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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 13

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THE AMERICAN The title would suggest that here's a film reminiscent of Mom and apple pie; in truth, it has more in common with Padre and panna cotta. Deliberately paced and artfully rendered, this frequently feels like an Antonioni knockoff whose prints ended up at the multiplexes instead of the art-houses. George Clooney stars as Jack, an assassin who hides out in a small Italian town to avoid other hitmen gunning for him. Having recently killed an innocent lover in order to cover his own tracks, Jack knows better than to get involved with others, but he nevertheless befriends an elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and becomes romantically entangled with a prostitute (Violante Placido). The one exception to the film's low-volume level is a vehicular chase that punctuates the proceedings like a pin to a balloon; the rest is moody and mannered, an approach certain to divide moviegoers. For me, the thoughtful pace was appreciated; what wasn't appreciated was that it's wrapped around a tale that could have used a little more inspiration in branching out its characters. A weary hitman, a hooker with a heart of gold and a jovial priest might be the basis for a great joke were they all to enter a bar, but as the central ingredients of a story meant to compel, this assemblage predates even the U.S. Constitution. **1/2

CASE 39 Case 39 is one of those unwanted Hollywood bastards, a production that was completed years ago and has even been released in other territories but is only now making its stateside debut. Just how old is this picture? Let's just say that when filming began, David O. Selznick was still combing the country for the perfect Scarlett O'Hara. OK, so I exaggerate by a decade or seven, but the point is that for this to have had a shot at succeeding, it probably needed to predate Orphan, The Omen and perhaps even The Bad Seed in the "evil that kids do" mini-genre. As it stands, its thudding familiarity is only compounded by its narratively limp and technically humdrum presentation. Renee Zellweger stars as a social worker who saves 10-year-old Lilith (Jodelle Ferland) from execution by her seemingly religious-wacko parents, only to eventually figure out that the adults were only trying to save the world from their demonic daughter. Along the way, cop Ian McShane demonstrates remarkably poor aim when it comes to firearms, child psychiatrist Bradley Cooper discovers hornets crawling out of every bodily orifice, and Zellweger manages to make a horror film that isn't even one-tenth as terrifying as her romantic comedy New In Town. *1/2

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. ***

DEVIL Agatha Christie meets M. Night Shyamalan in Devil, and damn if the mystery author's inspiration doesn't put the hack auteur's career back on the right path. Make no mistake: There's nothing special about Devil, but after a string of notorious flops, it's surprising to see Shyamalan involved with a film that's at the very least watchable. Still, any praise should be followed by an asterisk, since his contributions are relegated to co-producing the picture and coming up with the storyline (John Erick Dowdle and Brian Nelson get credit for the direction and screenplay, respectively). But regardless of how the muted kudos is parceled out, the end result is a moderately entertaining tale that borrows Christie's Ten Little Indians template of putting a group of strangers together and having them get picked off one by one. Here, we find five people trapped together on a stuck elevator, with the added element of having the killer among the quintet actually being the devil in disguise. The supernatural angle occasionally lapses into silliness (the pontificating by a superstitious security guard grows overbearing), but Dowdle comes up with some interesting visuals, and the atmospheric score by Fernando Velazquez (The Orphanage) is, uh, heaven-sent. **1/2

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