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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 30 

ABDUCTION Sure, it's easy to pick on the Twilight guy. Because who's gonna rush to his defense other than smitten Team Jacob fans? Make no mistake about it: Abduction, in which Taylor Lautner is handed his first starring role in a motion picture, will never, ever, ever be mistaken for a good movie. But the declarations (from critics and Twilight bashers alike) that it's the worst picture of the year strike me as armchair grandstanding — hey, it may star a wooden werewolf, but at least it's thankfully free of any zoo animals who talk like Sylvester Stallone and Adam Sandler. John Singleton, whose Boyz N The Hood remains continents removed from most of his subsequent work, slides further into irrelevance with a Junior G-Men-type tale that features a stellar supporting cast, some decent action sequences, and a leading man who reacts to every dire situation as if he's just been asked to clean his room. Lautner plays Nathan, a high school kid who has Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) for a psychiatrist and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and the Coyote Ugly bar owner (Mario Bello) for parents. When he and his classmate Karen (Lily Collins, whose performance is about as monotonous as most of daddy Phil's music) embark on a school assignment that inexplicably leads them to do research on a missing persons web page, they discover an old photo of a little boy who looks like a pre-Taylor Lautner Taylor Lautner. IMs are swapped, Euro-trash baddies arrive to blow up the house, and suddenly Nathan and Karen find themselves on the run. As these crazy kids try to discover why Nathan is being pursued by grown men who are clearly not Stephenie Meyer devotees, they must also decide whether or not to trust Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the CIA agent assigned to the case. Fifteen years later, I still fondly recall the priceless Siskel & Ebert moment when Roger Ebert dismisses the action flick Fled by stating, "I guess it sort of holds your attention while it's happening. I mean, something is moving on the screen, so you look to see what it is." (To which a laughing Gene Siskel retorts, "What a compliment!") Abduction inspires the same level of commitment: You look at the screen mainly because it beats staring at the auditorium walls. *1/2

ANONYMOUS Call it the anti-Shakespeare in Love. Call it the more cultured cousin to Inglourious Basterds. Just don't call Anonymous a fact-based story. There have been many speculations advanced that William Shakespeare actually did not write the countless classic works attributed to him, but the conspiracy theorists can't quite agree on the true identity of the genius behind such works as Hamlet and Macbeth. Among the suspects are Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Stephen King (well, OK, maybe not), but perhaps the most popular alternative is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Anonymous, directed by disaster-flick specialist Roland Emmerich (2012) and written by John Orloff, takes that ball and sprints with it. In this picture, the Earl (Rhys Ifans) yearns to take pen to paper, but his high standing prevents him from doing so. He asks accomplished playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to front for him, but when Jonson balks, an obnoxious and illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) jumps at the chance to take credit. More than simply focusing on these writers guild disputes, Anonymous also moves through the years to chart court intrigues, particularly the Earl's dealings with a lusty Queen Elizabeth who seemingly has more (illegitimate) children than Kate Gosselin and Octomom put together (Joely Richardson plays the young queen while her real-life mother Vanessa Redgrave plays the elderly Elizabeth). Lively in most spots, draggy in others, Anonymous seeks to make a name for itself with its controversial stance but will most likely end up getting buried in a pauper's grave by the season's more high-profile titles. **1/2

CONTAGION An entertaining if unwieldy cross between a PSA and one of those all-star idiocies from the 1970s — those disaster flicks involving hijacked planes, hurtling meteors or towering infernos — Steven Soderbergh's Contagion tracks the entire cycle of a disease that begins with one person and ends with the deaths of millions of people worldwide. Episodic in the extreme, the picture mostly follows the scientists and health officials tasked with finding a cure — considering that Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle are cast in these roles, one gets the impression that being a physical beauty is a requisite to landing these sorts of jobs. Representing Everyman, meanwhile, is Matt Damon, an ordinary joe whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the first victim of the disease (that's no spoiler, as she dies within the film's first 10 minutes and is sporadically seen in flashback thereafter). And then there's the online activist (Jude Law) who believes that it's all some government conspiracy and states that he possesses a tried and true antidote. While it's comforting to see all these fine actors gathered in one place (the cast also includes Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould and Winter's Bone Oscar nominee John Hawkes), the film simply doesn't have enough time to properly devote to each of these characters, meaning we only get broad strokes rather than emotional investment (one likable character dies off-screen without our knowing it, with his/her passing barely mentioned). Where the film works best is in its condemnation of the all-mighty power of the Internet and its self-proclaimed prophets, as repped by Law's opportunistic and misleading blogger. If nothing else, Contagion will at least be remembered for the great line uttered by one of its brainiac characters: "Blogging isn't writing; it's graffiti with punctuation!" **1/2

