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

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ADAM Arriving on the scene just in time to feast on (500) Days of Summer's sloppy seconds, Adam is another indie effort about a love affair that may or may not survive until the final reel. Here, it's Hugh Dancy as the dashing lad, unsure in the ways of love, and Rose Byrne as the pretty girl, more realistic about the world in which they live. The plot device is that Dancy's Adam suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a condition (comparable to autism, some claim) that impedes a person's ability to function in social situations. Thus, Adam learns from Byrne's Beth how to be more comfortable in his own skin, while Beth learns ... well, actually not much, unless you count Adam's lengthy discourses on astronomy. Dancy and Byrne are both appealing, but the rest of writer-director Max Mayer's film plays like a standard seriocomedy that never explores its unusual angle as fully as we might expect – or hope. **

BRUNO To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's smackdown of Dan Quayle during the 1988 Vice Presidential Debate: "Bruno, I screened Borat; I knew Borat; Borat was a review of mine. Bruno, you're no Borat." Perhaps not, but there's still plenty of laughs to be found in Bruno, which finds creator Sacha Baron Cohen employing the same guerilla tactics and faux-documentary style that made Borat such an unlikely box office winner back in 2006. This time, the uncompromising comedian adopts the personage of Bruno, a gay Austrian model determined to become an A-list Hollywood celebrity. That's easier said than done, as Bruno's flamboyance repels practically everyone he meets. It's rather disingenuous the manner in which Cohen has suggested that Bruno is an attack on homophobia, since the end result strongly suggests that the filmmaker is having his cake (or cock, as Bruno would doubtless mispronounce the word) and eating it, too. The first half of the picture provides some hysterical material, but what's the target being punctured? Cohen is at his best when nailing specific people, but he's less successful when trying to shock viewers with naughty gay routines that encourage the audience to laugh at him rather than with him. Fortunately, the picture hits its stride in the second half, when Cohen exclusively sets his sights on various bigots, including monosyllabic Alabama hunters, extreme-sports-loving rednecks, and, most reprehensible of all, two vile Christian counselors who bill themselves as "gay converters." These scenes provide the film with the clarity of mission lacking in the earlier segments, as Cohen expertly alternates between subtly mocking his subjects and outright infuriating them. **1/2

THE COVE The newest entry in a growing subdivision of the nonfiction genre – the preaching-to-the-choir documentary – The Cove tracks the efforts of former dolphin trainer Richard O'Barry (who worked on the Flipper TV series in the 1960s) and the Ocean Preservation Society as they seek to halt the continued slaughter of dolphins in Japanese waters. The movie frequently veers off in several different directions (the exploitation of dolphins in U.S. theme parks like SeaWorld and the mercury levels found in dolphin meat are also addressed), and it too often lacks focus and sometimes even facts. But the scenes centering on the slaughter and the aftermath are horrifying; Michael Vick would doubtless get a hard-on watching them, but most normal people will be properly repulsed. ***

DISTRICT 9 District 9 is Independence Day for the art-house set. Although its press launch has been so deafening that it's managed to permeate the mainstream consciousness, its modest approach and meaty metaphors will curry greater favor with filmgoers who opt for Tsotsi over Transformers. And although it's already being hailed in many quarters as a model of originality, the truth of the matter is that the film follows genre conventions just as often as it heads off in its own direction. Like Independence Day, it treats the cinema of science fiction as its own buffet table, picking and choosing which ideas would best serve its own intentions. And in doing so, it comes up with a dish that's juicy in both execution and endgame. Back in 1981, an enormous alien craft appeared in the sky above Johannesburg, South Africa; the voyagers, malnourished and stranded on a spaceship too damaged to go anywhere else, were rounded up and placed in a slum area known as District 9. Now it's been nearly three decades since their arrival, and the million-plus aliens, known dismissively as "prawns" because of their physical appearance, continue to wallow in filth and poverty, conditions that convince the South African government to move them further away from the city limits so as to minimize their contact with humans even more. The specter of apartheid is never far removed from the actions occurring throughout District 9, but writer-director Neill Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell never turn this into a heavy-handed screed. Instead, they approach the issues of racism and xenophobia mindful of their knotty ramifications. Imagination runs a bit short toward the end, as District 9 largely turns into a standard chase thriller and viewers are asked to swallow a bit more than even their disbelief-suspending minds might accept. But in a nice twist from the standard Hollywood blockbuster, this Australian import employs its special effects to save the day rather than ruin it, using superb CGI wizardry to draw us into the final battles instead of relying on obvious fakery to distance us from the proceedings. ***

