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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 22 

STREETS OF FIRE: Members of the Tanztheater Wuppertal engage in an incendiary outdoor dance in Pina
  • STREETS OF FIRE: Members of the Tanztheater Wuppertal engage in an incendiary outdoor dance in Pina

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN Finally, here's one seven-year itch that can be scratched. When 2004's The Polar Express made film history as the first animated movie to be created wholly by employing the motion-capture process, we instantly recognized that we were in the presence of something ghastly. Awkward and unsightly, the ersatz innovation rendered all characters stiff, clammy and lifeless — anything but animated. Even as recent as two years ago, with the release of the Jim Carrey vehicle A Christmas Carol, it was clear that the format had not yet hit its stride. But thanks to director Steven Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson and their crack team of technicians and artists, The Adventures of Tintin emerges as the first motion-capture movie to fully fulfill the promise of this hyped advent in animation. Based on the internationally beloved comic series created by Belgian writer-illustrator Hergé (I myself enjoyed them as a lad, even though French writer René Goscinny's Asterix was my main Euro-fix), this finds squeaky-clean boy reporter Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), accompanied by his clever canine companion Snowy, acquiring a model ship that in turn is being sought by the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Tintin's curiosity eventually lands him on a real seafaring vessel that belongs to the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), and together, they set out to distant lands to locate hidden treasure. While the stop-motion process still isn't as pleasing to the eye as either old-school Disney or new-school Pixar, its employment in The Adventures of Tintin still qualifies as leaps and bounds ahead of its use in the unwieldy antecedents in this field. What's more, with the overseer of the Indiana Jones franchise at the controls, this cartoon cliffhanger manages to consistently serve up the breathless thrills. Even the 3-D, hardly ever worth the effort (or higher admission price), works for the greater good of the picture, at one with Spielberg's kinetic and imaginatively designed set-pieces. ***

ALBERT NOBBS There's a towering performance in Albert Nobbs, and it sure as hell doesn't belong to Glenn Close. A labor of love for the actress, Close not only stars in the picture but also serves as co-writer and co-producer (and, lest I forget, she also co-penned the theme song, "Lay Your Head Down"). Yet in essaying the title role, a lesbian in 19th century Ireland who has dressed up as a man for 30 years in order to work as a butler in a Dublin hotel, she isn't especially convincing: Even accepting that she looks a bit like a fey, mummified Stan Laurel, viewers have to assume that everybody in Ireland suffers from poor eyesight to fall for this ruse. Couple her turn with the fact that her character is never afforded much in the way of backstory or defining traits or — heck — even a pulse, and it's hard to invest any interest in her difficult life. Albert Nobbs would be a slog if it wasn't for Janet McTeer. Like Close, she plays a woman who's spent years passing herself off in public as a man, and she's excellent in the part, allowing us access where Close only allows indifference. Her Hubert Page is a vibrant character, full of wisdom, inner strength (and external, as she makes her living as a house painter), life experience and passion (she shares a cottage with her lover Cathleen, played by former Commitments co-star Bronagh Gallagher). Close only comes to life in her scenes opposite McTeer; the rest of the time, she unwisely fashions her character as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. And while that designation might have worked well for Russia (at least according to Churchill), it's not adequate for a movie purportedly about the woman behind the man. **1/2

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS Folks who worship at the altar of Aardman Animations as much as they do at the temple of Pixar (raising my hand here) will quickly realize — say, 20 minutes into the movie — that Arthur Christmas won't come close to matching the giddy heights of the British studio's Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit films. Its characters are more commonplace, its plotline is more conventional, its sentiments are more predictable. What this means, though, is that instead of blazing its own path, the film instead manages to beat the other studios' efforts at their own game, effortlessly rising above the filmic fray involving Gnomeo & Juliet, Puss in Boots and other 2011 'toon disappointments. Most of the major laughs come toward the beginning of this clever contraption in which the present Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent) might finally be ready to retire, set to pass along the reindeer reins to his technically savvy son Steve (Hugh Laurie). The doddering Santa doesn't even consider his other son Arthur (James McAvoy) for the position, since the gangly youth is obviously too clumsy and awkward for such a responsibility. Yet when a wayward present means that a little girl in Cornwall won't be receiving a gift this year, it's Arthur, not his dad or sibling, who does everything in his power to insure that she receives the present. The idea of a Santa with a non-American accent will probably irk the same stateside folks who bristle at the thought of a non-Caucasian Jesus, but the mostly British cast has been carefully selected, with an unusually animated (in both senses of the word) Bill Nighy especially enjoying himself as the long-retired Grandsanta. There are sharp sight gags galore — I especially like the handheld device that gauges a child's naughty-or-nice ratio and fills the stocking accordingly — and while this all leads to a predestined ending, at least said conclusion goes down as smoothly as marshmallow-endowed hot chocolate on Christmas Eve. ***