DREAM HOUSE Between its tell-all trailer and its tell-all poster, there's not much to tell about Dream House except that it's a crushing disappointment considering all the Herculean talent on display. A bastard child of a movie that got caught in one of those ugly divorces between a studio and a filmmaker, this was wrested away from director Jim Sheridan (In America) and reshaped by Universal Pictures into the mess that's been foisted upon paying audiences. To be honest, I'm not sure that Sheridan's version would have been a rousing success — the script was written by David Loucka, whose past credits include Whoopi Goldberg's shot-in-Charlotte turkey Eddie — but I have to assume it would have been better than this cut, which doesn't even have the support of the stars who initially were excited enough about the project to sign up but have since refused to promote it. That would be Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, playing a married couple who move into a quaint house with their two young girls. Before long, they learn that the house was previously owned by a man who murdered his wife and children, and that said killer has just been released from prison. Craig and Weisz are fine (Naomi Watts is on hand as well, but she's wasted as a supportive neighbor), but this movie will prove to be obvious and illogical even to those who haven't been privy to what surely must rank as the clumsiest marketing campaign of 2011. *1/2

DRIVE The latest in a long line of silent anti-heroes as the ultimate in celluloid cool, Ryan Gosling plays a character known only as Driver. He's employed as a wheelman for crooks, but that's merely the least reputable of his three jobs: When he's not working on the wrong side of the law (as illustrated in a spectacular opening set-piece), he's a movie stunt driver as well as a mechanic in a garage owned by the shady Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon is his link between all three jobs, which becomes problematic once they get involved with a pair of high-end criminals with notable cruel streaks: Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a former Hollywood producer, and his crude partner Nino (Ron Perlman). Causing even further complications is Driver's growing affection for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son (Kaden Leos) in her care and a husband (Oscar Isaac) on the way home from the clink. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who won the Best Director prize for Drive at this year's Cannes Film Festival, has fashioned a work that's as slick as its protagonist: Its muted Euro-sheen mingles easily with its American atmospherics, and it's all punctuated by bouts of brutal and unsightly gore that never feel like exploitive overkill but instead serve to feed the urgency of the moment. Aside from a curiously miscast Mulligan, the entire supporting roster is strong, although Brooks deserves his own standing ovation. The nebbish from Broadcast News and Lost in America has been reconfigured as a slow-burning sadist, and it's a sight to chill the spine. Drive is such a sterling achievement for most of its running time that it's alarming when it crashes and burns during its final 15 minutes. After approximately 90 minutes of careful buildup, the end feels maddeningly rushed, with the actions of various characters bordering on the illogical and their fates succumbing to genre expectations. This unfortunate turn of affairs doesn't irreparably damage the overall package, but it does leave its mark, as surely as oil leaking from a rusty pickup puttering down the highway. ***

