Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 12

by

comment
READY FOR ACTION: Robert De Niro and Jason Statham in Killer Elite
  • READY FOR ACTION: Robert De Niro and Jason Statham in Killer Elite

ABDUCTION Sure, it's easy to pick on the Twilight guy. Because who's gonna rush to his defense other than smitten Team Jacob fans? Make no mistake about it: Abduction, in which Taylor Lautner is handed his first starring role in a motion picture, will never, ever, ever be mistaken for a good movie. But the declarations (from critics and Twilight bashers alike) that it's the worst picture of the year strike me as armchair grandstanding — hey, it may star a wooden werewolf, but at least it's thankfully free of any zoo animals who talk like Sylvester Stallone and Adam Sandler. John Singleton, whose Boyz N The Hood remains continents removed from most of his subsequent work, slides further into irrelevance with a Junior G-Men-type tale that features a stellar supporting cast, some decent action sequences, and a leading man who reacts to every dire situation as if he's just been asked to clean his room. Lautner plays Nathan, a high school kid who has Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) for a psychiatrist and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and the Coyote Ugly bar owner (Mario Bello) for parents. When he and his classmate Karen (Lily Collins, whose performance is about as monotonous as most of daddy Phil's music) embark on a school assignment that inexplicably leads them to do research on a missing persons web page, they discover an old photo of a little boy who looks like a pre-Taylor Lautner Taylor Lautner. IMs are swapped, Euro-trash baddies arrive to blow up the house, and suddenly Nathan and Karen find themselves on the run. As these crazy kids try to discover why Nathan is being pursued by grown men who are clearly not Stephenie Meyer devotees, they must also decide whether or not to trust Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the CIA agent assigned to the case. Fifteen years later, I still fondly recall the priceless Siskel & Ebert moment when Roger Ebert dismisses the action flick Fled by stating, "I guess it sort of holds your attention while it's happening. I mean, something is moving on the screen, so you look to see what it is." (To which a laughing Gene Siskel retorts, "What a compliment!") Abduction inspires the same level of commitment: You look at the screen mainly because it beats staring at the auditorium walls. *1/2

CARS 2 Before Cars 2, Pixar had released 11 feature-length tales, all but one of them considered unqualified gems that spoke to adults as much as to the kids. The exception was 2006's Cars, which earned mostly positive notices but was dismissed as lightweight children's fare. I would argue that it's a bit stronger than that — its Route 66 mythology, coupled with the presence of Paul Newman in what would turn out to be his final role, lent it a nostalgic, bittersweet tinge — but when placed alongside the magnificence of, say, Up or the Toy Story trilogy, it clearly doesn't possess the same emotional or artistic wallop. And neither does Cars 2, which will replace its predecessor as the new runt of the Pixar litter. But so what? If the Pixar gurus occasionally want to kick up their heels and make movies that offer only surface pleasures, then so be it. The only requirement should be that they entertain, which is something that Cars 2 certainly does. Adopting an international template, this sequel finds Lightning McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) invited to participate in an international Grand Prix event. McQueen reluctantly takes Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) with him, only to be immediately humiliated by his best buddy's redneck behavior. But while McQueen tries to ignore these distractions and concentrate on beating his racetrack rivals, Mater gets mistaken for a brilliant secret agent by a pair of British operatives (Michael Caine as Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer as Holley Shiftwell) trying to uncover the shadowy head of a criminal cabal. Had Cars 2 been released by any other studio's toon department, it would have been praised for its inventiveness and eye-popping animation; instead, Pixar finds itself punished for having a track record like no other. ***

