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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Aug. 31 

Movies include The Expendables 2, ParaNorman, more

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Perhaps it's best to think of Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man and Marc Webb's 2012 The Amazing Spider-Man as the cinematic equivalents of Coke Classic and New Coke. Despite some alterations to the source material (hey, where's Gwen Stacy?), the Raimi take earned the trust of most purists, offering a near-perfect Peter Parker in Tobey Maguire, treating the origin story in appropriate fashion (right down to the introduction of Spidey in that wrestling ring), and adding the right dash of humor that was long present in the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Webb's new version, on the other hand, is an unnecessary variation on the real thing ™, sweetening the formula to go down easier for today's sugar-rush audiences. Suddenly, Peter Parker is no longer the ultimate outsider, the self-deprecating, geeky kid who locates the hero buried deep within himself. Now, he's the poster boy for the iPhone generation, a surly hipster who, oh yeah, just happens to also be a superhero. The film's problems begin with the casting of Andrew Garfield as our teen hero. It was easy to believe that Maguire would be a high-school whipping boy, but Garfield? The actor tries his hardest, but when it looks as if Peter Parker just stepped out of a GQ photo shoot (right down to the perfectly coifed hair), it's hard to take him seriously as someone who's perpetually ignored by girls and harassed by guys. (Far more believable is Emma Stone as Peter's lady love Gwen Stacy.) Visually, the picture strikes all the right notes (even if Spidey's swings are a bit too neatly choreographed), although the same can't be said for a script that went through at least two revisions before reaching the screen. What's most surprising — and frustrating — about the film is that there's little human dimension to it. Raimi took time out to examine the everyday lives of Maguire's Peter and Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, but Garfield's Peter and Gwen are given little time for such introspection, with the script busily racing from one crisis or conspiracy to the next. What's more, Webb's movie is on the whole rather humorless: Aside from the hilarious Stan Lee cameo, there are few throwaway gags. All of this isn't to say that this reboot should completely get the boot. On the contrary, The Amazing Spider-Man is acceptable hot-weather entertainment, filled with the types of colorful characters, frenetic action sequences and high-flying special effects we've come to expect from our multiplex outings. But it's clearly no match for Raimi's Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2 (it bests Spider-Man 3, however), and it certainly can't be mentioned in the presence of such genre high points as Superman, The Dark Knight or even this year's The Avengers. **1/2

THE AVENGERS The Avengers is, quite simply, a brainy and brawny blast. It's a culmination of numerous super-sagas that have been building toward this moment, and it manages to trump every last one of them. In this instance at least, too many cooks have not spoiled the broth, as writer-director Joss Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn take care to insure that every character has his or her moment to shine. The plot finds Thor's evil half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) conspiring to get his hands on the Tesseract, a cosmic cube that will grant him unlimited power. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the law-enforcement outfit S.H.I.E.L.D., realizes that it's going to take more than one hero to prevent the subjugation of our planet's people, so he sets about getting in touch with all pertinent parties: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Admittedly, it takes time for Whedon and Penn to lay out the exposition — in fact, too much time, considering the Tesseract almost functions as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a plot device that holds dwindling interest for audience members. But once Whedon gets the film up to speed, he never looks back. The midsection is the best part, as the heroes spend more time battling each other than assessing the situation regarding Loki. It's putting it mildly to state that this is a veritable clash of the titans, with oversized personalities rubbing each other raw. As expected, Downey provides the bulk of the humor while Evans and Hemsworth provide the bulk of the beef. Johansson, a bit shaky in Iron Man 2, nicely comes into her own here, providing some softer moments to go along with the expected athleticism. Yet the surprising scene-stealer is Ruffalo, who provides Bruce Banner with a stirring soulfulness that was missing in the portrayals by Eric Bana and, to a lesser extent, Edward Norton. What's more, by employing the motion-capture technique rather than straight-up CGI, this is the first film to absolutely nail the Hulk, who in 2002 laughably looked like a video blip version of Gumby and in 2008 seemed shellacked in green plastic. ***1/2

