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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of May 20

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TRAINSPOTTING: Edgar Flores in Sin Nombre.
  • TRAINSPOTTING: Edgar Flores in Sin Nombre.

EARTH This feature-length spinoff of the BBC series Planet Earth has been playing Europe since the summer of 2007, yet it was only released in the U.S. on April 22, 2009 (Earth Day). Hmm, perhaps its British creators deemed it pointless to release such a pro-environment documentary in a country then ruled by a heinous Republican administration bent on the destruction of our natural resources? At any rate, the picture has finally been released stateside by Walt Disney Studios under its new Disneynature label, a welcome throwback to the days when Walt himself would personally supervise such Earth-friendly fare as The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. And while it's hard to urge moviegoers to spend money on something they can basically catch on the Discovery Channel for free, there's no denying that the magnificence of the images on display is even more impressive when presented in a larger-than-life format. With his majestic voice, narrator James Earl Jones introduces us to the animal protagonists of this globe-spanning piece – among them polar bears, elephants, humpback whales and a particularly scary shark – and discusses the various challenges most of them face, whether from other animals or from global warming. Earth is an enjoyable experience, but it would be wrong to simply digest the picture as a complacent moviegoer. So here's my contribution to the cause: A frequent friend of big business, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would have been right at home in the Bush Administration (what was Obama thinking when he picked him?), given his abysmal indifference to wildlife and specifically his approval of a Bush Administration plan to slaughter endangered wolves. Protest his actions at www.doi.gov/feedback.html or make a contribution at www.savewolves.org. ***

FAST & FURIOUS The best part of Fast & Furious is its tagline – "New Model. Original Parts." – which means that the studio wonk who created it deserves the big bucks more than anybody who actually appears in the film. It's a catchy line because it advertises the fact that all four stars of 2001's The Fast and the Furious – Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster – have reunited for this fourth entry in the series. Unfortunately, this is one star vehicle that seems permanently stuck in "reverse." The best performer of the quartet, Rodriguez, disappears from the proceedings fairly early, as director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan apparently decided to make this even more of a Toys for Boys romp than its predecessors – Brewster's character is, as before, an utter stiff, while the other women (occasionally seen making out with each other) are merely decorative props. That leaves more time for Diesel (as outlaw hot-rodder Dominic Toretto) and Walker (as lawman hot-rodder Brian O'Conner) to engage in competitive bouts of piston envy, each trying to prove to the other that only he has a crankshaft large enough to take down the drug kingpin responsible for the murder of a close friend. The opening vehicular set-piece is a doozy, but subsequent racing sequences resemble nothing more than video game sessions. Diesel tries to recapture the brooding brand of charisma that made him a star, but he seems to be losing his grip on that elusive quality. As for Walker, he's more boring than ever: His acting is so somnambular that even his car's steering wheel stands a better chance at grabbing an Oscar nomination. **

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has more to offer than Matthew McConaughey's past rom-com dalliances; it's still formulaic, disposable nonsense, but at least it benefits from a stellar supporting cast to prop up its leading player and a reliable source – Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol – to steer it in the right direction. McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a fashion photographer who goes through women the way viewers of Titanic went through tissues. His boorish behavior threatens to ruin the wedding of his younger brother (Breckin Meyer), but his womanizing Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) returns from the grave to show him there's more to life than just wooing the women. A more versatile actor would have sold this material more efficiently than McConaughey; as it stands, his tanned, aging-frat-boy routine allows his character to remain such an unrepentant, misogynistic creep for such a good chunk of the running time that almost all sympathy has been lost for this character by the time he finally begins to see the light. Luckily, co-star Jennifer Garner is a step (or 10) up from such vapid past co-stars as Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez, and she works hard to coax out his rakish charm. She succeeds more often than not, meaning a small measure of genuine warmth enters the frame during the latter portion of the film. While she (and Meyer) provide the emotion, others pick up McConaughey's slack by providing the laughs – especially indispensable are Robert Forster (as the father of the bride) and Douglas, both amusing as dissimilar examples of aging, curdled machismo. **1/2

