Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 2 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte
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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 2 

BLACK SWAN Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a messy masterpiece. Like Apocalypse Now, Eraserhead and Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream, it's one of those films that will force viewers to either reject it outright or allow it to burrow into the brain and remain there for days, weeks, months on end. It's a character study writ large, a juicy melodrama operating at a fever pitch. At its center is Natalie Portman in an astonishing performance as Nina Sayers, a ballerina whose director (Vincent Cassel) casts her in the lead role of his production of Swan Lake. But in true All About Eve fashion, just as she replaced an aging star (a knockout bit by Winona Ryder), she fears being usurped by a sexy newcomer (Mila Kunis). Meanwhile, the home situation is equally strained, given the fanatical devotion of her mother (an excellent Barbara Hershey). Is Nina strong enough to withstand myriad challenges, or is she on the verge of cracking up? The answers are there, but the film is complex enough to leave wiggle room for any theories. Examining the process of suffering for one's art in a strikingly unique manner, this psychosexual thriller is by turns frightening, sensual, humorous and tragic. It's a galvanizing picture that's simultaneously elegant and coarse — like its protagonist, it manages to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. ****

BLUE VALENTINE Ingmar Bergman's superb 1974 release Scenes from a Marriage went beyond allowing the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall: It made the viewer feel like a fly pinned to the wall, privy to everything going on in the room but unable to flee from the scene when things got nasty. A similar sense of uneasy omniscience informs Blue Valentine, a raw look at the ugly disintegration of that hallowed union between a man and a woman. Moving his story around in nonlinear fashion, director-cowriter Derek Cianfrance starts out by showing Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) toward the end of their unhappy time together. Thereafter, he flashes back to the days when they were eager young kids in loopy love — Dean was the more spontaneous and romantic of the pair, Cindy the more sensible and intelligent. Jumping back and forth, Cianfrance nails with absolute clarity the opening and closing acts of this doomed romance, but he doesn't always satisfactorily connect the narrative from A to Z, leaving important questions unanswered. Nevertheless, this punishing drama is worth a look thanks to the excellent work by the leads as well as Cianfrance's ability to employ the appropriate mood to help capture his own prickly scenes from a marriage. ***

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. **

CASINO JACK 2010 saw the release of an informative and entertaining movie about Jack Abramoff, the powerful right-wing lobbyist who ended up behind bars for bribing public officials and swindling Native American tribes. Unfortunately for the makers of the feature film Casino Jack, that would be Alex Gibney's documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Abramoff is a hideous human being, but with this Casino Jack, star Kevin Spacey, writer Norman Snider and the late director George Hickenlooper make the mistake of attempting to humanize this Washington weasel by adding self-righteous monologues, unconvincing moments of introspection and an it's-all-the-system's-fault! approach. Yet the film's biggest fault is that it tackles the whole sordid affair like a comedy. A surreal satire that accentuates the absurd might have worked (think Robert Altman or Blake Edwards), but Hickenlooper adopts a loud, jokey approach that often relies on buffoonish performances, a slapstick pace, and too much attention paid to Abramoff's fondness for mimicry. Yet given the real-life tragedies instigated by Abramoff and his Republican buddies like Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed and George W. Bush (who claimed not to even know Abramoff after the scandals broke), I doubt many people will be laughing. **

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER On the sliding scale of Narnia adaptations, 2008's Prince Caspian was slightly better than 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but any hope for continued ascendancy in this franchise ends with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. A costly tentpole that switched studios midstream, the Narnia series (based, of course, on C.S. Lewis' books) has always come across as timid fantasy fare, squeezing out all the danger and intrigue inherent in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film cycles. Such an overly cautious approach especially nullifies the content of this torpid installment and renders it toothless — just the opposite of what we should expect from a series featuring a lion as its most powerful character. The protagonists — returning siblings Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes) and obnoxious newcomer Eustace (Will Poulter) — are bruisingly boring (paging the Potter kids!), and their adventures aboard the title seafaring vessel are only slightly less moldy than their skirmishes on land. Forget the Titanic: The Dawn Treader is the real sinking ship. *1/2

