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 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
BATTLESHIP The massively budgeted, heavily hyped and supremely awful Battleship isn't the first time the Hasbro game has been seen in some form on the big screen. In 1991's Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, one sequence spoofs the classic chess match from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal by having The Grim Reaper play the board game against Ted ("You have sank my battleship!" the Reaper bitterly concedes). And in 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, two college cuties engage in an imaginative — and utterly disgusting — game they call "Battleshit." The Harold & Kumar variation would have served nicely as the actual name of this new film, which could easily be mistaken for a Transformers sequel except that it's missing Shia LaBeouf's distinct hairdo. Peter Berg, who used to be a mediocre actor before morphing into a mediocre director, apparently wants to be the new Michael Bay (oh, for a time when filmmakers looked up to Hitchcock and Hawks instead!), and I guess give him credit for succeeding. With awful dialogue, dull characterizations and snooze-inducing visual effects — yeah, I'm not so proud that I can't admit to uncharacteristically dozing off for a few minutes during one of the endless battle sequences — Battleship is the sort of mindless mayhem that's defended by fans as "perfect popcorn entertainment." Sure, if you like your popcorn burnt and sticking to the bag. But to tag this as a worthy summer blockbuster is the equivalent of spitting in the faces of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron or any other filmmaker who used to expertly do this sort of thing on a regular basis. A virtual remake of last year's piss-poor Battle: Los Angeles, this adds aliens to the board game template, with our military might going up against dastardly e.t.'s bent on destroying the world -- or, more importantly, the American way of life. Battleship is jingoistic nonsense that shamelessly panders to every demographic — teen boys will ogle at the special effects (and at former Charlottean Brooklyn Decker), young women will dig hunks Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgard (playing unlikely brothers), R&B fans will be excited at the prospect of Rihanna making her film debut (the verdict: meh), and older audiences who should know better will feel all warm and faux-patriotic when the film drags out geriatric naval officers to help fight the invaders. As far as I know, this is only the second movie that's been based on a board game, with Clue having paved the way back in 1985. Let's hope they wait another 27 years before bringing a third one to the screen — it'll take that long to mentally prepare myself for a celluloid take on Hungry Hungry Hippos or Parcheesi. *
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL The Avengers for the elderly demographic, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel replaces the likes of Captain America, Iron Man and Thor with such art-house superheroes as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy. It's a sound ploy releasing this low-key drama as the summer blockbuster race heats up, and it's a worthy sentiment to graciously offer a film for moviegoers both young and old who might not know a Hulk from a Thing. It's just a shame the end result isn't a better movie. It's certainly harmless, undemanding piffle, as a sizable group of British widows and retirees makes its way to a presumably luxurious hotel in India, only to learn that the dilapidated establishment hasn't kept pace with the glitzy, photoshopped advertisements promoting its splendor. Nevertheless, with boyish, eager-beaver owner Sonny Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) promising to make their stay a pleasant one, all the Brits agree to remain, albeit some more reluctantly than others. Judge Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) grew up in India and still loves his childhood home, while government employee Douglas Ainslie (Nighy) and newly widowed Evelyn Greenslade (Dench) are open-minded and excited to see what the country might offer. Conversely, housekeeper Muriel Donnelly (Smith) and Douglas' wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) loathe their surroundings and can't wait to get back to England. For their part, lifelong bachelor Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and constant divorcee Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) don't seem to particularly care where they find themselves, as long as they can score some nookie. Wilkinson and Nighy have some splendid moments, as both actors employ their faces as much as their words to convey their deep-seated admiration for the land, the people and the culture. Other story threads don't fare as well. The travails of Sonny — both romantically and financially — are yawn-inducing and should have been excised. Smith's character is a repulsive, unrepentant racist, but she removes the shackles of her long-held prejudiced views in about the amount of time it takes the rest of us to watch the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. And a painful running gag involving one character's use of Viagra hits the screen about a decade too late. Still, for all its flaws, this Exotic undertaking is sure to get a rise out of audiences growing flaccid at the thought of the season's big-budget action extravaganzas. **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