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD Belonging under the same umbrella of "magical realism" that informed works as diverse as Amelie, Like Water for Chocolate and The Tin Drum, writer-director Benh Zeitlin's feature-film debut centers on 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a headstrong girl from the Louisiana bayou. With her mother long absent from the scene, she lives in a ramshackle home next to that of her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a man whose often harsh manner with his daughter isn't child abuse as much as an extreme — and, given the surroundings, usually necessary — form of tough love. The poor people who populate this community are rich in spirit, so after a brutal storm (obviously Katrina) decimates the area, the survivors elect to engage in a celebration replete with booze and seafood. But Wink, who has already been succumbing to a mysterious ailment, shows no signs of getting better, and Hushpuppy's angst over his condition is compounded by the fact that the melting polar ice caps have released an army of long-extinct aurochs (presented by this film as killer cattle) which is inexorably marching toward Hushpuppy's terrain. Winner of no less than four prizes at Cannes and two at Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild might be a bit too harsh for small children (it's rated PG-13 for "child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality"). That's a shame, since, like Whale Rider before it, the movie offers some valuable life lessons for kids, ones far more heady than the usual "Be yourself" mantra repeated ad nauseam in countless American animated features. This is a story of survival, of recognizing and respecting the rules of the natural world. It's also highly imaginative, doubtless able to charge young minds more than any assembly-line Hasbro adaptation. Wallis proves to be a natural before the camera, and the score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer is exceptional. ***1/2

THE BOURNE LEGACY No Matt Damon? No problem! With the actor having ably tackled the role of Jason Bourne in the trio of films based on Robert Ludlum's best-selling Bourne trilogy — and with attempts at bringing Damon back for a fourth, uncharted Bourne project falling through — the studio has opted to head in another direction with The Bourne Legacy. To be sure, it's about as useless a sequel as, say, More American Graffiti or The Sting II (yes, those films really do exist), and its sole, cynical purpose is to keep a franchise on life support so as to generate a few more box office dollars before the inevitable flatline. Fortunately, Tony Gilroy, who scripted the Damon Bournes, has remained with the project — he's now writer and director — and his continued involvement at least ensures some sort of narrative cohesion. That's not the case initially, as the film does little to welcome back those folks who don't have the original trilogy in their DVD library: In between scenes introducing us to the character of covert operative Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), there's much talk regarding the concurrent actions of Bourne himself, and viewers might need to acclimate themselves to the info overload concerning Treadstone, Pam Landy, Noah Vosen and other keywords that would draw up the series in a Google search. Eventually, the movie settles down and focuses on the efforts of Cross to evade a government that now views him as expendable; his only ally is Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who finds herself similarly disposable. Thanks to Weisz's performance, her character becomes the audience surrogate more than Renner's impenetrable Aaron Cross, who isn't given enough dimension to emerge from Jason Bourne's shadow. The action sequences, a vivid draw in the other films (particularly The Bourne Ultimatum), run hot-and-cold here: A battle inside Marta's home is superbly orchestrated, but a climactic chase through the streets of Manila is overbaked, particularly when one notes that the assassin in pursuit proves to be as indestructible as a T-1000 sent from the future. **1/2

BRAVE Brave is a perfectly pleasant outing, but for a Pixar release, it's frighteningly tame and conventional, with little of the complexity that has marked the majority of the studio's past efforts. If nothing else, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) makes for a vibrant heroine: With marble-smooth skin, flaming red hair seemingly modeled after early-90s Nicole Kidman, and archery skills to rival those of Robin Hood, she's a spirited Scottish lass who, in the best animated tradition, longs for independence and adventure. Her rambunctious father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), admires her earthiness and athletic abilities, but her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), ix nays such activities, insisting that Merida behave like a proper lady in order to land a suitable husband. After Merida shows up her three suitors, the two women have it out, resulting in Merida storming out of the castle and right into a curse that will unite the pair in ways they couldn't have foreseen. There's emotional resonance in the way the bond between mother and daughter evolves over the course of the picture, but it just barely compensates for the nonstarter nature of the big twist that propels all the second-half action. Honestly, this development (spurred by a visit to a witch's cottage) is presented in so slight a manner that I figured it was just an anecdotal interlude, not the central crux of the movie. This wouldn't matter if the filmmakers truly broke ground with the character of Merida, but while she's a memorable heroine, she's no more complicated than, say, Rapunzel in Tangled or Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. The hype declaring that Merida is the first animated heroine to not want a husband not only misinterprets the basic tenets of modern feminism but isn't even accurate (Belle, for one, didn't actively seek a partner; she was initially more interested in acquiring knowledge). As with all Pixar efforts, this is visually outstanding, and there's plenty of rowdy humor to keep audiences entertained. But for a supposedly progressive film, Brave is marked by a notable amount of timidity. **1/2