THE ARTIST Although its cribbing from Singin' in the Rain, A Star Is Born and more means that this black-and-white silent picture sometimes runs short on invention, it easily makes up for it in style, execution and a cheery disposition that's positively infectious. Jean Dujardin plays silent screen star George Valentin, whose chance encounter with a young fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) contributes to her eventual rise in the industry. The pair clearly harbor feelings for each other, but George finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage (Penelope Ann Miller sympathetically plays his estranged spouse) and relies on his dog Uggie and his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) for companionship. The matrimonial strife soon takes a back seat to a dark development, revealed when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) informs him about the inevitable advent of sound in motion pictures — a revolution that George myopically dismisses as a short-lived fad. Instead, this cinematic breakthrough all but destroys his livelihood. In crafting his homage to the silent era, writer-director Michael Hazanavicius crucially fails to include one of its key ingredients, that go-for-broke dynamism that informed much of the cinema of the time — think, for example, of that house really falling on top of Buster Keaton in 1928's Steamboat Bill Jr., or Harold Lloyd's eye-popping stunts in 1923's Safety Last! and other gems, or just about anything served up by Chaplin. Nothing in The Artist can quite showcase that sort of edgy genius, although a sequence that has wicked fun with sound effects is worth singling out. Yet while it may not match up with the best of the silents, The Artist matches up nicely with the best of 2011. Dujardin and Bejo are both enchanting and irresistible, and Hazanavicius' screenplay has no trouble shifting between mirth and melodrama. As for its visual appeal, the black-and-white images are as crisp and dynamic as anything on view in the year's color explosions, whether it's the luminescent paint jobs in Cars 2 or that vibrant rainbow connection in The Muppets. ***1/2

CHRONICLE The exclusive property of the horror genre, the "found footage" style of filmmaking that's been employed in such movies as The Blair Witch Project and Apollo 18 (to name but three of many) has now been co-opted by Chronicle, a picture that's half science fiction, half teen melodrama. With this first push of the envelope's edge, should we now expect, say, a "found footage" musical or a "found footage" Western? Let's hope not, for one of the weaknesses of Chronicle is that its "ff" format plays exactly like the gimmick it most assuredly is. That proves to be an occasional distraction in this surprisingly adept yarn about three high school boys — Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) — who gain telekinetic powers after stumbling into a hole housing what seems to be the kingdom of the crystal skull. But this isn't a family-friendly superhero flick like The Incredibles or Sky High, nor is it a costume-clad wish-fulfillment fantasy like Kick-Ass or Super. Instead, it grounds its science fiction in high school fact while taking uncomfortable detours into Columbine territory. Because even as Matt and Steve, two all-around popular kids, are enjoying their newfound abilities to fly through the clouds or pull harmless pranks on unsuspecting folks, the socially inept Andrew, suffering from a brutal home life (Mom's dying, Dad's a bullying drunk), can't quite contain his extraordinary power and begins to view it as a way to get back at a cruel and insensitive world. Given the low budget, the special effects are astonishing, but that doesn't mean I wanted them to dominate the final portion of the picture. Unfortunately, writer-director Josh Trank and co-scripter Max Landis allow the film to get away from them, moving from sober-minded intrigue to surface bombast. Still, the two men, both making their feature-film debuts, do enough right to insure that Chronicle serves as a potent calling card. **1/2

CONTRABAND A remake of a 2008 Icelandic thriller, Contraband is yet another in a long line of ignoble duds tossed out to help open a new movie year while the previous year's films are still busy collecting all the accolades. As far as January releases go, it's far from the worst — 18 years later, I still have nightmares surrounding the Chris Elliott comedy Cabin Boy — but it's nevertheless poor enough to securely earn its opening-month berth. Its foreign antecedent bore the moniker Reykjavik-Rotterdam, but perhaps mindful that many Americans would mistake these two major European cities for brands of beer, the action has been switched to New Orleans-Panama. But perhaps mindful that many Americans would mistake a movie called New Orleans-Panama for a travelogue, the title ended up being Contraband, which is so generic that it only reveals that the characters must be up to something naughty. The narrative wrongdoing begins with young punk Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who foolishly agrees to transport drugs for the hair-trigger Tim Briggs (perpetually annoying Giovani Ribisi, whose entire career seems like one long epileptic seizure) and then finds himself in hot water when he's forced to dump the entire load. Luckily for Andy, his sister Kate (a miscast Kate Beckinsale) happens to be married to Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), who used to be The Greatest Smuggler Of All Time. Now making an honest living, Chris reluctantly returns to the criminal fold, relying on the help of his best buds Sebastian (Ben Foster) and Danny (Lukas Haas) as he travels from New Orleans to Panama and back again as part of a plan to save his brother-in-law. Director Baltasar Kormakur actually played the Mark Wahlberg role in the Icelandic version, but whatever special insight he must have felt he could bring to this project was apparently lost in translation. There's nothing in Contraband that rises above the flagrantly mediocre, from its doorknob-dull characters to its rote storytelling. Even the casting exudes laziness: Seasoned filmgoers need only glance at the cast list to figure out which of Chris' allies will end up double-crossing him. Still, the script's betrayals pale next to the one perpetrated by filmmakers eager to dupe audiences into thinking they're paying for quality entertainment. *1/2

