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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 6 

THE AMERICAN The title would suggest that here's a film reminiscent of Mom and apple pie; in truth, it has more in common with Padre and panna cotta. Deliberately paced and artfully rendered, this frequently feels like an Antonioni knockoff whose prints ended up at the multiplexes instead of the art-houses. George Clooney stars as Jack, an assassin who hides out in a small Italian town to avoid other hitmen gunning for him. Having recently killed an innocent lover in order to cover his own tracks, Jack knows better than to get involved with others, but he nevertheless befriends an elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and becomes romantically entangled with a prostitute (Violante Placido). The one exception to the film's low-volume level is a vehicular chase that punctuates the proceedings like a pin to a balloon; the rest is moody and mannered, an approach certain to divide moviegoers. For me, the thoughtful pace was appreciated; what wasn't appreciated was that it's wrapped around a tale that could have used a little more inspiration in branching out its characters. A weary hitman, a hooker with a heart of gold and a jovial priest might be the basis for a great joke were they all to enter a bar, but as the central ingredients of a story meant to compel, this assemblage predates even the U.S. Constitution. **1/2

ANIMAL KINGDOM Crime flicks are so commonplace, so been-there-done-that, that one trick isn't in avoiding the clichés and stereotypes but rather in mixing it up so that viewers are never sure which characters will exhibit the expected behavior. The Australian drama Animal Kingdom follows suit: It knows that boys will be boys and boys with guns will be especially dangerous, but its pleasures rest in tripping up our preconceived notions of its characters. Newcomer James Frecheville stars as J, who moves in with his Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and his uncles after his mom ODs. All — even the matriarch — are involved in illegal activities, and J soon starts to follow down their path. But an honest cop (Guy Pearce) thinks that J can be turned, so he begins to mentally work on him. Pearce is such a fine actor that he keeps the script's dullest role interesting; luckily, nobody else has to contend with such a challenge. A seemingly wimpy character turns out to be the most dangerous of all; a major player primed to be around for the long haul gets blown away in the early going; a hair-trigger psycho doesn't fulfill his obligations as an evil antagonist; and so on. In Animal Kingdom, it isn't necessarily the strongest who survive, an example of writer-director David Michod's continuous efforts to goose the genre. ***

DESPICABLE ME When James Stewart offers to lasso the moon for Donna Reed in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life, it's purely a romantic gesture. When Gru (Steve Carell), the star of the 3-D opus Despicable Me, plots to shrink the moon to a size small enough so that he can make off with it, it's clearly to show that he's the baddest dude around. After all, if a supervillain isn't feared and respected, then what good is he? Despicable Me is a witty, congenial lark that obviously won't have the staying power of Toy Story 3 but serves quite nicely as a pleasing placeholder in the cinematic summer of 2010. Sweet-natured yet also avoiding the cloying sentiment that tarnishes any great number of toon tales, this finds Gru enlisting the aid of three oblivious orphan girls to help him one-up his biggest competitor in the supervillain sweepstakes, a self-satisfied nebbish (Jason Segel) who calls himself Vector. Naturally, Gru knows nothing about children, and just as naturally, the girls will teach him about family and responsibility. But that comes later. First, the movie has to let loose with a volley of inspired sight gags, a smattering of adult-oriented humor (note the homage to The Godfather), and some screen-pushing innovations to justify the 3-D expense. ***

DEVIL Agatha Christie meets M. Night Shyamalan in Devil, and damn if the mystery author's inspiration doesn't put the hack auteur's career back on the right path. Make no mistake: There's nothing special about Devil, but after a string of notorious flops, it's surprising to see Shyamalan involved with a film that's at the very least watchable. Still, any praise should be followed by an asterisk, since his contributions are relegated to co-producing the picture and coming up with the storyline (John Erick Dowdle and Brian Nelson get credit for the direction and screenplay, respectively). But regardless of how the muted kudos is parceled out, the end result is a moderately entertaining tale that borrows Christie's Ten Little Indians template of putting a group of strangers together and having them get picked off one by one. Here, we find five people trapped together on a stuck elevator, with the added element of having the killer among the quintet actually being the devil in disguise. The supernatural angle occasionally lapses into silliness (the pontificating by a superstitious security guard grows overbearing), but Dowdle comes up with some interesting visuals, and the atmospheric score by Fernando Velazquez (The Orphanage) is, uh, heaven-sent. **1/2

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