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The 11th Hour, 3:10 to Yuma, others

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THE 11TH HOUR In exactly which universe could Al Gore possibly emerge as a more charismatic screen presence than Leonardo DiCaprio? In our own, it seems. DiCaprio has long proven himself to be a sincere environmentalist (he was a logical choice to share the stage with Gore at this year's Academy Awards ceremony), yet good intentions don't always make for good movies. Case in point: The 11th Hour, in which DiCaprio (who serves as producer and narrator) looks at the fragile condition of this planet and makes some suggestions on how to improve our quality of life before it's too late. Unlike the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, in which Gore shocked everyone by revealing himself as an appealing teacher while passing along a wealth of knowledge in a colorful and easy-to-digest manner, this dry documentary relies on a monotonous DiCaprio and 55 talking heads (yes, 55; I counted the names in the end credits) to relay soundbites of scientific data, much of which many of us already knew (if this film was a book, it'd be called Environmentalism for Dummies). This is clearly a case of too many cooks spoiling the organic broth: Whereas, for example, An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car? focused on specific issues and explored them in depth, this dull film is too scattershot to make much of an impression -- or impact. As a PSA, The 11th Hour is an extremely important work, but as a motion picture, it's ripe for recycling.  **

3:10 TO YUMA 3:10 to Yuma proves to be a rarity among remakes. It doesn't slavishly copy the original, nor does it update it for modern times. It's respectful of its predecessor, and when it does make changes to the existing template, they aren't preposterous or pandering -- rather, they merely take another logical path than the one employed in the previous version. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, the 1957 3:10 to Yuma retains its status as a solid Western, typical of the psychologically rooted oaters that emerged in force during that decade. Adding roughly a half-hour to the original's 92-minute running time, the new take includes more characters and more action sequences, but it takes care not to water down the battle of wills between its two leading characters. In Glenn Ford's old role, Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade, a notorious outlaw who's finally captured by the authorities and scheduled to be transferred via train to the prison in Yuma, Arizona. Dan Evans (Christian Bale in the Van Heflin part) is a rancher by nature -- he's so mild-mannered that his own wife (Gretchen Mol) and son (Logan Lerman) are often disappointed in him -- but because he's about to lose his home and cattle, he agrees to help transport Wade for $200. Yet while Wade may appear to be the captive, he's in many ways the one in charge, charming Dan's family, killing the armed escorts who rub him the wrong way, and keeping Dan on edge with his taunts and bribes. Crowe pours on his bad-boy charisma as Ben Wade, milking it for maximum effect, while Bale embodies the noblest traits that can possibly be found in such a disreputable arena as the Old West. The strong supporting cast is headed up by Peter Fonda as Byron McElroy, a leathery bounty hunter whose past assignments (including the massacre of Native American women and children) qualify him as one sleazy rider.  ***

Current Releases

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM The third time's the charm with The Bourne Ultimatum, the best in the series of films based on the Robert Ludlum novels. Admittedly, I wasn't as great a fan as everyone else when it came to the first two entries in the series, 2002's The Bourne Identity and 2004's The Bourne Supremacy. While I appreciated the films' efforts to bring the spy flick back to its gritty and less gadget-oriented roots (an approach better accomplished by last year's James Bond reinvention, Casino Royale), both Identity (directed by Doug Liman) and Supremacy (helmed by Paul Greengrass) felt as if they were constantly getting stuck in the same grooves, with repetitive action sequences, a squandering of great talent in throwaway roles, and a tight-lipped protagonist so one-note that viewer empathy was next to impossible. These problems haven't all been rectified in Ultimatum, but they don't nag as consistently as before. Matt Damon, suitably taciturn even though he's still too young for the role, again stars as Jason Bourne, the former CIA assassin whose continuing bout of amnesia regarding his past perpetually keeps him searching for the truth, even as his agency handlers seek to have him terminated. Greengrass, returning to the series after taking time off to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination for United 93, tops himself with action set pieces that prove to be more exciting than those on display in his Supremacy (or Liman's Identity). One of the lengthy chase scenes is especially impressive, and makes one wonder if Damon elected to forego a straight salary in order to be paid by the kilometer.  ***