GOODBYE SOLO Set in writer-director Ramin Bahrani's hometown of Winston-Salem, this film festival favorite has drawn easy comparisons to last year's The Visitor but actually feels more similar in structure and tone to Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry. Newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane plays Solo, a Senegalese immigrant who makes his living as a cab driver. His latest fare is William (Red West), a crusty old codger who wants to hire Solo to drive him to Blowing Rock, where he plans to kill himself. Solo is rocked by this confession and spends the days leading up to William's planned suicide trying to talk the septuagenarian out of going through with it. One of the greatest compliments that can be paid to any motion picture is to state that its characters are so richly defined, you can easily imagining them having lives outside the parameters of what's shown on screen. That's certainly the case here. West makes William a man of mystery and regret, a tired soul who can no longer grapple with the demons haunting his every move. Yet the real treat is the title character. As marvelously portrayed by Savane, Solo is the eternal optimistic, but not in any sort of grating, happy-go-lucky manner. We're privy to his fears and doubts, yet what we take away most from him is the sense that no matter how tough things become, he makes us believe that we can always find something positive or pleasant to keep us going. He's a wonderful movie character, but we find ourselves wishing he was something more concrete. I imagine all of us could use some quality Solo time in our lives. ***1/2

I LOVE YOU, MAN Like most films in the Judd Apatow vein (the man himself wasn't involved with this project, but the principal players are all veterans of his works), this attempts to strike a desirable balance between sweet sincerity and risqué raunch. Yet perhaps more than any of the other films (Knocked Up, Superbad, etc.), it frequently pulls back when it reaches the edge of vulgarity. (That's not to say the picture doesn't fully deserve its R rating: With its ample selection of crude language, no one will be mistaking it for Mary Poppins.) Paul Rudd (in a disarming performance) stars as Peter Klaven, a nice guy who's always put his energy into his relationships with women. Because of this, he doesn't have a single male friend, so after he proposes to his girlfriend Zooey (immensely appealing Rashida Jones) and realizes he has no one to serve as his best man at their wedding, he sets out on a mission to find an eligible dude. His first few "dates" are disastrous, but he eventually meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), who's his complete opposite: disheveled in appearance, able to converse openly about sex, and completely comfortable in his own guy-skin. It's after Sydney's first appearance that I Love You, Man had the potential to self-destruct, as most filmmakers would turn Sydney into a complete creep or psychopath, a walking nightmare fueled by booze and testosterone. Yet while he does often come across as boorish, he's allowed to remain a fundamentally ordinary guy, and an often decent one at that. Unlike some of the other sweet-and-sour comedies of modern times, this one doesn't provide much in the way of large belly laughs. But it's pleasurable enough to paste a smile on the face for the majority of its running time. ***

MONSTERS VS. ALIENS With a title like Monsters vs. Aliens, the latest animated effort from DreamWorks sounds as if it could match all those Pixar gems in terms of emerging as a toon tale equally likely to entertain the adults as the small fry. After all, what film-lovin' grown-up, specifically one weaned on a steady diet of 50s fantasy flicks playing all night on late-night TV, could resist a movie guaranteed to be crammed with more inside jokes than anybody could reasonably hope to absorb during the initial viewing? Unfortunately, this doesn't come close to fulfilling what appeared to be its lot in (cinematic) life. Sure, there are plenty of bright colors and wacky characters and slapstick antics to amuse the children, but many adults will, to a degree, be left wanting. The monsters, here reconfigured as the good guys, are all based on creatures found in classic sci-fi romps of the 1950s: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, The Fly, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Japan's monster mash (Mothra, Godzilla, etc.). These creations are amusing enough, but what of the alien half of the equation? Where's the savory mix that would pay homage to the E.T.s found in The Thing (from Another World), The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth – heck, even The Monolith Monsters? Instead, we get one tiresome extraterrestrial megalomaniac (Rainn Wilson), a clear indication that inspiration ran out long before this promising premise was saturated. The film's visual scheme is inventive, but for a movie that had the potential to knock the genre out of this world, the pleasant but frequently pedestrian Monsters vs. Aliens remains too earthbound for its own good. **1/2