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER The beauty of this utterly winning picture is that it doesn't live in a generational vacuum: Like the best films of its kind, its tale of young love (and all the accompanying trials and tribulations) will speak to all ages. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tom Hansen, a sweet kid who works for a greeting card company. Into the workplace walks new employee Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), and Tom is immediately smitten. Summer, however, isn't on the same page: More cynical in nature, she doesn't particularly subscribe to the notion of true love and sees Tom as a "friend with benefits." Tom does his best to keep their union afloat, but he obviously has his work cut out for him. Rather than spill the story in chronological order, this jumps back and forth to various points in the relationship, showing the pair happy one minute and gloomy the next. In the wrong hands, such a decision might have turned out unwieldly or awkward, but here the scenes flow smoothly, making sense not only narratively (on-screen markers always alert us to the day being shown) but also emotionally, allowing us to fully understand and appreciate how earlier incidents might affect the characters' mindsets during later ones. Ultimately, none of this would work without the proper actors, and Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are adorable talents whose open faces and inviting eyes seem to allow audiences access to their very psyches. Because of them, we find ourselves completely invested in Tom and Summer, and their love story becomes our love story, warts and all. Don't miss the brilliant cameo of sorts by a Star Wars character, the result being the funniest moment in any film released thus far in 2009. ***1/2

FUNNY PEOPLE What distinguished writer-director Judd Apatow's previous films (Knocked Up and especially The 40-Year-Old Virgin) from most of the doltish fanboy comedies hitting theaters these days (The Hangover, for instance) is that he made sure to include genuine characters rather than stock types in his stories and made us care enough about them to allow the movies to resonate beyond their nyuk content. Funny People is even more ambitious – it wants to make us laugh and cry and ruminate and perhaps even start Oscar buzz – but it never properly merges all of its disparate elements into an organic whole, resulting in viewer whiplash as it repeatedly starts and sputters. Adam Sandler is cast as George Simmons, a Hollywood star who's just been diagnosed with a potentially fatal strain of leukemia. After the obligatory bouts of self-pity, he tries to move ahead, first by hiring rising comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to write material for him and then by trying to rekindle a romance with Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow's real-life wife), an ex-fiancee now married to an Australian businessman (Eric Bana, stealing the show). Criminally overlong, this is so overstuffed with incidental material – Ira's thorny relationship with his two more successful roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman), his tentative wooing of a deadpan neighbor (Aubrey Plaza), George's schmoozing with countless celebrities playing themselves (Sarah Silverman, Paul Reiser, Eminem, etc.), an endless stream of dick jokes – that the George-Laura storyline doesn't even materialize until the film's second hour. Apatow clearly meant to further his reputation with this ambitious effort, but the end result, sad to say, is no laughing matter. **

