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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of April 11 

THE ARTIST Although its cribbing from Singin' in the Rain, A Star Is Born and more means that this black-and-white silent picture sometimes runs short on invention, it easily makes up for it in style, execution and a cheery disposition that's positively infectious. Jean Dujardin plays silent screen star George Valentin, whose chance encounter with a young fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) contributes to her eventual rise in the industry. The pair clearly harbor feelings for each other, but George finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage (Penelope Ann Miller sympathetically plays his estranged spouse) and relies on his dog Uggie and his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) for companionship. The matrimonial strife soon takes a back seat to a dark development, revealed when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) informs him about the inevitable advent of sound in motion pictures — a revolution that George myopically dismisses as a short-lived fad. Instead, this cinematic breakthrough all but destroys his livelihood. In crafting his homage to the silent era, writer-director Michael Hazanavicius crucially fails to include one of its key ingredients, that go-for-broke dynamism that informed much of the cinema of the time — think, for example, of that house really falling on top of Buster Keaton in 1928's Steamboat Bill Jr., or Harold Lloyd's eye-popping stunts in 1923's Safety Last! and other gems, or just about anything served up by Chaplin. Nothing in The Artist can quite showcase that sort of edgy genius, although a sequence that has wicked fun with sound effects is worth singling out. Yet while it may not match up with the best of the silents, The Artist matches up nicely with the best of 2011. Dujardin and Bejo are both enchanting and irresistible, and Hazanavicius' screenplay has no trouble shifting between mirth and melodrama. As for its visual appeal, the black-and-white images are as crisp and dynamic as anything on view in the year's color explosions, whether it's the luminescent paint jobs in Cars 2 or that vibrant rainbow connection in The Muppets. ***1/2

FRIENDS WITH KIDS The womanizing Jason (Adam Scott) and the unlucky-in-love Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) watch as their two sets of happily married best friends (Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd — it's a veritable Bridesmaids reunion!) become miserable and surly toward one another after they start having kids. Not wanting to fall into that trap, Jason and Julie, who hold no attraction for each other, decide to have a child together while maintaining separate lives in every other regard. So goes the plotline for Friends with Kids, a scintillating seriocomedy written and directed by leading lady Westfeldt (best known for the 2001 indie hit Kissing Jessica Stein). The first 100 minutes are a viewer's dream: wise, witty, emotional, and elevated by a powerhouse supporting cast (Edward Burns turns up as a potential beau for Julie, and even Megan Fox, as Jason's latest girlfriend, isn't bad). Unfortunately, Westfeldt finally succumbs to the peer pressure of those regularly churning out subpar rom-coms, thus spitting out an ending that's as clumsy as it is predictable. A repeat viewing might temper my anger toward those final five minutes, but for now, what could have sailed through 2012 as one of its best films will have to settle for prominent placement in the also-ran column. ***

GONE Let's give this much credit to Gone: It plays it straight. In an era in which filmmakers come up with increasingly convoluted ways to trick audiences with all manner of daft plot pirouettes, this new thriller respects viewers enough to present the whodunit aspect in a manner that isn't insulting. (Semi-Spoiler Alert!) While its mystery proves easy to peg (it only takes one lingering and oddly angled shot to establish the identity of the villain), at least it's a break from the sort of dorky fare that has ensnared the likes of Johnny Depp and Halle Berry in the past — unbelievable yarns in which the protagonist had a split personality or imagined the whole film or started channeling Genghis Khan or what-have-you. This isn't to say that Gone is a brainy flick; on the contrary, the narrative leaps taken by scripter Allison Burnett are head-smackingly stupid. Her story, primarily culled from Kiss the Girls and The Silence of the Lambs, centers on Jill (Amanda Seyfried), a Portland, Oregon, resident who became the only person to successfully escape from a psychopath who likes to kidnap, torture and murder women. Unfortunately for Jill, there was never any evidence that she had been snatched or tortured, so the cops locked her up in a looney bin for a short period. Now a year later, she's convinced that her sister Molly (Emily Wickersham) has been nabbed by the same madman; since the police still believe that she's merely a delusional nutjob, it's up to her to save her sibling. Seyfried does solid work as a damaged woman who's fearful of the world around her, but Burnett's script is laughable in the manner in which Jill's search develops: This is the sort of film that relies on its heroine behaving exactly as necessary for the story to progress, and if she doesn't pick up on every single clue (some really reaching), then the plot would grind to a halt. Gone wasn't screened in advance for critics anywhere and opened to a desultory $4.8 million gross. Anybody interested in seeing it better head to the theater posthaste, because after a couple more weeks, this mediocre effort is sure to be gone, baby, gone. **