COUNTRY STRONG Jeff Bridges won an Oscar this past year for playing a boozy country singer in Crazy Heart, but don't expect Gwyneth Paltrow to win even so much as a People's Choice Award for playing a similar part in Country Strong. It's not that Paltrow is bad — she does a valiant job trying to overcome the role's predictable arcs through sheer force of tears and slurred words — but it's unlikely many folks will remember a movie that may well be "country strong" but is most assuredly cinematically weak. The film is basically a soap-opera version of musical chairs, as superstar Kelly Canter (Paltrow), her husband-manager James (Tim McGraw), hunky up-and-comer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) and aspiring singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) all attempt to commence and/or rekindle relationships. Consistency is hardly the strong suit of writer-director Shana Feste, but at least the unlikely character transitions allow the actors to provide some shadings to their portrayals. Yet at almost two hours, the film is criminally overlong and has as many false endings as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The soundtrack includes mostly new tunes, but the only country song that kept racing through my increasingly bored mind was Willie Nelson's "Wake Me When It's Over." **

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 and 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

THE FIGHTER True to form for controversial director David O. Russell (Three Kings), The Fighter takes a real-life story and turns it into a scrappy, hard-edged motion picture. Its focus is the relationship between Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer with real potential, and his brother-trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a boxing has-been and crack addict holding his sibling back. Micky's manager-mom (Melissa Leo) isn't much better in looking out for her pugilist son's welfare, leaving it to his new girlfriend (Amy Adams) to properly guide him. The Fighter is initially so raw in its approach that it's a shame when it becomes less Raging Bull and more Rocky IV just in time for a conventional fadeout. And while the oversized theatrics of Bale and Leo have already generated Oscar buzz, I actually prefer the more subtle earnestness of Wahlberg and especially Adams (shucking her usual sunshine beaming for an unexpected toughness). Still, all four actors (plus Jack McGee as Micky's sympathetic father) work well in tandem, and Russell and his scripters make the shifting dynamics among the family members ring true. The Fighter doesn't quite go the distance, but it's good enough to last several rounds. ***

THE GREEN HORNET Seth Rogen, superhero? It's nearly impossible to wrap the mind around such an outlandish idea, almost on par with Sarah Palin as U.S. president or Ricky Gervais as the next recipient of the Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet it's Rogen's slovenly appearance and snarky asides that help transform The Green Hornet into not just another superhero movie. Having said that, this is still rough going in many respects. An update of the 1960s TV show starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee (and a 1930s radio show before that), this finds Rogen (who also co-scripted) giving the Judd Apatow treatment to the role of Britt Reid, a wealthy party animal who, along with his ingenious employee Kato (Jay Chou), decides to fight crime by donning a mask and becoming The Green Hornet. We're not talking Dark Knight territory here: The plot doesn't advance so much as lurch forward like an alcoholic making another trip to the bar, the villain (played by Inglourious Basterds Oscar winner Christophe Waltz) is a cinematic zero, and the initially exciting action soon becomes redundant. But the comic approach works more often than not, Rogen and Chou banter with ease, and some of the gadgets are indeed pretty cool. Note to self: I've got to get me one of those coffee makers! **1/2

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 We won't know until July 15, 2011, whether or not the final book in J.K. Rowling's franchise really needed to be divided into two movies. But until the release of Part 2 on that forthcoming day, the evidence based on Part 1 leads to an inconclusive verdict. This is the first picture in the series that actually drags — it's not a disastrous debit since the majority of the film is so strong, but it does suggest that some judicious trimming might have given us the final chapter in one fell swoop. The coasting comes in the middle, which is fortunate since it leaves the production with a vibrant opening act and a powerhouse final hour. Fans will immediately be swept up in this latest chapter, which begins by killing off one of the good guys and sending Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) on a crusade to locate specific items that might help them vanquish the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). The movie spends an awful lot of time on the teens as they set up camp in an isolated area, and the romantic yearning between them, usually a highlight of the series, here settles into soap opera mundaneness. Yet once the story leaps past this narrative hurdle, it again gets back to the intriguing dynamics that have long defined this series. ***