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA This is the second film this summer to be based on a line of Hasbro toys, and the good news is that it's better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Of course, then comes the sobering afterthought: Pretty much every movie this summer has been better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. At any rate, this isn't G.I. Joe so much as it's C.G.I. Joe, a nonstop orgy of computer imagery and pretty much what we'd expect from the director of the execrable Van Helsing and two dopey Mummy movies. Tatum Channing, certainly more plastic than any of the G.I. Joe action figures I owned as a child, plays Duke, a dedicated soldier who, along with best bud Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), joins the elite commando squad in order to help take down a megalomaniac (Christopher Eccleston) bent on ruling the world. Duke's particularly perturbed because his former girlfriend Ana (Sienna Miller) is now an enemy agent, but both actors are so dull that they seem to have wandered in straight from the set of a soap opera. Wayans tries to provide some pep, but because his contract specifically states that the actor receive the lion's share of the script's truly atrocious lines, he's rendered ineffectual every time he opens his mouth. Those who claim that action yarns don't even need sound actors or competent direction or compelling storylines are either not thinking the argument through or have become too shell-shocked to note the obvious differences between, say, Van Helsing and The Dark Knight, between Transformers: ROTF and District 9. Yes, there are a few rousing set-pieces in G.I. Joe, but for the most part, the action is unfocused, the effects are iffy, and the thrills are fleeting. Young boys will probably get a kick out of the movie, but everyone else will notice that the entertainment value is clearly MIA. *1/2

THE GOODS: LIVE HARD, SELL HARD Like a Frankenstein monster that can never quite find the strength to climb off the table, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard is a lumbering creation stitched together from body parts of past comedies operating in a similarly sophomoric vein. A slapdash effort that celebrates the Idiotic Man-Child in all his various incarnations, it quickly becomes clear that the colon in the title isn't the only thing the movie has in common with the likes of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Jeremy Piven stars as Don Ready, a mercenary salesman called into action whenever a company has trouble moving its product. For this particular Fourth of July weekend, Don and his team (Ving Rhames, Kathryn Hahn and David Koechner) find themselves hired to help car dealer Ben Selleck (James Brolin) empty out his lot. The Goods isn't quite as coarse as other recent films of its ilk, but it also isn't very funny, with the humor quotient never rising above a few mild-mannered chuckles. The film messes around with some decidedly non-PC content – hate crimes, child molestation, the sight of James Brolin sporting a massive boner under his pants – but it's too tepid to earn any points for either audacity, originality or offensiveness. As the squished cherry on top, there's also an unfunny cameo by an overexposed actor whose own movies are pretty unfunny. I won't spoil the, uh, surprise here, although it's clearly no surprise to see him also listed as one of the producers of this shrug-inducing comedy that will doubtless play a helluva lot better after four pizza slices and eight beers. *1/2

THE HANGOVER It's what's known as putting matters in perspective. Folks who bash Judd Apatow for his various endeavors need only catch The Hangover to see that it's unfair to dismiss his pictures simply because they refuse to always toe the politically correct line. What's more, the majority of his films benefit from fluid plot developments, interesting characterizations, and gags that remain funny even in retrospect – conditions not enjoyed by this slapdash effort in which soon-to-be-married Doug (Justin Bartha) heads to Las Vegas to enjoy a final blowout romp with henpecked Stu (Ed Helms), dimwitted Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and prickish Phil (Bradley Cooper). After waking up to discover that the husband-to-be is MIA, the trio stumble around Vegas trying to piece the mystery together, a taxing jaunt that puts them in contact with two sadistic cops, a sweet-natured hooker (Heather Graham), and a pissed off Mike Tyson (as himself). That a convicted rapist like Tyson would be showcased in such fawning, reverential fashion ("He's still got it!" admires Stu after the former boxer decks Alan) pretty much reveals the mindsets of the filmmakers and their target demographic. This represents the worst sort of pandering slop, the type that appeases impressionable audiences who don't even realize they're being insulted. It insinuates that practically every man is a shallow asshole who revels in his Neanderthal habits, and that every woman falls into the category of shrew or whore. Unlike Apatow's characters, recognizably flawed people who nevertheless remain likable and interesting enough to earn our sympathies, these dipshits are neither funny enough nor engaging enough to command our attention as they wander through a series of set-pieces that reek of comic desperation rather then genuine inspiration. *1/2

