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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 15 

BURLESQUE Sorry, camp-classic aficionados: Burlesque is no Showgirls or Staying Alive. Certainly, the film contains some risible moments, but nothing wretched enough to plunge it into the bowels of bad cinema. Ultimately, it's too competently made to be a genuine stinker yet too indebted to hoary show biz clichés to come close to succeeding. Cher, her face as immobile as a kabuki mask (and far less expressive), receives top billing but actually plays second fiddle to Christina Aguilera; the latter is just OK as Ali, who leaves her podunk Iowa town in the hopes of making it in LA. It's not long before she stumbles across an intriguing nightclub called Burlesque. From there, everything proceeds according to formulaic plan: She snags a job at the joint waiting tables, wins the grudging respect of club owner Tess (Cher) and Tess' gay BFF (film MVP Stanley Tucci), lands a hottie boyfriend (Cam Gigandet), clashes with the venue's bitchy star (a miscast Kristen Bell, whose vamp is about as toothless as a newborn baby), and — you go, girl! — gets that big break that turns her into an overnight sensation. About the only thing missing is someone barking, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" ... although I can't guarantee that wasn't in an earlier draft of the script. **

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

EASY A Heathers in the 1980s. Clueless in the '90s. Mean Girls in the noughts. It seems like every decade insists on producing a razor-sharp high school satire centered around the travails of a likable female protagonist. Easy A appears to be this new decade's first entry in the sweepstakes, and while it can't quite compare to its enduring predecessors, it will do just fine until something more permanent comes along. Emma Stone gives a bright performance as Olive, a virginal wallflower who erroneously ends up being tagged as the biggest slut at her high school. Soon, Olive is likening her situation to Hester Prynne's in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and rather than fight the rumors, she starts wearing tight-fitting clothes accentuated by a red letter "A." The Hawthorne comparisons are often clumsy, and Olive's friends and tormentors are a rather nondescript lot. But there's still much to enjoy: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as the Coolest Parents Ever; Thomas Haden Church wearing sensitivity well as a congenial teacher; Lisa Kudrow in a welcome appearance as a shallow guidance counselor; and no shortage of clever retorts penned by debuting scripter Bert V. Royal. Easy A may be about the kids, but aside from Stone's contribution, it mostly benefits from all the adult supervision. **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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