THE CAMPAIGN Set entirely in North Carolina but filmed entirely in Louisiana — because, Heaven knows, NC has no film industry to call its own, and we certainly don't need those Hollywood dollars — The Campaign casts Will Ferrell as Democratic congressman Cam Brady, a four-term incumbent who expects to waltz unopposed to a fifth term. But an adulterous fling has left him vulnerable, leading the powerful kingmakers the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to back a challenger who could potentially win the district and thereby allow them to build a Chinese sweat shop on U.S. soil. They choose Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a naive and mincing nobody who's described by even his own dad (Brian Cox) as "one sorry fuck." The Republican Marty hopes to win so he can genuinely serve his constituents (yes, the movie is pure fiction), but it's an uphill battle considering Cam's experience on the campaign trail. As the dapper yet duplicitous Cam Brady (modeled after John Edwards?), Ferrell is allowed one or two of his patented freak-out scenes but for the most part keeps his over-the-top shtick in check. Yet the real surprise is Galifianakis. An actor who has aggravated me to no end in all of his screen ventures to date (particularly Due Date and, dare I say it?, The Hangover and its sequel), he adopts the right delivery tone for the sweet, soft-spoken and simple Marty Huggins. Despite its reluctance to swim in the dark-comedy waters explored by Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts or Warren Beatty's excellent Bulworth, The Campaign still manages to hit some topical targets. When Cam's decades-old elementary-school project, a picture book about a make-believe place called Rainbowland, is hilariously used by Marty as a way to discredit the congressman ("Sounds Commie to me!" charges Marty), an audience member at the debate starts screaming at Cam, "I won't live in Rainbowland and you can't make me!" — a nonsensical stance frighteningly similar to those seen by Tea Party chowderheads at their infamous rallies. And the burning desire by politicians to be photographed kissing a baby leads to an uproarious bit. Admittedly, it's ruined for those who have seen the film's trailer, but no worries: Another scene features a popular four-legged star, and it's even funnier. ***

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES The third time's usually not the charm when it comes to blockbuster sagas (X-Men, Spider-Man, The Matrix, need I continue?), but any worries that writer-director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy drives itself off a cliff with this concluding entry are completely ill-founded. The Dark Knight Rises may not match the giddy heights of its predecessors, but it often comes damn close. Set eight years after the end of The Dark Knight, this picture finds Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) lured out of self-imposed isolation by two newcomers to Gotham City: a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Bane (Tom Hardy), a man-mountain so intimidating that even Bruce's faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) urges his master to run the other way. Alfred and a rookie cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) interestingly take turns providing our hero with a moral compass, with the former declaring that Batman needs to save the city and the latter insisting that Bruce Wayne needs to save himself. The beauty of this dichotomy as presented by Nolan (once again co-scripting with his brother Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) is that both men are right, and the challenge for Bruce/Batman is to sacrifice neither Gotham nor his own life. That's a tall order, though, what with Bane instigating a reign of terror that topples the local government, neutralizes the police force, and pits the citizens of Gotham against each other. If there's a flaw in The Dark Knight Rises, it's that the midsection sags: The scenes of Bane taking over could stand being trimmed, and there's a lengthy chunk when Batman seems like a supporting player in his own saga. The film isn't overlong even at 165 minutes, but some of that middle-act excess would have been better served by more Bale, more Caine, and especially more Hathaway. The rumors that the supposedly miscast actress would sink this film were clearly off the mark: Hathaway doesn't quite own the role as Michelle Pfeiffer did in Tim Burton's Batman Returns, but she's nevertheless one of the highlights of this endeavor. Her Selina Kyle (interestingly, she's never called Catwoman in the actual film) is a fascinating character, a possibly bisexual woman (Juno Temple's Holly seems more like her GF than her BFF) whose athletic prowess is matched not only by her sharp intellect but also her quirky sense of humor. She provides The Dark Knight Rises with most of its levity; the rest of the time, this brooding, bruising movie is content building its reputation as a black beauty. ***1/2