DARK SHADOWS The TV soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971) was popular thanks to the character of Barnabas Collins, a dapper vampire played by Jonathan Frid. Frid (who recently passed away) wasn't a particularly handsome actor, but such is the seductive allure of suave, well-spoken vampires that they tend to break down resistance across all lines. Still, it's hard to imagine anybody save maybe the most extreme Johnny Depp groupies going all aflutter over the new Barnabas Collins in Tim Burton's big-screen Dark Shadows. How is it possible that a man who just a few years ago stood as one of our most exciting and unconventional actors has now become one of the most predictable, to the point where he threatens to become a parody of himself? A fairly faithful take on the vintage show, the movie features the best production values a studio's money — and Burton's vision — can buy. This is no surprise: Rick Heinrichs won his Oscar for his brilliant set design on Burton's Sleepy Hollow, while Colleen Atwood won one of hers for her elaborate costumes for Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Heinrichs and Atwood are also employed here, and both might be adding to their cabinets of industry accolades. But it used to be that a Tim Burton production offered much more than surface pleasures. Penned by frequent Burton collaborator John August and Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this screen version does hum along nicely for a good while, but it becomes increasingly more diffuse, and it ends with a dreary FX blowout that shares nothing in common with the modest source material. Dark Shadows marks the eighth collaboration between Burton and Depp, and it's quite possible that — to borrow the name of another long-ago TV show — eight is enough. **1/2
DARLING COMPANION Once one of my favorite filmmakers, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan earned Oscar nominations for penning two of the great films of the 1980s (The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist) and one of the forgotten gems from the early '90s (Grand Canyon). He also had a hand in co-scripting three classic fantasy flicks: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But Darling Companion, his first film in nine years, is so poorly written that one wonders if even serving as a spellchecker on a fanboy blog would now be outside his reach. OK, that's harsh, but the frustration is understandable: In addition to wasting Kasdan's own time, Darling Companion also strands a sterling cast in a dog about a dog. Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline headline as Beth and Joseph, a wealthy couple experiencing marital discord. After Beth, with her grown daughter Grace (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss) in tow, rescues a dog from the side of the road, she decides to keep the pooch and name him Freeway. Later, when Beth and Joseph stay at their vacation home in the Rockies with assorted family and friends (among them Dianne Wiest and Richard Jenkins), Freeway runs away, and everyone on hand — including a sheriff with kidney-stone issues (Sam Shepard) and, get this, a psychic gypsy (Ayelet Zurer) — spends the next few days combing the area for signs of the missing mutt. If The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is, as I recently suggested, The Avengers for the elderly, then Darling Companion might qualify as Battleship for that same demographic: Far too much of it meanders, it requires little of its actors, and it's extremely noisy (with the explosions replaced by loud, strained arguments between the characters). But Freeway is an absolute charmer — would that the movie had spent its time on his adventures in the woods than on the dullards who ultimately seem incapable of finding a book in a library. *1/2
THE DICTATOR Love it or hate it, Borat, the 2006 mockumentary that turned Sacha Baron Cohen from a minor cult figure into a bona fide star, pushed the envelope in new and unexpected ways. And while it registered as a disappointment, so did Cohen's 2009 Bruno, which again found the filmmaker placing a fictitious character in real-world settings. It was probably too much to hope that The Dictator would operate in the same fashion, and indeed, Cohen has added something to the picture that prevents it from completely succeeding: a plot. The early going is hilarious, as we witness how Cohen's Admiral General Aladeen rules the North African country of Wadiya (that is to say, cruelly and ineptly). But formula filmmaking quickly sets in. Aladeen's right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) plots to have his leader assassinated so the West can tap the country's vast oil supply; the scheme really kicks into gear when Aladeen arrives in New York to address the United Nations. Instead, he winds up hiding out, aided by a spunky feminist named Zoey (the talented Anna Faris, stymied by a drab role) and hoping to stop the simpleton who's doubling for him from signing a contract that would turn Wadiya into a democracy. The picture never runs completely dry — a sequence aboard a helicopter is simply priceless, and Aladeen delivers an amusing speech in which the similarities between Wadiya and the United States are made pretty clear — but even long before Aladeen starts making puppy-dog eyes toward Zoey, it's clear that finally, perhaps irrevocably, Hollywood has conquered Sacha Baron Cohen rather than the other way around. **1/2
THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT It would be both obnoxious and inaccurate to quip that The Five-Year Engagement feels as if it runs as long as the titular length, but there's no denying that this is one movie that would have benefitted from some judicious trimming in the editing room. At 125 minutes, the latest comedy from the director (Nicholas Stoller), star (Jason Segel) and producer (who else but Judd Apatow) of the superior Forgetting Sarah Marshall doesn't sound especially long — it's the exact same running time as the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, which was the perfect length. Yet by unleashing most of its best gags during the first act, and by sprinkling its dramatic moments around like a sous chef adding just a soupcon of parsley to an order of grilled trout, that leaves plenty of time for the film to develop a noticeable sag around the middle. Speaking of sous chefs, that's the role essayed by Segel: He plays Tom Solomon, a highly respected member of San Francisco's culinary scene. His girlfriend is Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), and it's only after he pops the question that Violet is beckoned to the University of Michigan for a postdoctoral position. Deciding to put his own career on hold while she builds hers, Tom agrees with Violet that they should postpone the wedding for two years and move to Ann Arbor. Tom, who can only find work at a deli, hates living there, and when it looks like the two years might stretch into something longer, he loses it in rather imaginative fashion. The late film critic Pauline Kael famously said of the