THE INVASION I suppose every generation deserves its own sociopolitical take on Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers, though The Invasion does neither the audience nor the source material any favors. Depending on one's political bent, the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which emotionless "pod people" from outer space take over human beings, was either a warning about Communism or an indictment of McCarthyism. The 1978 version (same title) tapped into post-Watergate paranoia, also finding room to mock the rampant New Age-y philosophies of the time. And 1994's Body Snatchers honed in on teen alienation while also examining the splintering of the nuclear family. So what agenda rests on The Invasion's plate? Hard to tell, given the general muddle of the piece (much of it was refilmed after poor test screenings, and it shows). There's some talk of eradicating humankind's intrinsic need to destroy (and plenty of TV sets showing scenes from Iraq), but it's unconvincing lip service. There's a hint that this might satirize our nation's obsession with medicating its populace, but that's quickly dismissed. Without anything to chew on, we're left with a straightforward thriller -- and a fairly effective one until the film self-destructs with a wretched ending that had me slapping my forehead in staggering disbelief. That I was able to register such emotion proves that I'm still human, though I'm not sure the same can be said for the indifferent automatons who made this dud.  **

MR. BEAN'S HOLIDAY By borrowing from Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis and silent-cinema icons like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson managed to concoct his own singularly unique comic creation in the bumbling Mr. Bean. It's just a shame that the actor has yet to find a feature film to do his character justice. Atkinson fared well when he incorporated elements from his Bean persona into his role as a befuddled pastor in the 2005 dark comedy Keeping Mum, and he was delightful as an inept secret agent in 2003's underrated Johnny English. But neither 1997's Bean nor this belated sequel offer comparable consistency in terms of laughs-per-minute. Mr. Bean's Holiday has some amusing moments scattered throughout (check out his introduction to a seafood platter), but they're not enough to sustain an entire picture. That the plot is completely disposable (Bean wins a trip to the south of France but has trouble reaching his destination) shouldn't matter -- after all, the Tim Burton gem Pee-wee's Big Adventure wasn't about anything more than a guy looking for his stolen bicycle -- but for a skeletal framework to properly function, the gags need to be as complex as the story is thin (for prime examples, rent Tati's masterpieces Playtime and Mon Oncle). But inspiration runs dry long before the film reaches its Cannes-set climax, though cineasts will take pleasure in this portion's tweaking of pretentious art-house twaddle. Now whether the small kids who are taken to this G-rated confection view this segment with anything other than boredom remains to be seen.  **

THE NANNY DIARIES Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team behind 2003's American Splendor, return with an adaptation of the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. As before, they attempt to embellish their tale with all manner of visual flourishes and eccentric details, but working from a blueprint that doesn't always lend itself to such touches, the results are more forced than before. That's not to say that this doesn't offer several rewards of its own making, starting with the strong performances by Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney. Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a college graduate who, wary of the demands of a career in high finance, ends up landing what she believes will be a less stressful gig as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan couple known as Mr. and Mrs. X (Paul Giamatti and Linney). Her young charge, Grayer (Nicholas Art), proves difficult at first but over time softens toward Annie, who's merely the latest in a long line of nannies. Annie's main grievances are with the boy's parents, an aloof jerk who's carrying on with his secretary while away on week-long trips and a trophy wife who's too busy socializing to spend any quality time with her lonely son. A spiritual companion to The Devil Wears Prada (Nanny preceded Prada in print by one year, and in the film, one of the characters can be glimpsed reading the fashion industry tell-all), this offers some nicely staged sequences to help gloss over the broad characterizations. Incidentally, a gag involving a George W. Bush mask doesn't match the brilliant employment of a Nixon mask in The Ice Storm, but it still provides the picture with one of its largest laughs.  **1/2

RESURRECTING THE CHAMP The black hole that goes by the name of Josh Hartnett has managed to swallow up many movies, but this isn't one of them. For that, we have to thank the force of nature that goes by the name of Samuel L. Jackson. To be fair, Hartnett is passable as a sportswriter who stumbles onto a career-making -- and subsequently career-breaking -- story: His earnestness works well for this character, and when a single tear journeys down his cheek late in the movie, it's possible that it's a genuine teardrop and not a dab of H2O shot on there by a spritzer-wielding assistant. But roiling emotions are clearly out of his range, and he's shown up as a lightweight in his scenes with Mr. Jackson. The latter delivers a formidable performance as a homeless man who calls himself Champ; raspy-voiced and not all there mentally, he reveals himself to Hartnett's Erik Kernan as Battling Bob Satterfield, a former boxing great. Realizing this could be his ticket to the big time, Erik devotes all his energy to turning Champ's life story into a must-read article, a pursuit that backfires when suspicions surface regarding Champ's history. The picture's various themes -- the union between fathers and sons, the importance of journalistic integrity, the ease with which history can be rewritten -- are handled with care, though there's nothing particularly revelatory on view here (Shattered Glass, for instance, is a far superior film about media misconduct). But towering over the entire picture is Jackson, who takes a showy role and invests it with so much humanity that it's impossible not to feel deeply for the character every step of the way. It's a knockout performance.  ***

