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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of April 25 

AMERICAN REUNION Where all the sequels to 1999's American Pie — 2001's American Pie 2, 2003's American Wedding and now American Reunion — go wrong is that none manage the balancing act between sweetness and seediness as well as the original film, instead tipping the scale toward the bawdy end to an unnecessary degree. And yet there's still enough comic invention, to say nothing of that likable cast, to make them easier to take than the subsequent chapters in many other franchises. In American Reunion, everyone ­— and I mean everyone — returns from the first installment (yes, even "the Shermanator"). They're all older but not necessarily wiser, dealing with the rigors and rigidity of 30something life. The gang elects to have an unofficial 13th anniversary reunion, which brings everyone back to their hometown of East Great Falls, Michigan. While the other characters spend their time reminiscing and rebuilding relationships, Jim (Jason Biggs), as always, has it the hardest — and not just because he again gets his penis caught in a compromising position while masturbating. In addition to trying to rekindle the romance in his marriage to Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), he must fend off the advances of an 18-year-old beauty (Ali Cobrin) he baby-sat back in the day as well as lend support to his dad (Eugene Levy), who's been lonely since the passing of his wife. Levy's always a treat, and here he gets to leave the house long enough to party with Stifler (Seann William Scott) and mix it up with Stifler's mom (Jennifer Coolidge). He's the only cast member given any sort of expanded character arc by writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (imported from the Harold & Kumar series), as everyone else pretty much does what's expected of them — and some of them don't even get that much (Tara Reid appears so fleetingly that one wonders if they had to drag her off a Malibu beach and force her to take part). Still, the actors settle comfortably back into their old roles, and Scott seems to take particular relish in reprising his part of the vile, vapid Stifler. **1/2

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

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS Stop me if you've heard this one before. Five college kids head to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, hoping for some r&r. Instead, something evil starts picking them off one by one ... Unless you've spent your own existence in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, there's no way not to be knowledgeable of this setup, which has powered many a horror flick for approximately four decades and counting. But it's guaranteed that you haven't seen anything quite like The Cabin in the Woods, which uses its ordinary, even boring, title to lull us into a false sense of familiarity. In short, this effort from writer-director Drew Goddard and co-scripter Joss Whedon is no cut-rate slasher flick like Friday the 13th or Cabin Fever. This is a particularly difficult film to cover since the less a potential viewer knows, the better — I daresay even the relatively spoiler-free trailer reveals a bit more than what's desirable. So let's just establish what we can ascertain from the movie's opening act. Five likable students — the sweet Dana (Kristen Connolly), the vivacious Jules (Anna Hutchison), the hunky Curt (Chris "Thor" Hemsworth), the quiet Holden (Jesse Williams) and the perpetually stoned Marty (Fran Kranz) — leave the city and head toward the remote cottage owned by Curt's cousin. Meanwhile, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), two men who work in what appears to be a science facility, prattle on about the accident of 1998 and take sizable bets from co-workers. Not enough intel? Sorry, that's all you get here. But rest assured that these two plot strands will eventually find each other. When they do, the film falls into what I believed to be a reversal of misfortune, settling into standard fare with the cynicism elevated to an uncomfortable degree. Silly, shortsighted me. The Cabin in the Woods soon bursts loose from this holding pattern, growing ever more outrageous and entertaining as it barrels toward its take-no-prisoners climax and conclusion. To reveal anything more about this film would be criminal. But did I mention that the happy frog made me laugh out loud? ***1/2

