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Movie Reviews 2010

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My Movie Reviews

5 Stars= It's Simply the Best

4 Stars= Totally Rocks

3 Stars= Rad

2 Stars= Bad

1 Star= Terrible 

Zero= Totally Sucks

127 Hours

Now this is man VS Wild ****1/2

“127 Hours” opens with a lone mountain climber biking and hiking through a valley in Utah. On his journey he has a brief encounter with two fellow hikers, played by Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara. At first you may think this movie is going to be in the spirit of “Into the Wild,” telling the story of a man’s expedition through the wilderness and the people he meets along the way. The audience is then swooped into a completely different movie as the mountain climber falls down a canyon and his right arm is crushed by a bolder. The screen reads “127 Hours,” verifying that this is going to be an extraordinary story about survival.

This man is Aron Ralston, a real life mountain climber who experienced the events of this movie first hand. Aron tries to free himself by fruitlessly tugging his arm out from under the bolder; he even makes a pulley device with some rope to lift the rock. But it’s no use. His water supply is limited and, even worse, he hasn’t told any of his friends or family where he was going. The only option Aron has is to amputate his arm. Even that seems fruitless, as he left his army knife at home and only has a dull knife on him.

Aron is played by James Franco, who seemed to be taking a major step backwards in his career by doing a reoccurring role on “General Hospital.” Now Franco comes back with a performance that may very well earn him his first “Best Actor” nomination, redefining his true range as a performer. Franco is 100 percent authentic as Aron, fully embodying the human drama of his character’s predicament. At times Franco resembles Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” But instead of talking to a volleyball, Aron’s one companion is his video camera. Through his camera, Aron expresses his regrets in life and, in a heartbreaking scene, says goodbye to his loved ones, confident that he won’t make it out alive. In a few concise flashbacks we delve into Aron’s failed romantic relationships and his need to be self-sufficient that has led him to this bleak state.

The director of “127 Hours” is Danny Boyle, who previously brought us the pitch-perfect “Slumdog Millionaire” that rightfully won him the directing Academy Award. With his follow-up film, Boyle delivers another unexpectedly uplifting piece of entertainment. Although most of the film takes place in a remote canyon, Boyle still captures different shots that are beyond belief. A few months ago I was ready to serve Wally Pfister of “Inception” the “Best Cinematography” award on a silver platter. But after witnessing Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak’s feat of camera work here, there may be some heavy competition come Oscar Sunday.

One film that “127 Hours” is bound to draw comparison to is “Buried,” an overlooked independent feature in which Ryan Reynolds is trapped in a coffin for the entire running time. Both films are terrific in their own respect, but “Buried” is really more in the tradition of a Hitchcockian thriller. “127 Hours” is a far more optimistic film, or at least as optimistic as any film can be about a man confronted with the options of amputation or death. That’s simply the magic of Boyle as a filmmaker. He can start off a film with something as tragic as a little Indian boy’s mother dying or a young man getting crushed by a bolder. By the end of the movie though, Boyle leaves you with a stimulating feeling of hope.

Alice in Wonderland

This Alice has plenty of muchness ***

Tim Burton is perhaps the most unique director working in movies today. Johnny Depp always manages to bring depth to whatever outlandish character he plays. It’s only natural that these two talented weirdos would come together for the seventh time to bring one of the most bizarre stories ever to life. Burton’s live-action interpretation of “Alice in Wonderland” is an often-glorious flight of imagination. At times though, the film feels more like “The Chronicles of Narnia” than the “Alice in Woderland” some may know.  

Newcomer Mia Wasikowska is endearing as the heroine of Alice, who has been having strange dreams of dodo birds and grinning cats since childhood. Now 19, Alice is faced with the dilemma of accepting a rich snob’s marriage proposal. The confused Alice runs off in pursue of a white rabbit with a stopwatch. She falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself swept away in the wonderland she thought only existed in her dreams. 

Alice is reunited with Tweedledee and Tweedledum who look like twin humpty dumpty’s, a blue, opium-smoking caterpillar voiced by Alan Rickman, and of course Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter who has the appearance of a crossbreed between Willy Wonka and Beetle Juice. They inform Alice that it is her destiny to bring down the evil Red Queen, hilariously played by Helena Bonham Carter with a bulbous head, so the pure and kind White Queen, played by Anne Hathaway, can reclaim the throne.