50/50 The new comedy-drama 50/50 centers around a cancerous presence, and that refers to Seth Rogen as much as it does to the malignant tumor found located on the spine of young Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Carve Rogen out of the picture, and its chances of being a truly moving picture about people coping in sickness and in health increase exponentially. This is nothing personal about Rogen, who I generally enjoy watching — heck, I didn't even mind him bringing his slobbery man-boy act to the iconic role of the Green Hornet. But 50/50, inspired by scripter Will Reiser's own battle with cancer, doesn't need his services, which only get in the way of a potentially heart-rending story about how a 20-something who theoretically has his whole life ahead of him must cope with a tragedy that threatens to cheat him out of his future. Gordon-Levitt delivers a sensitive portrayal as Adam, perpetually trying to get a grasp on emotions that understandably don't know where to go. Adam shares an interesting relationship with his therapist (Anna Kendrick), a medical newbie who isn't quite certain how to comfort her patient. He has trouble with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), who's mentally ill-equipped to deal with a partner who's now bald and barfing all over the place. He bonds with two older cancer patients (Matt Frewer and national treasure Philip Baker Hall) who take him under their wing. And he has difficulties communicating with his mother (Anjelica Huston), a drama queen who's already dealing with an Alzheimer's-afflicted husband (Serge Houde). These are all intriguing relationships, but every time we become immersed in these particular character dynamics, along comes Rogen as Adam's unlikely best friend Kyle. Kyle clearly has Adam's back, and had Rogen, in his capacity as one of the film's producers, graciously allowed another actor to play the role, we might have had something special. But the film's delicate mood is broken anytime Kyle opens his mouth to talk about shaving his balls or getting laid or basically anything that trumpets his obnoxiousness. 50/50 is a good movie about 60% of the time, but a higher percentage would have been appreciated. **1/2

THE HELP Every summer witnesses the release of a handful of counter-programming efforts, titles designed to satisfy audiences who don't particularly care for superhero sagas or alien adventures or gross-out gags. Larry Crowne, which looked like a surefire bet, crashed and burned (who knew it would be so terrible?), while the clever Midnight in Paris, initially perceived as another Woody Allen bauble that would fade into the night, emerged as the biggest moneymaker of his career. And now there's The Help, which occupies the slot held by last summer's Eat Pray Love: a female-geared August release adapted from a best-selling book. Given its central plotline — in the racially divided Mississippi of the early 1960s, a white writer (Emma Stone's Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan) gives voice to the stories of her town's black maids — it would be easy to dismiss The Help as yet another "liberal guilt" movie, the sort that's invariably told through the eyes of its Caucasian lead rather than those of its African-American characters. Yet while Skeeter certainly clocks a sizable amount of screen time, it's never in doubt that the true protagonists are Aibileen and Minny, two domestics brought to vivid life through the extraordinary performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Many of the conflicts play out as expected, and Bryce Dallas Howard's racist housewife proves to be about as subtle as Cruella De Vil. But interesting subplots abound — I particularly liked the relationship between Minny and her insecure employer Celia Foote, played by The Tree of Life's Jessica Chastain — and with its influx of emotionally wrenching scenes, The Help provides assistance to adults in search of some cinematic substance. ***

IN TIME Can a movie survive on premise alone? That would be a resounding no, since its success also rests squarely on the shoulders of the execution. Yet in the case of In Time, the premise is ingenious enough to cut some slack elsewhere. The movie may not probe as deeply into its subject as desired, but it's nevertheless an enjoyable watch, full of propulsive action and intriguing scenarios. Comparisons to Logan's Run are absurd, since this picture sports its own ideas on what the future might hold. It's a world order in which everyone is genetically designed to live until 25 years of age, at which point they're given one extra year to keep for themselves or use as currency. Because in this story, time literally is money, as a cup of coffee costs four minutes, a bus ride costs two hours, and so on. The rich have the means to acquire hundreds of years to tack onto their lives, while the poor barely have enough time to struggle from day to day. In Time focuses on one of the 99%: Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), whose life is turned upside down after a disillusioned millionaire (Matt Bomer) transfers a full century to him. Amanda Seyfried co-stars as the rich kid who joins Will on the lam, Cillian Murphy plays the Timekeeper (aka lawman) who's in hot pursuit, and writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) is the one who deserves credit for crafting this heady mix of science fiction and social commentary. ***