CAPTAIN AMERICA Even moviegoers suffering from superhero burnout might want to stand up and salute Captain America, which doesn't match the excellence of X-Men: First-Class but ranks ahead of fellow summer stablemates Thor and Green Lantern. I've long held a soft spot for 1991's The Rocketeer and 2004's Hidalgo, two box office underachievers that refreshingly stripped away the modern era's automatic coat of cynicism and instead delivered old-fashioned thrills with no trace of irony or condescension. Both films were helmed by Joe Johnston, and coming off the disastrous monster muddle The Wolfman, he's back in his gee-whiz element here. Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a scrawny kid whose 4F status repeatedly prevents him from being accepted into the army during World War II. But responding to the youth's inner decency rather than his outward lack of muscles, a kindly scientist (Stanley Tucci) turns him into the ultimate super-soldier. The sickly Steve Rogers now sports a Charles Atlas physique, and he eventually goes after the man who has emerged as his arch-nemesis: Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi whose use of the same serum has transformed him into the appropriately named Red Skull. As expected, the movie has the requisite CGI bombast, although the most unique visual effect involved digitally altering the buff Evans so that he would appear emaciated in the early sequences — an approach that works far better than the technique for which The Curious Case of Benjamin Button managed to grab a Visual Effects Oscar. Aside from the effects, the movie generally takes a decidedly more low-key approach, both in tone and performance. Balanced enough to offer entertainment to young and old alike, Captain America should make us all proud to be moviegoers. ***

CONAN THE BARBARIAN John Milius' 1982 treatment of author Robert E. Howard's pulp hero was a lumbering bore, with a wooden Arnold Schwarzenegger not yet seasoned enough to work up the charisma that would serve him well in later pictures. Still, I'm now forced to recall that model with at least some smidgen of fond nostalgia after sitting through this perfectly dreadful reboot. A humorless endurance test from the director (Marcus Nispel) who previously desecrated horror staples both good (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and bad (Friday the 13th) with so-what? remakes, this Conan fails in practically every respect. Despite being presented in 3-D, this sports characters who barely fill out one dimension. The battle sequences are staged with little variance and no imagination. There is one nifty FX scene involving an army of monsters made out of sand, but even this becomes idiotic once it's apparent that a single tap will cause them to fall apart (guess they should have been fashioned from adamantium instead). As the title warrior who makes it his life's mission to avenge the death of his father (Ron Perlman), Jason Momoa has the requisite six-pack abs but otherwise comes off as such a contemporary jock that you half-expect him to eventually forget about the bloodletting and start discussing Cam Newton's chances as the Carolina Panthers' new quarterback. And speaking of Perlman as his pop, am I the only one who thinks his facial hair makes him look like the title creature from that dreadful '80s family flick, Harry and the Hendersons? Perlman isn't the only decent actor wasted here: Providing the narration is no less than Morgan Freeman, who sounds so bored and distracted that it's likely he was reading his lines while simultaneously making an omelette or putting away his laundry. As the daughter of Conan's nemesis (an unrecognizable Stephen Lang), Rose McGowan sports a receding hairline and talons that would make Freddy Krueger jealous. Her character is also blessed with an incredible sense of smell, although obviously not strong enough to keep her away from this suffocating stinkbomb. *

CONTAGION An entertaining if unwieldy cross between a PSA and one of those all-star idiocies from the 1970s — those disaster flicks involving hijacked planes, hurtling meteors or towering infernos — Steven Soderbergh's Contagion tracks the entire cycle of a disease that begins with one person and ends with the deaths of millions of people worldwide. Episodic in the extreme, the picture mostly follows the scientists and health officials tasked with finding a cure — considering that Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle are cast in these roles, one gets the impression that being a physical beauty is a requisite to landing these sorts of jobs. Representing Everyman, meanwhile, is Matt Damon, an ordinary joe whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the first victim of the disease (that's no spoiler, as she dies within the film's first 10 minutes and is sporadically seen in flashback thereafter). And then there's the online activist (Jude Law) who believes that it's all some government conspiracy and states that he possesses a tried and true antidote. While it's comforting to see all these fine actors gathered in one place (the cast also includes Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould and Winter's Bone Oscar nominee John Hawkes), the film simply doesn't have enough time to properly devote to each of these characters, meaning we only get broad strokes rather than emotional investment (one likable character dies off-screen without our knowing it, with his/her passing barely mentioned). Where the film works best is in its condemnation of the all-mighty power of the Internet and its self-proclaimed prophets, as repped by Law's opportunistic and misleading blogger. If nothing else, Contagion will at least be remembered for the great line uttered by one of its brainiac characters: "Blogging isn't writing; it's graffiti with punctuation!" **1/2

