Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 21 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 21

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ATTACK THE BLOCK Attack the Block opens with a gang of South London thugs robbing a woman before having a run-in with a nasty critter from outer space. Those of us empathic to the plights of victims (and, I'm guessing, those still reeling from the recent London riots) will hope the malevolent e.t. will make mincemeat of these U.K. "yoofs" and are a bit disappointed when they kill the creature and assert themselves as the film's protagonists. It's easy to get behind the squeaky-clean kids saving the world in Super 8, but these junior criminals? But sprint past those opening sequences and what emerges is a low-budget firecracker that's as adept at tackling social issues as it is at providing sci-fi thrills. Like District 9, Attack the Block employs its fantastical tale to wrestle with issues of race and class structure — the sort of deep thought lost on Hollywood kingpins like Michael Bay, whose idea of sensitive racial exploration was to create two Amos 'n' Andy robots for the second Transformers flick. After gang leader Moses (John Boyega) and his four friends take down the alien, they find that their neighborhood is suddenly the target of more of these marauding monsters (a cool design, they look like black furballs with glowing teeth). Sam (Jodie Whittaker), the victim of their mugging, tries to have them arrested but is soon forced to reluctantly join them to ward off the extraterrestrial intruders. But Sam's anger doesn't dissipate in the face of otherworldly evil, and the beauty of the movie is how she constantly reminds these street toughs that she's still pissed, that what they did was inexcusable, and that actions have consequences. As embodied by Whittaker, Sam is a wonderful female character: intelligent, tough, resourceful, and a far cry from Tinseltown's action bimbos du jour. Yet she's just one of many memorable characters, as writer-director Joe Cornish creates a wide variety of distinct personalities. The five inner-city lads, invisible to the world, make their presence known in a positive manner: They mature, they accept responsibility, and they're doing it in a fantasy flick that's perpetually exciting, amusing and out of this world. ***1/2

BAD TEACHER It's no Bad Santa, but Bad Teacher brings just enough naughty behavior to the table to make it a decent watch for viewers tired of PG-13 timidity. In her best role since 2005's underrated In Her Shoes, Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a gold-digging middle-school teacher who, having just been dumped by her wealthy fiancé, sets her sights on substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who happens to be the heir to a watch-making dynasty. Elizabeth is manipulative, deceitful, insensitive and lazy, and she's forced to use all her cunning to dislodge Scott from the grip of a perpetually peppy teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, nice-guy gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) hangs around, hoping to get past Elizabeth's obvious disinterest in him. Hollywood, which fashions itself as a bearer of moral messages, usually feels the need to take down its flawed characters before the closing credits, with the arrogant/narcissistic/self-centered protagonist miraculously transformed into a wellspring of small sacrifices and big embraces (e.g. half of Jim Carrey's canon). To its credit, Bad Teacher doesn't resort to such shameless pandering: Like Billy Bob Thornton's Willie in Bad Santa, Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey bends but doesn't break, and the film has no need to automatically punish the wicked for their indiscretions. On the downside, the combination of a short running time, often erratic pacing, and a number of red-band-trailer moments conspicuously missing from the finished piece suggests that the studio ultimately didn't have quite enough faith in the picture to let it all hang out. This Bad Teacher is amusing enough to earn a passing mark, but we'll have to wait for the unrated cut on DVD/Blu-ray in order to fully gauge this school project's merit. **1/2

BRIDESMAIDS Bridesmaids can't maintain a high level of hilarity over the course of its 125 minutes, but when its game is on, it ranks among the funnier endeavors of the past few years. Judd Apatow is one of its producers, and the film certainly falls in line more with his brand of product — raunchy comedies that often reveal unexpected depths (e.g. The 40-Year-Old Virgin) — than with the usual formulaic rom-coms with female protagonists and wedding themes (e.g. the abysmal Something Borrowed). But let's be quick to steer most of the credit away from Apatow — and even director Paul Feig — and place it where it clearly belongs: at the feet of Kristen Wiig. The talented comedienne has perked up many a movie in supporting roles, and she's sensational in her largest part to date. Working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, she plays Annie, who's been chosen by her lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to serve as her maid of honor. But Annie feels increasingly threatened by the presence of Lllian's new friend, the lovely and wealthy Helen (Rose Byrne), and matters soon get awkward and out-of-hand. Wiig possesses the same sort of brashness that the likes of Madeline Kahn and Bette Midler used to display in comedies, yet her more delicate features allow her to smoothly apply the brakes and ease back into the more vulnerable aspects of her characterization. As expected, the film contains a smattering of gross-out gags, yet while some are undeniably funny, they can't compete with the moments in which the laughs stem mostly from Wiig's genuine comic chops, whether it's the perfect scene involving a microphone stand-off or the sequence in which she unwisely mixes booze and pills while aboard an airplane. Granted, the actress has been around for years, but with Bridesmaids, it's not exactly inappropriate to declare that a star is born. ***