A DANGEROUS METHOD As part of his four-score from 2011, Michael Fassbender turns up in A Dangerous Method as Carl Jung, the Swiss doctor often deemed the father of modern psychology. Watching him tackle Jung as a cautious, conflicted man, it's hard to see the same person who was so brooding in Jane Eyre, so, uh, magnetic in X-Men: First Class, and so raw in Shame. Yes, there's a reason so many of us think Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender sounds a helluva lot better than, say, Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill. But I digress. A Dangerous Method, directed with uncharacteristic understatement by David Cronenberg, examines the linked destinies of three formidable individuals through roughly the first two decades of the 20th century. There's Jung, of course, initially coming into his own armed with theories that hadn't really been explored before (among them the idea of the collective unconscious). There's Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the penis-envy proponent who serves as Jung's mentor until their philosophies ultimately take them down divergent paths. Finally, there's the largely (and unjustly) forgotten Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who goes from being Jung's patient to his lover to, finally, a renowned psychologist in her own right. An intelligent movie about intelligent people, A Dangerous Method finds most of its verbal jousts in the capable hands of both Fassbender and Mortensen, the latter portraying Freud as an unbending stuffed shirt who nevertheless manages to maintain a touch of the impious about him. Less successful is Knightley: Jutting out her jaw to a frightening degree in the early scenes when Sabina is swallowed by her own hysterics — I was afraid the poor actress was going to dislocate the thing — she seems to have confused suffering with showboating, and while she becomes more believable as the film progresses, she never fully blends into the period setting as effectively as she did in Pride and Prejudice. For all its strengths (for starters, Howard Shore's score is exquisite), A Dangerous Method never becomes much more than a pleasant watch, with its studied formalism preventing viewers from ever truly connecting to these characters' situations. Just because the setting is clinical doesn't mean the film itself needs to follow suit. **1/2

THE DESCENDANTS The must-see George Clooney vehicle of 2011 — The Ides of March sure wasn't it — The Descendants might be set in Hawaii, but it's hardly a film defined by its postcard prettiness. Right at the start, director and co-writer Alexander Payne (adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel) shows us a downtown as gritty as that of any sprawling metropolis, while George Clooney's character, Matt King, informs us that Hawaiians have the same miserable problems as those of us living in the contiguous United States. With all romantic notions dispelled, the movie gets down to business. Matt's having a rough time of it, with life coming at him hard from all directions. His wife has had a boating accident and now rests in a coma; to make matters worse, he later learns that she had been having an affair with a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and was possibly going to leave him. His daughters, rebellious teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and socially awkward Scottie (Amara Miller), don't respect his authority. And as the family member legally entrusted with prime acreage that has belonged to the clan for generations, he must decide between selling it to capitalist opportunists and making himself and his relatives millionaires or holding onto it and winning the approval of those who would hate to see this beautiful land razed. Payne, who also was a guiding force behind Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, has made another terrific movie about recognizably flawed people and the decisions they make that either improve or irrevocably damage their lives. No situation is ever easily digestible in his complex films: Here, Matt doesn't know whether or not he should forgive his wife since she's in a coma, and his children, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Alexandra's boyfriend (Nick Krause) alternate between infuriating us and earning our sympathies. Marked by stellar performances (particularly by Clooney, Woodley and Judy Greer as the realtor's wife) and an incisive screenplay, The Descendants packs a real Hawaiian punch. ***1/2

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE The 9/11 melodrama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has been dubbed Extremely Long & Incredibly Dull by industry wags, but in all fairness, it doesn't especially feel overextended (even though it runs 130 minutes) and it manages to retain some measure of interest throughout. No, its problems register more deeply than that. Based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, it seeks to be the definitive film centering on that tragic day but instead feels hopelessly contrived and shamelessly manipulative — a punch to the stomach rather than a balm to the heart. The central character is Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a young boy whose behavior suggests that he has Asperger's syndrome. Inquisitive yet socially awkward, Oskar shares a special bond with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), with his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) clearly placing second in the parental sweepstakes. Thomas is in one of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and it's only some time later, when Oskar discovers a key that apparently belonged to his dad, that the healing process can truly begin. Armed with precious few clues, the lad scours the Big Apple looking for the lock that matches the key, aided in his efforts by a silent neighbor (Max von Sydow) who communicates only through note cards. Marked by improbable characterizations (Bullock and von Sydow are the main victims), constantly tripping over its many gimmicks (a tambourine, a telephone answering machine, those note cards), and doggedly determined to wring tears from every foot of celluloid, EL&IC is a classic case of trying too hard, less interested in examining the legacy of 9/11 than covering every pandering base in an effort to earn those desirable year-end honors. Admittedly, there are individual scenes that register strongly, and the performances by Horn, von Sydow and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright (as a divorcing couple) occasionally draw us into the drama. But for all the chatter about EL&IC serving as a catharsis, that's not only wrong but also simplistic in the face of such a game-changer of an event. Besides, 9/11 has already been tackled with more candor and less sensationalism in such works as The Guys, 25th Hour and, of course, United 93. Those fine efforts soberly noted the horrors and paid tribute to the heroics of that fateful day; by comparison, this new picture mainly pays tribute to its ability to pat itself on the back. **

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Think of it as the "close but no cigar" brand of cinema, where American adaptations of foreign hits prove to be better than expected yet don't quite trump their predecessors (e.g. Let Me In, The Departed). But now there's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which manages the impressive feat of emerging as superior to the internationally admired Swedish version from 2009. In many ways, this adheres closely to what audiences witnessed in the first version (both were based on the book by the late Stieg Larsson, the first installment in his Millennium trilogy). As before, two characters leading separate lives find their destinies intertwined: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a punkish, bisexual computer expert who's suspicious of everyone around her, particularly men; and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a wrongly ostracized journalist who accepts a personal assignment from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-removed disappearance of his niece. Only when Mikael realizes he needs an assistant does Lisbeth enter his life, becoming unlikely allies as they solve the mystery together. The 2009 Swedish version is a fine film, but this one is nevertheless an improvement, right from the dazzling opening credits (perhaps the best I've seen during 2011) to an epilogue that's unexpectedly poignant. Director David Fincher works in a crisp, efficient manner, and while the original's Noomi Rapace made for a memorable heroine, Mara is even better, retaining this great character's steely resolve and unfiltered intelligence but confident enough to allow us to see the hurt child residing within. After helming the zeitgeist hit The Social Network, Fincher has been accused by some critics of slumming with this pulpy material, but I beg to differ. Just check out the climactic scene that's set to Enya's "Orinoco Flow" — perhaps not since Michael Mann employed Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" at the end of Manhunter has a filmmaker so imaginatively, and perversely, merged music with moving imagery. ***1/2