Tim Burton is famous for fashioning gothic worlds of absolute astonishment from a wondrous chocolate factor, to the original Gotham City, to the most menacing vision of London in the history of cinema. “Alice in Wonderland” is no exception. Every set piece, which includes a forest composed of mounting mushrooms, the Red Queen’s castle of hearts, and the White Queen’s snow-like fortress, is a marvel of inventiveness. I don’t see how any other film could possibly win the Oscar for Best Art Direction come next year.

In addition to the sets, Burton and his production crew has done a tremendous job realizing these classic characters. Never before has The Mad Hatter appeared madder nor as has the Cheshire Cat’s grin been more exultant. The Red Queen’s henchmen of walking cards have the appearance of squared demons in red suits of armor. As far as technology goes, Burton has outdone himself.

While the effects are incredible, the movie really belongs to Wasikowska as Alice. In some past adaptations of “Wonderland,” the supporting players have outshined Alice. Burton’s “Wonderland” is about Alice’s journey. In the end, her experiences in wonderland impact the outcomes of the difficult decisions she is presented with at the beginning of the movie. Her story and development is what truly makes this movie a wonder.

Alpha and Omega

They're no Lady and the Tramp *1/2

Between “Marmaduke” and now “Alpha and Omega,” I’m officially starting to get fed up with movies in which four-legged animals dance. Exactly what do filmmakers find so appealing about dogs and wolves prancing around on their two back legs? Is it supposed to be funny or charming? Having cute penguins tap dance is one thing. But there’s something I find unbearably grotesque about quadruped animals doing the foxtrot, even in the universe of animation. “Alpha and Omega” has so many needless dancing sequences that the film could have been called “Dances with Wolves.” 

In this animated adventure, Justin Long provides the voice of Humphrey, a fun-loving omega wolf. He has the hots for the pack leader’s sexy daughter, Kate, voiced by Hayden Panettiere. Unfortunately, Kate is an alpha, and alphas cannot howl with omegas. That would be like a beauty marrying a beast, a princess marrying a street rat, or a mermaid marrying a human. It’s Kate’s duty to marry the alpha son of another pack leader, joining their two packs together. Before Kate can get hitched though, she and Humphrey are tranquilized by a group of hunters. They wake up in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area where they’re expected to repopulate. Humphrey is all game to make some serious puppy love. But Kate is determined to get home before a war breaks out between the two feuding wolf packs. Humphrey and Kate escape the park, rather easily I might add, and head homeward. Along the way an English duck, voiced by Eric Price, and a French Canadian goose, voiced by Larry Miller, accompany them for little purpose other than to provide an occasional wise-crack.

How “Alpha and Omega” ends shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the audience. But the standard plot is not the film’s problem. Almost all animated films follow a blueprint, and few can be as unpredictable as “Toy Story 3.” It was no surprise in “Despicable Me,” an animated feature I enjoyed a fair deal, when Mr. Gru’s diabolical heart was captured by three children. But that movie made up for its formulaic plot with original characters and inspired humor. “Alpha and Omega” on the other hand has no qualities that distinguish it from a straight-to-video production. The animation is bland, the jokes are corny, and the dizzy 3-D effects add nothing to the story.

I will give some credit to the voiceover cast, who all try really hard here. Vicki Lewis scores a couple of chuckles as Kate’s fierce mother. “Alpha and Omega” is also one of the last movies to star Dennis Hopper, who passed away in May. When people evaluate the amazing career Hopper had though, I doubt that his role as Tony the wolf is going to come to mind.

The most unsatisfactory element of “Alpha and Omega” is the lackluster romance between Humphrey and Kate. The film’s most engaging relationship is actually not theirs, but between Kate’s intended husband and her sister, voiced by Christina Ricci — but their romance is reduced to a minor subplot. If you have children under the age of five, “Alpha and Omega” might keep them occupied for a solid hour and a half when it comes to DVD. But compared to a great animated love story like “WALL-E,” “The Princess and the Frog” or “Up,” the film does not meet the standards.