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. ***

THE CHANGE-UP Hollywood's latest men-will-be-boys bit of buffoonery, The Change-Up opens with a baby projectile-pooping straight into his father's mouth. It's a sensation that won't be entirely unfamiliar to audiences members who subject themselves to this cinematic cesspool's frontal assault. Part of a subgenre that seems to be growing more witless as it grows more raunchy, this "man-child" feature also brings back that popular 1980s staple: the body switch comedy. Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds respectively portray workaholic family man Dave and slacker pothead Mitch, who drunkenly wish they had each other's lives while urinating into a magic fountain (stay with me, people). Waking up the next morning occupying the other's body, Dave and Mitch desperately try to reverse the situation. But first, they must spend a few days as the other fellow, meaning that the uptight Dave has to perform Mitch's duties in a softcore porn flick while the irresponsible Mitch has to dole parental advice to Dave's oldest daughter (Sydney Rouviere) and share the matrimonial bed with Dave's wife Jamie (Leslie Mann). A chaotic scene in which Mitch fails to properly supervise Dave's twin infants, resulting in near-accidents with a blender and an electrical outlet, will infuriate many adults, but truth be told, it's about the only gag that's even remotely fresh in this stale endeavor (if anything, it reminded me of Baby Herman's outlandish exploits in those Roger Rabbit cartoons). The rest is the usual mix of anus-and-penis-fixated gags, ritual female humiliation (Mann, as usual, deserves far better), and insincere, late-inning attempts to show us that all of these wacky shenanigans turned Dave and Mitch into better people. Riiight... I'm more likely to believe that Rick Santorum will be the keynote speaker at Charlotte's upcoming Democratic National Convention. *1/2

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. ***

FRIGHT NIGHT If you weren't around in 1985, the original Fright Night is worth a Netflix rental, thanks to its fleet-footed approach to the vampire genre and a lovely performance by Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, a late-night horror-show host who helps teenage hero Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) defeat the bloodsucker (Chris Sarandon) who lives next door. The new souped-up version isn't bad as far as these needless remakes go: It's for the most part well cast, contains some slyly wicked scenes that equal anything in the original, and expands some of the characters in interesting ways. It's a shame, then, that the movie botches its version of Peter Vincent, and even more unfortunate that the third act is a furious mishmash of unsatisfying plot developments, unexceptional confrontations and, depending where and how it's viewed, 3-D blurriness. On the plus side, 22-year-old Anton Yelchin is believably conflicted as the teenage protagonist, Toni Collette nicely fleshes out her role as his mom (the part in the original was a nonentity), and Colin Farrell is aces as Jerry, the suave, sexy vampire who prefers tight T-shirts to billowy capes. Changing the setting to a Las Vegas suburb, where transient neighbors aren't as likely to be missed should Jerry elect to sup on one, is also an inspired move. Yet Peter Vincent (named in '85 as a tribute to horror legends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price) is no longer a poignant figure — a fading actor-host with nothing but memories — but has instead been reconfigured as a boozy Vegas magician (played by Doctor Who's David Tennant) who (insert eye roll here) sports a Batman-esque past that largely leads to the late-inning shenanigans. Given this character's British accent, flowing mane, boozy disposition and initial air of insouciance, it's a wonder they didn't bypass Tennant altogether and just send the limo to pluck Russell Brand off the Arthur set. **1/2