THE KING'S SPEECH Arriving on the scene like so much high-minded Oscar bait, The King's Speech is anything but a stiff-upper-lip drama as constrained as a corseted queen. It is, however, perfect film fodder for discerning audiences starved for literate entertainment. Director Tom Hooper and particularly screenwriter David Seidler manage to build a towering film from a historical footnote: the debilitating stammer that haunted Albert Frederick Arthur George (aka the Duke of York and then King George VI) since childhood and the efforts of speech therapist Lionel Logue to cure him of his affliction. The film is careful to paint in the historical details surrounding this character crisis — the support of George's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the abdication of his brother Edward (Guy Pearce), the buildup toward World War II (Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill; love it!), etc. — but its best scenes are the ones centering solely on the unorthodox teacher and his quick-tempered student. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are accomplished actors on their own, but squaring off as, respectively, George VI and Lionel Logue elevates their game. It's no wonder that they deliver the two best male performances of the year. ***1/2

LITTLE FOCKERS Let me get this straight. Dustin Hoffman deemed the script for Little Fockers so awful that he refused to participate until new scenes were written for him. And here he is now, having agreed to a revised screenplay that has him uttering lines like "You can pick your nose, but only flick the dry ones, not the wet ones." Needless to say, that's a long way from the likes of "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me ... Aren't you?" and "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!" Then again, Little Fockers is pretty much the basement for most of the accomplished actors squirming up there on the screen. Even those charitable folks (like me) who didn't think Meet the Parents' first sequel, Meet the Fockers, was a sign of End Times will feel the comic desperation in this outing. There's admittedly a chuckle here and there, but they quickly get buried by painful sequences like the one in which Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) sticks a needle into father-in-law Jack Byrnes' (Robert De Niro) erect penis, or Greg's young son projectile-vomits onto his dad. As in How Do You Know, Owen Wilson proves to be an unlikely saving grace, but enough is enough. This franchise has run its course and made its millions, but now it's time for it to fock off. *1/2

MEGAMIND 2010 has brought us two animated features about a supervillain who eventually discovers his long-buried humanity, yet viewers who check out Megamind needn't have seen Despicable Me to feel slightly let down by this similar outing. Will Ferrell handles vocal duties as the title villain, whose joy at finally destroying his arch-nemesis, the preening Metro Man (Brad Pitt), soon turns to depression once he realizes there's no one around to challenge him. He ends up creating his own superhero (Jonah Hill), but it isn't long before the supposed do-gooder realizes it's more fun to be bad and sets about destroying the city and kidnapping TV reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey). Megamind now finds himself in the unlikely position of having to save rather than terrorize the civilians who have long feared and despised him. Megamind is perfectly fine for the kids, but adults might find their own megaminds wandering at various points throughout a film that doesn't compare to The Incredibles when it comes to affectionately tweaking the superhero genre. Certainly, there are some moments of delightful inventiveness — I love how Megamind occasionally disguises himself as Marlon-Brando-as-Jor-El-in-Superman — but all too often, safe and sentimental scriptwriting proves to be this film's fatal Kryptonite. **1/2

NO STRINGS ATTACHED Elizabeth Meriwether's script starts with a good idea: An emotionally blocked woman, Emma (Natalie Portman), and a perpetually peppy nice guy, Adam (Ashton Kutcher), find themselves attracted to each other, but because she's afraid of commitment, they agree to be "fuck buddies," satisfying each other's carnal urges whenever the need arises. No Strings Attached could have been fascinating had it made an honest attempt at exploring whether such a union could really work — think of it as a Last Tango in Paris for the Internet generation, with cell phones instead of butter as the story's chief accessory. But instead of Brando and Bertolucci, we have Kutcher and Ivan Reitman (who stopped mattering as a director after his partnership with Bill Murray in the 1980s), and the result is the usual rom-com ditherings, with the familiar assortment of stock supporting characters and one morally sound, preordained ending that again demonstrates the motto of hedonistic Hollywood is, "Do as I film, not as I do." The picture is too bland and forgettable to hurt Portman's Black Swan Oscar chances, though I imagine her primary competition, The Kids Are All Right's Annette Bening, will still be reading the negative notices with glee. *1/2

