with talented guys like these. But to strike cinematic sparks with a limited stud like Tatum not only requires skill on McAdams' part, it also demands that her co-star somewhat rise to her level. And when The Vow works, it's almost always because of the give-and-take dynamics between the pair. Based on a true story, this centers on Paige and Leo, a madly-in-love married couple whose lives change drastically after Paige loses much of her memory in a car accident. She can remember her life before Leo — her wealthy, right-wing parents (Jessica Lange and Sam Neill), her circle of sorority-sister friends, her slick fiancé (Scott Speedman), her interest in attending law school — but she can't remember anything afterward. That would encompass her career in sculpture, her liberal world view, her switch from carnivore to vegetarian, and, oh yeah, the fact that she has a husband. Thus, it's up to Leo to insure that they get reacquainted, but Claire's having a hard time falling in love with him this time around, as the comfort and security of her life at home are more reassuring to her than sharing an apartment with this perfect stranger. Although McAdams gives the more fully rounded performance, it's Tatum's character who earns the majority of our sympathies, and the actor does just enough right to guarantee our allegiance to his cause. The scenes in which he tries to connect with his equally frustrated wife are the best in the film, and once the story moves past this and settles on Paige's betrayals by those from her past, it gets bogged down in mopey melodrama and never recovers. Still, for those seeking out a love story that doesn't insult the head or the heart through shameless manipulation, the sweetly sincere The Vow mostly fulfills its promise. **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

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Before they largely imploded in the mid-1970s, Britain's Hammer Film Productions spent two decades producing lush, atmospheric horror flicks, in the process re-igniting filmgoer passion for classic monster movies and making genre superstars out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Two years ago, the outfit returned to screens with the critically acclaimed, audience-ignored Let Me In, followed that with two barely seen releases, and now offer the decidedly more high-profile The Woman in Black, positioned as a true test of Daniel Radcliffe's drawing power outside the Harry Potter franchise. For the record, Radcliffe is fine; the film, on the other hand, is tepid enough to leave Dracula — the one who looks like Christopher Lee, of course — spinning in his grave. Based on a novel (by Susan Hill) that had already been turned into a successful play and a 1989 made-for-British-TV film, this finds Radcliffe cast as Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer assigned to visit a remote village in order to settle the estate of a recently deceased elderly woman. In the film's best nod to vintage horror, the country rubes all view the newcomer with suspicion and do little to aid him in his task. The reason, it turns out, is that they believe the stomping grounds of the departed is haunted by the title apparition, an evil entity with a sweet tooth for tragedy and children. Both fascinated by the legend and fearful that it might has some basis in reality, Arthur opts to spend the night at the creepy mansion — and it's here where the film primarily jumps the tracks. The best ghost stories are the ones that rely on careful exposition and a pervasive sense of mounting dread to unsettle audiences (The Others and The Orphanage being modern examples), but director James Watkins and scripter Jane Goldman abandon that approach shockingly fast. Instead, this is the sort of spook show that tries to manufacture scares by having something rapidly leap into the frame, startling both the protagonist and many viewers. Usually, it's a cat; here, it's everything but. Yet this type of cheap thrill becomes predictable before long, and unlike the aforementioned simmering sort of supernatural cinema, it will have little shelf life (after all, to quote a great president and humanitarian, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."). It's certainly nice to have Hammer back in business, but let's hope they nail down more promising projects than this one. **

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