GREEN LANTERN Considering all the advance negative buzz that had been building with the steadiness and scariness of a Category 5 hurricane, Green Lantern isn't the catastrophe that had been foretold as far back as the Book of Revelation. To compare this effort to such truly abysmal efforts as Catwoman and Batman & Robin would merely be an exercise in misguided grandstanding; at the same time, the middling results suggest that, the excellence of X-Men: First Class notwithstanding, Hollywood might consider cooling it on the super-sagas for a while (fat chance) and seek inspiration from other types of comic characters. Little Lulu or Andy Capp, anyone? When all is said and done, Green Lantern is really no different than the film which kicked off this summer season: As with Thor, this one also features slick special effects, a likable (if vanilla-flavored) leading man and effective use of 3-D, but it likewise gets bogged down in protracted exposition and has trouble sorting out its cluttered screenplay. Ryan Reynolds stars as Hal Jordan, a test pilot who becomes the first human to become a member of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic watchdog group tasked with protecting the universe. The preeminent threat at the moment is a fearsome entity known as Parallax; his agent of evil on earth is Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a nerdy scientist who promptly becomes a telekinetic mutant with a bulbous, oozing head. Hal's battles with Parallax and Hector are ably handled by director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), and they allow the FX crew to show off their hard work. But whenever the movie isn't moving at a fast and furious speed, the banality of the script takes center stage, and we're left with another costume caper that doesn't quite know what to do with itself whenever its characters aren't playing dress-up. **1/2

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. ***

HORRIBLE BOSSES Two-thirds of a very funny movie, Horrible Bosses takes its irresistible premise an admirable distance before pulling a Wrong Way Corrigan and heading in an alternate direction, away from true comic inspiration and toward convention and compromise. Still, there are plenty of laughs to be mined, and in the genre of ribald male-bonding flicks, it won't cause a hangover like The Hangover Part II. Even folks living in caves have seen the omnipresent trailer, which cleanly explains the situation: Three regular joes (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) are sick of the abuse heaped on them by their evil employers (respectively, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell) and decide to murder them. They hire an ex-con named Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx) to do their dirty work, but he informs them that he'll only serve as a consultant and that they'll have to do the actual killing. His suggestion: Emulate Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (or, as one character amusingly notes, Danny DeVito's Throw Momma from the Train) by having each fellow bump off another's boss, thereby reducing the risk of getting caught. Despite a few clunkers, the jokes are generally tight, and the five actors, especially Spacey and Farrell, are perfect for their roles; only Aniston's slutty dentist fails to convince, less a fault of the actress than the three screenwriters who don't know how to write this character so that she makes sense. At any rate, the film works up until the point when the bosses are linked up (no fair revealing how), but instead of using this sequence to expand with the intricate plotting, the writers reveal their limitations by allowing the picture to collapse like a house of cards, serving up a perfunctory final half-hour that's no match for the bright hour that preceded it. Horrible Bosses easily earns a commendation, but a bit of overtime on the part of its creative team might have resulted in higher praise. **1/2

KUNG FU PANDA 2 Hollywood's obsession with 3-D — or, more accurately, the extra bucks it generates — is so out of hand that it would hardly surprise me to learn that 3-D remakes of Scenes from a Marriage and My Dinner with Andre are in the works. Yet for all of its uselessness when it comes to live-action films not named Avatar, the gimmick is a logical fit when it comes to animated efforts, as witnessed by its employment in (among others) Toy Story 3, Despicable Me and now Kung Fu Panda 2. Yet it isn't just that extra dimension that elevates this agreeable sequel to the 2008 blockbuster. As was the case with this spring's Rango, Kung Fu Panda 2 displays a terrific set design that's atypically detailed and vibrant for a toon flick. Whereas it was ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit) who served as visual consultant on that Johnny Depp vehicle, here it's Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro who's billed as creative consultant, clear examples of studios not cutting corners when it comes to acquiring the best. KFP2's backgrounds are frequently so gorgeous to behold that aspiring art directors might further pad the film's box office haul via repeat viewings. Everyone else will probably be satisfied after one showing, as the serviceable story finds Po (returning star Jack Black) again teaming up with the kung fu masters collectively known as The Furious Five (Angelina Jolie and her underused co-stars Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and David Cross), this time to vanquish a deadly enemy (Gary Oldman) who holds the key to Po's mysterious past. The kids will have a good time, and the adults will be entertained to the point that they won't secretly be wondering what R-rated film is playing in the adjacent auditorium. **1/2

