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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 1 

DESPICABLE ME When James Stewart offers to lasso the moon for Donna Reed in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life, it's purely a romantic gesture. When Gru (Steve Carell), the star of the 3-D opus Despicable Me, plots to shrink the moon to a size small enough so that he can make off with it, it's clearly to show that he's the baddest dude around. After all, if a supervillain isn't feared and respected, then what good is he? Despicable Me is a witty, congenial lark that obviously won't have the staying power of Toy Story 3 but serves quite nicely as a pleasing placeholder in the cinematic summer of 2010. Sweet-natured yet also avoiding the cloying sentiment that tarnishes any great number of toon tales, this finds Gru enlisting the aid of three oblivious orphan girls to help him one-up his biggest competitor in the supervillain sweepstakes, a self-satisfied nebbish (Jason Segel) who calls himself Vector. Naturally, Gru knows nothing about children, and just as naturally, the girls will teach him about family and responsibility. But that comes later. First, the movie has to let loose with a volley of inspired sight gags, a smattering of adult-oriented humor (note the homage to The Godfather), and some screen-pushing innovations to justify the 3-D expense. ***

DUE DATE A painful comedy in the lowest-common-denominator mold, this finds Robert Downey Jr. cast as Peter Highman, an architect trying to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles before his wife (a wasted Michelle Monaghan) gives birth. But once he bumps into aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), that's not going to be easy: After Ethan's bumbling lands both of them on the "no-fly" list, Peter is forced to drive cross-country with this eccentric imbecile. Unlike its antecedent Planes, Trains & Automobiles, in which John Candy somehow managed to make his character both annoying and endearing, this never allows us to warm up to Galifianakis' insufferable character, although that has as much to do with the actor's sandpaper personality as it does with a sloppy script credited to four writers. The screenplay presents Ethan as such a buffoon — and spends most of its time mocking him — that it's embarrassing in those moments when it makes a play for audience sympathy. In the midst of all this horse manure, it's almost amazing that Downey manages to concentrate enough to deliver a fine performance. It's disheartening to see him squandering his talents in such a dud, but his professionalism at least prevents the entire picture from devolving into a complete circle jerk. *1/2

FAIR GAME By now, it's accepted by all but the most deluded right-wing zealots that the Bush administration took this country to war under false pretenses. There was a point when the vessel of justice could have been righted and a course for a better tomorrow could have been charted, but instead, lies were upheld, misinformation was spread like so much manure, and the moment was gone. Fair Game is a film about that moment. Naomi Watts stars as Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA operative whose undercover status was blown in retaliation for her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) writing a New York Times op-ed piece in which he revealed that the justification for going to war with Iraq was a fabrication on the part of the war criminals in the White House. The film tracks the lives of the Wilsons professionally and personally, showing how the political fallout was placing a severe strain on their marriage. The most fascinating element of this important picture is the philosophical difference that exists between the couple. Joe is an idealist, honestly believing that he can take on the neocon thugs and win; Valerie is a realist, realizing the futility of any such efforts. It's an interesting dichotomy, because while our hearts side with Joe, our minds know — and our current history proves — that Valerie was right. ***

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST The European equivalent of The Matrix Revolutions, this third chapter in the late author Stieg Larsson's "Millennium trilogy" finds a once-vibrant saga largely coasting on the fumes of its well-regarded predecessors. The raging "girl power" aesthetic so dominant in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire noticeably slips in this so-so entry, as punk protagonist Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) spends practically the entire picture confined to hospital beds and prison cells. Relegated to a subservient role in her own adventure, Lisbeth concedes all the sleuthing to friend and journalist Mikael Blomkist (Michael Nyqvist), who continues to uncover evildoing that reaches far and wide. (Confused? Don't ask, don't tell, just rent the previous two installments.) There's still pleasure to be had from watching the good guys take down all manner of murderers, rapists and other societal scumbags, but this series always worked best when it kept the focus tight. With an expanded array of villains (the scowling old men are moribund rather than menacing) and drawn-out legal proceedings, this eventually loses its sting. **1/2

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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