COWBOYS & ALIENS Cowboys & Aliens boasts a high-concept hook (and moniker) so obvious and promising that it's amazing this angle wasn't first tackled at least 30 years ago. Instead, this hybrid of two genres beloved by Old Hollywood (Westerns) and New Hollywood (science fiction) is based on a graphic novel that was released five years ago, and even at that, director Jon Favreau and his army of writers elected to toss out almost everything except the bare bones premise of, yes, cowboys and aliens mixing it up. The movie works best toward the beginning, before potential gives way to actual execution. In the rocky New Mexico Territory of 1875, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no memory of his identity or what led him to this spot; all he knows is that there's an unusual metallic contraption wrapped around his left wrist. He stumbles into a nearby town, where he soon meets (among others) the powerful Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) — and then the aliens show up to wreak havoc. Any movie teaming James Bond with Han Solo certainly sounds like a can't-miss, and the two stars ably fill their roles. But the picture rarely finds imaginative ways to merge its disparate trappings — this past spring's animated yarn Rango did a far superior job of placing fantastical characters in a Western setting — and it soon settles into a deadening, repetitive pattern of one protagonist about to be offed by an alien before being saved at the last millisecond by another of the heroes. By the time Jake and company are tangling with e.t.'s in cavernous surroundings (in scenes eerily similar to those in the more accomplished Super 8), it's apparent that the picture's authors have elected to merely plug in conventional story devices that would have worked just as well in movies named Cops & Barracudas or Doctors & Hornets or even Accountants & Amoebas. **

CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE. Just how likable is Crazy, Stupid, Love.? Likable enough that it survives not one but two absurd narrative coincidences that would cripple a lesser film. The secret to the film's success starts with its blue-chip cast, the summer's finest gathering with the possible exception of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Steve Carell plays Cal Weaver, a typical suburban schlub; Julianne Moore is Emily Weaver, who announces to her husband that she wants a divorce. Rocked right down to his rumpled pants and designer sneakers, Cal spends his post-breakup period wallowing in nightly pity parties at a stylish bar. His caterwauling attracts the attention of uber-stud Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), who elects to take Cal under his wing and teach him how to be a successful ladies' man. Before long, Cal is reborn as a swinging single, but the resultant meaningless sex can't conceal the fact that all he really wants is his wife back in his arms. For his part, Jacob finally meets a woman — Emma Stone's aspiring attorney Hannah — who stirs his heart as much as his libido. That right there is enough plot to pack a running time (in fact, it once was; see the similarly themed Hitch), but writer Dan Fogelman clearly had taken his vitamins before cranking this one out, adding on a few more story strands. It's a lot of material for one film, and to help himself make all of these competing plotlines somewhat manageable, Fogelman takes some shortcuts by tossing in the aforementioned pair of whopping coincidences. The first is minor and easily dismissed, but the second affects the entire film and, worse, is revealed in a silly sequence that culminates in an over-the-top physical brawl. Fortunately, the actors continue to shine, the movie's hard-won truths are articulated in an unlikely but effective denouement, and all is forgiven. ***