LARRY CROWNE Larry Crowne opens with Tom Hanks' title character taking so much grinning-idiot pleasure in his job at a retail box store (he's even cheerful when wiping a kid's vomit off the mechanical horse out front) that we momentarily suspect the actor has elected to revive Forrest Gump in an unauthorized sequel. But no, Larry Crowne is just that kind of guy — jovial, hardworking, uncomplaining — which makes it a shocker (at least to him) when he's downsized by a group of corporate caricatures (in a wretched scene played partly for nonexistent laughs) who state that his lack of education makes him expendable in modern-day America. After failing to land another job, Larry, only slightly less square than Napoleon Dynamite, decides to go back to school, only it was a helluva lot more fun when Rodney's Dangerfield's Thornton Melon chose this route 25 years ago. Larry's escapades at the local community college are, like practically everything else in this film, barely perfunctory as narrative and wholly lacking in any sort of dramatic conflict. Positioned as a picture about how it's possible to still succeed in a country that's been destroyed by rising unemployment rates and soaring gasoline prices, Larry Crowne, co-written by Hanks and My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Nia Vardalos, actually has little basis in reality, with Hanks' "don't worry, be happy" protagonist sailing from one existential uptick after another. Julia Roberts appears as Larry's unhappy teacher, but like everyone else in Larry Crowne, her character is only on hand to lavish praise on a dull character who hardly deserves his own motion picture. *1/2

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS Stating that Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen's best film in over a decade really doesn't mean anything at all, considering that most of his output since the previous century has consisted of such clunkers as Hollywood Ending and Cassandra's Dream. His last picture, 2010's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, even managed to sneak onto my year-end "10 Worst" list, so color me stunned that Midnight in Paris exudes both charm and cleverness in equal measure. Owen Wilson, who proves to be a natural fit for Allen, plays a burned-out screenwriter named Gil, who appears to be more in love with Paris than with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams). And why not? Inez is pushy, self-centered and spoiled, while the French capital (which they're visiting) is warm, inviting and deeply romantic. While Inez spends time with a pompous acquaintance (a funny Michael Sheen), Gil walks the city streets and soaks up the culture. Employing a bit of leftover fairy dust from his 1985 gem The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen soon has his leading man magically transported back to the 1920s, where he hobnobs with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Thor's Loki), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and falls for Pablo Picasso's beautiful mistress, Adriana (an enchanting Marion Cotillard). Despite making some salient points about the manner in which people belittle their own era while longing for a simpler, more innocent time (something which of course has never existed), Midnight in Paris is a lightweight bauble from Allen, and it provides few of the hearty laughs that propelled many of his past classics. But it's nevertheless an irresistible bauble, and a goofy, appreciative smile remained plastered on my face throughout the course of its tragically brief 95 minutes. ***

MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS Aside from Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) mistakenly believing that "BFF" stands for Big Fat Friend, the only original element to be found anywhere in Mr. Popper's Penguins is the character of Pippi, Popper's personal assistant and a Brit prone to parleying with prose that begins with the letter "p." The London-born actress with the terrific name of Ophelia Lovibond essays this role, and she provides a lift to every scene in which she appears. Unfortunately, she doesn't appear nearly enough to save this ghastly family film. A bastardization of the award-winning children's book, this finds Carrey cast as a ruthless businessman with daddy issues, spousal issues, and neglected kids issues. Mr. Popper has always placed his job above all else, but that changes after he receives a parting gift from his deceased father: six penguins (given names like Loudy, Bitey and Stinky) that take over his apartment and his life. The penguins seen in the picture are a mix of actual animals and CGI creations, and here's a quick primer for those unable to tell the difference: The ones acting normal are the real birds while the ones pooping in Popper's face or leaning over to break wind are the fake ones. Watching the real penguins, your have to feel sorry for them — in this picture, they get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Still, they fare better than Carrey, who's simply required to react to the wacky penguin shenanigans. Small children might get restless during the sequences in which Popper tries to patch up his relationship with his ex-wife (wasted Carla Gugino), but they'll otherwise be kept entertained by the animal antics. Adults, on the other hand, might want to stay away — as Pippi would doubtless note, this movie is putrid, puerile and painful. *