NEXT DAY AIR From its slapdash opening that rips off City of God to its guns-blazing finale that feels like a steal from the Quentin Tarantino playbook, Next Day Air doesn't possess one moment or idea that can be called its own. Here's a project so ill-conceived that it finds room in its cast for the talented Mos Def but then bungles that gift by giving him the smallest role among the principal cast members. Of course, you wouldn't know this from the posters and previews, most of which place the actor front and center. The marketing gurus behind this picture are brilliant; maybe they should have been assigned to make this film instead of director Benny Boom and writer Blair Cobbs. At least Mos Def is good while he lasts, appearing in only two scenes as a perpetually stoned delivery man for a UPS-style company. Much more of the screen time is given to Donald Faison, also playing a perpetually stoned delivery man – and the one who mistakenly delivers a box of cocaine bricks to a pair of bumbling bank robbers (Mike Epps and Wood Harris) instead of the proper recipient, a Latino middle man named Jesus (Cisco Reyes). When the crime lord (Emilio Rivera) who sent the package learns of this screw-up, he decides to handle the matter in person. Despite the fact that they're only required to play "types" rather than characters, all of the actors acquit themselves nicely, including Yasmin Deliz in a feisty film debut as Jesus' girlfriend. But even a gung-ho cast can't work miracles when the scripter can't think of anything witty for them to say and the director is incapable of building any sort of momentum from scene to scene. Just mark this one Return To Sender. *1/2

17 AGAIN The first half-hour of 17 Again is simply atrocious, lazily cobbling together pieces from Back to the Future, Big and all those forgettable '80s body-switch comedies in an effort to jump-start its tale. Zac Efron plays Mike O'Donnell, a high school basketball star who, two decades later, has transformed into a depressed doormat whose teenage children Maggie and Alex (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight) hate him and whose wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) is divorcing him. (The middle-aged Mike/Zac is played by a suitably pudgy Matthew Perry.) In the blink of an eye, Mike is suddenly 17 again, retaining his adult mindset but trolling the halls of his school looking like one of the gang. Armed with this opportunity, Mike hopes to set things right, first by helping out his two children (Maggie's romantically involved with the school bully while Alex is the perpetual target of said thug) and then by convincing Scarlett to give him (or, rather, his older self) a second chance. Efron is appealing within the confines of his limited range, but like the film itself, a severe case of blandness puts a lid on any breakout potential. Mann (aka Mrs. Judd Apatow) provides the piece with its heart, and she proves once again that she deserves a shot or two at more substantial roles. Beyond her, the film is completely disposable, with not enough timeline complications in its scripting and too much footage devoted to the antics of Mike's best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), a fanboy who never grew up. The bed shaped like a Star Wars landspeeder is a cute visual gag, but by the time Ned started speaking Tolkien's Elvish language, I was ready to check back in with reality. **

SIN NOMBRE Winner of two awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival (Best Director and Best Cinematography), Sin Nombre marks an impressive feature-film debut for Cary Joji Fukunaga, albeit more as a director than a writer. Certainly, his screenplay is strong enough, showing how two lost souls intersect as they journey northward atop a train toward what they hope will be better lives. Casper (Edgar Flores) is a Mexican teenager who's a member of the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang. More conscientious than others of his ilk, he turns his back on the gang and soon becomes their hunted prey. Meanwhile, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a Honduran teen who's immigrating with her father and uncle as they plot to eventually cross the Mexico-U.S. border and make it up to the dad's new home in New Jersey. Circumstances lead to the two youths meeting and developing a mutually respectful relationship that, when all is said and done, complicates their respective flights from their past lives. The gangland material is often intriguing to watch, even if Fukunaga can't quite escape from the shadows of similar films that include such material (City of God and Once Were Warriors spring to mind). And while Sayra is a completely believable character, it's difficult to imagine someone with Casper's sensitivity ever getting mixed up with the Mara Salvatrucha in the first place. But as a director, Fukunaga displays a keen eye, both for expansive compositions (he's aided immeasurably by cameraman Adriano Goldman) and for the small details that define the existence of these struggling people. ***