THE EXPENDABLES 2 The best thing about The Expendables 2 involves Chuck Norris. I don't mean his performance — he's as awful as ever, showing less range than a mattress pad — but rather that his character manages to work in one of those popular "Chuck Norris Internet facts" that have led to his renewed popularity (e.g. "Chuck Norris drinks napalm to quell his heartburn"; "Chuck Norris counted to infinity ... twice"). I won't ruin the Norris "fact" used in the film, but it provides one of the few genuine laughs, and it's certainly better than the forced wisecracks centering around iconic figures formerly played by co-stars Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A marginal improvement over the first Expendables romp, this sequel offers expanded roles for Willis and Schwarzenegger (whose appearances in the first film amounted to nothing more than cameos), casts another 80s action star as the villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme as ... groan ... Jean Vilain), and, perhaps in a dubious attempt to expand the audience beyond action-crazed young males, adds group newcomers in the form of a pinup heartthrob (The Hunger Games' Liam Hemsworth) and a kick-ass woman (Nan Yu). The team's mission is twofold: Stop Vilain from using his plutonium supply to conquer the world and exact their revenge on said villain for murdering one of their own. Director Simon West's action flicks tend to be cluttered, choppy affairs (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Con Air), and The Expendables 2 is no exception. As the team leader and his right-hand man, Stallone and Jason Statham awkwardly exchange male-bonding barbs. One of the franchise stars appears only at the beginning, leaving audiences to wonder if he was downed by pneumonia for the rest of the shoot. Schwarzenegger, whose Botoxed mug makes him look like a CGI creation, lamely tries on Willis' signature "yippee-ki-yay" and finds it to be an ill fit (Willis fares better with Arnie's "I'll be back"). And so it goes. The movie is, at best, average as a straight-up action flick and subpar as an action spoof, but it succeeds in one regard. Conservatives upset that they couldn't afford to have attended the Republican National Convention in Tampa can purchase a ticket to this picture at their local multiplex and basically enjoy the same experience. Watching diehard right-wingers Willis, Schwarzenegger, Norris and Stallone shooting up everything in sight, one can easily imagine both the anti-Obama cracks and pro-NRA comments that were doubtless being tossed about when the cameras weren't rolling. **

HOPE SPRINGS It should have been this summer's Julie & Julia or The Devil Wears Prada: a delightful Meryl Streep vehicle inclusive enough to sport a PG-13 rating but specifically geared toward mature moviegoers seeking a respite from blockbusters aimed at younger audiences. Hope Springs evereunites the actress with her Prada director, David Frankel. Yet despite the star teaming of Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, the picture is a letdown, saved from complete irrelevance by, you guessed it, the superlative turns by the two leads. The premise is more than merely promising, centering on a long-married couple who attempt to salvage their stale relationship by spending a week at an out-of-town counseling retreat. Kay (Streep) is the unhappy one, tired of leading a passion-free life and eager to give the program a chance. Arnold (Jones) is the complacent one, satisfied with his utterly predictable (and utterly dull) existence and prone to complaining nonstop once his wife manages to get him to the seminar. It's a provocative setup, and with the added attraction of Steve Carell as the counselor, it sounds like it can't miss. Unfortunately, scripter Vanessa Taylor does remarkably little with this choice idea. She neuters Carell with a part that requires no depth or variation — it's the first time I've ever seen this talented comedian rendered dull — and she initially makes Arnold such an unpleasant man that his inevitable about-face feels more than a little forced. That we stick with the character at all is a testament to Jones' acting abilities; Streep's sympathetic spouse means she has an easier time of it, but she still goes beyond the call of script duty to insure that we suffer right alongside this woman. But the two thespians can only do so much with the frequently clinical dialogue, and the scenes in which the couple try to be intimate (as per the counselor's instructions) are undermined by cheap shots at the notion of old folks getting it on. At least the Viagra cracks are kept to a bare minimum. **