CHRONICLE The exclusive property of the horror genre, the "found footage" style of filmmaking that's been employed in such movies as The Blair Witch Project and Apollo 18 (to name but three of many) has now been co-opted by Chronicle, a picture that's half science fiction, half teen melodrama. With this first push of the envelope's edge, should we now expect, say, a "found footage" musical or a "found footage" Western? Let's hope not, for one of the weaknesses of Chronicle is that its "ff" format plays exactly like the gimmick it most assuredly is. That proves to be an occasional distraction in this surprisingly adept yarn about three high school boys — Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) — who gain telekinetic powers after stumbling into a hole housing what seems to be the kingdom of the crystal skull. But this isn't a family-friendly superhero flick like The Incredibles or Sky High, nor is it a costume-clad wish-fulfillment fantasy like Kick-Ass or Super. Instead, it grounds its science fiction in high school fact while taking uncomfortable detours into Columbine territory. Because even as Matt and Steve, two all-around popular kids, are enjoying their newfound abilities to fly through the clouds or pull harmless pranks on unsuspecting folks, the socially inept Andrew, suffering from a brutal home life (Mom's dying, Dad's a bullying drunk), can't quite contain his extraordinary power and begins to view it as a way to get back at a cruel and insensitive world. Given the low budget, the special effects are astonishing, but that doesn't mean I wanted them to dominate the final portion of the picture. Unfortunately, writer-director Josh Trank and co-scripter Max Landis allow the film to get away from them, moving from sober-minded intrigue to surface bombast. Still, the two men, both making their feature-film debuts, do enough right to insure that Chronicle serves as a potent calling card. **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 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. ***

IN DARKNESS Director Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa, which was all the art-house rage back in the early 1990s, related the true story of a Jewish boy who, during World War II, concealed his identity by pretending to be German and joining the Hitler Youth. For her latest film, Holland again turns to a fascinating footnote from that chapter in history. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, In Darkness centers on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Polish laborer who happens upon a group of Jews hiding from the Nazis in the city's sewers. Socha is hardly cut from the same cloth as Oskar Schindler: He initially decides that he can only protect a handful of them rather than the whole lot, and once he has his chosen few, he takes their valuables in exchange for finding them safe corners in the sewer system and bringing them the occasional food. It's hardly a spoiler to reveal that Socha begins to feel compassion for these unfortunates, but move beyond this expected development and what's interesting to note are the character dynamics at work. At least one Jew, a sturdy fellow named Mundek (Benno Furmann), is certain that Socha will eventually betray them, while others are more hopeful that he'll continue to do the right thing. Socha's wife Wanda (Kinga Preis, who based on her award wins must be the Meryl Streep of Poland) is sympathetic toward the Jewish race but becomes angry when she learns of her husband's risky, personal involvement. And there are several skirmishes among the Jews themselves, with the boredom of 24/7 sewer living understandably taking its toll. Holland and scripter David F. Shamoon (adapting Robert Marshall's book) drag all these various story strands into the light, yet the most striking historical nugget isn't dramatized; instead, it pops up in the closing credit scrawl, a swift blow reminding us that Fate has one helluva wicked sense of irony. ***

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

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL There's a scene in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in which Tom Cruise's agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt must climb up the outside of a tall building with only the aid of a pair of electronic gloves that fasten themselves to any given surface. It isn't enough that it's a towering edifice — it has to be Dubai's Burj Khalifa, merely the tallest building in the world. And it isn't enough that a pair of gloves seem like scarce supplies for a climbing expedition — one of the blasted things must malfunction during the ascent, meaning a single hand is all that prevents Ethan from falling to his doom a hundred-plus stories below. And did I mention that, during the descent, he's a few stories shy of reaching safety, meaning he has to swing around wildly like a pinata that's been whacked a few times in the hopes of propelling himself into an open window? It's utterly ridiculous — and also utterly exciting. The fourth M:I film based on the classic TV series — and the third to be worth a damn (only the second one was a letdown) — this wisely continues the tradition of assigning a different director to each chapter, going from Brian De Palma to John Woo to J.J. Abrams and now to Brad Bird. In making his live-action debut, Bird demonstrates that he's not going to allow a real-world setting to hamper an imagination that had been instrumental in making toon tales like Ratatouille and The Incredibles. The plotline is so hoary that it might as well have come from a 1960s-era Bond flick: A Russian madman (Michael Nyqvist) plans to cleanse the earth via a nuclear war, and it's up to the only active members of the Impossible Missions Force (Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg), plus a government analyst harboring a secret (Jeremy Renner), to take him down. At 135 minutes, the film admittedly overstays its welcome — the coda is particularly draggy, even if it does offer a pair of pleasing cameos — and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is more inscrutable than ever. But for action buffs desperate for a hit to jump-start their hearts, here's a Mission impossible to refuse. ***

