Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 30 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 30

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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

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES WETA-created and PETA-approved, Rise of the Planet of the Apes stands at the center of a campaign that boasts about how the film employed the Oscar-winning team behind Avatar and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to invent its photorealistic primates. Others have been prone to highlight the "realistic" part; I tend to accentuate the "photo" portion. In this outing, kindly scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) ends up "adopting" a baby chimp that's been made super-smart by a drug initially created by Will to combat Alzheimer's in humans. Named Caesar, the chimp goes from cuddly infant to questioning teen to, finally, betrayed and embittered adult. Along the way, Caesar crosses paths with a vicious zookeeper (Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton, playing the anti-Kevin James), Will finds love with a vet (Freida Pinto) who's his match in dullness, and Caesar engages in risible sign-language conversations with an orangutan (suddenly, I had a real hankering for Every Which Way But Loose). Created by Peter Jackson's WETA Digital outfit and "played" by Andy Serkis, Caesar is a CGI triumph, although there's still an artificiality about the look that keeps the figure at a distance (personally, I found Serkis's "performance" as the title character in Jackson's King Kong remake to be more effective). Still, the film proves to be a reasonably entertaining experience, culminating in an all-out battle between apes and humans on the Golden Gate Bridge. But for all of its technical prowess, the picture never stirs the soul like the classic 1968 original, which dovetailed its allusions to real-life civil unease with its muscular handling of a surefire sci-fi hook. When the original's Charlton Heston bellows, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" it's a clarion call to humanity; when a character in this new picture says it, it feels like an unearned co-option. **1/2

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