THE INTOUCHABLES Based on a true story, this global smash centers on the relationship between Philippe (Francois Cluzet), a millionaire who's been a quadriplegic ever since a paragliding accident, and his caretaker Driss (Omar Sy), an ex-con from the projects who reluctantly accepts the position even though he had planned on continuing to collect those welfare checks. Philippe is cultured, reserved, but not without a sense of humor; Driss is boisterous, crude, and willing to joke about anything. Philippe appreciates that Driss doesn't pity him — if anything, Driss goes out of his way to mock his employer's immobile condition, his love for the arts, and his taste in music (he asserts that Bach was an "18th century Barry White") — and it's not long before the men come to genuinely care for each other. There's been some criticism regarding the decision of writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano to turn Driss into a black man (something he wasn't in real life), but I'm inclined to think that choice was made in order to cast the popular comedian Omar Sy in the role. Still, the film's examination of class differences is often heavy-handed and condescending — when Driss, who shares a tiny bathroom in his slum home with a half-dozen family members, first spots the luxurious bathroom that will be his and his alone in Philippe's house, did we really need to hear Franz Schubert's angelic "Ave Maria" playing in the background? Some plotting issues also threaten to undermine the goodwill generated by both the film and its characters. At one point, Philippe elects to send Driss back to the projects to tend to his family, a decision that makes no sense considering Philippe's enormous wealth (he couldn't have helped the family himself?) and the dead-end options available to Driss there. (If this vignette was based on fact, the real-life Philippe suddenly becomes a lot less appealing, though of course here his decision is framed as a noble one.) Thankfully, the performances hold everything together. Especially noteworthy is Sy, who's strong in the dramatic moments and even better when his character is allowed to cut loose and display a skewered joie de vivre. He rises to the top even when the script tries to hold him down. **1/2

MAGIC MIKE Less of a Saturday Night Fever and more of a Friday evening shrug, Magic Mike follows the template of that John Travolta disco tale by starting off as a bright movie full of dance moves and music before turning into something decidedly darker. Channing Tatum, working from a screenplay that was loosely based on his own days as an exotic dancer, stars as Mike, the hottest male stripper working at a joint owned by the silky-smooth Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike dreams of one day opening his own custom-furniture shop, but for now, he's content doing the bump-and-grind, along the way pegging 19-year-old slacker Adam (Alex Pettyfer) as a natural for this line of work. Adam is nicknamed "The Kid," although thankfully nobody ever utters that age-old adage, "You're going out there a kid, but you're coming back a star!" Yet a star is precisely what Adam becomes, which leads to the expected second-half hardships focusing on his plunges into drug use and casual sex. Yet because Adam was a zero from the moment we met him, this descent into debauchery doesn't reflect any significant character change, and it's hard to get worked up over his fate. Far more interesting is Mike and his relationships with those around him (including Adam's sister, nicely played by Cody Horn). And even more interesting would have been a deeper analysis of the exotic-dancer business, such as why male strippers are generally viewed by the population at large as fun-loving party guys while female strippers are often tagged in more tragic (and puritanical) terms. But Magic Mike has no time for such complexities: It's only here to take your money, offer some slick entertainment, and clear the room before the next show. **1/2

MEN IN BLACK 3 It's been 15 years since the release of the delightful Men in Black and a decade since the escape of its lamentable first sequel, and in the interim, audiences have been clamoring for another follow-up only slightly more than they've been jonesing for another Home Alone entry — that is to say, not much at all. It's not that the original MiB doesn't have its legion of fans — hell, I'm one of them — but when a studio waits this long to make another film in a popular franchise, it doesn't boast of creative revitalization as much as it smacks of cast and crew members looking for an easy paycheck via a product with name recognition. The surprise regarding Men in Black 3, then, is that great chunks of it display true wit and imagination. Ultimately, it still proves to be a bit long in the tooth, but a few bits manage to do the series proud. Once again, we find Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) still patrolling extraterrestrial activity on Earth and making sure no malevolent aliens are threatening the planet. But K's old nemesis, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), has just escaped from a lunar maximum-security jail, where he's been imprisoned since K first captured him approximately 40 years ago. Now running free back on Earth, Boris utilizes a time-travel device to take him back to 1969, where he plans to kill K before the agent can apprehend him. Learning of this plot, J has no choice but to follow Boris back in time, where he ends up meeting the younger K (Josh Brolin). The time-travel material is often anemic and underdeveloped, with the film rarely taking advantage of its placement of the thoroughly modern J in the 1960s. One exception: The agents visit Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) at The Factory, and the artist's true identity, as well as his purpose, are not what viewers will be expecting. This great scene also introduces a unique new character in Griffin (sweetly played by A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg), a strange being with the ability to simultaneously see different futures play out. Ably adopting Jones' mumbly demeanor, Brolin does a bang-up job portraying the younger Agent K. But since he's MIA for this entire midsection of the movie, Jones doesn't have time to reestablish his rapport with Smith, and their chemistry is off to a startling degree — so much, in fact, that it's almost as if they had applied the movie's iconic Neuralyzers on themselves and forgotten their previous co-starring ventures. **1/2

