Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 6 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 6

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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

ANIMAL KINGDOM Crime flicks are so commonplace, so been-there-done-that, that one trick isn't in avoiding the clichés and stereotypes but rather in mixing it up so that viewers are never sure which characters will exhibit the expected behavior. The Australian drama Animal Kingdom follows suit: It knows that boys will be boys and boys with guns will be especially dangerous, but its pleasures rest in tripping up our preconceived notions of its characters. Newcomer James Frecheville stars as J, who moves in with his Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and his uncles after his mom ODs. All — even the matriarch — are involved in illegal activities, and J soon starts to follow down their path. But an honest cop (Guy Pearce) thinks that J can be turned, so he begins to mentally work on him. Pearce is such a fine actor that he keeps the script's dullest role interesting; luckily, nobody else has to contend with such a challenge. A seemingly wimpy character turns out to be the most dangerous of all; a major player primed to be around for the long haul gets blown away in the early going; a hair-trigger psycho doesn't fulfill his obligations as an evil antagonist; and so on. In Animal Kingdom, it isn't necessarily the strongest who survive, an example of writer-director David Michod's continuous efforts to goose the genre. ***

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

DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS France's The Dinner Game was a subversively funny picture about a smug book publisher named Pierre who takes part in a game in which he and his buddies all invite the most boring or idiotic people they can find to a dinner simply to make fun of them. Sentimentality and sympathy had no place in this ruthless comedy, as Pierre was a thoroughly venal character. But, to paraphrase Homey the Clown, Hollywood don't play that. In this remake, the detestable Pierre has been transformed into the likable Tim (reliable Paul Rudd), and even his treatment of his chosen one (Steve Carell) has been softened. But here's the surprising thing: Despite its squishy center, the picture still manages to sport a prickly exterior that leads to countless scenes of squirm-inducing hilarity. For that, primarily thank Carell, whose performance nails the character's social ineptitude and physical retardation to an almost painful degree. Unfortunately, the film peters out once it reaches the actual dinner party, as the finale crams in a number of broadly played "schmucks" and asks us to laugh at them before pitying them. But the laughs came earlier, when the movie stood by its comic convictions. The clever coda notwithstanding, the ending mainly offers a mild case of indigestion. **1/2

EASY A Heathers in the 1980s. Clueless in the '90s. Mean Girls in the noughts. It seems like every decade insists on producing a razor-sharp high school satire centered around the travails of a likable female protagonist. Easy A appears to be this new decade's first entry in the sweepstakes, and while it can't quite compare to its enduring predecessors, it will do just fine until something more permanent comes along. Emma Stone gives a bright performance as Olive, a virginal wallflower who erroneously ends up being tagged as the biggest slut at her high school. Soon, Olive is likening her situation to Hester Prynne's in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and rather than fight the rumors, she starts wearing tight-fitting clothes accentuated by a red letter "A." The Hawthorne comparisons are often clumsy, and Olive's friends and tormentors are a rather nondescript lot. But there's still much to enjoy: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as the Coolest Parents Ever; Thomas Haden Church wearing sensitivity well as a congenial teacher; Lisa Kudrow in a welcome appearance as a shallow guidance counselor; and no shortage of clever retorts penned by debuting scripter Bert V. Royal. Easy A may be about the kids, but aside from Stone's contribution, it mostly benefits from all the adult supervision. **1/2

EAT PRAY LOVE Not haven't read Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, it's entirely possible that, in comparison, this film version seems about as complicated as an episode of Dora the Explorer. But on its own, it's a richly rewarding experience, following one woman's journey both across the globe and within herself. Julia Roberts delivers her strongest performance since Erin Brockovich a full decade ago — as Liz Gilbert, she brings to the forefront the doubts, frustrations and longings inherent in a woman who realizes she's not content with her marriage or her surroundings and elects to set out on new adventures. Liz finds both spiritual and physical nourishment during her travels to Italy, India and Bali, but her lessons aren't conveyed to us in the usual cookie-cutter platitudes; instead, the dialogue is frequently lyrical and lovely, never cheapening the thoughts or feelings being revealed. In a summer dominated (as always) by male-skewering titles, Eat Pray Love is certain to get dismissed in some quarters as Sex and the City 2's sister in failed counter programming. But with its themes of self-discovery and its impressive roster of award-caliber actors (Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis), it's actually an intelligent movie for discerning grownups who wouldn't be caught dead seeing Grown Ups. ***1/2