ONE DAY The title of the film One Day refers to July 15, though in truth, it refers to over two decades worth of that date. Beginning on July 15, 1988, when Brits Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) graduate from college, attempt a one-night stand and then decide to remain lifelong friends instead, the picture checks in on the lives of the pair every July 15 through the present day. It's a high-concept gimmick that could go either way, and this one ends up parting straight down the middle. Emma starts out gawky, reclusive and toiling in obscurity, while Dexter is confident, charismatic and famous. The ensuing years impart the expected A Star Is Born career switcheroo, but the focus is mainly on the personal lives of these two best friends and whether they'll eventually decide if they should become romantically entwined or if they should even be buddies anymore (as Emma notes during one of Dexter's obnoxious phases, "I love you, Dext; I just don't like you anymore"). Considering director Lone Scherfig's previous film was 2009's excellent An Education — one of the best films of recent years — it's impossible to consider the frequently choppy One Day anything besides a disappointment. Still, that's not to say it's a total washout: The movie nicely captures the whiplash collision of youthful optimism with strenuous reality, and Hathaway and Sturgess are fine together and even better in their individual scenes. I would be even easier on the film if it wasn't for the last-act tragedy, a grotesque and clumsy development that's less a logical procession of the story and more a shameless stab at multiplex manipulation and pandering. **1/2

OUR IDIOT BROTHER After the likes of The Change-Up and The Hangover Part II (to name but two of a million), I was beginning to give up on ever again seeing any R-rated "man-child" movies that offered anything of value. Thank goodness, then, for Our Idiot Brother, which realizes there's more to this type of tale than scatological gags. Paul Rudd plays Ned, a clueless free spirit whose behavior alternately endears him to and alienates him from his three sisters: ladder-climbing reporter Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), frazzled wife and mother Liz (Emily Mortimer) and slightly ditzy bisexual Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). The film initially seems as shaggy and aimless as its protagonist, but it improves as it continues, with director Jesse Peretz having secured the right performers for virtually every role (Steve Coogan lends sneering support as Liz's unfaithful husband, while Rashida Jones is quietly effective as Natalie's brainy lover). And while the movie coulda/shoulda been longer than its scant 90 minutes, it's actually surprising just how much memorable material scripters Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall pack into the piece. For a movie centering on an unabashed clod, it's a fairly intelligent work. ***

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES If the first two sequels to 2003's highly entertaining Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were fairly agreeable examples of popcorn fare — tasty, a bit salty, not at all nutritious, and forgotten before long — then this latest entry represents the grimace-inducing alternative: the unpopped kernel that just sits there, bereft of almost all value. Directed by Rob Marshall in a spectacular free-fall that saw him go from the Oscar-winning Chicago to the indifferently received Memoirs of a Geisha to the thudding Nine to this round of sloppy seconds — Gore Verbinski, helmer of Pirates 1-3, wisely elected to continue his Johnny Depp partnership over at RangoPOTC: On Stranger Tides is too long (even though it's the shortest of the four!), too cluttered and too forgetful of the reason why we're here in the first place. That would be to watch Depp cut loose in the role that turned his career supernova: Jack Sparrow, the fey pirate whose greatest skill remains looking out for himself. Depp still seems interested in the part, but scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio let him down by frequently ignoring his character's ability to surprise us with his go-for-broke insanity in order to mire him in an ofttimes dull quest to locate the Fountain of Youth. The teaming of Depp and Penelope Cruz (as a sexy swashbuckler) doesn't quite produce the fireworks one expects, while Ian McShane seems unable to muster much menace as the murderous Blackbeard. That leaves it up to Geoffrey Rush, once again playing the unsavory Barbossa, to elicit any of that old-time Pirates magic — his saucy scenes with Depp are arguably the movie's best. In reviewing 2007's POTC: At World's End, I wrote that "it's a fine summertime distraction, but woe to the viewer who elects to revisit it somewhere down the line." This latest effort can't even earn such guarded praise, meaning it's best to send On Stranger Tides to its watery grave and hope for stronger tidings from the rest of the seasonal blockbusters. **

POINT BLANK Art-house patrons who made the French thriller Tell No One a specialized hit three years ago won't want to miss Point Blank, another breathless import about an ordinary man whose wife is taken from him. Here, it's nurse's aide Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche), whose kindly act of preventing a patient, a hood named Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem), from being murdered places him in a deadly situation: He must somehow help Hugo escape from the hospital or his kidnapped — and pregnant — wife Nadia (Elena Anaya) gets whacked. What follows is a twisty tale involving warring criminal factions, cops both good and bad, one totally unexpected rubout, a developing bond between Samuel and Hugo, and, of course, some good ol' fashioned last-minute escapes and last-second rescues. Point Blank doesn't break any new ground, but neither does it fumble its genre requirements. It's worth a shot. ***