popular Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pairing, "He gave her class and she gave him sex." In this film, Blunt provides both the class and the sex, but Segel nevertheless brings enough easygoing charisma and sly wit to the table to make them a believable screen couple. While this is evident in the scenes in which they make doe eyes at each other, it's crucially also identifiable in the sequences in which their characters are at odds with each other. There's a terrific bit in which the two argue in bed, replete with the sort of acidic asides, frustrated exchanges and oddly understandable oxymorons ("I want to be alone ... with you here!" — a great line) that spring from real life. Scenes like this make the lowbrow moments even more unworthy of inclusion here, whether it's the sight of Violet getting walloped by an opening car door or the increasingly tedious banter between Violet's colleagues at the university. If they had kept all the drama and halved the humor, The Five-Year Engagement would have truly distinguished itself. As it stands, it's engaging but hardly revelatory. **1/2
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. ***
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 "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
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
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
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
PROMETHEUS Certain to reign as the best disappointment of 2012, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, the heavily hyped prequel-of-sorts to his 1979 classic Alien, is a work whose visual splendor can't be denied but whose narrative content will divide audiences as swiftly and completely as the executioner's ax separated Marie Antoinette's head from everything else. This is clearly the type of movie that rewards viewers who put their faith in it, but that's not to diminish the frustrations of those who grow tired of trying to play along. Certainly, there's enough dopiness on display in the more straightforward storytelling -- "Aw, what a cute alien! I'll try to pet it just like a kitty cat!" -- to bring the brainier aspects of the screenplay into question, but fans of science fiction -- and fans of Alien -- could do a lot worse. After a mysterious, stand-alone prologue that brings to mind the opening sequence in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey more than it does Scott's original Alien, the film introduces us to scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who have just made a wondrous cavern discovery that suggests aliens were once among us. Fast-forward a couple of years to a familiar sight in the Alien series: a spaceship in which all of the human occupants (including Elizabeth and Charlie) are in deep sleep, headed to a distant planet with the possibility of making contact with extraterrestrial lifeforms. The only one not slumbering is David (Michael Fassbender), an android who passes his time shooting hoops and repeatedly watching Lawrence of Arabia. Once the crew members awaken, we get to meet the rest besides Elizabeth and Charlie: chilly mission leader Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), sensible ship captain Janek (Idris Elba), and other assorted passengers, some so dumb that their inevitable demise can be happily chalked up to the thinning of the gene pool. Prometheus is ofttimes a mess, but it's a beautiful mess, full of grand sights and even grander ideas. It neatly ties into the Alien universe without being slavishly devoted to it, and some of the set pieces compare admirably to ones from the first two franchise films. Fassbender takes top honors, playing Michael as 2001's HAL personified -- although whether he's ultimately a heroic droid or a villainous one won't be revealed here. I also responded to Rapace's quiet strength, Elba's empathic streak and Theron's ruthless rationale. The rest of the performances are disposable, keeping in line with the ill-fated characters they animate -- characters as doomed as the chances of this interesting oddity ever reaching the lofty pop-culture heights of the 1979 gem that gave birth to the whole cycle. In space, no one can hear you scream, but in a movie theater, everyone can see you shrug. ***
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
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. ***
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING Following in the footsteps of He's Just Not That Into You, Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve comes What to Expect When You're Expecting, another all-star idiocy that strands a number of good (and some not-so-good) actors in several thematic vignettes of competing dopiness. This adaptation of Heidi Murkoff's nonfiction guide is a tad improvement over the aforementioned titles, largely because it doesn't go out of its way to insult the intelligence of its viewers. That's not to say the picture is particularly funny or insightful, but at least it's relatively painless. Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez, deemed first among equals (in other words, they're the only performers here who receive top billing and aren't integrated into the rest of the alphabetically arranged cast) are two of the five women facing the prospect of mommyhood. Diaz's fitness guru is pregnant, as are Elizabeth Banks' author, Anna Kendrick's food-truck manager and Brooklyn Decker's trophy wife. For her part, Lopez's photographer is planning to adopt an Ethiopian baby. All five women have somewhat supportive — and extremely vanilla — husbands or boyfriends, so don't expect to see any single moms here. Also don't expect to see any gay couples, any discussions of abortion (even though one struggling character unexpectedly finds herself with child), any worries about the financial hardships of raising an infant (Lopez loses her job but lands another one in precious little screen time), or any suggestions that childless folks can be just as happy as ones in possession of little bundles of joy. Like Battleship, this movie must cater squarely to Middle America; otherwise, what was the point of making the darn thing? *1/2
"Comes close to the original" "the smartness of the script" What movie were you watching?
Absolutely right about Ox Bow Incident.
Absolutely right about Ox Bow Incident.