THE DEBT Don't be turned off by the worrisome facts that its release date has kept changing, it's already made the global rounds since last September, and it's being buried with an end-of-summer release date. An English-language remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt is actually a compelling thriller that features a topnotch cast and able direction by Shakespeare in Love helmer John Madden. In 1966, Mossad agents Stephan (Marton Csokas), Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington) are tasked with locating and bringing to justice Dieter Vogel (a chilling Jesper Christensen), a Nazi madman who, like Josef Mengele, conducted gruesome experiments on Jews during the war. Thirty years later, the Israeli agents (now played by, respectively, Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds) are still celebrated for their heroic achievements in East Berlin back in the day. But something is clearly troubling two members of the team, and as the film smoothly moves back and forth between eras, it becomes clear that there's more to the saga than what the world knows. For the first hour, The Debt delivers on its growing mystery and its punchy suspense, with Madden further wringing a real sense of stifling confinement as the young agents are forced to shack up in a grubby apartment with their bound captive. Once all questions have been addressed, the story's third-act shenanigans become increasingly fanciful and aren't as gripping as what preceded them, although they still bring the story to a reasonably acceptable conclusion. The entire cast is excellent — even the usually vanilla Worthington — although the MVP is clearly Chastain. Already the breakout star of the summer thanks to The Help and The Tree of Life, she's the vital center of this picture. Not just anybody can convincingly play the great Helen Mirren as a young woman, but Jessica Chastain pulls it off without breaking stride. ***

DRIVE The latest in a long line of silent anti-heroes as the ultimate in celluloid cool, Ryan Gosling plays a character known only as Driver. He's employed as a wheelman for crooks, but that's merely the least reputable of his three jobs: When he's not working on the wrong side of the law (as illustrated in a spectacular opening set-piece), he's a movie stunt driver as well as a mechanic in a garage owned by the shady Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon is his link between all three jobs, which becomes problematic once they get involved with a pair of high-end criminals with notable cruel streaks: Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a former Hollywood producer, and his crude partner Nino (Ron Perlman). Causing even further complications is Driver's growing affection for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son (Kaden Leos) in her care and a husband (Oscar Isaac) on the way home from the clink. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who won the Best Director prize for Drive at this year's Cannes Film Festival, has fashioned a work that's as slick as its protagonist: Its muted Euro-sheen mingles easily with its American atmospherics, and it's all punctuated by bouts of brutal and unsightly gore that never feel like exploitive overkill but instead serve to feed the urgency of the moment. Aside from a curiously miscast Mulligan, the entire supporting roster is strong, although Brooks deserves his own standing ovation. The nebbish from Broadcast News and Lost in America has been reconfigured as a slow-burning sadist, and it's a sight to chill the spine. Drive is such a sterling achievement for most of its running time that it's alarming when it crashes and burns during its final 15 minutes. After approximately 90 minutes of careful buildup, the end feels maddeningly rushed, with the actions of various characters bordering on the illogical and their fates succumbing to genre expectations. This unfortunate turn of affairs doesn't irreparably damage the overall package, but it does leave its mark, as surely as oil leaking from a rusty pickup puttering down the highway. ***

50/50 The new comedy-drama 50/50 centers around a cancerous presence, and that refers to Seth Rogen as much as it does to the malignant tumor found located on the spine of young Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Carve Rogen out of the picture, and its chances of being a truly moving picture about people coping in sickness and in health increase exponentially. This is nothing personal about Rogen, who I generally enjoy watching — heck, I didn't even mind him bringing his slobbery man-boy act to the iconic role of the Green Hornet. But 50/50, inspired by scripter Will Reiser's own battle with cancer, doesn't need his services, which only get in the way of a potentially heart-rending story about how a 20-something who theoretically has his whole life ahead of him must cope with a tragedy that threatens to cheat him out of his future. Gordon-Levitt delivers a sensitive portrayal as Adam, perpetually trying to get a grasp on emotions that understandably don't know where to go. Adam shares an interesting relationship with his therapist (Anna Kendrick), a medical newbie who isn't quite certain how to comfort her patient. He has trouble with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), who's mentally ill-equipped to deal with a partner who's now bald and barfing all over the place. He bonds with two older cancer patients (Matt Frewer and national treasure Philip Baker Hall) who take him under their wing. And he has difficulties communicating with his mother (Anjelica Huston), a drama queen who's already dealing with an Alzheimer's-afflicted husband (Serge Houde). These are all intriguing relationships, but every time we become immersed in these particular character dynamics, along comes Rogen as Adam's unlikely best friend Kyle. Kyle clearly has Adam's back, and had Rogen, in his capacity as one of the film's producers, graciously allowed another actor to play the role, we might have had something special. But the film's delicate mood is broken anytime Kyle opens his mouth to talk about shaving his balls or getting laid or basically anything that trumpets his obnoxiousness. 50/50 is a good movie about 60% of the time, but a higher percentage would have been appreciated. **1/2