PARANORMAN The stop-motion animated feature ParaNorman arrives courtesy of the same production company (Laika Entertainment) responsible for Coraline and Corpse Bride, so parents had best not take their small fry to the theater expecting to see talking cars or dancing penguins or anything else that would send the wee ones off to Dreamland with a smile on their face and a teddy bear (not Ted, of course) in their arms. Instead, this PG-rated attraction is open season on any child who's still afraid of the dark, so it's best to leave them at home watching A Bug's Life for the umpteenth time. Everyone else, though, can expect a good time from this imaginatively designed and sharply scripted tale about young Norman (voiced by The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sensitive boy who, like Haley Joel Osment, sees dead people. This ability makes him the freak of his town (aptly named Blithe Hollow, a nod to both Noel Coward and Washington Irving), and only the equally lonely Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the butt of endless fat jokes, wants to be his friend. But when Norman's estranged uncle (John Goodman) warns him that Blithe Hollow will soon be destroyed by a centuries-old witch's curse, it's up to Norman and Neil — reluctantly accompanied by the school bully (Christopher "McLovin" Mintz-Plasse), Norman's shallow sister (Anna Kendrick) and Neil's lunkheaded brother (Casey Affleck) — to uncover the witch's secret, fend off shuffling zombies, and prevent the panicky townspeople from obliterating their own community. In the wake of toon blockbusters like Brave and the Ice Age and Madagascar sequels, this charming and often very funny piece is bound to get lost in the crowd, but in the chance it makes it to Blu-ray and DVD by Halloween, it's a sound choice to pop into the player ... provided the tots are in the next room watching It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. ***

PREMIUM RUSH Even if Premium Rush hadn't had me at "Hello," it certainly would have had me at "Forrest J Ackerman." A movie built around a bicycle messenger is a risky venture — as an adrenaline-pumper, it sounds about as promising as Driving Miss Daisy — but writer-director David Koepp invests in our need for speed right from the first frame. Employing stylish graphics and a muscular shooting style, he immediately thrusts us into the story of Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a New York City bike messenger who gets high off his breakneck job. Enter Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a corrupt cop who simply must obtain what's inside the envelope that Wilee is presently carrying to an unassuming shop in Chinatown. Since most of Bobby's actions are illegal, he's forced to provide a fake name whenever anybody asks him to identify himself. So he goes with Forrest J Ackerman. The late, great Ackerman — a childhood hero, it should be stated — was the editor of the influential magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, and it's just the sort of pop-culture factoid one can expect from Koepp, whose previous credits as a screenwriter include such exciting franchise-starters as Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and Mission: Impossible. But Koepp (sharing scripting duties here with John Kamps) has more on his mind than in-joke asides. Despite its A-list credentials, Premium Rush feels like a B-movie beauty, smaller in scale than its summer brethren yet outclassing most of them with giddy irreverence. It's similar in that respect to 2009's A Perfect Getaway, another under-the-radar thriller and one that sadly never found its audience. This new picture is even better, full of plot pirouettes yet still managing to get on and off the screen in a lean 90 minutes. Gordon-Levitt again demonstrates that he's one of Young Hollywood's best hopes, Shannon is terrific as a dirty cop whose quirky sense of humor remains intact even as his desperation mounts, and rising actresses Dania Ramirez and Jamie Chung excel in roles pivotal to the plot. If anyone wants to end the summer with a bang, this beats even the fireworks. ***1/2