127 HOURS Let's be honest with one another. I'd be dead. You'd be dead. Almost everyone we've ever known would be dead. But not Aron Ralston. After five days of slowly withering away while his right arm remained lodged between a boulder and a rocky wall in a Utah canyon, Ralston did the unthinkable and used a small, dull knife to cut off the arm so that he might continue to live. 127 Hours, based on Ralston's memoir, is writer-director Danny Boyle's mesmerizing account of those fateful days in the outdoor enthusiast's life. But while a stirring parable about the indomitability of the human spirit, this story doesn't quite lend itself to a cinematic rendition — it just sounds too simple, too constricted. But Boyle and co-scripter Simon Beaufoy expand the picture in all sorts of marvelous ways. Visually, the film is always hopping with the same energy as its protagonist (played in a career-best performance by James Franco), relying on split-screen techniques and other lively tricks of the trade. And thematically, the picture doesn't settle for the expected "man vs. nature" route, instead realizing that it isn't nature that's at fault but one man's own near-fatal folly. By turns funny, frightening, inspiring and, yes, nauseating, 127 Hours turns cinema into an extreme sport, leaving us satisfactorily spent. ***1/2

RABBIT HOLE One of the best films of 2010, Rabbit Hole features a devastating performance by Nicole Kidman that would deserve every Best Actress prize on tap were it not for the presence of Black Swan's Natalie Portman on the awards scene. Kidman is all coiled tension and seething anger as Becca, who, along with her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart, also top-grade), is still attempting to cope with the accidental death of their young son eight months earlier. The loss has caused some distance between the couple, and both handle the tragedy in different ways. In tackling David Lindsay-Abaire's play (with a script penned by the playwright himself), director John Cameron Mitchell — incidentally, going 3-for-3 on my year-end 10 Best lists, following Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus — makes sure to never betray the material with maudlin melodrama or cheap theatrics. By giving us characters who are sympathetic yet also ofttimes infuriating, the film earns every audience emotion the hard way, not through pandering but by never flinching from its uncomfortable truths. For viewers willing to brave a beautiful bummer, Rabbit Hole proves to be a wonder. ***1/2

TANGLED Pixar came into power circa the same time that Disney lost its hold on the toon crown, and while the former animation giant may never reclaim its title, its acquisition of John Lasseter's trendsetting outfit suggests that it at least might be able to ascend from its status as court jester to a more regal standing. Tangled follows last year's The Princess and the Frog (both executive-produced by Lasseter) as an indication that, after years of dreary product (Chicken Little, anyone?), old-school Disney might be making a comeback. Yes, the animation is CGI rather than hand-drawn, but both Frog and Tangled benefit from strong storylines that stir memories of the outfit in its distant prime. In this case, it's a loose retelling of the saga of Rapunzel, she of the loooong golden hair. Forced by an evil woman she believes to be her mother to stay hidden in a tower 24/7, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) reluctantly complies until the day a devil-may-care thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) comes along. This one's no classic-in-the-making, but it's certain to remain a best bet for family entertainment, with a pleasing mix of music, mirth and oddball supporting characters. Even the kid-oriented comic relief, Rapunzel's right-hand chameleon, is likely to charm the adults, further designating Tangled as silky-smooth entertainment. ***

