Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 24

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CONVICTION This relates the true-life tale of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), who spends close to two decades trying to prove the innocence of her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell). Charged with murder, Kenny's serving a life sentence thanks in no small part to the efforts of a humorless police officer (Melissa Leo) and the testimonies of his wife (Clea DuVall) and girlfriend (Juliette Lewis). But Betty Anne is convinced that he's not guilty, so this woman of limited education concentrates on the single goal of becoming a lawyer so she can work to free her sibling. The cast members, especially Swank and Rockwell, do their best to sell what on paper is a worthy story, but their game efforts come up short against the thudding treatment by director Tony Goldwyn and scripter Pamela Gray. The two filmmakers are so myopic in their focus on their heroine's pitbull approach to judiciary matters that they fail to provide much in the way of context, with important background details either painted in broad strokes or ignored altogether. Worse, their limitations result in a picture that operates at the same speed throughout, with little variation in tone. Ultimately, the finale will have audiences on their feet, but for the wrong reason — not as part of a standing ovation but in an effort to beat a hasty retreat to the exit. **

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

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

HEREAFTER Throughout his career, Clint Eastwood has offered increasingly mature treatises on the subject of death, specifically how it relates to the act of one person taking another's life. Hereafter finds the filmmaker coming at us from a quieter place, examining the notion of death away from the sudden impact of a .357 Magnum or other forms of violent, purposeful retribution. The script by Peter Morgan (The Queen) follows three separate stories that eventually dovetail in one satisfying finale: A bona fide psychic (Matt Damon) copes with loneliness; a French journalist (Cecile de France) tries to function after a near-death experience; and twin boys (Frankie McLaren and George McLaren) in London deal with a tragic incident. This haunting picture unfolds with the patience of a good book, a factor likely to turn off more antsy audience members. Yet more discerning viewers who don't flinch at its meditative rhythms will find much to appreciate, starting with the understated manner in which Eastwood and Morgan present their material. Steadfastly refusing to engage in dogmatic pursuits, the pair are content to offer a universally accessible look at the manner in which people become so preoccupied with the notion of death that they are unable or unwilling to live for themselves. ***

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