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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 5 

BAD TEACHER It's no Bad Santa, but Bad Teacher brings just enough naughty behavior to the table to make it a decent watch for viewers tired of PG-13 timidity. In her best role since 2005's underrated In Her Shoes, Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a gold-digging middle-school teacher who, having just been dumped by her wealthy fiancé, sets her sights on substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who happens to be the heir to a watch-making dynasty. Elizabeth is manipulative, deceitful, insensitive and lazy, and she's forced to use all her cunning to dislodge Scott from the grip of a perpetually peppy teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, nice-guy gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) hangs around, hoping to get past Elizabeth's obvious disinterest in him. Hollywood, which fashions itself as a bearer of moral messages, usually feels the need to take down its flawed characters before the closing credits, with the arrogant/narcissistic/self-centered protagonist miraculously transformed into a wellspring of small sacrifices and big embraces (e.g. half of Jim Carrey's canon). To its credit, Bad Teacher doesn't resort to such shameless pandering: Like Billy Bob Thornton's Willie in Bad Santa, Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey bends but doesn't break, and the film has no need to automatically punish the wicked for their indiscretions. On the downside, the combination of a short running time, often erratic pacing, and a number of red-band-trailer moments conspicuously missing from the finished piece suggests that the studio ultimately didn't have quite enough faith in the picture to let it all hang out. This Bad Teacher is amusing enough to earn a passing mark, but we'll have to wait for the unrated cut on DVD/Blu-ray in order to fully gauge this school project's merit. **1/2

CAPTAIN AMERICA Even moviegoers suffering from superhero burnout might want to stand up and salute Captain America, which doesn't match the excellence of X-Men: First-Class but ranks ahead of fellow summer stablemates Thor and Green Lantern. I've long held a soft spot for 1991's The Rocketeer and 2004's Hidalgo, two box office underachievers that refreshingly stripped away the modern era's automatic coat of cynicism and instead delivered old-fashioned thrills with no trace of irony or condescension. Both films were helmed by Joe Johnston, and coming off the disastrous monster muddle The Wolfman, he's back in his gee-whiz element here. Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a scrawny kid whose 4F status repeatedly prevents him from being accepted into the army during World War II. But responding to the youth's inner decency rather than his outward lack of muscles, a kindly scientist (Stanley Tucci) turns him into the ultimate super-soldier. The sickly Steve Rogers now sports a Charles Atlas physique, and he eventually goes after the man who has emerged as his arch-nemesis: Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi whose use of the same serum has transformed him into the appropriately named Red Skull. As expected, the movie has the requisite CGI bombast, although the most unique visual effect involved digitally altering the buff Evans so that he would appear emaciated in the early sequences — an approach that works far better than the technique for which The Curious Case of Benjamin Button managed to grab a Visual Effects Oscar. Aside from the effects, the movie generally takes a decidedly more low-key approach, both in tone and performance. Balanced enough to offer entertainment to young and old alike, Captain America should make us all proud to be moviegoers. ***

CARS 2 Before Cars 2, Pixar had released 11 feature-length tales, all but one of them considered unqualified gems that spoke to adults as much as to the kids. The exception was 2006's Cars, which earned mostly positive notices but was dismissed as lightweight children's fare. I would argue that it's a bit stronger than that — its Route 66 mythology, coupled with the presence of Paul Newman in what would turn out to be his final role, lent it a nostalgic, bittersweet tinge — but when placed alongside the magnificence of, say, Up or the Toy Story trilogy, it clearly doesn't possess the same emotional or artistic wallop. And neither does Cars 2, which will replace its predecessor as the new runt of the Pixar litter. But so what? If the Pixar gurus occasionally want to kick up their heels and make movies that offer only surface pleasures, then so be it. The only requirement should be that they entertain, which is something that Cars 2 certainly does. Adopting an international template, this sequel finds Lightning McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) invited to participate in an international Grand Prix event. McQueen reluctantly takes Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) with him, only to be immediately humiliated by his best buddy's redneck behavior. But while McQueen tries to ignore these distractions and concentrate on beating his racetrack rivals, Mater gets mistaken for a brilliant secret agent by a pair of British operatives (Michael Caine as Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer as Holley Shiftwell) trying to uncover the shadowy head of a criminal cabal. Had Cars 2 been released by any other studio's toon department, it would have been praised for its inventiveness and eye-popping animation; instead, Pixar finds itself punished for having a track record like no other. ***

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