THE GREY After presenting Mexico City as the ultimate hellhole on Earth, Tony Scott's 2004 Man on Fire ended with a credit stating that the city was actually "a very special place." Sydney Pollack's 1993 The Firm assures us that Cayman Island officials look down on the sort of money laundering occurring in the film. And best of all, Irwin Allen's 1978 The Swarm gave a shout-out to our buzzing buddies by adding a credit which noted that "the African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hard-working American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation." Unfortunately, no PSA announcement accompanies The Grey, which presents the often misunderstood wolf in such a vicious and uncompromising light that I expect Sarah Palin will see this film at least a dozen times. Of course, all two- and four-legged creatures are fair game when it comes to presenting them as movie villains — even bunny rabbits and a slobbery St. Bernard had to play the heavies in Night of the Lepus and Cujo, respectively — and the wolves on display here are indeed intimidating. Granted, they often look like animatronic animals on steroids, but they certainly put the fear of God in the human protagonists. The prey in The Grey is a group of oil-rig workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilds. The no-nonsense Ottway (Liam Neeson), whom we first meet as he's sticking his gun in his own mouth (a wolf's howl distracts him from pulling the trigger), appoints himself leader and attempts to lead the other six survivors out of the wilderness — no small task given not only the punishing elements but also the savage wolf pack that's picking them off one by one. To its credit, The Grey tries to add a little substance to its terror-tale premise, but Ottway's soft-gaze flashbacks to his long-gone wife and the religious chats among the men (complete with a scene where Ottway yells at the heavens above) only skim the surface of any true existential analysis. And while there are a couple of good sequences focused on the brutal landscape, the man-on-wolf action is both fleeting and feeble — anemic enough that even Twilight haters might join Team Jacob rather than watch this shaggy undertaking. **

HUGO Movie mavens startled by the fact that Martin Scorsese has elected to direct a family film when he's exalted for his string of hardcore crime flicks clearly know little about either the man or his achievements. Scorsese has hopscotched between genres far more often than he's given credit for — the costume drama The Age of Innocence, the religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ and the black comedy After Hours represent just a sampling — and when he's not helming motion pictures, he's often championing the cause of film preservation. Scorsese has always been a student of film as much as a teacher and practitioner — how I love to hear him passionately discuss classics of cinema! — and with Hugo, he manages to incorporate all facets of his persona. Even more so than The Aviator, this adaptation of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a product steeped in cinema lore, drunk on the fumes of a bygone era yet canny enough to channel its nostalgia through modern innovations. Set in a Parisian train station in the 1930s, the story concerns itself with young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a parentless child who tends to the building's giant clock while constantly avoiding the grasp of an inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) hellbent on sending him off to an orphanage. Connected to his late father (Jude Law in a small role) by an automaton that needs repairing, Hugo steals the parts needed from an elderly man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who runs a toy store in the station. Eventually caught by the ill-tempered gent, Hugo becomes drawn into his life, befriending his ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, of Kick-Ass/Hit Girl fame), learning about his past as a film pioneer, and discovering the key — literally — that binds past and present together. Despite registering as a glorious celebration of Méliès, Scorsese hasn't merely made an ode to cineasts; rather, his picture is a moving exploration of the manner in which individuals seek out love and companionship in an effort to form their own version of a nuclear family (every character, even Cohen's bumbling inspector, wages a war against loneliness). The 125-minute running time, leisurely pace and lack of Muppets will probably cause many tots and grown-ups alike to grow fidgety before long, but for the rest of us, we'll always have Paris — and the enchanting movie set therein. ***1/2

THE IRON LADY Taking Meryl Streep out of The Iron Lady and replacing her with just about any other actress would be akin to removing the meat out of a beef Stroganoff dinner and replacing it with a Hostess Twinkie. The result would be a thoroughly indigestible mess, worthy only of being flung into the garbage bin. Yes, Streep delivers yet another note-perfect performance (even if it atypically seems as much surface mimicry as heartfelt emoting), but move beyond her eye-catching work and what remains is a poor movie that does little to illuminate the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, the controversial British Prime Minister who held the position throughout the 1980s. Forget for a minute the movie's soft-pedaling of its central character. Since filmmakers usually desire to be as demographically friendly as possible in order to attract audiences of all stripes, it's no surprise that director Phyllida Lloyd and scripter Abi Morgan fail to devote much time to Thatcher's ample failings, including her abhorrent attitudes toward the poor, the unemployed and even her fellow women. Yet even her few strengths (rising from modest origins, sticking it to the boys' club of British politics, reinstilling a sense of national pride much like her BFF Ronald Reagan was doing stateside) are treated in CliffsNotes fashion, since an oversized amount of the picture focuses on her waning years as a lonely woman suffering from mild dementia, believing she's being frequently visited by her deceased husband Denis (a wasted Jim Broadbent). With so much history and personality to draw upon, it's infuriating that so much of the running time is wasted on mere speculation involving an elderly person's flights of fancy (a problem that also plagued Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar); these sequences, popping up every few minutes, effectively destroy any sense of pacing or continuity and ineptly attempt to soften a world figure who didn't exactly earn her titular nickname by publicly surrounding herself with Paddington Bear dolls. *1/2