THE GREY After presenting Mexico City as the ultimate hellhole on Earth, Tony Scott's 2004 Man on Fire ended with a credit stating that the city was actually "a very special place." Sydney Pollack's 1993 The Firm assures us that Cayman Island officials look down on the sort of money laundering occurring in the film. And best of all, Irwin Allen's 1978 The Swarm gave a shout-out to our buzzing buddies by adding a credit which noted that "the African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hard-working American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation." Unfortunately, no PSA announcement accompanies The Grey, which presents the often misunderstood wolf in such a vicious and uncompromising light that I expect Sarah Palin will see this film at least a dozen times. Of course, all two- and four-legged creatures are fair game when it comes to presenting them as movie villains — even bunny rabbits and a slobbery St. Bernard had to play the heavies in Night of the Lepus and Cujo, respectively — and the wolves on display here are indeed intimidating. Granted, they often look like animatronic animals on steroids, but they certainly put the fear of God in the human protagonists. The prey in The Grey is a group of oil-rig workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilds. The no-nonsense Ottway (Liam Neeson), whom we first meet as he's sticking his gun in his own mouth (a wolf's howl distracts him from pulling the trigger), appoints himself leader and attempts to lead the other six survivors out of the wilderness — no small task given not only the punishing elements but also the savage wolf pack that's picking them off one by one. To its credit, The Grey tries to add a little substance to its terror-tale premise, but Ottway's soft-gaze flashbacks to his long-gone wife and the religious chats among the men (complete with a scene where Ottway yells at the heavens above) only skim the surface of any true existential analysis. And while there are a couple of good sequences focused on the brutal landscape, the man-on-wolf action is both fleeting and feeble — anemic enough that even Twilight haters might join Team Jacob rather than watch this shaggy undertaking. **

THE HUNGER GAMES The eagerly awaited adaptation of Suzanne Collins' smash bestseller, The Hunger Games largely delivers on both its provocative premise and its exciting execution. Set in a future world where the ruling 1 percent long ago squashed a rebellion by the 99 percent, the law dictates that, as perpetual punishment, those once-radical districts — 12 total — must annually send both a boy and a girl, randomly chosen from a pool of 12-to-18-year-olds, to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised ritual in which all 24 contestants are set loose in the outdoors and must kill each other until only one remains. The representatives for District 12, the most impoverished of the outer regions, turn out to be the headstrong Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the meek Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The lengthy first act is compelling, anchored by the strong central performance of Lawrence and reveling in the introduction of such memorable characters as Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci), the unctuous TV host and broadcaster, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the calculating ruler who hates the working class with the passion of a Republican presidential nominee, and, providing some grizzled heart and off-the-cuff humor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose status as the only District 12 representative to ever win a tournament allows him to serve as the boozy mentor to Katniss and Peeta. Director Gary Ross, who co-wrote the script with Billy Ray and Collins herself, has a minimalist style that enhanced dialogue-dependent and character-driven efforts like Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, and it's precisely why the first half works so well — and why the second half needed a stronger presence behind the camera. As the kids scatter into the woods and the picture ratchets up the action, Ross can't quite keep up. That's not to say the outdoor scenes ever lack for drama, but a filmmaker with a better feel for kinetic energy — say, Steven Spielberg or even Gore Verbinski — could have turned the winner-takes-all competition into a breathless roller coaster ride. As it stands, the film peters out toward the end, due in large part to a rather anemic duel-to-the-death and in small part to some shoddy visual effects. ***

JOHN CARTER Released in 2-D, 3-D, IMAX and possibly even a sepia tone version, John Carter arrives on the 100th anniversary of the title character's first literary appearance, when Edgar Rice Burroughs initially gave him life in the pages of a pulp periodical. James Cameron publicly declared that the John Carter canon was one of the primary inspirations for Avatar, and this new film arrives with all the multi-million-dollar CGI effects we've come to expect from our fantasy flick fodder. Yet perhaps because of the age of its source material as well as the often wide-eyed approach taken by Pixar vet Andrew Stanton (the WALL-E and Finding Nemo director, here making his live-action debut), John Carter feels more old-school than its budget would suggest. Standing somewhat apart from today's blockbusters-of-the-week, it hews more closely to such nostalgia-tinged projects as 1980's Flash Gordon and 1991's The Rocketeer, narratively simple adventure yarns that charmingly worked their straightforward delineations of good and evil into no-frills fun. A key difference, though, is that while those two movies were savvy enough to occasionally wink at themselves and even engage in a bit of camp, John Carter takes itself far too seriously, and what should be, as the barkers once said, a rip-roaring good time all too often finds itself crushed under its grim-faced grandeur. Taylor Kitsch plays Carter, a Civil War-era Virginian who, through means too lengthy to explain here, finds himself transported to Mars. There, his body mass gives him extra strength, speed and agility, all of which he'll need as he becomes mired in a conflict involving the various warring factions on the Red Planet. There are some fantastic sights in John Carter, but there's also a lot of overkill, with Stanton and his crew often cluttering up the visuals with the deranged frenzy of George Lucas retooling his Star Wars sagas. Speaking of Star Wars, the political subplots often grow so wearying that we half-expect The Phantom Menace's Qui-Gon Jinn to show up and start discussing Trade Federation taxation. Yes, John Carter is occasionally that dull, and yet overall, it grows more interesting as it progresses, with a second half that should energize moviegoers who slumbered during the laborious first hour. Now whether that energy boost will translate into a desire to see a sequel, I cannot say. **1/2