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS Well, at least it's better than No Strings Attached. Other than that, there's not much to say about Friends with Benefits, the calendar year's second film about a guy and a gal attempting to be nothing more than "fuck buddies" but ending up emotionally entangled anyway. Whereas before we had a coasting Natalie Portman working against deadwood Ashton Kutcher, here we find Mila Kunis matching up nicely with Justin Timberlake. Their chemistry is the best thing about this often smug film centering on the relationship between a New York headhunter (Mila as Jamie) and an Angeleno (Justin as Dylan) who moves to the Big Apple to accept a lofty G.Q. gig. Kunis and Timberlake sparkle in each other's presence, and they manage to outshine their more seasoned co-stars: Woody Harrelson is scarcely believable as a gay sports editor who suggests to Dylan that they "troll for cock" together, while Patricia Clarkson and Richard Jenkins figure in ungainly subplots as, respectively, Jamie's hippie mom and Dylan's Alzheimer's-afflicted dad. Helmer Will Gluck (Easy A) and his co-writers originally feint in the direction of mocking formulaic romantic comedies, but by the end, they've surrendered to the genre's worst impulses. So while I agree with Kunis's character that Katherine Heigl rom-coms are awful, I also think a film needs to be a lot better than Friends with Benefits if it wants to engage in the activity of bashing rival multiplex fillers. **

THE GUARD Nobody can curse like the Irish, and that's proven again in The Guard, in which the various characters turn profanity into an art form. But this delightful endeavor — one of the year's best as we prepare to head into the Oscar-bait seasons — doesn't just provide an amusing workout for the R-rating; instead, it's a savagely clever yarn that manages to tweak genre staples before burying them completely. In Sergeant Gerry Boyle, Brendan Gleeson finds a great character to inhabit, and he's dynamic as the rural cop who doesn't let much ruffle his feathers — not even murder. When FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) appears on the scene to investigate drug smuggling, the two engage in a testy relationship made strenuous by Boyle's mock-racist cracks ("Did you grow up in the projects?") and Everett's big-city-superiority routine. Meanwhile, the villains (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) conduct their business as usual, taking time out to philosophize, criticize, and grow exasperated at the weaker minds surrounding them. Naturally, it all leads to a final showdown, but most viewers won't be prepared for the capper. The Guard is terrific entertainment, and I can't wait to re-watch it on Blu-ray, when I can turn on the subtitles and catch the handful of lines I couldn't locate under those thick brogues. ***1/2

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 2 A series that has gotten it right since Day One has maintained its integrity and commitment to quality to the very end. Everyone has their favorite Harry Potter film, and for many viewers, this final entry will be that movie. For me, the entire series works so well as a whole, as one continuously flowing entity, that it's difficult to single one out (forced to choose, I guess I'd go with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). To that end, this last chapter is no more and no less exciting than many of the past pictures, even if it does contain the climactic life-or-death match between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). To reach that point, we pick up where Deathly Hallows — Part 1 trailed off and continue with the quest of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to find the Horcruxes that will allow them to possibly defeat Voldemort. It's also revealed that Hogwarts is now under the control of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), with Dementors standing guard outside the castle perimeters. Harry knows that he has to break into the school, a mission that will ultimately provide some surprising answers to the many questions still plaguing him. More than ever, Radcliffe is asked to take control of the screen as his boy wizard faces his own demons before finally facing Voldemort, and the talented thespian is up to the task, holding nothing back in an ofttimes ferocious performance. Fiennes again oozes reptilian menace, while Rickman remains a high point as he deftly handles the saga's most complex role. Beginning as a magical mystery tour for kids and ending as a mature saga about solidarity and sacrifice, the Harry Potter film franchise has spent a decade entertaining global audiences of all ages. Its run may be over, but like family-film classics from the past, this is one series that's almost certain to hold future generations equally spellbound. ***