SAVAGES The voice-over narrator of this nitwit claptrap is Ophelia (Blake Lively), who long ago shortened her name to O to avoid comparisons to Shakespeare's tragic heroine. Not coming across as particularly well-read, O doubtless did not realize that she now shared her name with the title character from Anne Desclos' controversial Histoire d'O (The Story of O), the erotic tale about sadomasochism. This new designation makes more sense, however, since Savages' characters practice sadism in their dealings with one another while viewers have to be masochistic to sit through this torturous affair. Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson play Chon and Ben, two California dudes responsible for cultivating the best marijuana in the entire world (America, fuck yeah!). Their wacky weed is so awesome, in fact, that a Mexican drug kingpin — uh, queenpin? — named Elena (Salma Hayek) insists on merging their operations, a proposal the boys shoot down. This displeases Elena, so she sends her top enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to kidnap the boys' shared lady love, O, in an effort to force them to cooperate. O no! How will the bad-ass Chon manage to chill long enough to formulate a sensible plan? How will the Buddha-spouting, go-green Ben be able to channel Rambo long enough to kill when necessary? And, most importantly, when did John Travolta's noggin take the shape of a bowling ball? Yes, Travolta's in this turkey, as a cheerfully corrupt DEA agent playing both sides. He's far more engaging than the three youthful leads, as are Hayek and Del Toro (even if the latter's character comes off as a poor man's Anton Chigurh). Savages is based on the novel by Don Winslow, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone and Shane Salerno. It should be noted that no less than Michael Bay once called Salerno's work on the script for Armageddon "brilliant." Coming from a filmmaker like Bay, that's mighty worthless praise indeed. At any rate, not having read Winslow's novel, it's difficult to ascertain who deserves the lion's share of the blame for not only the atrocious cop-out ending that left the preview audience groaning but also the ghastly dialogue that dogs the picture every time O feels the need to share her inner monologues. Viewer agony begins right near the start, as she describes her boffing sessions with the battle-scarred Chon: "I had orgasms; he had 'wargasms.'" Yow. Haven't Writers Guild of America memberships been revoked for less? *1/2

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN Let's get the obvious out of the way: Snow White and the Huntsman, the year's second big-screen outing centered around a forlorn princess, a wicked queen and a magnificent seven, is infinitely superior to Mirror Mirror, which proved to be about as appetizing as a worm-infested apple. If it isn't a complete success, that's because its ambitions are often thwarted by its execution. Kristen Stewart embodies the most independent Snow White yet seen on film, and if she doesn't always seem comfortable in the role, she's certainly an improvement over Mirror Mirror's bland Lily Collins. Too busy to waste time washing the dwarves' dishes and waiting for her prince to come, she stands alongside all men (including Chris Hemsworth as the title huntsman) as they unite to bring down the fearsome, supernaturally endowed queen (Charlize Theron) who has usurped Snow's rightful claim to her kingdom. An accomplished director of television commercials, Rupert Sanders makes his feature debut with this picture, and his vision, tag-teamed with those of production designer Dominic Watkins, thrice-Oscar-winning costumer Colleen Atwood and the CGI gang, results in a rich look for the film, with its expansive kingdoms and daunting forests. Unfortunately, the story ultimately becomes more Tolkien than Grimm, with extraneous additions and radical reworkings meant to assuage moviegoers weaned on the Peter Jackson trilogy. Theron is excellent as the vicious ruler who, in a nice bit of unstated hypocrisy, rails against the tendency of men to suck the youth out of fair maidens before discarding them but then proceeds to do likewise in her own sorcerous way. She's a scary figure, a perfect counterpoint to Stewart's equal-opportunity Snow White. What doesn't represent equal opportunity is the decision to cast name actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, etc.) as the dwarves and cut them down to size via visual effects. Mirror Mirror at least had the decency to cast real dwarves — with so few roles available to little people, the route taken by Snow White and the Huntsman is an unfortunate one, and really no different than if the makers of the recent hit Think Like a Man had decided to cast all the principal parts with white actors in blackface. **1/2