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE In terms of sustained quality, I daresay that the Harry Potter franchise trumps all other series featuring more than three entries – and now here's the sixth installment to add more fuel to the fiery debate. Chris Columbus was unfairly lambasted in some quarters for the first two Potter pics, but I think his comparatively lighthearted approach worked since the early chapters were as much about the Disneyland appeal of the Hogwarts school as anything else. But as J.K. Rowling's books progressed, the child actors matured, and the directors changed, the franchise began to take on a decidedly darker tone, with a likable character killed off in each of the three most recent works and teen protagonists Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) continually having to contend with raging hormones that prove to be as challenging to conquer as any Dementor. Here, there's the feeling that the bad guys are winning, and Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) needs to quickly come up with some sort of game plan. He enlists the unwitting aid of a former professor, the jovial if distracted Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), and instructs Harry to discreetly probe him for information that might help them defeat Voldemort and his minions. Harry takes on the task, albeit not at the complete expense of a social life. He finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to Ron's younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright, the weak link in the cast), even as Ron and Hermione continue to be drawn to each other. Director David Yates mixes personal scenes involving the students with more weighty material that furthers the blackest aspects of the saga. These latter-named segments are suitably moody – and often allow the FX team to show off their handiwork – yet the heart of the piece remains the interactions between the characters, both teen and adult. ***

THE HURT LOCKER Who knew that director Kathryn Bigelow was anything other than a Hollywood hack? Sure, sure, she's had her supporters, but practically all of her past projects have favored cold style over warm substance. The justly forgotten Blue Steel was one of the worst films of the 1990s, Point Break was merely daft masturbation fodder for fans of Patrick Swayze and/or Keanu Reeves, and the Harrison Ford dud K-19: The Widowmaker was so dull that just writing about it makes me... zzzzzz. Where was I? Oh, yes, getting ready to praise Bigelow for a tightly wound film whose few flaws can be found in Mark Boal's screenplay rather than in her own potent direction. Boal, who co-wrote the only other worthy Iraq War film to date (In the Valley of Elah), has elected this time to focus all his attention on the soldiers who are placed in the line of fire. The Hurt Locker follows the three members of a bomb squad plying their trade during the last six weeks of their tour of duty in 2004. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the leader of the outfit, a man as reckless as he is efficient when it comes to defusing bombs. Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is the most professional – that is to say, most stable – member of the team, anxious to get away from a job he despises. And Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the young pup of the outfit, a clean-cut kid terrified that his life will soon get snuffed out. The movie works best when its storytelling remains shaggy; it gets into real trouble when it introduces a forced subplot in which James sets out to avenge the death of a friend. But never does Bigelow falter in her direction, which, by adroitly alternating between muscular and sensitive, reapplies a recognizable face to a conflict that is already slipping from the American public conscious with all the wispiness of a bad dream. ***

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS With its freewheeling exploits and liberties with historical veracity, Quentin Tarantino's World War II excursion is a celebration of film as its own entity, beholden to nothing but its own creative impulses. One would be correct in assuming that Inglourious Basterds is a remake of 1978's international production Inglorious Bastards, but except for the similar title, the films have nothing in common. The joke is that Tarantino's film isn't even primarily about the Basterds; rather, Tarantino pulls his story this way and that, to the point that marquee star Brad Pitt, as Basterds leader Aldo Raine, is MIA for long stretches at a time. In screen minutes, he probably places third under Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, the lone survivor of a massacre that left her family members dead, and Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, the so-called "Jew hunter" responsible for the aforementioned slaughter. All three are fine, and it's easy to see why Waltz won a Best Actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Like the best Tarantino flicks, this one is more talk than action, and the auteur also continues to be as big a film fan as he is a filmmaker, evidenced by how the movie is marinated in an unequivocal admiration for cinema. For all its attributes, the film does make a couple of miscalculations. The stunt casting – exploitation director Eli Roth as Raines' right-hand man, Mike Myers as a British officer – doesn't work at all. And after 2-1/2 hours of leisurely storytelling, the ending feels disappointingly rushed, the sort of abrupt conclusion sure to leave a bad taste in the mouths of countless moviegoers. Truth be told, another half-hour wouldn't have damaged Inglourious Basterds; it moves so quickly anyway that it's (to quote a famous line about another movie) "history written with lightning" – even if these particular chapters exist only in Quentin Tarantino's feverish imagination. ***