THE LORAX The animated feature film The Lorax is officially called Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, but given the extent to which it perverts Theodor Geisel's classic children's book, Universal Pictures might as well have named it J.K. Rowling's The Lorax or F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Lorax or even Jane Austen's The Lorax. The central thrust remains the same: A young boy (voiced in the film by Zac Efron) learns that a strange character named the Once-ler (Ed Helms) was responsible for the extinction of trees, despite the protestations of the Lorax (Danny DeVito), a small, walrus-mustached creature who speaks on behalf of nature. Even pushing aside the niggling fact that the studio partnered with numerous corporations to plug the film — some offering products that especially go against the book's environmentally friendly message (a Mazda SUV?) — what appears on screen is a garish, unappealing mess, with Dr. Seuss' gentle push for nature over industry turned into an obnoxious screed populated with dull new characters and strapped with a satchel of forgettable songs. Because this comes from the same people who created the superior Despicable Me, there's a perpetual struggle between cute little bears and cute little fishies to emerge as the equivalent of that previous picture's cute little Minions — nobody wins. On the positive side, this movie at least managed to infuriate right-wing dimwits like Fox's Lou Dobbs, who accused the filmmakers of trying to "indoctrinate our children" with liberal messages — stuff like nurturing the planet, respecting your neighbors, consuming responsibly, and other similarly sick and twisted ideas. *1/2

MIRROR MIRROR With the addition of a fearsome dragon and the sight of Nathan Lane turning into a cockroach, this clearly isn't your ancestor's Snow White. This is evident from the start, as the wicked Queen (Julia Roberts) explains in a snappish voice how she married a benevolent king and, after he disappeared, took control of his kingdom as well as his young daughter Snow White (Lily Collins). The Queen hopes to marry the wealthy Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), but he's smitten with Snow, who has suddenly found herself hiding from the cruel despot in the nearby woods. There, she meets seven dwarfs, but don't expect miners with names like Sleepy, Bashful and Grumpy; these seven are bandits by trade, answering to monikers like Butcher, Wolf and Grub. Mirror Mirror follows the Shrek template of tweaking familiar children's chestnuts with contemporary cracks and characterizations, but while it's classier than that animated blockbuster (no potty humor here), it's also far more tepid, with precious few of the radical revisions displaying any real wit. The romance isn't any better: While Collins and Hammer look good together, they fail to strike any sparks. Roberts, meanwhile, is game but operating inside an undefined character. Is the Queen supposed to be a harmless nitwit? A frightening monarch? A caricature of regal insouciance? With director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar and his writers providing no direction, Roberts is cast adrift, only finding any grounding in her amusing scenes opposite Lane as her mincing manservant. As for the dwarfs, they prove to be an interesting lot, albeit not nearly as entertaining as their cartoon counterparts from Disney's 1938 classic. But it was probably best that they provided this septet with new names, considering that this dull trifle forced me to co-opt the names Sleepy and Grumpy for the duration of its running time. *1/2

SAFE HOUSE Actors often like to brag about how they performed their own dangerous stunts on a particular picture, but how many A-listers can actually claim to have been waterboarded as part of the deal? Yet here's Denzel Washington and his co-workers on Safe House, all revealing on the interview circuit how the two-time Oscar winner refused a stunt double for the scene in which his character, former CIA agent Tobin Frost, gets tortured via a technique that's all the millennial rage among U.S. government leaders. It's an intense sequence, one of the few in a movie that otherwise hits all the familiar marks as it hurtles toward the end credits. Still, a little professionalism can go, if not a long way, at least enough distance to make the ride a painless one, and Safe House is nothing if not slick and steady. Washington's apparently traitorous agent tests the patience of noble novice agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) as both men flee through Cape Town, South Africa, evading the usual band of nondescript thugs. These ruffians are in the employment of — gasp! — a dirty double-crossing official in the Central Intelligence Agency. Could it be the no-nonsense head suit, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard)? The brusque Catherine Linklater (Vega Farmiga)? Or the gracious and sweet-natured David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson)? Honestly, why do scripters even make an effort to hide the identity until the end, when it's apparent from the get-go who will be revealed as the villain? Given the perpetual obviousness in these films, they might as well include a character named Professor Plum, usually found brandishing a lead pipe in the conservatory, and be done with it. **