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. *

J. EDGAR As J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial Federal Bureau of Investigation director and one of the most powerful figures of the 20th century, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is interesting, respectable, measured, unfussy and just a touch dry, qualities he shares with the ambitious picture surrounding him. It's always hard to encapsulate an entire life in one running time, but director Clint Eastwood and scripter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for penning the excellent Milk) give it a shot — make that scattershot. Saddled with a worthless framing device in which an elderly Hoover recounts his career for the biographers, the film moves back and forth through different eras to show Hoover's start at the Bureau of Investigation in 1919 (the "Federal" was added in 1935) right up through his death in 1972. Many of the watermarks surrounding Hoover and his G-Men are included, albeit accorded different measures of importance: The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby is given ample screen time, but his persecution of radicals and civil rights groups — his real legacy, as far as many people are concerned — never truly takes center stage (Martin Luther King is mentioned, but hardly a whisper is uttered about the Black Panthers), and several career blunders are sidestepped in order to present a fair and balanced portrait. But the same problem affects J. Edgar that affected Oliver Stone's Nixon and W.: We aren't dealing with fair and balanced individuals, and the bending over backwards in an attempt to muster tears — even crocodile tears — is an unfortunate decision. As for the personal aspects of Hoover's life, the rumors that he was a closeted homosexual who entered into a lifelong companionship with fellow FBI suit Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, less dynamic here than as The Social Network's Winklevii) were never substantiated, so Black is forced to make up his own history; the focus, for better or worse, renders this less a comprehensive biopic, more a Brokeback Bureau. **1/2

KILLER ELITE Killer Elite is basically what The Expendables 2 would look like if everyone except Jason Statham decided to bail on the project. A fussy action film that's heavy on the firepower and the testosterone but short on anything resembling complexity or wit, this stars Statham as Danny, a former assassin whose mentor (Robert De Niro) is being held captive by a Middle Eastern sheik. The wealthy ruler wants Danny to avenge the deaths of his three sons by taking out the overzealous British operatives responsible for their grisly slayings; Danny is forced to accept the assignment to save his friend's life, and he's thereafter pursued by a maverick British agent named Spike (Clive Owen). I don't know which is more risible: Owen's mustache, which would have been the envy of any 70s-era porn star, or the fact that someone as tough and charismatic as Owen could possibly be saddled with the name Spike. At any rate, anyone hoping for an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse between Statham and Owen — on the order of, say, Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive or De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat — will soon realize that their skirmishes, both mentally and physically, can't even match the feud between Tom and Jerry — or Punch and Judy, for that matter. As for De Niro, he has long stopped mattering as an actor, merely content to collect paychecks with the same frenzy as Pac-Man eating all those dots. Having said that, his presence here is welcome, not only for providing the picture with its most most humane moments but also by keeping him too busy to make another damn Fockers sequel. *1/2

KUNG FU PANDA 2 Hollywood's obsession with 3-D — or, more accurately, the extra bucks it generates — is so out of hand that it would hardly surprise me to learn that 3-D remakes of Scenes from a Marriage and My Dinner with Andre are in the works. Yet for all of its uselessness when it comes to live-action films not named Avatar, the gimmick is a logical fit when it comes to animated efforts, as witnessed by its employment in (among others) Toy Story 3, Despicable Me and now Kung Fu Panda 2. Yet it isn't just that extra dimension that elevates this agreeable sequel to the 2008 blockbuster. As was the case with this spring's Rango, Kung Fu Panda 2 displays a terrific set design that's atypically detailed and vibrant for a toon flick. Whereas it was ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit) who served as visual consultant on that Johnny Depp vehicle, here it's Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro who's billed as creative consultant, clear examples of studios not cutting corners when it comes to acquiring the best. KFP2's backgrounds are frequently so gorgeous to behold that aspiring art directors might further pad the film's box office haul via repeat viewings. Everyone else will probably be satisfied after one showing, as the serviceable story finds Po (returning star Jack Black) again teaming up with the kung fu masters collectively known as The Furious Five (Angelina Jolie and her underused co-stars Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and David Cross), this time to vanquish a deadly enemy (Gary Oldman) who holds the key to Po's mysterious past. The kids will have a good time, and the adults will be entertained to the point that they won't secretly be wondering what R-rated film is playing in the adjacent auditorium. **1/2