Black Swan

Very dirty dancing ****1/2

Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” is the most bizarrely fascinating film since “Mulholland Dr.” in 2001. This is a dreamlike moviegoing experience that will mesmerize some and make others unintentionally laugh at its sheer bewilderment. Whether you dig “Black Swan” or not though, it’s certainly a picture you’ll be talking about with your fellow audience members after the screening is finished. Between “Shutter Island,” “Inception,” and now “Black Swan,” 2010 has proven to be a truly great year for movies with the audacity to steer up thoughtful conversation.

Natalie Portman gives the performance of a lifetime as Nina, a gentle, fragile woman with the ambition to become the Swan Queen in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake. Nina is like a twelve-year-old trapped in a grown woman’s body. Her room is draped in pink and decorated with stuffed animals. Although she claims to not be a virgin I doubt she’s ever really had a sexual encounter. Nina’s repression likely has a lot to do with her former-ballerina mother, superbly played by Barbara Hershey. On her exterior Nina’s mother appears to be a caring parent who loves and supports her child. Inside though she seems to be holding back animosity towards Nina for succeeding in the profession she failed at. She pushes Nina to remain the same innocent little girl and never mature. 

The artistic director of the ballet company, played by Vincent Cassel, believes that Nina is perfect to play the White Swan. However, he is unconfident that Nina has the boldness or edge to play the Black Swan. Nevertheless, he gives Nina the part of the Swan Queen probably because he just wants to sleep with her. A new girl at the dance studio named Lily, played by Mila Kunis in another winning performance, befriends Nina. Where Nina is confined and obeying, Lily is rebellious and never afraid to speak her mind. She helps to bring out the subdued bad girl in Nina. As Nina becomes more of a black swan though, the world around her begins to unravel. She becomes paranoid and worried that Lily might be trying to steal her spotlight as the Swan Queen.

This is the most arresting performance of Natalie Portman’s acting career that will surely warrant an Oscar nomination and hopefully a win. At times the 29-year-old actress draws on the same stimulating lines of Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Like the protagonist in that film, Nina is often conflicted to whether everybody is plotting against her or if she’s loosing her own sanity. Portman utterly embodies the challenging character of Nina, appearing physically and emotionally exhausted much of the time. By the end of the movie, I was practically worn out by the site of Portman’s outstanding and fearless portrayal.

“Black Swan” isn’t without its shortcomings, which prevents it from becoming a perfect movie. The musical score is a tad too aware of itself and often batters the audience over the head. Some may be turned off by several WTF dream sequences in which it appears Nina may literally turn into a black swan similar to Jeff Goldblum’s transformation in “The Fly.” On the whole though, “Black Swan” is nothing short of a beautifully shot, captivating physiological thriller that I will not be forgetting any time soon. If you yourself know the story of “Swan Lake,” some of the film's ironic turns will be easy to predict. But “Black Swan” is such an exhilarating ride, that it’d be a travesty to miss.

The Book of Eli

I Am Denzel ***1/2

With the supposed end of the world only two years or so away, we seem to be getting more apocalypse and post apocalypse movies than ever. From “I Am Legend” to “The Road,” apart of me wishes the world would just end already. “The Book of Eli” is the latest addition to the end of the world genre. It’s a silly and beyond ridiculous picture with the essence of a live-action video game. I must admit though, the film did not bore me for a second. I’d even go as far to say I liked the picture enough to recommend it.

The film takes place in the distant future in which the world lies in ruins. Among the few survivors is Eli, one of those certified badass rebels who always walks in slow motion, played by the outstanding Denzel Washington. Eli has spent the past thirty years traveling west to deliver the only existing bible to a worthy town. The film never really explains how the world was wiped-out or why it’s taken Eli thirty whole years just to walk across America. But I suppose a movie like this is more fun when you don’t bother asking questions like that.