THE TOURIST A smug and chilly Angelina Jolie stars as Elise, who's being tracked across Europe by Scotland Yard due to her association with a wanted man named Alexander Pearce. The mysterious Pierce instructs Elise (via letter) to throw the authorities off his trail by befriending a complete stranger and making them think that he's actually Alexander Pearce. Elise settles on vacationing math teacher Frank (a crushingly dull Johnny Depp), but the ruse works too well, as a criminal kingpin (Steven Berkoff) also falls for the deception and orders his goons to kill Elise and capture Frank. I haven't seen France's 2005 Anthony Zimmer, but it's hard to believe it's as clumsily constructed as this idiotic remake. The Tourist is the sort of lazy picture that relies on an absolutely unbelievable coincidence to set the whole story in motion; from there, it only grows sillier, with characters behaving in illogical ways no matter what the situation. Of course, there's also a predictable twist ending, one so goofy that you hope at the outset that the filmmakers will avoid the temptation to go down that road. Instead, they gleefully embrace that temptation, putting the final period on a multiplex trip that's only slightly less annoying than a case of Montezuma's revenge. *1/2

TRON: LEGACY If the hype is to be believed, 1982's TRON was the Gone With the Wind of its day, a Citizen Kane for the modern age, a blockbusting, award-winning blah blah blah. No. TRON was a lightly entertaining movie (and box office underachiever) whose sole claim to fame was its groundbreaking, computer-generated effects. So not surprisingly, the focus for the makers of TRON: Legacy was to create visuals that take us to the next level. But did they have to do so at the expense of virtually every other department? Certainly, the effects are sometimes astounding (although the 3-D immersion is less pronounced than in Avatar), and, for a while, the film offers no small measure of fun. As he searches for Kevin Flynn (TRON star Jeff Bridges), the father who disappeared two decades earlier, Sam Flynn (wooden Garrett Hedlund) finds himself whisked into a digital landscape fraught with danger. The setup is sound and the early action sequences are stirring, but then the film settles into a sameness that allows viewers to focus too intently on the feeble plotting, the tired dialogue and the awful use of the character of TRON himself (returning Bruce Boxleitner). By the time this overlong feature arrives at its anticlimactic denouement, most viewers will be wanting their quarters back. **

TRUE GRIT It's been well documented the the Coen Brothers' take on True Grit isn't a remake of the 1969 film that won John Wayne his only Academy Award but rather a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis' novel. That's all well and good, but when it comes to making that Netflix rental selection, the choice will be between the two film versions. By that token, no one will lose out, as both pictures are of comparable value. Forced to choose, I'd actually go with the Duke's at-bat, although Jeff Bridges is certainly more than capable in taking on the iconic role of boozy Marshall Rooster Cogburn, hired by young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to track down the desperado (Josh Brolin) who murdered her pappy. Sporting a sly sense of humor different than what was brandished in the '69 model, this True Grit mines its colorful characters for off-kilter comedy, from talkative Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to scraggly outlaw leader Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, superbly channeling the original's Robert Duvall). Bridges is likewise amusing and might have been even funnier if we could understand his frequently slurred dialogue. As it stands, whenever he's talking, the picture needs English-language subtitles as desperately as Bergman's Persona or Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. ***

UNSTOPPABLE The inspired-by-true-events Unstoppable isn't unwatchable like far too many movies helmed by Tony Scott, but viewers hoping that their hearts will be racing as fast as the film's runaway train may find themselves disappointed by how frequently the picture brakes for tedium. Denzel Washington, who should have steered clear of trains after the ill-advised remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, plays the saintly, sage engineer at the end of his career; Chris Pine, Star Trek's new James T. Kirk, plays the brash, brawny conductor on his first assignment. Ultimately, it's up to these two to stop an unmanned train that's barreling along while carrying tons of explosives. It's as straightforward as an action flick gets, but even at a trim 98 minutes, its lack of substance and variety limits its appeal, with lame backstories for both characters slowing it down even more. Because this is a 20th Century Fox production, Fox News plays a starring role, with huge chunks of the action being shown via the network's live news coverage. But because the studio wants the film to score with all demographics, it pulls its political punches — after all, in the real world, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity would be frequently interrupting the live feed to squarely place the blame for the runaway train on Obama. **

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