LIKE CRAZY Three-quarters twee and one-quarter Glee, Like Crazy won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance shindig, beating out a slate of 15 other titles that included Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene. If nothing else, this stands as proof positive that even the film festivals can be as misguided in their selections as the notorious Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. The film won a second Sundance honor for the lead performance by Felicity Jones, an acceptable selection given that she's the best thing about this film in which LA college kid Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and British exchange student Anna (Jones) hook up, only to be separated by the ocean after she willfully extends her visa stay illegally and is booted back to the UK (that these adults would be so stupid in this post-9/11 age of stringent airport laws is a daft narrative concept, but we'll let it slide). The whole thrust of the film is that these two people should be together no matter what — think Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Titanic's Jack and Rose, Brokeback Mountain's Ennis and Jack — but director Drake Doremus (scripting with Ben York Jones) doesn't make a very compelling case for his lovebirds. While it's easy to see Anna's adoration, Jacob won't even consider moving to England to be with his presumed soulmate, preferring instead to remain stateside and periodically take up with a co-worker (a wasted Jennifer Lawrence) who deserves better than the treatment he doles out to her.

Ultimately, Like Crazy is a love story about two often annoying people who don't have much discernible chemistry and are mostly bonded by their mutual love for Paul Simon. The singer's Graceland is referenced, but as these two prattled on, I only desired to hear the sound of silence. *1/2

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE Make all the Mary-Kate and Ashley jokes you want, but don't dis Elizabeth Olsen. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the younger sister of the Olsen twins delivers a breakthrough performance that will remind many of Jennifer Lawrence's excellent work last year in the similarly unsettling (though clearly superior) Winter's Bone. Olsen stars as Martha, who's long been under the thumb of a cult leader (John Hawkes, even more menacing here than in the aforementioned Bone) but finally works up the nerve to escape. She goes to stay with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) and Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), but since she's reluctant to talk about her experiences, the couple grow increasingly impatient with her odd behavior and violent outbursts. T. Sean Durkin, making his feature-film debut as both writer and director, establishes a chilling mood in the fascinating flashback scenes detailing Martha's life in the cult community, but it's the prickly turns by Olsen and Paulsen that save the family sequences, which make up the less interesting and more frustrating part of the film. The ambiguous ending will be loved by many, loathed by an equal amount; I feel there were better ways to conclude the story, but I understand that it comes with the art-house territory. ***

MONEYBALL Like a businessman settling into his recliner after a hard day's work, Brad Pitt has slid into middle age with an ease that's both pleasurable and enviable to watch. Pitt's always been a fine actor, of course, but around the turn of the century, he's really upped his game, from his quirky turns in Snatch and Burn After Reading to his scene-stealing subterfuge in those Ocean's films to his thoughtful interpretations in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Tree of Life. (Go figure that my least favorite Pitt performance of late, as Benjamin Button, is the one that nabbed him an Oscar nomination.) Moneyball, directed by Capote's Bennett Miller and adapted from a true story by the powerhouse team of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), finds Pitt as his most dynamic; he's cast as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who in 2001-2002 is tired of losing both games and star players to better funded baseball teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox. Refusing to continue adhering to the old-school philosophies preached by his assemblage of geriatric scouts, he instead discovers a newer religion being espoused by Peter (Johan Hill), an economics major from Yale who possesses a love for the game and a head for numbers-crunching. Employing a math-based system (sabermetrics, created by Bill James) that finds the value in underappreciated players deemed as too old/awkward/iffy by other organizations, Beane starts collecting these diamond castoffs as if they were baseball cards in the hopes that they'll coalesce into a winning team. Whether or not one subscribes to the "moneyball" philosophy — it's worked well for some teams, not so great for others — is irrelevant when it comes to enjoying a motion picture that takes a potentially arid subject and makes it sing on screen. Its success has less to do with Bennett, whose mise en scenes show little variance (a similar staidness also dogged Capote), than with the scripters and the actors, all of whom exhibit a quicksilver strategy in keeping this thing popping. Put this one in the W column. ***

MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS Aside from Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) mistakenly believing that "BFF" stands for Big Fat Friend, the only original element to be found anywhere in Mr. Popper's Penguins is the character of Pippi, Popper's personal assistant and a Brit prone to parleying with prose that begins with the letter "p." The London-born actress with the terrific name of Ophelia Lovibond essays this role, and she provides a lift to every scene in which she appears. Unfortunately, she doesn't appear nearly enough to save this ghastly family film. A bastardization of the award-winning children's book, this finds Carrey cast as a ruthless businessman with daddy issues, spousal issues, and neglected kids issues. Mr. Popper has always placed his job above all else, but that changes after he receives a parting gift from his deceased father: six penguins (given names like Loudy, Bitey and Stinky) that take over his apartment and his life. The penguins seen in the picture are a mix of actual animals and CGI creations, and here's a quick primer for those unable to tell the difference: The ones acting normal are the real birds while the ones pooping in Popper's face or leaning over to break wind are the fake ones. Watching the real penguins, your have to feel sorry for them — in this picture, they get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Still, they fare better than Carrey, who's simply required to react to the wacky penguin shenanigans. Small children might get restless during the sequences in which Popper tries to patch up his relationship with his ex-wife (wasted Carla Gugino), but they'll otherwise be kept entertained by the animal antics. Adults, on the other hand, might want to stay away — as Pippi would doubtless note, this movie is putrid, puerile and painful. *

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. **

REAL STEEL Not nearly as awful as its premise and previews might lead one to believe — hey, how's that for a ringing endorsement? — Real Steel should prove to be a modest surprise to those who had been expecting nothing more than a Transformers-style blend of CGI cacophony and callow characterizations. Although loosely based on a Richard Matheson story ("Steel") that was previously dramatized in a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone starring Lee Marvin, Real Steel has been described in some quarters as Rock'em Sock'em Robots: The Movie and in others as an update of 1987's Over the Top, the lame Sylvester Stallone vehicle about a wash-up who travels the country entering arm-wrestling competitions while trying to bond with his estranged son. Neither viewpoint is exactly a stretch, but Real Steel has a Weapon X in Hugh Jackman, who delivers a rousing performance as Charlie Kenton, a former fighter who's now reduced to promoting robot boxers on the underground circuit (in the film's near-future setting, all boxing matches are between robots, not humans). Charlie is surprised to learn he has a young son, Max (Dakota Goyo), but the kid proves to be an asset as Charlie tries to move up in the sports world. Whether it's the chemistry between Jackman and Goyo or the guiding hand of noted humanist filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis (both on hand as producers), Real Steel mines some real emotion out of its hopelessly cliched father-son tale. As for the effects, they're excellent, effortlessly placing the computer-generated 'bots in real-world surroundings. Sincere but silly — I could have done without the cringe-worthy dance routines between boy and robot — Real Steel is a rocky version of the Rocky template, but it exhibits a beating heart under all that heavy metal. **1/2

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES WETA-created and PETA-approved, Rise of the Planet of the Apes stands at the center of a campaign that boasts about how the film employed the Oscar-winning team behind Avatar and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to invent its photorealistic primates. Others have been prone to highlight the "realistic" part; I tend to accentuate the "photo" portion. In this outing, kindly scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) ends up "adopting" a baby chimp that's been made super-smart by a drug initially created by Will to combat Alzheimer's in humans. Named Caesar, the chimp goes from cuddly infant to questioning teen to, finally, betrayed and embittered adult. Along the way, Caesar crosses paths with a vicious zookeeper (Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton, playing the anti-Kevin James), Will finds love with a vet (Freida Pinto) who's his match in dullness, and Caesar engages in risible sign-language conversations with an orangutan (suddenly, I had a real hankering for Every Which Way But Loose). Created by Peter Jackson's WETA Digital outfit and "played" by Andy Serkis, Caesar is a CGI triumph, although there's still an artificiality about the look that keeps the figure at a distance (personally, I found Serkis's "performance" as the title character in Jackson's King Kong remake to be more effective). Still, the film proves to be a reasonably entertaining experience, culminating in an all-out battle between apes and humans on the Golden Gate Bridge. But for all of its technical prowess, the picture never stirs the soul like the classic 1968 original, which dovetailed its allusions to real-life civil unease with its muscular handling of a surefire sci-fi hook. When the original's Charlton Heston bellows, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" it's a clarion call to humanity; when a character in this new picture says it, it feels like an unearned co-option. **1/2