THE EXPENDABLES The Truth In Advertising award for the summer of 2010 goes to The Expendables, which employs (however unintentionally) its own title to push the fact that this is a disposable action film that will dissipate from memory almost immediately. Its primary — make that only — selling point is its large cast of macho action stars ... but the truth only goes as far as the marquee. As the leader of a group of mercenaries hired to take down a South American dictator, Sylvester Stallone is almost always front and center, but those expecting him to share significant screen time with fellow Big Boys Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger will be disappointed that the other two are only in one scene. And really, is it that big a deal to have a cast that includes Steve Austin, Randy Couture and Terry Crews? These guys would line up for a straight-to-DVD American Pie sequel if asked. Nobody goes to this type of movie for the acting, but given the lack of excitement in most of the action scenes (more mano-a-mano skirmishes would have better served the film rather than the ceaseless gunfire and explosions), there's little else to discuss. Faring best are Jason Statham and Mickey Rourke; delivering the worst performance is Dolph Lundgren, who apparently hasn't learned a single thing after 25 years in the business. **

GET LOW The great Robert Duvall is usually incapable of delivering a performance that's less than acceptable, but his now rigid devotion to the image of the folksy Southern sage does mean that he's long lost the ability to surprise. Get Low finds him in familiar territory: He plays Felix Bush, a 1930s Tennessee hermit who has lived in self-imposed exile for decades. But Felix needs help to pull off his unique idea — he wants a funeral party thrown for him while he's still living, so he can attend it and finally reveal his deep, dark secret — so he turns to a shady funeral home director, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) to handle the preparations. Felix's unburdening of his secret to a mob of partygoers feels anticlimactic given the lengthy buildup, and the plot points directly tied to this event — flashbacks, testy relationships with old acquaintances — stir little interest. Where the movie succeeds in its ability to successfully pit Duvall's no-nonsense Felix against Murray's calculating Frank. Rather than appearing out of place in this rustic setting, Murray flourishes, relying on his trademark wit and deadpan delivery to not only bring out the best in Duvall but also to frequently one-up him. An Oscar campaign is guaranteed to be built around Duvall, but it's really Murray who allows Get Low to hit its high notes. **1/2

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE Roughly on par with its predecessor, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the second installment adapted from the late author Stieg Larsson's "Millennium trilogy" finds journalist Mikael Blomkist (Michael Nyqvist) investigating a sex-trafficking operation while punkish hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) continues to try to get her tragic life in order. But after the investigation results in a trio of grisly murders, the police settle on Lisbeth as the killer; Mikael of course realizes this is absurd and sets out to clear her name by nabbing the real culprits. Mikael and especially Lisbeth are such memorable characters that a satisfactory feeling emerges as we watch these two continue to evolve on screen. Rich as a character study and riveting as a thriller, the pleasures of The Girl Who Played With Fire only subside toward the end, as the connections between some of the players seem strained (not quite "Luke and Leia are siblings?" territory, but still ...) and the final standoff feels anticlimactic in comparison to numerous earlier confrontations. But despite these quibbles, the series is 2-for-2 — now let's see if the third and final chapter, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, can bring it home. ***