Eli eventually finds himself in an old western town run by a man named Carnegie, played Gary Oldman. Carnegie has been searching for a sacred bible in order to gain supreme power. So when Eli shows up on his turf with the holly tome, Carnegie naturally sends his thugs after him. Of course no random henchman stands a chance against Denzel who wields a big ass knife at all times. Halfway through the film I almost anticipated for him to say, “That’s not a knife. That’s a knife!” Along the way a young stowaway named Solara, played by Mila Kunis, joins Eli in his quest.

“The Book of Eli” is certainly a well-crafted movie. This isn’t much of a surprise seeing how the Hughes Brothers, who made the screen adaptation of “From Hell,” directed the film. The picture has the presence of the haunting deserted New York City in “I Am Legend” crossed with the dreamlike universe of “300.” It’s just too bad that the story can’t live up to the look of the picture. Although the film is always interesting, it doesn’t ask any new or intriguing questions like in a great futuristic apocalypse tale such as the original “Matrix.”

What elevates “The Book of Eli” above mere junk like “Terminator: Salvation” and “Babylon A.D.” is the performances from the three leads. Denzel Washington creates a memorable hero in Eli. He manages to find a fine line between taking his role seriously and still having fun with it. Gary Oldman makes the wise decision in not camping it up, producing a believable villain. Mila Kunis is always a delight on screen. Here she continues her streak of strong work with a completely convincing performance. 

Unlike so many other recent action pictures, “The Book of Eli” does not end with a massive shootout in it’s final chapter. Rather the last fifteen minutes or so is surprisingly subtle and even effecting. To an extent, the film actually does offer some interesting ideas regarding the fate of humanity. But don’t worry, there are plenty of shootouts along the way.  

The Bounty Hunter

Now Dog is only the second douchiest bounty hunter *1/2

The Studio Executive: Okay, what do you have for me this time?

The Filmmaker: Well it’s a movie called “The Bounty Hunter.”

The Studio Executive: Sounds interesting. I assume it’s an action picture.

The Filmmaker: Sort of. It’s an action romantic comedy!

The Studio Executive: An action romantic comedy? Do those ever really work?

The Filmmaker: Sure, there was Mr. & Mrs. Smith and…Mr. & Mrs. Smith…

The Studio Executive: Uh-huh…what’s the premise? 

The Filmmaker: It’s all about this spiteful divorced couple that loathes each other. The girl is Nicole, a white, attractive reporter married to her job.

The Studio Executive: Great, we don’t see nearly enough or those female stereotypes in movies and television. What about her ex-husband?

The Filmmaker: He’s a former cop turned bounty hunter named Milo. When Nicole misses a hearing Milo is hired to bring her in.

The Studio Executive: Let me guess. Despite their incompatibility these two people still rekindle their unfathomable romance through a series of misadventures?

The Filmmaker: Sweet Jesus Christ, you must be some sort of physic!

The Studio Executive: I just had a hunch. Who did you have in mind to play the leads?

The Filmmaker: For Nicole I was thinking Jennifer Aniston. She really wants to do a movie where she shows off how good her hair looks and how perfect her figure is by wearing a tight skirt.

The Studio Executive: And Milo?

The Filmmaker: The most romantic man in movies today. The successor to Cary Grant, Gerard Butler!

The Studio Executive: Gerard Butler? I just don’t find him to be a very likable romantic lead. Did you see him in “The Ugly Truth?” He looked like he wanted to chop off somebody’s head and eat it off a silver platter.

The Filmmaker: But that movie was a hit at the box office despite it’s suckiness.

The Studio Executive: That is true. And the supporting cast?

The Filmmaker: Lets have Jason Sudeikis from “Saturday Night Live” play a creepy, nerdy little man who has an infatuation with Aniston and give him a Tom Selleck mustache. Fake mustaches are funny, right? And for Aniston’s mother we could get Christine Baranski.

The Studio Executive: The elegant, the talented Christine Baranski? What would she want to do with this project?

The Filmmaker: A couple of quick, easy dollars.

The Studio Executive: So far I’m not all that impressed.

The Filmmaker: You will be once I tell you about some of the shenanigans Milo and Nicole get into. There will be this one chase with a golf cart. Golf karts are funny, right? Then get this. They drive the golf kart into a pond with their clothes on! There’s nothing funnier than people getting wet with their clothes on.

The Studio Executive: So where does the romance come into the equation?