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

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

SUPER 8 Writer-director J.J. Abrams' Super 8 is set in 1979, a year that's nestled between the release dates of Steven Spielberg's first two blockbusters, 1975's Jaws and 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and his subsequent two blockbusters, 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1982's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. (Spielberg's underrated 1941, which was released in 1979, was a flop.) The selection of this year makes sense, since the picture itself is surrounded on all sides by the influence — nay, the very spirit — of Mr. Spielberg (who, incidentally, is involved as a co-producer). But while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it's not always the best way to make a movie. Super 8 is a thoroughly entertaining popcorn flick, but one does get the sense of Abrams sweating up a storm in an effort to produce the sort of guileless matinee magic that Spielberg conveyed effortlessly. Newcomer Joel Courtney handles the starring role of Joe Lamb, who agrees to help his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) shoot a zombie movie for an amateur filmmaking competition in their home state of Ohio. Along with their gangly pals (Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills), as well as their reluctant classmate Alice (Elle Fanning, a revelation here), the crew proceeds to begin filming at a rural railroad stop in the middle of the night, only to have said shoot interrupted when a train carrying a mysterious cargo derails. The military soon comes a-callin', followed shortly by a series of mysterious disappearances around town. E.T.'s suburban setting, Close Encounters' sense of government secrecy, Jaws' initially unseen menace, Raiders' climactic cliffhanger-style thrills — all of these elements are dutifully channeled by Abrams, who takes the classic Spielberg model and outfits it with a new engine. The effects are more polished, the Dolby sound is ratcheted up, and what was once spanking new (Walkmans, The Knack's "My Sharona") is now employed in the film as misty nostalgia. ***

30 MINUTES OR LESS While I've seen worse comedies this year, I haven't sat through any as unpleasant as 30 Minutes or Less. Never mind that newbie screenwriters Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan loosely based their script on a real-life incident that ended in death (their claims to the contrary are blatant lies); if there's one thing we've learned from a century-plus of cinema, it's that just about any subject can explored for potential humor if the right people are involved. But in the case of 30 Minutes or Less, the right people must have been off making another movie. A shrill, clumsy film that has no idea how to orchestrate its black-comedy maneuvers, this finds Jesse Eisenberg cast as Nick, a pizza delivery man who's kidnapped by two grade-A doofuses, Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson). Needing $100,000 in a jiffy, the pair strap a bomb to Nick and inform him that he must rob a bank or else the device will explode. A frantic Nick gets his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) to participate, but matters only get more hectic, not less, in the aftermath of the heist. Eisenberg fares best simply by not straying far from his patented persona (The Social Network star even gets off a joke about Facebook), but whoever thought that casting three irritants like McBride, Swardson and Ansari in the same film was a good idea clearly has a much higher threshold for obnoxious behavior than I do. The shocking story behind this largely laughless endeavor is that it was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who previously teamed with Eisenberg on the wild and witty Zombieland. But while that engaging effort brought new life to the zombie flick, this one is strictly dead on arrival. *1/2

WARRIOR Perhaps because it's being released less than a year after The Fighter, Warrior has already been relentlessly compared to that drama which likewise focuses on two brothers involved with a pounding sport (boxing there, mixed martial arts here). I had problems with The Fighter (starting with Melissa Leo's canvas-chewing performance, which inexplicably won her an Oscar), but on balance, I have more with Warrior, which does a nice job of mostly subverting the inevitable genre clichés but has trouble coming up with anything new to fill the void. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play the slugging siblings: Hardy's Tommy Conlon is a former Marine who's battling all manner of personal demons, while Edgerton's Brendan is a teacher who's forced back into the ring in order to make money and prevent foreclosure on his home. Both have their eyes on winning the championship, but first, they need to undergo the proper training and then beat a formidable slate of opponents if they expect to make it to the final match. Director-cowriter Gavin O'Connor and team ably set up the dire circumstances that blanket these men's lives, particularly their relationship with their estranged father Paddy (Nick Nolte, simply superb). But because we know exactly which two characters will end up in the championship bout (despite the challenge of a hulking Russian straight out of Rocky IV), the home stretch occasionally becomes tedious, with the emphasis shifting from character development to repetitive slugfests. Worse, Hardy and Edgerton barely have any scenes together, which drains their climactic confrontation of much of its power. I suspect many men will nevertheless tear up at the end, but if this is supposed to be the successor to Brian's Song, it's slightly off-key. **1/2

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. *


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