GROWN UPS Adam Sandler's worst film since the one-two punch of Little Nicky and the inexplicably popular Big Daddy a decade ago, Grown Ups marks the umpteenth collaboration between the comedian and director Dennis Dugan. Dugan is to screen comedy what the atomic bomb was to Nagasaki, and with this film, he and ostensible writers Sandler and Fred Wolf serve up a mirthless affair in which the only people laughing are the ones on screen. In fact, that's basically the plot of the movie: As five school chums reunite 30 years later to honor the passing of their former coach, Lenny (Sandler) makes a bad joke and the others laugh. Then Eric (Kevin James) makes a bad joke and the others laugh. And so on through Kurt (Chris Rock), Marcus (David Spade) and Rob (Rob Schneider). As they're laughing, those of us in the audience are cringing. Salma Hayek, Maria Bello and Maya Rudolph are wasted (in arrested-development movies like these, nerdy schlubs always have hot wives), yet even these actresses don't escape the script's indignities, as evidenced by the scene in which Bello squirts Rudolph in the face with milk from her tit. Countless sequences like this one reverted me back to my own infancy, as I wanted to do nothing more than curl up in a fetal position and block out the screen. *

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. ****

THE KARATE KID If your parents are Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, you're probably going to get what you want, no matter how ill-advised. And certainly, mounting a remake of one of the 80s' definitive crowd-pleasers, a movie that led to major box office, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Pat Morita and (alas) three inferior sequels, probably constitutes some sort of career death wish. Yet The Karate Kid turns out to be a pleasant enough surprise. To be sure, there's absolutely no area in which it improves on the original, yet the basic plot remains durable enough that there's no harm done by this easy-to-take update. Jaden Smith plays Dre Parker, who's forced to move from his Detroit home when his single mom (Taraji P. Henson) lands a job in Beijing. Dre catches the eye of a cute schoolmate (Wenwen Han), but most of the time, he's being beaten to a pulp by a local bully (Zhenwei Wang) and his sycophants — at least until his building's maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), teaches the lad how to protect himself. This Karate Kid clocks in at 135 minutes, which seems absurd until one recalls that the original itself runs a lengthy 126 minutes. But that version flies by; this one proceeds in fits and starts. Chan and Smith are charismatic enough, although no match for Morita and Ralph Macchio. **1/2

KNIGHT AND DAY Cameron Diaz did some of her best acting when she was cast opposite Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, but the difference between that dark mindbender and this sunny concoction is as glaring as the difference between... well, I'm not gonna say it. The similarity between the films, though, is obvious — specifically, the fact that Cruise and Diaz again prove to be an engaging team. Diaz here plays June Havens, an innocent who gets sucked into the high-voltage world of secret agent Roy Miller (Cruise). Roy repeatedly insists to June that he's actually an honorable FBI agent who's been set up by his colleague (Peter Sarsgaard) as a way to cover up his own nefarious actions; June doesn't know whether to believe him, although she does know that he's remarkably adept at keeping her alive whenever danger appears. Director James Mangold and writer Patrick O'Neill mean for none of this to be taken seriously, but even escapist popcorn fare should have some semblance of intelligence. Instead, Knight and Day is often so preposterous that it makes The A-Team look as complex as L.A. Confidential by comparison. Luckily, Cruise and Diaz both have their movie-star wattage burning bright, and their easy-going rapport makes the whole confection go down easily. **1/2

THE LAST EXORCISM The prospect of journeying to Hell and back seems less daunting than sitting through another horror yarn made in the faux-documentary style of The Blair Witch Project, but this one proves to be a pleasant surprise. Director Daniel Stamm uses the fake cinéma vérité style to milk a lot of tension out of this feature in which the disillusioned Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) takes along a documentary crew to perform an exorcism in some remote Louisiana hellhole, to prove that exorcisms are bogus and merely prey upon the superstitions of rubes. Cotton thinks he's found a perfect showcase as devout farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) insists that his sweet teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is demonically possessed. After some initial scoffing, Cotton realizes that there is indeed something wrong with the girl, but is it merely psychological trauma or is Satan really hanging around? Propelled by unexceptionally fine performances from Fabian and Bell, this creepy yarn builds to a powerhouse ending that would be even stronger were it not so choppy and truncated. In fact, too many unanswered questions prevent this movie from soaring to even greater heights. Still, as a deftly executed piece of unsettling cinema, it's only fair to give Daniel Stamm — and the devil — their due. ***