JACK AND JILL Less than 48 hours before I embarked on the courageous journey to attend the screening of Jack and Jill, a co-worker offered his theory that Adam Sandler deliberately makes movies out of the stupidest ideas he can conjure, simply to prove that his fans will see him in anything. I stated that the comedian's next film will be Diarrhea Man, about a guy who spends his entire life sitting on a toilet making flatulent sounds, and the fact that my colleague couldn't tell whether I was joking or not says everything anyone needs to know about the cesspool of cinema known as the Adam Sandler Oeuvre. Jack and Jill certainly ranks near the very bottom; it's stupid and infantile, of course, but it's also lazy and contemptuous, a clear sign that Sandler and director Dennis Dugan (his seventh Sandler film; stop him before he kills again!) aren't even trying anymore, safe in the knowledge that audiences will emulate Divine in John Waters' Pink Flamingos and chow down on whatever dog shit is presented to him. Here, the stench is particularly potent, as this story about an obnoxious ad man (Sandler) and his whiny, overbearing sister (Sandler in drag) is a nonstop parade of scatological bits, prominent product placements, faux-hip cameos (Johnny Depp, welcome to the halls of whoredom), wink-wink chauvinism, racism and xenophobia, icky incest gags, annoying voices (not just Sandler as Jill but also the made-up language spoken by the siblings), and the usual small roles for Sandler's beer buddies (including, groan, David Spade in drag). Al Pacino co-stars as himself, inexplicably smitten with Jill; he provides the film's only two or three chuckles (especially a line about the Oscars), but even long before the sequence in which he raps about doughnuts, it's clear that he's become an ever bigger sellout than Robert De Niro. Now that's saying something. *

MAN ON A LEDGE For a flick that ended up getting shoved to January, Man on a Wire sure sports a cast that would look right at home on a year-end release date. Move past thudding lead Sam Worthington (still flailing about in his bid to become The Next Big Thing; dude, if Avatar and a Terminator sequel couldn't do it for ya...) and filmgoers will find the likes of Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell and more. And it's a good thing for this film's makers that all concerned signed on the dotted line, since it gives considerable heft to a movie that otherwise might have gone straight to DVD. Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, a wrongly incarcerated ex-cop who manages to escape from prison, thereby enabling him to put into motion a complex scheme in which his role is to ... well, check out the title. Banks stirs sympathy as a guilt-ridden police negotiator, Bell and Genesis Rodriguez make a cute couple as Nick's brother and his feisty squeeze, and Harris brings a dash of classy menace to his too-few scenes as a ruthless titan of industry. It's all fast-paced nonsense, easy to take but not quite engaging enough to warrant a night out at the movies. Yeah, best to wait for that DVD. **1/2

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL There's a scene in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in which Tom Cruise's agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt must climb up the outside of a tall building with only the aid of a pair of electronic gloves that fasten themselves to any given surface. It isn't enough that it's a towering edifice — it has to be Dubai's Burj Khalifa, merely the tallest building in the world. And it isn't enough that a pair of gloves seem like scarce supplies for a climbing expedition — one of the blasted things must malfunction during the ascent, meaning a single hand is all that prevents Ethan from falling to his doom a hundred-plus stories below. And did I mention that, during the descent, he's a few stories shy of reaching safety, meaning he has to swing around wildly like a pinata that's been whacked a few times in the hopes of propelling himself into an open window? It's utterly ridiculous — and also utterly exciting. The fourth M:I film based on the classic TV series — and the third to be worth a damn (only the second one was a letdown) — this wisely continues the tradition of assigning a different director to each chapter, going from Brian De Palma to John Woo to J.J. Abrams and now to Brad Bird. In making his live-action debut, Bird demonstrates that he's not going to allow a real-world setting to hamper an imagination that had been instrumental in making toon tales like Ratatouille and The Incredibles. The plotline is so hoary that it might as well have come from a 1960s-era Bond flick: A Russian madman (Michael Nyqvist) plans to cleanse the earth via a nuclear war, and it's up to the only active members of the Impossible Missions Force (Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg), plus a government analyst harboring a secret (Jeremy Renner), to take him down. At 135 minutes, the film admittedly overstays its welcome — the coda is particularly draggy, even if it does offer a pair of pleasing cameos — and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is more inscrutable than ever. But for action buffs desperate for a hit to jump-start their hearts, here's a Mission impossible to refuse. ***