JULIE & JULIA Working overtime as writer, director and producer, Nora Ephron has taken a pair of books – My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme, and Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell – and combined them into one irresistible motion picture. It's a film that rises two stories, on one hand focusing on the legendary Julia Child (Meryl Streep) as she begins her journey toward becoming one of America's greatest chefs, and on the other following Julie Powell (Amy Adams) as her idea for a blog – cook all 524 recipes in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days – eventually leads to fame and fortune. The Julia Child segments of the film are magnificent. As the towering, exuberant Child, Streep delivers another astonishing performance, never lapsing into mere caricature but steadfastly making sure to capture all facets of the woman's personality. The best parts of the Child sequences focus on the marriage between Julia and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci, reuniting with Streep on the high heels of The Devil Wears Prada). Movies aren't normally where we turn to watch happily married couples in action, but the Julia-Paul relationship is one of the most blissful seen in years, and Streep and Tucci dance through their interpretations with the grace and ease of an Astaire-Rogers routine. When compared to the Julia Child portions, the Julie Powell chapters aren't nearly as compelling, but they're far from the drag that others have suggested. And as in Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night (another foodie flick with Tucci), the camera gazes so lovingly on each prepared dish (even the burnt ones!) that it's virtually impossible to exit the theater without wanting to head immediately to a gourmet restaurant. That, then, is one of the beauties of Julie & Julia: While other ambitious movies are content targeting the heart and the mind, this one adds another palatable layer by also going for the stomach. ***1/2

A PERFECT GETAWAY A Perfect Getaway might be far from perfect, but it's good enough to be considered one of this summer's biggest out-of-left-field surprises. A twisty thriller that will keep most audience members alternately on their toes and on the edge of their seats, this feels like a classic case of a B movie showing its more heavily hyped A-list competition how to get the job done with little fuss or fanfare. A Perfect Getaway is set in Hawaii, but forget Sarah Marshall: Despite some humor spicing up the picture at regular intervals, this mostly shows how Paradise on Earth can quickly morph into a living hell, as news spreads around the islands about how a newlywed couple was gruesomely murdered by another couple who got away. Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich), newlyweds themselves, are determined not to let this disturbing information disrupt their honeymoon, which consists of hoofing it through remote Hawaiian terrain. Largely to steer clear of a menacing couple (Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton) giving off that Natural Born Killers vibe, they hook up with another pair (Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez) whose own peculiarities quickly unnerve them. Is it possible that Cliff and Cydney's new friends are the actual killers? A key scene about two-thirds through the movie is overplayed and in effect makes it easier to guess the major plot pirouette. Yet even those who pick up on the forthcoming twist should enjoy this picture for its other merits, including the shifting dynamics between the characters, some memorable fight sequences, and the manner in which writer-director David Twohy plays with audience expectations. A Perfect Getaway will strike some as being too clever for its own good, but others (like me) will view it as an escape from the late-summer doldrums. ***

PONYO Compared to past Hayao Miyazaki titles like Castle in the Sky and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, the Japanese import Ponyo is minor-league stuff. But compared to the animated garbage that typically passes through stateside theaters, it's practically a godsend. This tale about a goldfish (voiced by Noah Cyrus) who longs to be human is a bit on the elementary side, and the translated dialogue (shaped by E.T. scribe Melissa Mathison) isn't up to snuff for a Miyazaki feature. But as always, Miyazaki fills the screen with so many wondrous images that viewers are immediately swept up in his fantastic universe. Tina Fey, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett are among the name actors voicing various characters, although I was especially fascinated by the nautical wizard who spoke with the voice of Liam Neeson but looked less like Schindler and more like David Bowie in his Labyrinth garb. ***