THE SOLOIST Here's yet another film that comes off as little more than a liberal screed. It has its merits scattered about, like so many chocolate sprinkles adorning a scoop of ice cream, but for a movie that's about compassion and understanding, it makes for a shockingly indifferent experience, filled with too many calculated homilies to allow for much more than superficial connections. It may be based on a true story, but it feels synthetic all the way. The heart of the piece – the relationship between Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a Los Angeles newspaper columnist, and Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man who was once a Julliard-approved musician – actually feels like the picture's most artificial component. Perhaps that's due to its similarities to Resurrecting the Champ, another recent film about the friendship between a white journalist (Josh Hartnett) and a black homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson). Or maybe it's because of its greater role as yet another picture that tries to assuage middle-class guilt by using a proxy to allow moviegoers insight into the travails of the most unfortunate among us. But the problem is that it usually only skirts the issues it raises (homelessness, lack of health care, mental illness, etc.), with the raw scenes – Nathaniel's physical assault of Steve, Steve's ex-wife (Catherine Keener) drunkenly taking him to task – too few and far between. Foxx and Downey do what they can to keep the story prickly, but when they have to contend with scenes as offensive and patronizing as the one that ends the film, even they can't prevent this from frequently hitting the wrong keys. **

STAR TREK Before TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) came along, there had been five Star Trek TV shows and 10 motion pictures, a total sum that outpaces even such laughable franchises as the Friday the 13th and Halloween series. But nobody will be chuckling at what Abrams has managed to create with this reboot. The fans will doubtless quibble over some of the changes made by Abrams and the screenwriting team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, yet the overall tone is reverential, not dismissive. Basically, the trio takes us back to the early days of its leading player, detailing the circumstances that defined him first as a kid and then as a young adult (I suppose this could have been called Star Trek Origins: Kirk). Yet Abrams and his writers also introduce a wild card in Romulan warrior Nero (an unrecognizable Eric Bana), whose nefarious actions lead to an alternate reality for the members of the Enterprise: the brash Kirk (Chris Pine), the brainy Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the wisecracking Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban, pleasingly cast against type), plus their support staff of Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Fans will enjoy the inside references, yet since Abrams & Co. lace the movie with plenty of humor as well as a few exciting battles, it's unlikely the uninitiated will find themselves bored. Abrams peppers his film with many familiar names and/or faces, some of them fleeting. Then again, this casting seems to echo Abrams' whole approach to this revamped Star Trek: Be playful, be unpredictable, and full speed ahead. ***1/2

STATE OF PLAY The inevitable American adaptation of the six-hour BBC-TV miniseries that aired back in 2003, State of Play is a movie that effectively operates on two levels. On one hand, it's the latest addition to the "conspiracy theory" sub-genre, a proud movie tradition that houses such dynamic entries as The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor and The Constant Gardener. Yet on the other, it's a representative of the type of film that might eventually go the way of the dodo: the newspaper yarn. As a thriller, State of Play is crackling entertainment, even if its pieces don't always fit together after all is said and done. Russell Crowe, in his best performance since A Beautiful Mind, stars as Cal McAffrey, an old-school news reporter for the Washington Globe. Once the roommate of rising Senator Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) back in their college years, Cal is disturbed when he learns that his friend's comely assistant, who died after falling in front of a subway car, was also his mistress, a fact that threatens to derail Collins' political career. But as Cal and the paper's political blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), dig deeper, they unearth a cover-up with far-reaching implications. For all its success in the thriller arena, State of Play's real worth can be found in its attitude toward the newspaper industry. In an era in which any basement-dwelling hack with a keyboard and Web site can call himself a "journalist" (Cal has a great line about how the industry has been taken over by "bloggers and bloodsuckers"), and in which profit-driven publishers serve their shareholders rather than their readers, it's invigorating to see a motion picture that recalls the importance of the ink-stained newspaper as a tireless watchdog and champions the dedication of its honest reporters to relay all the news that's fit to print. Fit to print, people, not fit to Twitter. ***1/2