THE MUPPETS Yes, it may be true that The Muppets is a film for the whole family, but here's a cruel suggestion: Hire a babysitter and leave the kids at home. After all, what grownup weaned on a steady diet of Muppet episodes and movies wants to interrupt their jaunt down memory lane by having to escort weak bladders to the bathroom or hungry mouths to the concession stand? Jason Segel, a self-proclaimed Muppet devotee who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, plays Gary, who takes his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and his equally Muppet-obsessed brother Walter — who, incidentally, happens to be a puppet himself — to Los Angeles for vacation. When they stop at the old Muppet studio, they're shocked to see it dilapidated and abandoned; they're even more upset when they discover that ruthless businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the property, tear down the studio and drill for oil. In an effort to save the hallowed ground, the trio head off to find Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the gang. On the down time, Walter's pretty much a drip, both as a character and a Muppet, and instead of even creating him in the first place (when you think about it, he's not really necessary to the overall arc), I would rather Segel and Stoller had spent more time on the already established puppet personalities. And the cameos, by and large, are a disappointing lot. 1979's The Muppet Movie gave us comedy titans like Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Bob Hope and Madeline Kahn; this film can only counter with Ken Jeong, Zach Galifianakis, John Krasinski and Selena Gomez. Running the risk of sounding like Statler and Waldorf, though, I had best stop with the naysaying. At any rate, the majority of the film is pure pleasure, full of knowing winks to the franchise's time and place in history: the bouncy "Mahna Mahna"; Kermit's celebrity Rolodex, long outdated ("May I speak to President Carter?"); the lovely "The Rainbow Connection" (just try and not tear up during that moment); and the creation of '80s Robot, whose computer-related gag provided me with the biggest laugh I've enjoyed in a theater this year. ***1/2

PARIAH In a deeply affecting performance, Adepero Oduye stars as Alike, a Brooklyn teen living with her parents (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) and little sister (Sahra Mellesse). Mom Audrey has an intense dislike for Alike's best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), believing her to be a bad influence on her daughter. Of course, it doesn't work that way: While Laura is indeed a lesbian, Alike's homosexuality is uniquely her own, and she struggles to come out of her shell enough to find a meaningful relationship while simultaneously making sure not to anger or upset her parental units with the truth. Pariah was written and directed by Dee Rees, who expanded on the award-winning short film she made as an NYU student in 2007 (Spike Lee was her mentor and serves as an executive producer on this picture). It's a feature-film debut that exudes confidence and intelligence in equal measure (not unlike Lee's own self-assured calling card, 1986's She's Gotta Have It), and in sequences in which Alike has to skirt issues with her well-meaning but misguided parents (who are experiencing their own marital turmoil) or when she temporarily ditches Laura in order to hang out with a popular pretty girl (Aasha Davis) who has surprisingly taken an interest in her, Rees makes sure that we feel the tension and frustration inherent in every syllable and every pause — and, crucially, in every character (Parnell is particularly on target in conveying the torn emotions at the center of his father figure). Pariah has a raw, naturalistic feel to it, the sort that makes it seem like we're watching something real and completely unscripted. That's obviously not the case, but it really doesn't matter: This is a movie that will doubtless speak to those who have endured similar hardships in their youth, and Rees' message seems to be that, as Dan Savage would say, it gets better. ***1/2

PINA An Academy Award nominee this year for Best Documentary Feature, Pina involves perhaps the most unique style of 3-D I've yet seen in a film. It's so subtle, unobtrusive and low-key that at times I felt like I was watching the movie through a View-Master rather than the requisite plastic glasses. That's not meant as a knock; indeed, one of the pleasures of the latest from director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) is that it realizes the artistry on display is less in this technological toy than in the action it's capturing on screen. Wenders' tribute to the German choreographer Pina Bausch (who passed away in 2009, just as the filmmaker was prepping this movie), this is a lovely, lyrical valentine that focuses on performances of Bausch's dances while also spending some down time with her disciples in the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Ever the innovator, Wenders doesn't exactly employ the reliable "talking heads" format; instead, he individually films members of her ensemble as they sit close-mouthed, with their words heard in voice-over. Their dialogue consists of remembrances of Pina Bausch the Artist; moviegoers expecting to learn any juicy details about Pina Bausch the Person will be sorely disappointed. But it's refreshing that Wenders focuses on the craft without cluttering up the film with messy details — although, admittedly, a bit more info on her life as it relates to her approach to art would have been appreciated. Dance connoisseurs and novices alike will suitably be impressed with the showcase routines, which take place not only indoors but outside in the natural world. Bausch herself said that dance helps communicate situations that otherwise "leave you utterly speechless." As we watch her talented troupe glide around chairs, weave through traffic or frolic under a waterfall, we are indeed struck dumb by the poetry in motion. ***1/2

PUSS IN BOOTS Stanley Roper was arguably the funniest character on the long-running TV series Three's Company (not a difficult feat, admittedly), but that didn't mean it was wise to yank him and the missus out of their supporting stints on that hit show in order to place them front and center in a sitcom (The Ropers) that barely lasted a year. Similarly, Jennifer Garner's Elektra worked well in tandem with Ben Affleck's blind superhero in Daredevil, but absolutely no one cared when she was given her very own starring vehicle. So even though Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots owned the Shrek franchise from the moment he was introduced in the second film, that was no reason to elevate him to, erm, leading-cat status in Puss in Boots. Certainly, the fault doesn't rest with Banderas, who's as game as ever. But this animated effort wants to have it both ways: It retains the sort of tiresome, snarky humor that defined the Shrek series while also trafficking in the type of obvious morals found in more traditional toon fare. The end result is a listless movie that doesn't have much to offer beyond keeping the kids quiet for 90 minutes. The plot concerns the uneasy alliance between Puss, the equally accomplished Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, re-teaming with her Desperado co-star) and the annoying Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) as they attempt to first steal three magic beans and then the fabled Golden Goose. There are a handful of amusing exchanges ("I thought a cat always landed on its feet." "No! That's just a rumor spread by dogs!"), but for the most part, the stale wisecracks are on the order of "First rule of Bean Club: You do not talk about Bean Club." With soft lobs like this, it's clear Puss in Boots is one movie that was declawed before it even got close to the screen. **