THE HELP Every summer witnesses the release of a handful of counter-programming efforts, titles designed to satisfy audiences who don't particularly care for superhero sagas or alien adventures or gross-out gags. Larry Crowne, which looked like a surefire bet, crashed and burned (who knew it would be so terrible?), while the clever Midnight in Paris, initially perceived as another Woody Allen bauble that would fade into the night, emerged as the biggest moneymaker of his career. And now there's The Help, which occupies the slot held by last summer's Eat Pray Love: a female-geared August release adapted from a best-selling book. Given its central plotline — in the racially divided Mississippi of the early 1960s, a white writer (Emma Stone's Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan) gives voice to the stories of her town's black maids — it would be easy to dismiss The Help as yet another "liberal guilt" movie, the sort that's invariably told through the eyes of its Caucasian lead rather than those of its African-American characters. Yet while Skeeter certainly clocks a sizable amount of screen time, it's never in doubt that the true protagonists are Aibileen and Minny, two domestics brought to vivid life through the extraordinary performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Many of the conflicts play out as expected, and Bryce Dallas Howard's racist housewife proves to be about as subtle as Cruella De Vil. But interesting subplots abound — I particularly liked the relationship between Minny and her insecure employer Celia Foote, played by The Tree of Life's Jessica Chastain — and with its influx of emotionally wrenching scenes, The Help provides assistance to adults in search of some cinematic substance. ***

HIGHER GROUND Based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs (with the author sharing screenplay duties with Tim Metcalfe), Higher Ground is an honest and probing look at Christianity, a stance that makes it an anomaly in an industry that tends to paint all members of the faith as little more than Bible-thumping rednecks. Up in the Air's Vera Farmiga, here also making her directorial debut, plays Corinne Walker, part of a close-knit Protestant sect that also includes her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) and her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk). As a young child, Corinne listened to her minister when he insisted that she accept Jesus Christ into her heart, but as an adult, she has occasional doubts that aren't being addressed. She envies those around her who truly seem gripped by a holy spirit. She bristles when subtly reminded that it's the men who lead their group and that when she expresses her opinions, it sounds too much like she's "preaching." And she witnesses a tragedy that leaves her wondering just exactly how the result could be the will of God. While the film gently pokes fun at the community members' occasional close-mindedness or outright naivety — one amusing scene finds the men dumbfoundedly listening to a cassette on how to pleasure their wives as God would desire — it never patronizes its characters nor paints them as one-dimensional foils (you would never see these people picketing soldiers' funerals). Instead, it chooses to show how their brand of automatic yet sincere acceptance might be what they need but isn't necessarily right for Corinne, who longs for a comfort she can't quite grasp, as if it were a blanket that's fallen just out of reach off a bed. Higher Ground grapples with weighty issues in a mature and pensive manner, reinstating a measure of faith in the way Hollywood's disciples are willing to tackle this thorny subject. ***

