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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. ***

INCEPTION Christopher Nolan's first film since the eye-popping success of The Dark Knight is a moviegoing marvel with the ability to get cineastes intoxicated on the pure pleasure and the pure possibility of the medium of film. Offering any sort of synopsis is a risky business, since this is one of those pretzel-shaped pictures that rewards the unaware. Suffice it to say that it's set in what appears to be the near future, when it will be possible to enter other people's dreams. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best in the business of creeping into targets' minds and extracting valuable secrets for which others will pay a hefty price. But his latest assignment doesn't go exactly as planned. Tackling such prominent themes as (to borrow from dream expert Salvador Dali) the persistence of memory, Nolan has created a head-scratching one-of-a-kind that's both knotty enough and ambiguous enough to lead to conflicting opinions down the years. Nolan also slyly borrows from the classics of yesteryear, with particularly obvious nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane and select Hitchcock titles. It all adds up to a superb motion picture, one with the ability to infiltrate both our dream state and our waking life. ****

LET ME IN The world needed an immediate remake of Sweden's 2008 Let the Right One In about as much as it needed another vampire flick, yet the good news is that Let Me In can hardly be construed as a shoddy, cash-in-quick product. Crafted with extreme care by writer-director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), this is that rare retelling that pays the utmost respect to its predecessor — I'd be hard-pressed to single out even one frame that cheapens the memory of the original. As before, the setting is an apartment complex in a frozen environment (here, Los Alamos, NM), where lonely young Owen (The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee) notices he has a new neighbor in the form of Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz of Kick-Ass). Picked on by bullies and exhibiting some disturbing character traits himself, Owen is happy to become friends with this strange girl who doesn't like candy and can only hang out with him at night. Reeves largely sticks close to the look and tone of the first film, but not in the annoying manner of Gus Van Sant's atrocious Psycho remake. While his slight altercations result in a picture not quite as powerful as its predecessor (particularly during the climax, a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking in the '08 take), he's to be commended for creating a film that ably stands on its own. ***

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

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

MY SOUL TO TAKE The best thing about this dud is that it may force folks to revisit Wes Craven's past works and finally realize that he's always been nothing more than a hack in the horror field, a Uwe Boll with a better sense of where to place the camera. (Forget Scream and Freddy Krueger; Red Eye and The Hills Have Eyes, neither great but both certainly watchable, represent his apex of aptitude.) In this head-smackingly stupid film, seven children are born on the same night that a serial killer known as the Ripper is brought down. Sixteen years later, the kids are being picked off one by one, begging the question: Is the Ripper still out there somewhere, or did his soul enter one of the babies on that fateful night long ago? To his credit, Craven keeps his rampant misogyny in check — in most of his films, it's the victimized women who receive the fetishistic close-ups and elongated death scenes, but here, each slaying (male and female) is as dully and incompetently presented as the next. His screenplay is so haphazard that one wonders if he was writing pages minutes before each day's shooting commenced; additionally, there are no horror set-pieces worth mentioning, and Craven's stock high school characters would have made John Hughes cringe. It all adds up to a soul-crushing waste of time. *

NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS Considering that 2005's Nanny McPhee hasn't exactly established itself on this side of the Atlantic as a family classic, there's nothing about the title Nanny McPhee Returns to suggest that this sequel will fare any better. Perhaps Universal Pictures would have been wise to keep the film's original British moniker, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, in the hopes that a few ill-informed folks stateside would mistake it for a softcore romp and hand over their hard-earned dollars. Certainly, this children's tale could use more bang for the filmgoer's buck, relating an occasionally clever but often daft yarn about the efforts of the title character (again played by Emma Thompson) to help a struggling mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal, affecting a fine English accent) with her brood while her husband's off fighting in World War II. The children are all well-cast, but this overdoses on the saccharine: Watching CGI critters do supposedly cute things (a bird constantly belching, pigs engaging in synchronized swimming) isn't exactly my cup of tea — English Breakfast, English Afternoon, or otherwise. **

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

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

SALT A neo-Cold War thriller would seem like just the ticket for cineastes who fondly recall Iron Curtain-courting capers on the order of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and select James Bond tales. And the title even suggests a nod to that chunk of 20th century history involving U.S.-U.S.S.R. tensions, as SALT was the name given to discussions centering on reducing both nations' arsenals of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the majority of this film fails to honor either its cinematic predecessors or its real-life milieu: Extracting the occasional misplaced titter from viewers, it stirs memories less of John le Carre and more of Yakov Smirnoff. Angelina Jolie headlines as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy; as she follows a trail of clues in an effort to clear her name, it begins to appear as if maybe even she's not completely certain about her own identity. Jolie is practically the whole show; the rest is negligible, from the repetitive (if well-staged) chase sequences to the absurd plotting, which — thanks to obvious casting in a key role — culminates in a final twist that can be spotted even before moviegoers manage to crack the top layer of their buttered popcorn. There's already talk of a sequel to Salt, but it's going to have to provide a lot more flavor than this bland offering. **

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

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

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

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

WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS Michael Douglas won the Best Actor Oscar for his sly turn as uber-capitalist Gordon Gekko in 1987's Wall Street, but the majority of the film's running time was commandeered by Charlie Sheen as his gullible protégé Bud Fox. That timeshare worked for that picture, but with the 23-years-after-the-fact Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, it's no secret that we're all here for Douglas. But aside from a quick glimpse of him in the prologue, he doesn't return for a full half-hour, meaning that it's Shia LaBeouf calling the shots. He's passable as a financial whiz kid who's in love with Gordon's daughter (Carey Mulligan) but finds himself turning to her estranged dad to help take down a corporate nemesis (Josh Brolin). But it's Douglas' continuing commitment to his iconic role that sporadically gooses the proceedings, at least until a mawkish conclusion that resembles nothing so much as a Wall Street — and Wall Street — crash. **1/2

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