THE SKIN I LIVE IN Step aside, children: It's time to let the adults come out and play. Anyone not interested in tracking the romantic travails of Twilight and Like Crazy hipsters will take delight in the disturbing relationships coursing through The Skin I Live In, the latest blaze of originality from writer-director Pedro Almodovar. Antonio Banderas, who starred in five Almodovar films before making the leap to American cinema, reunites with the Spanish auteur for this patently bizarre drama in which a plastic surgeon, haunted by the fiery car crash that engulfed his wife, spends years attempting to invent a durable, synthetic skin. With his assistant (Marisa Paredes), he experiments on a lovely young woman (Elena Anaya) held captive in his home, an emotionally fraught situation made even more explosive by the arrival of a freak (Roberto Alamo) from their collective pasts. Almodovar is known for writing more meaty roles for women than just about anyone else out there, so filmgoers might be startled at some of the horrors endured by Anaya's character. But by the end, it all makes sense — it's the journey itself that provides the unexpected, often queasy twists and turns. Let's just say that the recent Shrek spinoff isn't the only Antonio Banderas film that could have been released with the title Puss in Boots. ***

THE THREE MUSKETEERS Break out those No. 2 pencils, cuz it's time for a pop quiz. Which line of dialogue is not spoken in the latest screen adaptation of The Three Musketeers? A) "What would you like me to put on your headstone? 'Little shit'?" B) "Your horse took a dump on the street." C) "Find my sword. It's the one that says 'Bad Motherfucker' on it." The correct answer is C, although given the other liberties taken with Alexandre Dumas' classic novel, nothing included here would have surprised me. I'm hardly a stickler for movies remaining faithful to their source material, but this Musketeers is a travesty, even worse than the dopey 90s version that thought nothing of casting Charlie Sheen as Aramis and Chris O'Donnell as D'Artagnan. Perhaps not since Robert Duvall danced around a campfire with a dead deer balanced on his head in 1995's misguided take on The Scarlet Letter has a film so savagely violated a literary chestnut. Director-producer Paul W.S. Anderson is best known for those Resident Evil movies starring his real-life wife Milla Jovovich, so it's hardly unexpected that he stages this as a slick video-game adaptation, complete with an excess of CGI and a fondness for those slo-mo Matrix-style action sequences that wore out their welcome somewhere around the time Kelly Clarkson was winning the first American Idol championship. Jovovich, in fact, is showcased in many of these interludes, as her Milady de Winter, heretofore only known for scheming and blackmailing behind the scenes, has been transformed into a kick-ass warrior. Yet at least she possesses a smidgen of pizzazz; not so dull Logan Lerman, whose demographic-friendly casting — he's a young American cast adrift in a sea of European actors — as D'Artagnan makes me wonder why they didn't go ahead and cast Justin Bieber or a Jonas brother in the part. Faring even worse is newcomer Gabriella Wilde as his love interest — her line readings prove to be even less animated than those of 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL. Clearly, Anderson and his scripters felt like simple swashbuckling antics would be boring to modern audiences, so in addition to Milady's reincarnation as Lara Croft, a couple of airships — yes, airships in the 17th century — have been added to the narrative. The film's conclusion sets up a sequel, so if it indeed gets made, I expect the Orient Express and at least one Aston Martin to figure in the action. *