THE RAID: REDEMPTION The need for speed is a necessity in successful action flicks, but even doozies like Die Hard and The Fugitive took time out to smell the exposition. This Indonesian import can't be concerned with such niceties: After a prologue that lasts about as long as it takes to brush without flossing — we meet a cop named Rama (Iko Uwais) at home, loving on his pregnant wife before leaving for work — we're immediately thrust into the thick of it. A ruthless crime lord resides on the top floor of a slum building, and a special unit of law enforcement officers is ordered to take him down. Yeah, that's basically the whole show; it's not Shakespeare — heck, it's not even Stephenie Meyer — but who needs complexity when the end result is as purely entertaining as what's presented here? The Raid: Redemption works best as pure, unadulterated, uncut action — it's like cocaine for adrenaline addicts. While the film can't help but stir memories of countless other actioners, particularly those set within carefully controlled buildings (Die Hard, Assault on Precinct 13, Attack the Block), its moves are all its own, thanks primarily to the contributions of star, stuntman and martial arts expert Uwais. The hand-to-hand combats are breathtaking to behold, and Welsh-born writer-director Gareth Evans also knows how to obtain maximum returns from the ample scenes which focus on gunplay rather than fist fights. The characters are painted in such broad — or, in a couple of instances, clumsy — strokes that only two really stand out. One, of course, is Rama, thanks to Uwais' natural charisma. The other is a villainous henchman appropriately nicknamed Mad Dog. Played by Yayan Ruhian, he's a short, wiry man who lives to fight — and kill — with his feet and fists. At one point, he has an opportunity to shoot one of the heroes but chooses instead to lay down his weapon and fight up close and personal, trading kicks and blows until one of them is dead. In most movies, this sort of improbable situation can lead to audience guffaws, but not here. Witnessing the damage Mad Dog can inflict on the human body, a bullet suddenly seems like a pleasant way to go. ***

THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY An adaptation of Mary Norton's classic novel The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty hails from Japan's Studio Ghibli, the only toon factory comparable to Pixar. It's understandable that the original Japanese voices have been overlaid with English ones for many international markets, but considering this dubbing already took place for the picture's UK release — and with noteworthy actors like Atonement's Saoirse Ronan and Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong, to boot — did stateside distributor Disney really need to replace those British voices with American ones? Were they afraid Yank audiences might be too dumb to decipher the King's English? Whatever the daft reason, it's a good bet this film would still work even in Pig Latin, given the usual warmth and attention to detail invested in all Ghibli efforts. The story revolves around the title character (Bridgit Mendler) and her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), inches-tall people who live in their own makeshift home underneath a real house. Warned to avoid human contact at all costs, Arrietty nevertheless strikes up a tentative friendship with a sickly boy (David Henrie), a bond that inadvertently draws the attention of a cruel housekeeper (Carol Burnett). Leisurely related and lovingly crafted (I love how the miniature family uses canceled stamps as wall paintings), The Secret World of Arrietty is an oasis of calm in the normally hyperactive world of toon entertainment. ***

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

THE THREE STOOGES Can anyone who isn't a Stooge fan possibly enjoy The Three Stooges? More to the point, can anyone who is a Stooge fan possibly find merit in this Farrelly misfire? As a longtime groupie of the comic trio of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard (the last-named eventually replaced in succession by Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita), I'm the proud owner of all 190 shorts The Three Stooges made between 1934 and 1959. Tellingly, I don't own the feature films in which they starred, not only because most of these efforts (the majority produced during the 1960s) found the team past their prime but also because with these guys, the less plot the better — we want our nyuks fast and furious. The necessity for brevity is just one of the lessons lost on sibling filmmakers Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who felt the world needed a 92-minute Three Stooges movie starring Three Stooges impersonators. Despite their game efforts, Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso are never able to make us forget that we're not watching Moe, Larry and Curly — they're the cinematic equivalent of cover bands, competently going through the motions in a superficial manner but unable to compete with the real thing. They're tossed into a standard-issue plot concerning the clods' mission to raise a sizable sum of money in order to prevent an orphanage from going under. Smart scripting would have played up the premise of these old-fashioned Stooges set loose in a modern world, but precious few gags even glance in that direction. Instead, the film's jabs at contemporary relevancy take it where we least want it — but most expect it — to go: in the realm of potty humor. There's an endless sequence in which the three use hospital-ward babies as guns, holding up their naked bodies and shooting each other with streams of pee. Still, it's hard to say which is more excruciating, this sequence or the ones that give ample screen time to the open-mouth breathers from Jersey Shore. The same evening after sitting through this screening, in order to wash away the bad taste left by this film, I popped a classic Stooge short into the DVD player — 1940's A Plumbing We Will Go, to be specific. Now that's eye-poking, ear-twisting, nose-tweaking, head-banging entertainment. *1/2