The Filmmaker: Sir, haven’t you learned anything after all these years? A romantic comedy no longer requires romance. All we need are two movie stars to run around, yell at each other, kiss and make up. Throw in some shameless product placement for Dunkin’ Donuts and we’ve got a movie.

The Studio Executive: And you’re sure people are going to pay money to see this?

The Filmmaker: Given the countless millions “Ghost of Girlfriends Past,” “What Happens in Vegas” and so many other romantic comedies lacking in quality have made, yes.

Brooklyn's Finest

Cops may have to do it by the book. But does the screenwriter? **

“Brooklyn’s Finest” is like three movies for the price of one. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The movie tells three stories of three unconnected cops in Brooklyn. We’re used to movies with interlocking stories, such as “Crash,” “Traffic” and “Babel” — we’ve been getting a lot of them lately. “Brooklyn’s Finest,” though, is so congested that the audience never really comes to care about any of the characters. Had the filmmakers focused on just one of the three stories, maybe a decent movie could have been produced. But the final product simply feels incomplete and hollow.

Don Cheadle plays Tango, a cop who is working undercover to bring down a drug dealer played by Wesley Snipes. Cheadle is one of the most gifted actors and gives a genuinely good performance here. Lately though, he seems to be limiting himself to playing cops and agents. The real surprise in the movie is Ethan Hawke as Sal, a cop with several children and a pregnant wife expecting twins. Hawke is terrific as a conflicted man who is desperately attempting to provide for his overly large family. The weak link of the acting ensemble is Richard Gere as Eddie, a senior cop with only one week until retirement. I’ve liked Gere in a couple of movies. However, I’ve never found him to be that great of an actor, especially in roles that require dramatic presence.

The problem with “Brooklyn’s Finest” is we’ve seen these three characters in numerous other movies before, with the undercover cop who develops affection for the man he must take down; the good cop who must break the law to provide for his family; the aging, divorced cop who has lost his passion for the job. These are three cookie-cutter characters that are taken right out of the cliché cop handbook. They could have done better than that.

The screenplay by Michael C. Martin features a couple of amusing twists and memorable one-liners, but his script is overflowing with too much dialogue that isn’t quite as interesting as he thinks it is. This is one of those movies where all the characters are talking over each other. After a while, you wish that these people would shut up already.

The three stories do eventually collide in the film’s final sequence. But even then the audience has become so unattached to these characters that they don’t really care. Despite best efforts from the talented cast and its director, Antoine Fuqua, “Brooklyn’s Finest” never quite comes together.


There's no scarier setting than a coffin. ****1/2

I’ve always felt that the scariest movies aren’t the ones where teenagers are hacked to bits, zombies plague small towns or innocent people are senselessly tortured in elaborate fashions. The thrillers that truly evoke fear are grounded in reality and put the audience under possible, vulnerable circumstances. That’s why the infamous shower scene in “Psycho” and the opening shark attack in “Jaws” still give people chills after all these years. “Buried” takes its viewers on a man’s journey to survive one of the most horrifying experiences imaginable. Not only is the audience genuinely frightened for him but we also begin consider what it would be like for us to actually endure the events on screen.

As the opening credits finish, the screen fades to pitch black. We hear somebody heavily breathing in a struggle. The man lights a lighter to reveal he is in a wooden coffin, buried underground. This man is Paul Conroy, a contractor played by Ryan Reynolds. While working in Iraq, Paul was attacked by a group of terrorists and is now being held for ransom. Paul is given limited supplies, which includes a cell phone he uses to contact his family, the police and the FBI. A majority of them either don’t pick up or put him on hold. The only person that might be able to help Paul is a man named Dan Brenner, played by Robert Paterson. But Paul isn’t entirely sure if Dan’s intentions are to find him or cover up the incident.

Like the rest of the film’s supporting cast we only hear Dan’s voice, never seeing his face. The movie sticks with Ryan Reynolds from beginning to end and it’s a spectacular turn from the young actor. I’ve enjoyed Reynolds’ sarcastic charm in comedies like “Definitely, Maybe” and “The Proposal.” In “Buried” he gives the most complete and unexpected performance of his career. Reynolds’ captures the horror, chaos and dread of his character’s predicament without fault. Occasionally he even supplies the film with a mild dark sense of humor. Although this might be an unlikely part for him to play, Reynolds is completely convincing as he goes through the motions and keeps the audience invested all the way through.