MACHETE More fun than a barrel of Sylvester Stallone DVDs, Machete is gleeful trash that delivers on the promise it held when it was just a twinkle in creator Robert Rodriguez's eye, as one of the mock trailers shown in 2007's Grindhouse. Everything about Machete is so over the top that it's impossible to feel as if one's morals are being compromised: When a movie quickly moves from a sequence in which the title bad-ass (played by Danny Trejo) decapitates several men with one swift 360-degree turn to a scene in which a naked woman retrieves a hidden cell phone from her vajayjay, it's clear that nothing is to be taken seriously. As expected, the Mexicans are the heroes, demanding to be treated like people and eager to have a crack at the American Dream. On the other side are the rich Texas fat cats determined to keep them down, including a right-wing Senator (Robert De Niro) who guns down illegal border crossers when he's not busy hitting the campaign trail. Machete is coerced into taking out this slimy politico, but he quickly realizes he's been double-crossed, and he has to rely on two women (Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba) to help him out. Whether it's a beefy Steven Seagal or a topless Lindsay Lohan, viewers never quite know who or what Machete will throw at them next. ***

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

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. **

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the movie that Kick-Ass wishes it could be when it grows up. Thematically savvy, cinematically eye-popping, and infused with a here-and-now pop-culture specificity that's part of the organic whole rather than just a cynical or faddish way to tackle the material, this adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels isn't just for the gamers and gawkers. Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) helms this disarming yarn about an insecure 20-something (Michael Cera) who jams with a band when he's not busy dating a high school student. Scott does enjoy the time spent with young Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but his romantic focus shifts once he lays eyes on standoffish punker Ramona Flowers (Rocky Mount, N.C., native Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Unceremoniously dumping Knives, he then pursues Ramona, who's game but reluctantly informs him that in order to date her, Scott must first defeat all seven of her exes. Combining a giddy, sometimes campy approach to action (complete with Wham! and Pow!-style balloons) with an earnest look at messy modern relationships, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World often feels like the unholy love child of TV's 60s-era Batman and Chasing Amy — a melding I never thought I would see on this world or any other. ***

SHREK FOREVER AFTER The Shrek series now stands at 2-2 thanks to the latest addition to the cartoon canon. After the first two entertaining (if wildly overrated) installments made enough money to seemingly feed and clothe the entire U.S. population, the filmmakers opted to give us a pair of desperate lunges at more filthy lucre. Shrek Forever After is an improvement over Shrek the Third, but it's not enough of a step up to revitalize the ailing franchise. This entry gives us a Shrek (again voiced by Mike Myers) who's none too happy with his domesticated lot in life. Feeling stifled, he ends up signing a contract whipped up by the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), one that eventually leads to an alternate reality in which Shrek never existed. Thus, Rumpelstiltskin rules the kingdom, Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is a resistance fighter, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) is an unwilling servant to the witches that serve as Rumpelstiltkin's enforcers, and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) has grown lazy and fat. Living on the contract's borrowed time, Shrek has less than 24 hours to make everything right. While the plotline aggressively lifts from It's a Wonderful Life, it's clear that this isn't a wonderful movie, just an average one whose primary function will be to serve as a babysitter once it hits DVD. **

THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE The penchant for creating faux-excitement simply by making everything blaring and calamitous is a specialty of both producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub, who previously gave us two daft National Treasure movies. This is basically more of the same, although unlike that twofer, this at least has the decency to clock in at under two hours. Nicolas Cage is miscast as Balthazar Blake, one of Merlin's original disciples(!) who turns up in modern-day NYC searching for a novice wizard. He finds him in geeky college kid Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel), and they team up to battle another Merlin disciple: treacherous Maxim Horvarth (Alfred Molina). Inspired in part by the delightful Mickey Mouse sequence from Disney's 1940 Fantasia (there's even a scene in which Dave battles dancing mops), The Sorcerer's Apprentice is strictly standard action-fantasy fare, not too bad as these Bruckheimer boom boxes go. There's some clever CGI trickery mixed in with the more lackluster effects, Baruchel is appealing in his limited way, and the jackhammer pace insures that there's no time to get bored. But is any of it memorable? Hardly. I remember the contours of my theater seat better than I recall the particulars of this cinematic sleight of hand. **