KILLER ELITE Killer Elite is basically what The Expendables 2 would look like if everyone except Jason Statham decided to bail on the project. A fussy action film that's heavy on the firepower and the testosterone but short on anything resembling complexity or wit, this stars Statham as Danny, a former assassin whose mentor (Robert De Niro) is being held captive by a Middle Eastern sheik. The wealthy ruler wants Danny to avenge the deaths of his three sons by taking out the overzealous British operatives responsible for their grisly slayings; Danny is forced to accept the assignment to save his friend's life, and he's thereafter pursued by a maverick British agent named Spike (Clive Owen). I don't know which is more risible: Owen's mustache, which would have been the envy of any 70s-era porn star, or the fact that someone as tough and charismatic as Owen could possibly be saddled with the name Spike. At any rate, anyone hoping for an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse between Statham and Owen — on the order of, say, Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive or De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat — will soon realize that their skirmishes, both mentally and physically, can't even match the feud between Tom and Jerry — or Punch and Judy, for that matter. As for De Niro, he has long stopped mattering as an actor, merely content to collect paychecks with the same frenzy as Pac-Man eating all those dots. Having said that, his presence here is welcome, not only for providing the picture with its most humane moments but also by keeping him too busy to make another damn Fockers sequel. *1/2

MONEYBALL Like a businessman settling into his recliner after a hard day's work, Brad Pitt has slid into middle age with an ease that's both pleasurable and enviable to watch. Pitt's always been a fine actor, of course, but around the turn of the century, he's really upped his game, from his quirky turns in Snatch and Burn After Reading to his scene-stealing subterfuge in those Ocean's films to his thoughtful interpretations in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Tree of Life. (Go figure that my least favorite Pitt performance of late, as Benjamin Button, is the one that nabbed him an Oscar nomination.) Moneyball, directed by Capote's Bennett Miller and adapted from a true story by the powerhouse team of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), finds Pitt as his most dynamic; he's cast as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who in 2001-2002 is tired of losing both games and star players to better funded baseball teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox. Refusing to continue adhering to the old-school philosophies preached by his assemblage of geriatric scouts, he instead discovers a newer religion being espoused by Peter (Johan Hill), an economics major from Yale who possesses a love for the game and a head for numbers-crunching. Employing a math-based system (sabermetrics, created by Bill James) that finds the value in underappreciated players deemed as too old/awkward/iffy by other organizations, Beane starts collecting these diamond castoffs as if they were baseball cards in the hopes that they'll coalesce into a winning team. Whether or not one subscribes to the "moneyball" philosophy — it's worked well for some teams, not so great for others — is irrelevant when it comes to enjoying a motion picture that takes a potentially arid subject and makes it sing on screen. Its success has less to do with Bennett, whose mise en scenes show little variance (a similar staidness also dogged Capote), than with the scripters and the actors, all of whom exhibit a quicksilver strategy in keeping this thing popping. Put this one in the W column. ***

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. ***

SARAH'S KEY Wartime complicity takes center stage in Sarah's Key, an involving drama about a woman who reawakens a nation's shame as she tries to piece together a mystery buried in the past. Based on Tatiana De Rosnay's novel, this stars Kristen Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who decides to research the the Parisian apartment that's been in her husband's family since some time during World War II. She soon learns that the previous occupants were the Starzynskis, who like many other Jews were rounded up by French officials in collusion with Germany. As Julia tries to discover the fates of the Starzynski family members — particularly Sarah, who was a child at the time — flashbacks allow us to track the events that transpired during and after the war. It's almost a given that the flashback scenes involving Jewish persecution are more weighty — and thus more involving — than the contemporary sequences in which Julia primarily bickers with her husband (Frederic Pierrot) over her unexpected pregnancy. And I wish more time had been dedicated to the intriguing question of whether it's always best to keep history alive or whether it's desirable in some instances to allow it to lay dormant. Yet the movie offers a unique angle on a familiar tragedy, and the performances by Thomas and especially Melusine Mayance (as the young Sarah) are key to the picture's success. ***