TED Rude, raunchy and decidedly non-PC, Ted finds writer-director Seth MacFarlane managing to wring every last drop of comic potential out of a dubious premise. We first meet Ted during the 1980s, when friendless child John Bennett receives him as an ordinary Christmas present and, thanks to a well-timed falling star, discovers that his wish to have a live teddy bear has come true. Ted naturally becomes a celebrity, even appearing alongside Johnny Carson in a bit of Forrest-Gump-meets-JFK sleight of hand, but he's forgotten over the ensuing decades, and he now spends his time on the couch, sharing bong hits with the grown-up John (Wahlberg). John has a loving girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), and while she's been generally good-natured about the friendship between John and Ted, she realizes that it's time John accepts adult responsibility so they might consider a real life together. She basically makes John choose between her and the bear, and it's to the film's credit that she's not presented as an overbearing (no pun intended) shrew but as the most sensible person in the picture. John does indeed give adult life a try, and Ted even gets his own apartment and lands a job as a grocery store clerk. But with so many parties to attend and so many bongs to tap, it's hard for the best buds to remain apart for long. Prostitutes, rich doofuses, fat kids, 9/11, Jews, 80s music, Susan Boyle, James Franco, testicular cancer — pretty much everything's open for funny business in Ted. Flatulence gags and gay-panic riffs — two long-standing faves of man-boys like MacFarlane — make appearances, and it's no surprise that these bits are the ones that most frequently fail to hit their marks. But favorably adding to the mirth are some superb cameos — not the lazy sorts that mark too many other modern comedies, but ones that are expertly woven into the fabric of the story. Whether he's wooing Kunis or roughhousing with Ted, Wahlberg is a lively presence in this film. As for Ted, we have no problem accepting him as a living, breathing entity, thanks to the effects work that seamlessly places him in the thick of the action. To be honest, I'm more impressed with the comparatively low-tech look of Ted than the been-there-done-that razzle dazzle of The Amazing Spider-Man — a startling declaration that might make some wonder if I've spent too much time myself on that couch with the bong-banging bear. ***

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

TOTAL RECALL Author Philip K. Dick wrote "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" in 1966 — a short story, it told of a working-class man who, long wanting to travel to Mars (which in this future setting has been colonized), visits a corporation that specializes in memory implants. But as the procedure gets under way, it seems as if he has actually been to Mars, previously working there as a secret agent with a license to kill. In 1990, director Paul Verhoeven and various screenwriters took this premise and expanded on it, turning the short story into the feature-length Total Recall and having their protagonist actually visit Mars rather than just remembering it. This version has recently been re-released on Blu-ray, so it's easy to revisit it and notice just how much the 2012 take manages to reduce the scope of the story, turning it from spectacle to footnote. Colin Farrell tackles the Arnold Schwarzenegger role: He plays Douglas Quaid, whose trip to the memory-implant joint unleashes disturbing memories that suggest his present life — complete with boring job and hot wife (Kate Beckinsale as Lori) — isn't exactly what it seems. Sure enough, Quaid finds out that he's no ordinary laborer but rather a highly skilled government operative who switched sides and joined the rebels to topple the existent, and oppressive, hierarchy. Seeking to further establish his true identity, he hooks up with his former squeeze, a freedom fighter named Melina (Jessica Biel), and her comrades in arms. Director Len Wiseman and his scribes have completely removed the Martian element found in Dick's story and Verhoeven's film, electing to keep the action earthbound. Restricting Total Recall to Earth is a dubious decision, but whatever — as long as the movie delivers the goods, I guess it ultimately doesn't matter if it's set on Earth, Mars or Tatooine. But without the enjoyable Mars material, Wiseman and company do nothing to fill in the blanks. The movie is just the usual CGI soullessness, relentless in its narrative monotony. It especially devotes an ungodly amount of screen time to a series of endless chases — so many, in fact, that I had to wonder if the performers were being paid by the mile. The picture offers fleeting homage to Verhoeven's original — the three-breasted prostitute! the stocky woman at customs! — but it displays little innovation it can call its own. Instead, it offers explosions full of sound and fury but signifying nothing so much as yet another tiresome endeavor with little on its mind. *1/2

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