TITANIC James Cameron spared no expense for this re-launch of his 1997 smash, spending millions to convert the film into 3-D. Admittedly, most pictures that weren't originally filmed in that process but were only converted later as an excuse to boost ticket prices have failed to provide much extra oomph to the 2-D imagery (e.g. Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland), but if there's one thing to be said about Cameron, the man knows how to derive the most technological bang for his buck. Titanic in 3-D looks fantastic, employing the format in a way that makes viewers feel as if they're the ones rounding a corridor corner or fighting to stay afloat in that icy Atlantic water. Fifteen years later, the highs and the lows still remain; luckily, what's good about the movie continues to easily outweigh its flaws. The fictional storyline is hoary in the extreme, relying on a "wrong side of the tracks" romance: Shortly after boarding the ship as it prepares to embark on its maiden voyage, poverty-stricken artist Jack Dawson spots socialite Rose DeWitt Bukater and instantly falls for her. In these career-propelling roles, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are excellent, delivering warm, winsome performances that provide their romance with an epic grandeur it certainly wouldn't have attained in less capable hands. The trouble, for both the young lovers and the audience members, is the presence of Rose's fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), a supercilious millionaire who would just as soon push the lower classes off the face of the earth as give them the time of day. As I watched Cal constantly berate the poor, smack Rose around, and try to kill Jack by taking shots at him, I kept wondering why Cameron had elected to leave off a mustache that Zane could twirl at regular intervals — the character is even more cartoonish than actual cartoon character Snidely Whiplash. Yet despite the pesky presence of Cal, it's a credit to Cameron's hot-and-cold screenplay that even as the ship goes down, taking Zane's career with it, we're utterly committed to the plight of Jack and Rose. Their characterizations personalize the second half of the film, which is basically one sustained "money shot." Overlooking a couple of shaky CGI snatches, the effects are superb, and the final submergence of the "unsinkable" craft is absolutely dazzling. ***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. ***

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Before they largely imploded in the mid-1970s, Britain's Hammer Film Productions spent two decades producing lush, atmospheric horror flicks, in the process re-igniting filmgoer passion for classic monster movies and making genre superstars out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Two years ago, the outfit returned to screens with the critically acclaimed, audience-ignored Let Me In, followed that with two barely seen releases, and now offer the decidedly more high-profile The Woman in Black, positioned as a true test of Daniel Radcliffe's drawing power outside the Harry Potter franchise. For the record, Radcliffe is fine; the film, on the other hand, is tepid enough to leave Dracula — the one who looks like Christopher Lee, of course — spinning in his grave. Based on a novel (by Susan Hill) that had already been turned into a successful play and a 1989 made-for-British-TV film, this finds Radcliffe cast as Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer assigned to visit a remote village in order to settle the estate of a recently deceased elderly woman. In the film's best nod to vintage horror, the country rubes all view the newcomer with suspicion and do little to aid him in his task. The reason, it turns out, is that they believe the stomping grounds of the departed is haunted by the title apparition, an evil entity with a sweet tooth for tragedy and children. Both fascinated by the legend and fearful that it might has some basis in reality, Arthur opts to spend the night at the creepy mansion — and it's here where the film primarily jumps the tracks. The best ghost stories are the ones that rely on careful exposition and a pervasive sense of mounting dread to unsettle audiences (The Others and The Orphanage being modern examples), but director James Watkins and scripter Jane Goldman abandon that approach shockingly fast. Instead, this is the sort of spook show that tries to manufacture scares by having something rapidly leap into the frame, startling both the protagonist and many viewers. Usually, it's a cat; here, it's everything but. Yet this type of cheap thrill becomes predictable before long, and unlike the aforementioned simmering sort of supernatural cinema, it will have little shelf life (after all, to quote a great president and humanitarian, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."). It's certainly nice to have Hammer back in business, but let's hope they nail down more promising projects than this one. **

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