It’d be easy for a movie that takes place in one setting to become old after thirty minutes, especially one as confined as a coffin. There’s not a tedious moment in “Buried” though. The filmmakers continually come up with ways to top themselves as Paul’s condition becomes deadlier and deadlier. Director Rodrigo Cortes and Cinematographer Eduard Grau shoot the film from various angles to provide different perspectives of panic. Picture the intensity and claustrophobic feeling of the coffin scene in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” stretched to 95 minutes. Unlike Uma Thurman’s character though, Paul can’t chop his way out of the coffin and must rely on strangers to rescue him.

If you had problems with movies like “Open Water” and “The Blair Witch Project” you might find “Buried” to be a snuff film. In the hands of another director and another screenwriter this premise might have been a cheap gimmick. However, the film kept my heart pounding all the way through as I contemplated what would happen next. “Buried” also shows that fear doesn’t always come from bloodshed. There are only one or two graphically violent scenes in the movie and even then the gore is quick and doesn’t call attention to itself. Like the most memorable thrillers, the terror of “Buried” is all in the audience’s psyche. Walking out of this movie, being buried alive will skyrocket to the top of your list of fears.


Who would have guessed that there were so many weirdos on the Internet **

Ever since the documentary “Catfish” made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, audiences have been attempting to decipher whether or not the film is fact or fake. Some insist the events that take place in “Catfish” are real. Others think the film is merely a hoax along the lines of contrived mockumentaries such as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity.”  Even the theatrical trailer seems confused, stating that the film is “Not based on a true story,” “Not inspired by true events,” “Just true.” As I walked out of “Catfish,” I didn’t much care if what I had just witnessed was real or staged. I was just happy it was over.

The alleged documentary follows a man named Nev Schulman, who starts a relationship with a woman named Megan via Facebook. His filmmaking brother, Ariel Schulman, and friend, Henry Joost, follow Nev and Megan’s relationship for a nine-month period. Throughout that time, Nev and Megan have numerous intimate conversations over the Internet and on the phone. The young and attractive Megan claims to be a songwriter. But when Nev finds a YouTube video identical to a song Megan claimed to have composed, he starts to think that he’s been played for a fool. Nev and his buddies set out to unravel the mystery that is Megan.

Social networking websites have become embedded in our culture and are here to stay. The phenomenon of Facebook is an especially fascinating topic for a movie. Whether or not “Catfish” is reality or fiction, the film does occasionally find truth in discovering people over the Internet. A lot of people have undoubtedly been in the same shoes as Nev, distraught over whether the woman he has been talking to is even of the opposite sex. As a short subject, “Catfish” might have been a thought-provoking cautionary tale about Internet relationships. By trying to stretch the material into a feature though, “Catfish” feels repetitive and never takes off.

Much of the movie’s hype surrounds the final forty minutes, in which a twist occurs. I will not give away this twist for your sake, although I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t see every plot point coming from a mile away. “Catfish” never figures out where it wants to go beyond the 60-minute mark and simply plays the same note over and over again.

While I cannot bring myself to recommend “Catfish,” I won’t be entirely surprised if my opinion is in the minority. A fair percentage of the screening audience seemed to have a favorable reaction towards the film. In that sense, “Catfish” kind of defines Facebook. Many will find it hard not to become engaged in the movie while a handful of people, such as myself, will just find it to be an enormous waste of time.

The Crazies

Things were just about to start getting crazy-go-nuts! ***1/2

I ventured into Breck Eisner’s remake of “The Crazies” anticipating another sleazy and depressing piece of torture porn in the spirit of the recent retreads of “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and a countless list of others. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this “Crazies” reboot. Then again, “pleasant” might not be the correct word to describe the film. This is a bloody and gory experience that earns its R rating. If you’re in the mood for a good old-fashioned creeper, you should find “The Crazies” more than satisfactory.