THE SWITCH Deciding that Jeffrey Eugenides' short story would be perfect for expanding into a wacky comedy, this film's creators ran with the premise of Jennifer Aniston as a single woman who badly wants a baby. Aniston's Kassie opts to go the route of a sperm donor, despite the objections of her whiny best friend Wally (Jason Bateman). The donor is a hunky athlete (Patrick Wilson), but through circumstances too mind-numbingly stupid to detail here, a drunken Wally spills the filled baby-batter cup and replaces the lost content with his own seed. Will the dumb-as-a-brick Kassie ever learn that Wally made a switch? And did none of the filmmakers — or the audience members at my screening — realize that Wally's action of implanting his unwanted sperm into an unwilling woman qualifies as a form of rape? If the film ever addressed this issue beyond some ever-so-modest poo-pooing by Wally's confidant (Jeff Goldblum, the lone bright spot), it might warrant some respect, but everything is played at an inane sitcom level, and we're supposed to cheer Wally on as he tries to bag his woman (shouldn't he be going to jail instead?). Strip away the ramifications of the plot and The Switch is merely one more failed Aniston rom-com bomb. But add it back in and we're talking about a fairly revolting piece of work. *

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

VAMPIRES SUCK Despite that blanket title, don't expect any digs at Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or Anne Rice, and True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are dismissed with one brief gag apiece. No, this is strictly all-Twilight-all-the-time — thus, in the town of Sporks, we find Becca Crane (Jenn Proske, the best thing in the movie) falling for the sparkly vampire Edward Sullen (Matt Lanter), with wolfboy Jacob White (Chris Riggi) sniffing at her heels with a bad case of puppy love. While I've already seen worse movies than Vampires Suck this year, it's doubtful I'll see another as lazily constructed as this one — even a homemade YouTube video simply capturing a dog chasing its own tail displays more effort and imagination than anything here. Because this is an obvious ploy to con money out of all the Twilight haters out there, writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer don't even try to come up with clever ways to mock the material in the biting manner of, say, MAD magazine or early Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. Instead, they merely plop down some sequence practically lifted wholesale from the first two Twilight movies, add a gross-out gag, a piece of knockabout humor or a pop culture reference that will seem hopelessly dated in just a few years, and leave it at that. *

YOU AGAIN There's a lot about You Again that's instantly disposable, from its generic title to its bland leading lady to a storyline that's as weightless as a sponge cake. But leave it to the old pros in the cast to prevent this from completely sinking into the abyss of immediately forgotten comedies. Kristen Bell, only fitfully succeeding in making an impression, plays Marni, who's shocked to learn that her brother (Jimmy Wolk) is marrying Joanna (Odette Yustman), the girl who made her life an endless hell back in high school. Everyone in Marni's family thinks Joanna is the greatest, so Marni makes it her mission to expose her as malicious and deceitful. For her part, Marni's mom (Jamie Lee Curtis) is aghast when she discovers that Joanna's aunt is a former school chum (Sigourney Weaver) with whom she had a falling-out decades ago on prom night. The Marni-Joanna clashes offer little that's new, so the fun is in watching those exquisite older actresses, Curtis and Weaver, square off against each other. Throw in the always-welcome Victor Garber as Curtis' husband, an amusing Kristin Chenoweth as a spirited dance instructor, and a cameo by a former Dallas star that almost made me fall out of my seat, and you may want to give You Again a chance. But only if Mean Girls isn't playing on cable. **1/2


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