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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of June 29 

Movies include Brave, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, more

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

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

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

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 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

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

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS A different sort of booty call can be found in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which sails the rough waters of a genre that's recently been overexposed due to at least one Pirates of the Caribbean sequel too many. The latest effort from Aardman Animations, the outfit responsible for Chicken Run, Arthur Christmas and the wonderful Wallace & Gromit canon, this rollicking yarn feels far more conventional than the studio's previous efforts, trafficking in the same sorts of themes that have been the bread and butter of Disney for decades and every other studio's toon department in more recent times. The story concerns the efforts of the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) to show that he deserves the title of Pirate of the Year, awarded to the seafaring scoundrel who accumulates the largest amount of loot. While such true terrors of the sea as Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) laugh at him, the hapless Pirate Captain tries his best to plunder and pillage, to no avail. It's only after he becomes involved with the duplicitous Charles Darwin (David Tennant), a scientist who realizes the value of the captain's pet Dodo bird, that matters begin to swing his way, at least temporarily. The eye-pleasing claymation style revitalized by the studio remains front and center, and the film boasts an unusual villain in Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who loathes pirates and can hold her own in hand-to-hand combat (who knew?). But the other characters are a rather blasé bunch, and the usage of the tattered themes of family, loyalty and being happy with oneself is shockingly rote — the result, perhaps, of using existing source material (novels by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the script) rather than employing the usual Aardman practice of building a work from scratch (where the filmmakers have never been held back by any narrative constraints). TP!BOM fares OK against most modern toon flicks but pales next to other Aardman releases. How a person chooses to rate its success depends on whether one looks at a glass of water and views it as half-full or half-empty. **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. ***

ROCK OF AGES Based on the popular Broadway show, Rock of Ages isn't good enough to recommend and isn't bad enough to qualify as a worthwhile guilty pleasure. Instead, it's a sanitized pop show that makes rock & roll seem about as raw, reckless and dangerous as a class of kindergartners singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider." If real rock were as toothless as what's presented here, Tipper Gore would never have bothered to launch her Holy Crusade back circa the time of the film's 1987 setting. Al's wife can be spotted in Rock of Ages, in spirit if not actual presence. There's a Tipper surrogate in the form of Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the conservative wife of the Los Angeles mayor (Bryan Cranston) who's determined to use their combined political clout to clean up the city. She starts with the Bourbon Room, a struggling nightclub that will close if its owner (Alec Baldwin) can't come up with a lot of cash fast; he pins all his hopes on an appearance by Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a perpetually wasted rock star who pals around with a monkey named Hey Man and treats everyone like dirt. All this activity on screen, and none of it even represents the central plot line. No, that would be reserved for the incredibly banal story about Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), a small-town girl who arrives in LA seeking fame and fortune. She instead finds Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice guy who's working at the Bourbon Room but hopes to break out some day to taste his own slice of the fame & fortune pie. It's all so very trite, mawkish and dull, and neither Hough nor Boneta can muster up anything resembling screen presence. Some of the veterans (Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) don't fare much better, meaning Hall of Fame honors clearly go to Cruise for his radical performance. Boozy and bilious, he's the only one who admirably wallows in the mire, and it's no coincidence that he embodies the film's best numbers. They pump up the volume as desired; the rest of the time, the movie suggests that, in this instance anyway, rock & roll is noise pollution. **

SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD Call it this summer's Garden State. Tag it this season's 500 Days of Summer. No matter what angle is adopted, it's clear that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the sort of topnotch humanist picture that's always appreciated at a time when most other movies are striving to be the biggest and the loudest. Seeking a Friend, on the other hand, is small in scope and focus, even as it touches upon enormous issues. The narrative states that an asteroid is heading to Earth, and as we join the story, we learn that all hope is lost and the planet will only be inhabitable for another few weeks. The beauty of the screenplay by writer-director Lorene Scafaria is how it views the different ways in which people might react to their impending doom. Every single avenue of action rings true. Some party 24/7; others continue to show up for work; some folks go on a destructive rampage; and so on. And then there's Dodge (Steve Carell), who pretty much just wants to be left alone — a desire that goes unfulfilled after he meets his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley). Pairing a buttoned-down man with a quirky free spirit is a plot device that's been employed in hundreds — nay, thousands — of films, but Seeking a Friend takes care not to turn into a standard comedy about a mismatched odd couple. Dodge and Penny aren't presented as extremes, which makes it easier to believe that these two could emotionally and intellectually meet somewhere in the middle. Carell and Knightley are excellent in their respective roles, never overplaying the sentiment and making us believe that their characters can go about their lives even when they know said lives will soon be ending. Given the subject matter, a delicious irony peeks through, since films about the end of the world often tend to be bloated, boring spectacles wherein the characters get lost amidst all the effects (exhibit A: Armageddon). This seriocomedy isn't like that, instead positing that the world will probably end not with a bang and not even with a whimper, but rather with a whisper — one most likely shared between two people whose decency and compassion cannot be snuffed out. ***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

THAT'S MY BOY While a teenager, Donny is seduced by a lusty teacher and ends up impregnating her. The 13-year-old lad is left to raise the child, named Han Solo (ho ho), as a single parent; once the kid becomes an adult (played by Andy Samberg), he understandably changes his name to Todd and severs all ties with his dad. But on the eve of his wedding to the lovely Jamie (Leighton Meester), Todd is aghast when Donny (Adam Sandler) suddenly reenters his life, hoping to make amends but instead leading his son into all manner of trouble. That's My Boy is pretty unbearable, but it's impossible to completely bomb a comedy that sparkles like Chaplin's City Lights when compared to Sandler's cinematic outhouses Jack and Jill and Grown Ups. Regular co-stars Rob Schneider and David Spade are thankfully missing, although screen irritant Nick Swardson is still on hand, here playing a striptease patron who tells an obese dancer to "use my face as your toilet!" Vanilla Ice also figures into the proceedings — not just in one of the obligatory cameos (those are reserved for the the likes of TV star Alan Thicke, former ESPN host Dan Patrick and a certain Oscar-winning actress who should know better) but in a co-starring role as Donny's best friend, Vanilla Ice. That's right: The lame rapper is playing a fictionalized version of himself, but it doesn't exactly set off Being John Malkovich vibes. There's one beautifully staged sequence set on a baseball field, and Todd Bridges of Diff'rent Strokes scores with his bit part. But the rest reeks of R-rated desperation: Samberg's Todd simultaneously screwing and barfing on a mannequin wearing his fiancee's wedding dress; Sandler's Donny masturbating over a photo of 88-year-old Grandma Delores (Peggy Stewart); Donny and Vanilla Ice gangbanging the lascivious Grandma Delores; and even a gag about incest. *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

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