A SEPARATION This Iranian import, an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, is a rarity: a clarion cry that cuts through the xenophobic clutter and the dense fog of war to show that not everyone "over there" is a boogeyman waiting to jump out of the closet. If that sounds terribly simplistic, just consider where we live — a nation that once used to enjoy daily Terror Alerts to go along with morning coffee and toast, and one where an alarming number of yahoos consider the present POTUS to be a covert Muslim operative. Granted, Tea Party evildoers won't be caught within a zip code of this movie, but even open-minded moviegoers curious to check it out might be surprised how many scenes and situations strike close to home. At the film's center are husband and wife Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), who live in Tehran with their school-age daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) and Nader's Alzheimer's-affected father. Simin wants to move to another country, while Nader wants to remain put — obviously an irreconcilable difference. When a judge turns down Simin's request for a divorce, the pair decide to live apart; even though Nader still has Termeh to help him with his dad, he hires a pregnant woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to serve as the elderly man's caretaker. It's the worst decision he could have made, as misunderstandings and outright lies soon lead to violence and a charge of murder. The success of writer-director Asghar Farhadi's film on the global stage makes perfect sense: An expertly written and directed piece about familial strife, it shares plenty of DNA with similarly domestic efforts like Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer. Yet the palpable tension between the spouses is only part of the equation, as the picture also looks at resentment between classes, the impact of religion on the various characters, the limitations of a rigid judicial system, and the sexual dynamics in a society that, for all its modest gains in the name of equality, still remains a fundamentally patriarchal one. Clearly, A Separation is a movie that's specific in its setting and universal in its issues, in many ways as all-American as it is all-Iranian. ***1/2

THIS MEANS WAR When it comes to the twin businesses of sexual politics and romantic revelations, the number of modern-day comedies that have managed to smartly upend all the tired stereotypes and withering clichés is a dismally small one, sporting a losing ratio comparable to that of the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. This Means War is yet another casualty, losing the battle almost from the start. Chris Pine and Tom Hardy respectively play FDR and Tuck, crack CIA agents who are BFFs until they both fall for the same woman. That would be Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a lonely workaholic who goes from having no boyfriends to having two guys fighting over her. With her best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) offering her dubious advice, Lauren simultaneously dates both studs in order to determine her best match. For their part, FDR and Tuck are utilizing all the espionage tools at their disposal (satellites, wiretaps, etc.) to thwart the other fellow in his amorous advances. In popcorn-picture terms, it has promise, and indeed, there are a couple of sequences in the midsection that fulfill the film's potential. But for the most part, the movie is a clumsy mess, replete with a worthless subplot involving a cardboard Euro-baddie (Til Schweiger) seeking revenge. As far as the characterizations are concerned, they follow the same outdated playbook that's generally kept under lock and key by Katherine Heigl to use in her films. Lauren comes across as a ninny, FDR is insufferable, Trish is like all married women in movies (alcoholic, bitter, and living vicariously through her hot, young, single friend), and Tuck's ex (Abigail Leigh Spencer) has no interest in a sensitive, caring father until she learns he can beat the living hell out of people. It's safe to assume that only Hardy (and his pursed lips) will escape from this debacle unharmed. As for the resolution of the romantic dilemma ... well, let's just say that the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to come up with a worst ending. But then they tack on a ghastly epilogue, and what seemed near-impossible becomes a harsh reality. *1/2