TOWER HEIST Cineastes won't allow something as trivial as Tower Heist to dislodge Dassin's Rififi or Kubrick's The Killing as their caper film of choice, but as far as seasonal multiplex blockbusters go, this one's not bad at all. The much maligned Brett Ratner, whose last two features were the godawful Rush Hour 3 and the series-sapping X-Men: The Last Stand, basically stays out of the way of his four writers and 10 stars, allowing them to strut their stuff in this comedy about a group of working stiffs who decide to take financial revenge on the crooked Wall Street fat cat (Alan Alda) who swindled them out of their savings. The characters are far more interesting than the actual heist that eats up the final portion of the film, so it's a good thing we're allowed to spend plenty of time getting to know them during the first hour. Ben Stiller is fine as the building manager who plots the robbery; Eddie Murphy displays some of that '80s brashness (long buried under family-film complacency) as a career criminal who lends a hand; and Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe contribute some well-timed laughs. Then there's Tea Leoni as a diligent FBI agent; her drunk scene is one of the highlights of the film and makes me wish that Hollywood would remember to employ her on a more consistent basis. ***

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN — PART 1 TTS:BD-P1, the latest in Stephenie Meyer's wildly successful page-and-screen franchise, opens with 18-year-old Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) preparing to marry the considerably older — but still Tiger Beat pinup-worthy — vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Although she plans to allow Edward to eventually bite her and turn her into a fellow vampire, she decides to remain human for the honeymoon — a fact that disturbs romantic rival and part-time werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Jacob believes that hanky panky between a vampire and a human might lead to the latter's death, a theory he possibly picked up from enjoying too much hentai. At any rate, the inadvertent S&M sessions between the newlyweds yield something more unexpected than a few bruises on Bella: a pregnancy that will result in either a human baby, a vampire suckling or some ungodly combination of both. Writer-director Bill Condon, who deservedly won an Oscar for penning the adaptation of Gods and Monsters, has only been assigned helming duties here, with Melissa Rosenberg retaining her job as scripter of all the films. They both deserve equal blame for the first half of this picture, which plays like a drably lit, monotonously written and indifferently acted soap opera. But as the movie is set to reach a point of no return (around the time Bella and Edward gaze into each other's eyes for, oh, the 268th time), some interesting dynamics come into play. Jacob's love for Bella forces him to side with the hated Cullens against the rest of the wolf pack, while the Rosemary's Baby-esque drama results in some modest tension. Even during the superior second half, there are so many pop tunes crammed onto the soundtrack that viewers might feel like the movie was made only to support CD sales, and a sequence involving talking wolves ranks among the most risible of the year. But critiques really have no weight when it comes to movies like this. The haters are gonna hate, the fans are gonna love, and everyone else will check the movie listings and their own wallets before deciding if this is the best option for a night on the town. **1/2

WARRIOR Perhaps because it's being released less than a year after The Fighter, Warrior has already been relentlessly compared to that drama which likewise focuses on two brothers involved with a pounding sport (boxing there, mixed martial arts here). I had problems with The Fighter (starting with Melissa Leo's canvas-chewing performance, which inexplicably won her an Oscar), but on balance, I have more with Warrior, which does a nice job of mostly subverting the inevitable genre clichés but has trouble coming up with anything new to fill the void. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play the slugging siblings: Hardy's Tommy Conlon is a former Marine who's battling all manner of personal demons, while Edgerton's Brendan is a teacher who's forced back into the ring in order to make money and prevent foreclosure on his home. Both have their eyes on winning the championship, but first, they need to undergo the proper training and then beat a formidable slate of opponents if they expect to make it to the final match. Director-cowriter Gavin O'Connor and team ably set up the dire circumstances that blanket these men's lives, particularly their relationship with their estranged father Paddy (Nick Nolte, simply superb). But because we know exactly which two characters will end up in the championship bout (despite the challenge of a hulking Russian straight out of Rocky IV), the home stretch occasionally becomes tedious, with the emphasis shifting from character development to repetitive slugfests. Worse, Hardy and Edgerton barely have any scenes together, which drains their climactic confrontation of much of its power. I suspect many men will nevertheless tear up at the end, but if this is supposed to be the successor to Brian's Song, it's slightly off-key. **1/2

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