SAFE HOUSE Actors often like to brag about how they performed their own dangerous stunts on a particular picture, but how many A-listers can actually claim to have been waterboarded as part of the deal? Yet here's Denzel Washington and his co-workers on Safe House, all revealing on the interview circuit how the two-time Oscar winner refused a stunt double for the scene in which his character, former CIA agent Tobin Frost, gets tortured via a technique that's all the millennial rage among U.S. government leaders. It's an intense sequence, one of the few in a movie that otherwise hits all the familiar marks as it hurtles toward the end credits. Still, a little professionalism can go, if not a long way, at least enough distance to make the ride a painless one, and Safe House is nothing if not slick and steady. Washington's apparently traitorous agent tests the patience of noble novice agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) as both men flee through Cape Town, South Africa, evading the usual band of nondescript thugs. These ruffians are in the employment of — gasp! — a dirty double-crossing official in the Central Intelligence Agency. Could it be the no-nonsense head suit, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard)? The brusque Catherine Linklater (Vega Farmiga)? Or the gracious and sweet-natured David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson)? Honestly, why do scripters even make an effort to hide the identity until the end, when it's apparent from the get-go who will be revealed as the villain? Given the perpetual obviousness in these films, they might as well include a character named Professor Plum, usually found brandishing a lead pipe in the conservatory, and be done with it. **

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS If I wanted to see a movie featuring Indiana Jones, I would watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. If I wanted to see a movie featuring James Bond, I would watch Goldfinger. If I wanted to see a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes, I would watch — well, certainly not Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which might as well be a period Expendables prequel for all the reverence given to the legendary sleuth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Baker Street brainiac remains one of literature's greatest detectives, but because actions always count more than words in today's Hollywood, 2009's Sherlock Holmes reinvented the character as a kick-ass macho man, more Rambo than Miss Marple. Nevertheless, the freshness of Robert Downey Jr.'s exuberant portrayal as Holmes and the measured counterpoint provided by Jude Law as Dr. Watson managed to overpower Guy Ritchie's hyperkinetic direction. Not this time. Ritchie's showoff stylistics are often embarrassing to behold — this is particularly true in the action sequences, of which there are countless. As he battles his deadly nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) and his minions, Holmes most often applies his formidable smarts not to uncovering clues but to enhancing his advantage in hand-to-hand skirmishes. Is this Sherlock Holmes or Muhammad Ali? Some silly asides, such as Holmes' camouflage coat, are best forgotten, but the steady bickering between Holmes and Watson has yet to reach the straining point (thank the ingratiating actors for that). And while Rooney Mara adopts the Lisbeth Salander role for the Yank version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the original's Lisbeth, Noomi Rapace, turns up here as a gypsy fortune teller. Her character's services aren't required to predict that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows will emerge as an international blockbuster, with audiences flocking to see a dizzying swirl of furious fisticuffs, blazing gunfights, and theater-rocking explosions. Me, I'll be home watching my Columbo box sets. **

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY Many viewers might find it easier to wade through quicksand while sporting cement blocks on their feet than understanding just what the heck is going on during the opening half-hour of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Author John le Carre's 1974 novel required a seven-part miniseries that ran over five hours when it premiered on the BBC back in 1979, yet here's an attempt to compress all this intel into a shade over two hours. The early stretch of this chilly Cold War drama will indeed be tough going for moviegoers acclimated to the comparative simplicity of the Bourne trilogy (to say nothing of the 007 oeuvre), but those willing to pay attention will be rewarded with a film of unexpected intricacy and various small pleasures. Tackling the role that Alec Guinness owned in the miniseries, Gary Oldman is quietly effective as George Smiley, a key member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6, aka "The Circus"). So taciturn that he's likely to be mistaken for a character in the silent film The Artist, Smiley initially remains on the sidelines as the SIS head, known only as Control (John Hurt), deduces that one of the organization's top men is actually a mole working for the Russians. But a sabotaged mission leads to the mandatory retirement of both Smiley and Control, and it's only after the latter passes away that Smiley is brought back to ferret out the leak. The central material concerning the four suspects (played by Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik) actually proves to be the least compelling part of the picture, and the unmasking of the traitor is more apt to elicit shrugs than gasps. What makes the movie cling to our senses are the soulful transgressions of other key characters: the maverick agent (a wired Tom Hardy) who falls in love at the wrong time; the assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose personal life proves to be as dependent on secrets as his professional one; the bureau's discarded expert on Russia (Kathy Burke), wistfully drawing on nostalgia-tinged memories; and the field agent (Mark Strong) quietly shattered by betrayal. As far as le Carre screen adaptations go, I much prefer 1965's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and 2005's The Constant Gardener, although it probably should be noted that the author himself considers this the best filmization of one of his works. Conversely, Bret Easton Ellis Tweeted about the awfulness of this movie. Le Carre vs. Ellis — considering that's the mental and literary equivalent of a brawl between Godzilla and Jar Jar Binks, I'd say it's safe for discerning viewers to give this a shot. ***