21 JUMP STREET Who, aside from maybe Jonah Hill's agent, saw this coming? In an era in which it frequently seems as if Hollywood can do little else but feed on the festering parts of this nation's kitschy past (The Smurfs, Transformers, etc.), there wasn't exactly a clamoring for a big-screen update of an 80s cop show primarily known for putting Johnny Depp on the map any more than there was a demand for a film based on a board game about battleships. And yet here we arrive at 21 Jump Street, and it actually turns out to be an inviting place to visit. Hill (who co-wrote the script with Michael Bacall) and Channing Tatum respectively play Schmidt and Jenko, two rookie cops assigned to a special unit in which all the officers go undercover as high school students in order to bust various crimes. The outfit's commanding officer (Ice Cube, always a welcome presence) orders the pair to find out who's pushing a deadly drug at a local high school. Jenko, a popular slacker during his own high school days, looks forward to heading back to class, while Schmidt, who was a miserable nerd during that period, dreads it. But they unexpectedly find their social standings reversed, with Schmidt becoming known for throwing killer parties and Jenko hanging out with the chemistry set. 21 Jump Street offers an acceptable number of hearty laughs (albeit most packed during the first half), yet what's most refreshing about the film is how it acknowledges its own narrative absurdities and retreaded tropes in a manner that's neither forced nor self-congratulatory (love the running gag about exploding vehicles). 21 Jump Street wears its cool comfortably, and its nerdiness just as effectively. ***

THE VOW Channing Tatum's best shot at being taken even semiseriously as an actor would be to only make movies with Rachel McAdams for the rest of his life. A fine performer with a vulnerable and disarming beauty, McAdams has previously been romantically linked on screen to Ryan Gosling, James Marsden and Owen Wilson (among others), but it's no major feat to generate chemistry with talented guys like these. But to strike cinematic sparks with a limited stud like Tatum not only requires skill on McAdams' part, it also demands that her co-star somewhat rise to her level. And when The Vow works, it's almost always because of the give-and-take dynamics between the pair. Based on a true story, this centers on Paige and Leo, a madly-in-love married couple whose lives change drastically after Paige loses much of her memory in a car accident. She can remember her life before Leo — her wealthy, right-wing parents (Jessica Lange and Sam Neill), her circle of sorority-sister friends, her slick fiancé (Scott Speedman), her interest in attending law school — but she can't remember anything afterward. That would encompass her career in sculpture, her liberal world view, her switch from carnivore to vegetarian, and, oh yeah, the fact that she has a husband. Thus, it's up to Leo to insure that they get reacquainted, but Claire's having a hard time falling in love with him this time around, as the comfort and security of her life at home are more reassuring to her than sharing an apartment with this perfect stranger. Although McAdams gives the more fully rounded performance, it's Tatum's character who earns the majority of our sympathies, and the actor does just enough right to guarantee our allegiance to his cause. The scenes in which he tries to connect with his equally frustrated wife are the best in the film, and once the story moves past this and settles on Paige's betrayals by those from her past, it gets bogged down in mopey melodrama and never recovers. Still, for those seeking out a love story that doesn't insult the head or the heart through shameless manipulation, the sweetly sincere The Vow mostly fulfills its promise. **1/2

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN Of all the nomination flubs made this past January by the Academy of Harvey Weinstein Arts and Sciences — no Michael Fassbender; only two nominated songs; Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close absurdly in the running — the most egregious mistake was arguably the lack of a Best Actress nod for Tilda Swinton. Her performance in the chilling drama We Need to Talk About Kevin was the best given by a female in either category, lead or supporting. It's a subtle turn in a muted movie, but the low-simmer setting of the project is precisely why it stays with you. Although based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, it seems to be a direct descendant of The Bad Seed, the 1956 thriller with Patty McCormack's Oscar-nominated turn as a murderous moppet (let's not waste time on 1993's similarly themed The Good Son; as a homicidal brat, Macaulay Culkin was about as menacing as an inchworm). Here, the bad seed is the titular boy, son of Eva (Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly, even more miscast here than in Carnage) and older brother to sweet Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). From the moment he popped out of his mother's womb, Kevin's been an absolute terror. But it's when Kevin becomes a teenager (played at this point by Ezra Miller) that he becomes especially surly — and dangerous. None of this is related in chronological order, mind you. Part of the film's power rests in the fragmented manner in which writer-director Lynne Ramsay (co-adapting with Rory Kinnear) presents her story, dropping us into the narrative stream whenever and wherever she sees fit. And because of this structure, she scatters the thematic seeds (bad seeds?) all over the premise, challenging us to decide whether Kevin was born evil, whether he's the victim of a pampered lifestyle (the Scottish Ramsay doesn't appear to find much of interest in American suburbia), whether Eva or Franklin are rotten parents, or, most intriguingly, whether Kevin is merely a mirror image of his mother, a chilly and distant woman who had been reluctant to toss aside her hedonistic lifestyle for the rigidity of marriage and motherhood — in effect poisoning their relationship before her son was even born. I won't reveal whether the movie answers the question or merely checks off "None of the Above," but regardless, We Need to Talk About Kevin is one motion picture that invites post-film conversation. ***

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