SUNSHINE CLEANING Sunshine Cleaning's ads trumpet that it's "from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine," and like that hit, it often belies its cheery title by exploring the darkness that descends on the lives of ordinary people just trying to get ahead. Yet while it may not be as sharply written, it contains enough fine moments – to say nothing of a strong performance by Amy Adams – to make it a worthwhile endeavor. Adams stars as Rose Lorkowski, once a popular high school cheerleader, now a struggling maid-for-hire with a troublesome son (Jason Spevack). When her married lover (Steve Zahn) suggests that she can make more money by providing cleanup services at crime scenes, she jumps at the suggestion, convincing her reluctant sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to join her in this new endeavor. Obtaining the proper license proves to be almost as challenging as the actual cleanup duties, but Rose is determined to carve out a better existence for her family. First-time scripter Megan Holley relies on too many familiar character types to flesh out her story: Here's yet another indie effort in which Mom is involved with a married man, Junior is a social outcast, and Grandpa is crusty yet kind (Alan Arkin virtually reprises his Little Miss Sunshine role). Yet other aspects of her screenplay are refreshing: The relationship between the sisters feels natural, the cleanup service angle is inspired, and the character of a one-armed janitorial store proprietor (nicely played by Clifton Collins Jr.) emerges as a complete original. Sunshine Cleaning's positives don't completely eclipse the tired material, but they do suggest that Holley might have a bright future ahead of her. **1/2

TAKEN Moral ambiguity seems to be the order of the day in most of modern cinema (recent examples include Body of Lies, Traitor, The Dark Knight, and even Gran Torino), but for purely cathartic purposes, there's still something to be said about films – competent ones, mind you – in which the line between Good and Evil is drawn oh-so-clearly in the sand. Take Taken, which operates on a very simple premise: Scumbags kidnap Liam Neeson's daughter; Liam Neeson fucks them up good. That's all the plot needed for this lightning-quick (91 minutes) action yarn in which Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who took early retirement in order to live close to his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Bryan's frosty ex-wife (Famke Janssen) approves of their child traveling unsupervised with a friend (Katie Cassidy) to Paris for a vacation, but the overprotective Bryan doesn't like the idea and only reluctantly signs off on it for the sake of Kim's happiness. But it turns out that father knows best after all: Within hours of their arrival, the two American teens are kidnapped by an Albanian organization that turns young women into prostitutes and sex slaves. Bryan immediately springs into action, jetting off to Paris and employing his ample CIA training to locate his missing daughter. The film's PG-13 rating means that punches are pulled in more ways than one, and the script by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson disappointingly turns Bryan from an ordinary man with highly specialized skills in the early going into a James Bond knockoff by the third act. But Pierre Morel directs crisply and efficiently, and Neeson delivers a typically compelling performance in (for him) an atypically muscle-bound role. ***

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE Hardly a lazy sequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine contains a couple of nifty narrative surprises as well as some memorable tensions between its mutant players. Overall, though, it's hard to view this as an integral entry in the X-Men franchise. That's not to say it's as irrelevant as, say, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but part of Wolverine's appeal has always been his aura of mystery, and an origin piece only works to strip him of that secrecy. Besides, the movie's occasional clumsiness in laying out the expository groundwork ends up batting against its own intentions, which makes the picture seem even more trifling. Having said that, it's apparent that this isn't the disaster many speculated it would be, especially on the heels of bad Internet buzz and that infamous download that left FOX executives outfoxed. As expected, the picture's chief selling point is Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine, even if the storyline largely harnesses his considerable talents: He's an excellent brooder, but brooding's about all that the film requires him to do. As Victor Creed (later Sabretooth), Liev Schreiber is believable as both Logan's brother and his tormentor, while Danny Huston, as Stryker, proves to be as fascistic a villain as Brian Cox when he tackled the role in X2. Ryan Reynolds adds some necessary sparkle as the wisecracking Deadpool, and I just wish he had been handed the more sizable role of Gambit instead (as the latter, mediocre Taylor Kitsch lives up to his surname). Other actors express what's required of them – it's often rage or regret, although mostly it's just frozen stares at the blue-screen areas where the special effects were inserted at a later time. **1/2

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