WE BOUGHT A ZOO While the concept of dotting the i's and crossing the t's is a wonderful one to pass along to small children just learning how to write, it earns Cameron Crowe a failing grade for rigidly applying it to We Bought a Zoo, a film whose fussiness about every single detail results in audience members not having the luxury to think or feel for themselves. Based on a true story, this stars Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who decides, in cornpone Green Acres fashion, to quit city life and move into a country home. As the new owner, he's required to take care of the failing zoo on the expansive property, so he relies on a motley crew of staffers to show him the ropes and bring him up to speed. Eventually, he falls for the lead zookeeper (Kevin James — whoops, wrong movie; Scarlett Johansson). Watching this movie, it's hard to believe Crowe once helmed such finely crafted pictures as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and the underrated Vanilla Sky. As both director and co-writer (with Aline Brosh McKenna), he stumbles right at the start, when he fails to immediately establish essential information regarding the zoo (its parameters, the types of animals it houses, etc.). Instead, he's too busy working overtime to make sure we're visually and emotionally led by the hand so we don't miss anything. If Benjamin says something idiotic, there's a monkey ready to smack his own forehead in exasperation. If Benjamin fondly recalls his dearly departed wife, she's ready to appear in ethereal form. Clearly, Crowe doesn't trust viewers to make it from Point A to Point B without stumbling or getting lost. Damon and Johansson are reliable as always, and Thomas Haden Church contributes a few chuckles as Benjamin's skeptical brother. But the zoo crew, meant to be quirky, is merely tiresome, the so-called villains (a smarmy inspector, a backstabbing accountant) are laughably manufactured, and the animals are rarely shown in all their glory. But hey, at least they're not burdened with the gift of gab. *1/2

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Before they largely imploded in the mid-1970s, Britain's Hammer Film Productions spent two decades producing lush, atmospheric horror flicks, in the process re-igniting filmgoer passion for classic monster movies and making genre superstars out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Two years ago, the outfit returned to screens with the critically acclaimed, audience-ignored Let Me In, followed that with two barely seen releases, and now offer the decidedly more high-profile The Woman in Black, positioned as a true test of Daniel Radcliffe's drawing power outside the Harry Potter franchise. For the record, Radcliffe is fine; the film, on the other hand, is tepid enough to leave Dracula — the one who looks like Christopher Lee, of course — spinning in his grave. Based on a novel (by Susan Hill) that had already been turned into a successful play and a 1989 made-for-British-TV film, this finds Radcliffe cast as Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer assigned to visit a remote village in order to settle the estate of a recently deceased elderly woman. In the film's best nod to vintage horror, the country rubes all view the newcomer with suspicion and do little to aid him in his task. The reason, it turns out, is that they believe the stomping grounds of the departed is haunted by the title apparition, an evil entity with a sweet tooth for tragedy and children. Both fascinated by the legend and fearful that it might has some basis in reality, Arthur opts to spend the night at the creepy mansion — and it's here where the film primarily jumps the tracks. The best ghost stories are the ones that rely on careful exposition and a pervasive sense of mounting dread to unsettle audiences (The Others and The Orphanage being modern examples), but director James Watkins and scripter Jane Goldman abandon that approach shockingly fast. Instead, this is the sort of spook show that tries to manufacture scares by having something rapidly leap into the frame, startling both the protagonist and many viewers. Usually, it's a cat; here, it's everything but. Yet this type of cheap thrill becomes predictable before long, and unlike the aforementioned simmering sort of supernatural cinema, it will have little shelf life (after all, to quote a great president and humanitarian, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."). It's certainly nice to have Hammer back in business, but let's hope they nail down more promising projects than this one. **

YOUNG ADULT In an effort to prove she was more than just a pretty face, Charlize Theron was horribly made up for Monster and dowdily dressed down for North Country, consequently winning an Academy Award for the former and a nomination for the latter. In Young Adult, Theron has no need for such transformations: She looks weathered but beautiful, and it's easy to believe that her character, Mavis Gary, was one of the most popular girls at her high school back in the day. Make no mistake: Mavis is ugly, but that unattractiveness emanates solely from the inside. And Theron, ever the trouper, is only too happy to bring it to the surface in this wicked, biting seriocomedy. The Juno team of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman have reunited for another movie about an idiosyncratic individual, but Mavis Gary is the polar opposite of the sensible and intelligent character played by Ellen Page in that 2007 gem. An unkempt, hard-drinking ghostwriter for a popular "young adult" franchise now on its last legs, Mavis leaves her Minneapolis stomping ground and returns to the dinky Minnesota hometown she detests, with the sole purpose of landing the one that got away. That would be her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and what Mavis ignores in her quixotic quest is that Buddy is happily married to the sweet Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and they've just welcomed a baby into the world. Dismissive of the wife and kid ("I've got baggage, too!"), Mavis continues her pursuit, despite the advice of former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) to cease and desist. Theron is excellent in the central role — never once does she angle for audience sympathy — yet the real ace might be Oswalt, who's terrific as a guy who's endured genuine hardships in his life. Like Mavis, he's also trapped in the past and needs to grow up, but his good heart and sensible brain suggest that, of the pair, he's the one who stands a better chance of belatedly snagging the senior superlative, Most Likely To Succeed. ***

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