THE PROPOSAL After the stereotypical rom-com inanities of 27 Dresses, director Anne Fletcher partially redeems herself – as both an able filmmaker and a progressive woman – with her latest effort. Working with screenwriter Pete Chiarelli, she's managed to put out a picture that paints its heroine in one-dimensional strokes only part of the time. True, The Proposal depicts Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) in the same manner as most Hollywood flicks (see New in Town for another recent example): Because she's a career woman, she has no time for friends, lovers, hobbies or, apparently, even a rascally Rabbit (the battery-powered kind, that is). She's a ruthless, soulless workaholic, and the only reason Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) works as her assistant at a New York publishing house is because he figures it's a good career move. But when it looks as if Margaret will get shipped back to her Canadian homeland because of an expired visa, it appears as if his future will similarly get derailed. Margaret, though, has a plan: Force Andrew to marry her so that she can remain in the country. That these two will eventually fall for each other will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, yet the predictability of the plot isn't a detriment, since the film fits as comfortably around our expectations as a favorite old robe hugs our frame. And while the picture occasionally goes out of its way to make Bullock's character a ninny, the actress refuses to let the role manhandle her, and she and the ever-charming Reynolds work well together. Unfortunately, Fletcher and Chiarelli can't help but go for the easy, imbecilic laugh at several key junctures, and the film even includes one of those cringe-worthy moments in which a person declares his devotion to his beloved in front of a crowd of people. Still, this Proposal has enough merit to warrant some consideration. **1/2

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 Placing this new version of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 – in which four men hijack a subway car and hold its passengers for ransom – next to its 1974 predecessor makes the current model seem about as interesting as a tarnished doorknob, but rather than belabor the point, just rent the original (both were adapted from John Godey's best-selling novel) and thank me later. As for those venturing forth to catch this update, be prepared for a moderately agreeable thriller that unfortunately flames out with at least a full half-hour to go. Here, the criminals are led by the tattooed, mustachioed Ryder (John Travolta, looking ridiculous but still exuding a small modicum of menace), who promises to start blowing away hostages unless $10 million is delivered into his hands in exactly one hour. Trapped in his sinister scenario is Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, typically dependable but not half as much fun as the original's Walter Matthau), the dispatcher who reluctantly serves as the intermediary between Ryder and the city (repped by James Gandolfini's surly mayor). Few directors are as impersonal as Tony Scott (Domino, Days of Thunder), and he exhibits this detachment once again with a picture that's more interested in style than substance – even the city of New York, the true principal player in this tale, fails to come to life, meaning this film might as well have been set in Chicago or London or any other metropolis with a sprawling subway system. For a while, Scott and scripter Brian Helgeland make this Pelham a watchable affair before piling on all manner of ludicrous developments. By the time we get to a groaner of a showdown between the two stars, it's obvious that this vehicle jumped the tracks a while back. **

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE Movies involving time travel are so difficult to script that it's a wonder anybody even bothers to make them. Good ones like Back to the Future are calibrated well enough to allow audiences to understand and accept the ripples in the space-time continuum, but most trip over themselves as the filmmakers try to establish knotty rules they hope won't leave audiences so immersed in untangling the hows and whys that they forget to involve themselves in the characters and events. I suspect that many crucial details found in Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling novel failed to make it into Bruce Joel Rubin's script, meaning that some nagging questions – combined with Robert Schwentke's aloof direction – frequently keep us at arm's length. Nevertheless, Eric Bana as the man who travels back and forth through time and especially Rachel McAdams as the long-suffering woman who loves him bring enough heat to this up-and-down affair that it qualifies as an agreeable timefiller but not much more. **1/2

