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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of May 25 

Movies include Dark Shadows, What to Expect When You're Expecting, 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 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

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

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

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

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

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

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