SPY KIDS: ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD IN 4D A desperate attempt by writer-director Robert Rodriguez to resuscitate a franchise that was already running on fumes by its third entry back in 2003, this insufferable kid flick casts Jessica Alba as Marissa Wilson, a retired spy whose husband Wilbur (Joel McHale) and stepchildren Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and Cecil (Mason Cook) don't know about her former profession (they think she's always been an interior decorator). But when her arch-nemesis, the dastardly Timekeeper (Jeremy Piven), reappears on the scene with a master plan to speed up time until it runs out and the world ends, Marissa is called back into action and subsequently forced to let her stepkids join her on the mission. The "4D" in the title refers to the fact that this is presented in "Aroma-Scope," which means that patrons are handed scratch'n'sniff cards meant to be rubbed at designated times throughout the film. This is hardly a new idea: Like most cinematic gimmicks, it originated in the 1950s, and its most recent employment was in John Waters' 1981 Polyester (not Pink Flamingos, thankfully). The first smell deployed is bacon, and it's all downhill from there, with a couple of the spots reserved for flatulence odors. This, of course, is right in line with the rest of the movie, which has an unhealthy obsession with all things stinky: A robotic dog (voiced by Ricky Gervais) deploys "butt bombs," Cecil hurls used barf bags at villainous henchmen, Marissa wallops other goons with dirty diapers, and so on. It's nice to see the original Spy Kids, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), as young adults, although they wear out their welcome around the time that Carmen wipes snot on Juni's shirt. *1/2

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON Stating that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is better than 2009's infamous Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a futile declaration best left for mathematicians to ponder, as only they might care to take the time to calculate the minuscule percentage that was necessary for this to emerge, uh, superior to its predecessor. 2007's Transformers contained enough flashes of warmth, emotion and workable humor to catch many critics off guard, but all that goodwill dissipated with the release of the first sequel, which one scribe — oh, yeah, me — described as "the filmic equivalent of a 150-minute waterboarding session." This latest franchise filler is just as soulless, cynical and stupid (and five minutes longer!), with director Michael Bay no longer even pretending to care about anything but breaking his own box office records. The plot again finds Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) taking on the Decepticons alongside other returning characters (Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro), one newcomer (Frances "Are you fucking kidding me?" McDormand), and the Autobots: Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Ratchet, Ironhide, Sleepy, Bashful and Dopey. Bay's fascistic tendencies aren't quite as pronounced as in the last installment, but there isn't anything this man won't do for the sake of arousing himself, be it an establishing shot of Sam's girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) that solely captures her 3-D-enhanced ass, a moment when Sam's mom surmises that her son must have a big schlong in order to land such hotties, or a scene in which a little girl unknowingly plays tea party with a disguised Decepticon who then leaps up and murders her mom and dad. From start to finish, it's a miserable viewing experience, and the robot slugfests are once again incoherent and endless. So why is Dark of the Moon better than Revenge of the Fallen? Two reasons. First, there's an Inception-like sequence (right down to similar music) involving a folded building that's pretty cool. And second, unlike its predecessor, there are no shots of Transformer testicles. *

ZOOKEEPER Leave it to Zoolander to have the foresight to succinctly sum up Zookeeper. In that 2001 comedy, Owen Wilson's Hansel blares, "Taste my pain, bitch!" — a declaration that Kevin James was directing at me for the duration of this ghastly film's 100 minutes. I'm sure that taste will still be lingering in my mouth in December, when it's time to draw up the year-end "10 Worst" list. For now, I'm reduced to shedding a tear over our animal friends: Between this and Mr. Popper's Penguins, they're having an especially bad summer. The screenplay cobbled together by five writers curiously spends a lot more time on the bland romantic woes of Kevin James's zookeeper Griffin than on the talking animals, although there is a protracted subplot in which Griffin bonds with a lonely gorilla named Bernie (Nick Nolte!) by taking him to TGI Friday's. James always projects a sincerity that's missing from too many of his lowbrow peers, but when all is said and done, he's still about as funny as head lice. Adam Sandler's monkey gets off a couple of good cracks, but otherwise, the animals (lions voiced by Sylvester Stallone and Cher, bears voiced by Jon Favreau and Faizon Love, etc.) prove to be even more dull than the humans, never doing anything remotely interesting or amusing. Replaying Zookeeper in my mind draws up another Zoolander quip: "I've got a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories." Nothing wrong with my prostate, but, man, does my brain need a detox. *

Add a comment