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN To my surprise, I somewhat dug 2007's Transformers, crediting the input of executive producer Steven Spielberg, who was described in the press notes as a "hands-on producer." Well, Spielberg must have been on an extended vacation during the making of this perfectly dreadful sequel that's the filmic equivalent of a 150-minute waterboarding session. As before, two warring factions of intergalactic robots – the noble Autobots and the evil Decepticons – are waging their battle on our planet, with youngsters Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and Mikaela (Megan Fox) offering their support to the good 'bots. Yet while the running time is almost identical to that of its predecessor, the priorities have been shifted. The slugfests between the Autobots and the Decepticons – the dullest portions of the first flick – have been elongated, and by including more fights and more explosions and more military hardware (Bay must fantasize about fondling missiles the way teenage boys fantasize about fondling Fox), that leaves less room for any meaningful human interaction. Then again, given that most of the characters are rather insufferable this time around, maybe the less seen of them, the better. Unfortunately, the Transformers themselves are no more interesting, with the most offensive being two "black" Transformers who sport buck teeth (one gold), admit to not being able to read, and cuss a lot. Forget Jar Jar Binks, who comes across like Paul Robeson when compared to these stooges: You'd have to go back to the days of Stepin Fetchit and Sleep 'n' Eat (nee Willie Best) to find such a jolting comparison. Bay doesn't believe in stooping too low, so he also treats us to not one but two shots of dogs screwing, as well as a mini-Transformer humping Mikaela's leg, a Transformer with flatulence problems and a close-up of John Turturro's thong-clad buttocks. And did I mention the swinging metallic testicles on one of the Decepticons? That last-named bit of idiocy thus allows me to segue into my own phallic quip: This movie sucks. *

THE UGLY TRUTH Look, it's only fair. If impressionable frat boys can enjoy The Hangover this summer and impressionable teenagers can enjoy Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, then why not give impressionable women their own imbecillic film? An abhorrent romantic comedy, The Ugly Truth is so inept and ill-conceived on so many levels that mandatory sterilization seems to be the only punishment suitable for everyone involved in this mess. We wouldn't want these folks breeding like rabbits. In a typically bad performance consisting primarily of exaggerated reaction shots, Katherine Heigl (also serving as executive producer) plays Abby, a TV news producer who's also a frigid control freak loved only by her cat. Into her world enters Mike (Gerard Butler), a chauvinist whose cable access show (The Ugly Truth) gets absorbed into Abby's news program in an effort to boost ratings. Mike's segment, in which he claims that men can't be taught anything once they pass toilet training and that there's no such thing as a romantic male, offends Abby, but eventually she finds herself turning to Mike for help on how to land her hottie neighbor, Colin (Eric Winter). He's only too happy to assist her, until he begins to fall for this pill himself. It's inconceivable that a movie with such an unsympathetic female lead was written by three women. The male characters don't come off much better, but they do come off better. While Abby is painted as a repugnant caricature to her very core, Mike is revealed to only be a misogynist when the script calls for it; the rest of the time, he's nursing a broken heart caused by past relationships or lovingly hanging out with his sister and his nephew. Ignore this in favor of (500) Days of Summer, a romantic comedy that's as smart, perceptive and charming as this one is stupid, clueless and, well, ugly. *

UP Pixar's Up proves to be merely one more winner for an outfit that refuses to compromise its high level of quality, to say nothing of its artistic integrity. It tells the story of Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), a 78-year-old balloon salesman who, after the passing of his beloved wife, decides to hook his house to thousands of helium-filled balloons and drift off to an uninhabited part of South America. The launch goes smoothly enough, until he discovers that he has an unwanted passenger in the form of 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer member Russell (Jordan Nagai), whose boundless energy wears out the curmudgeonly Carl. Nevertheless, the senior citizen pushes upward and onward, only to encounter a plethora of unexpected developments once they reach their destination. In addition to providing the requisite thrills (those afraid of heights will tense up during the exhilarating climax), Up is as emotionally involving as we've come to expect from our Pixar pics, with themes of longing, loneliness and self-sacrifice coursing through its running time. In fact, its PG rating alone hints that this is one of those toon tales that will resonate more powerfully with adults than with kids, and never more so than in the early sequences between Carl and his wife Ellie (did we really just witness a miscarriage in an animated film?). Of course, this wouldn't be a family film without some colorful sidekicks to provide added entertainment value, and the picture provides one keeper in Dug, a happy-go-lucky dog who, along with several other (fiercer) canines, has been equipped with a device that allows him to speak (he's voiced by co-director Bob Peterson). Thus, here's a movie that ultimately goes to the dogs – literally – and it still deserves enthusiastic thumbs up. ***1/2

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