RUSH HOUR 3 Exactly 50 years ago, Max Von Sydow was exploring philosophical issues of life and death in the recently departed Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece The Seventh Seal; now, he's relegated to a small role in the background to make room for the increasingly unfunny antics of Chris Tucker. If there's a more depressing commentary to be made on the current state of cinema, I can't imagine what it might be. The original Rush Hour was a high-spirited lark that milked its mismatched-cops formula well, but the sorry Rush Hour 2 was a prime example of a lazy sequel produced solely to cash in on the goodwill generated by its predecessor. Rush Hour 3 takes that same mercenary attitude and sprints with it. Jackie Chan, still up for any challenge at the age of 54, has considerably slowed down in recent years, and his up-close-and-personal brand of fighting has lost much of its vibrancy. It hardly matters, though, as even this longtime audience favorite is expected to take a back seat to the incessant shenanigans of his costar. Tucker once again lets loose with a steady stream of slurs that targets women, gays, Asians, tall people, fat people, French people (Roman Polanski appears as a Parisian inspector who enjoys performing rectal probes) and doubtless others that have slipped my mind. It's not funny, just tedious -- when it comes to insult humor, he's clearly no Redd Foxx. There's one great line involving Starbucks, and, as always, the outtakes provide a few smiles. Otherwise, Rush Hour 3 is a total dud, as well as the worst sequel to appear in this overcrowded summer movie season.  *

STARDUST This enchanting fairy tale offers the most fun to be had in a theater this summer. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, it's a fantasy yarn in the tradition of The Princess Bride and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, only it bests its antecedents by remaining light on its feet and by constantly surprising us with both its visual and narrative vigor. In the tiny English village of Wall, young Tristan (Charlie Cox) pines for the stuck-up Victoria (Sienna Miller) to such a degree that he will prove his devotion by journeying to the magical land resting just outside the town's border and retrieve the remnants of a fallen star that the pair had seen drop from the sky. What Tristan doesn't realize is that once a star has fallen, it turns into a human -- in this case, a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). Add the desires of a wicked witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), the demands of a dying king (Peter O'Toole), and the dilemmas of a pirate (Robert De Niro) to the mix, and it sounds like there's too much plot for one movie to bear. But Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), co-adapting Gaiman's novel, do an exemplary job of funneling all the disparate elements into one cohesive narrative. Pfeiffer clearly relishes portraying a villainess as much here as she does in the current Hairspray; as for De Niro, he's playing a pirate so fey that he makes Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow look as ferocious as Blackbeard by comparison. De Niro's grossly miscast, but that doesn't stop him from diving into the role. He's clearly having a lot of fun, as are we all.  ***1/2

SUPERBAD The kids are alright in Superbad; it's the adults who prove to be a drag. Coming from some of the same talents involved with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, this can't match the impact of its predecessors, despite its best intentions to (slightly) set itself apart in the "teen sex comedy" genre. The movie begins promisingly, as longtime best friends Seth and Evan (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, both perfectly cast) hope to end their high school stint attending cool parties and dating hot girls. With their ultra-geeky pal Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) along for the ride, the boys hope to score some alcohol to bring to a major bash. Using Fogell's fake ID (on which he's identified as a 25-year-old simply named McLovin), they set out across town on their holy quest, a mission that turns sour after a robbery spoils their plans and separates Fogell from his pals. Potty-mouthed but true to its milieu, this hums along until two cops (played by co-writer Seth Rogen and Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader) come along to spoil the fun. Tiresome characters, they steer the picture away from its mother lode of comic material, and rather than disappear after making their mark, the pair hang around for the remainder of the film. Superbad gets back on track in the late innings, and it's here that the movie's true theme -- the fierce and touching bond that can establish itself between two boys suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous high school shenanigans -- becomes most pronounced. So whenever it centers on its teenage characters, Superbad is a likable coming-of-age comedy; whenever it focuses on the tedious antics of the cops, it turns into a bad SNL skit.  **1/2

OPENS FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7:

THE BROTHERS SOLOMON: Will Arnett, Will Forte.

NO END IN SIGHT: Documentary.

SHOOT'EM UP: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti.

3:10 TO YUMA: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale.

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