Timothy Olyphant plays the movie’s daring hero, David Dutton, the sheriff of a little town in Iowa. (Why is it that these mutant/apocalypse movies always have to take place in small farming communities?) At a baseball game, a local man comes onto the field wielding a shotgun without saying a word or expressing a hint of emotion. When he refuses to back down, David is forced to take action and shoot the armed man dead. At first, David believes he was under the influence of alcohol. But soon the sheriff begins to notice the same irregular activity among other citizens.

A mutant epidemic breaks out and an entire town is soon put under quarantine by the United States government. David and his loyal deputy, played by Joe Anderson, realize though that the big, bad military has no intention of letting anybody leave alive. When David becomes separated from his pregnant wife Judy, played by Radha Mitchell, he sneaks back into town to save her and their unborn child.

One of the many things I enjoyed about “The Crazies” is that it actually takes the time to develop characters. Unlike the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies, the audience sincerely cares about David and Judy and wants to see them survive this epidemic. The film also doesn’t turn them into idiots who continually make unbelievably stupid mistakes like in run-of-the-mill slasher flicks. “The Crazies” respects its characters by creating smart individuals who make rational decisions. I can’t remember the last time I watched a horror movie where I didn’t want to yell at the screen, “For God’s sake, what are these people thinking? Anybody this idiotic deserves to get sliced up!”

The key to the success of “The Crazies” is the direction from Eisner, who brings a great deal of style to the production. In addition, Eisner never settles for merely grossing the audience out. As I stated before, there is plenty of blood and gore in the picture. But a majority of the graphic nature takes place off camera and the violence never calls attention to itself. This is a much more effective and entertaining thrill ride than the overly gruesome retread of “The Wolfman.” As far as these movies go, “The Crazies” is perhaps the best of all the recent horror remakes. Although, I suppose there are some pretty low cards in that deck.

Despicable Me

Despicable 3D  ****

“Despicable Me” exists in a world overrun with villains but no superheroes to bring balance. Superheroes aren’t entirely mandatory in “Despicable Me” though. While most diabolical geniuses set out to commit mass murder and world domination, the baddies in this movie consider stealing a Great Pyramid to be the most malicious of acts. Compared to Syndrome from “The Incredibles,” they’re more like the villains on Saturday morning cartoons or one of the more preposterous James Bond movies.

The hero, or I suppose “villain,” of “Despicable Me” is Mr. Gru, a bald, stingy man with a beak-like nose. Gru drives a rocket-powered car, uses an ice gun to freeze people when the line at a coffee shop is too long, and blows up a rigged game at an amusement park when he can’t win a toy. Yet, Gru never even receives a citation from the authorities. How is this man able to walk free? But I guess there’s no point in trying to find logic in an animated film such as this. It’s like asking how Spongebob is able to afford the mortgage on his pineapple house with the meager salary of a fry cook.

Steve Carell voices Gru with an accent that sounds like a combination of German and Borat. It’s Gru’s ambition to finally leave his mark in the super villain hall of fame by stealing the moon. To pull off this deed, Gru must acquire a shrink ray that belongs to a new hipster villain named Vector, voiced by Jason Segel. Vector is the spitting image of Carell with a slim, short body and black hair where Gru actually looks more like the colossal, slightly overweight Segal.

To infiltrate Vector’s impenetrable fort, Gru enlists the help of three orphan girls played by Miranda Cosgrove of “iCarly” and newcomers Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher. This provides the movie with its funniest moments as Gru must juggle his moon-heist plot and newfound fatherhood. At times, the film is like “The Pacifier” or “The Spy Next Door,” only actually funny, charming and doesn’t suck.

“Despicable Me” might not have the unpredictability of an animated triumph like “Toy Story 3.” However, it does provide some of the goofiest fun I’ve had in a while. The movie perfectly merges the ambition of a feature-length animation with the wackiness of a more traditional cartoon. Where similar films like “Chicken Little” and “Meet the Robinsons” have fallen short, “Despicable Me” thrives in its loony mission to make the audience smile for an hour and 30 minutes. And in addition to granting one big laugh after another, the film is also kind of sweet in its tale of family.

Directors Pierrce Coffin and Chis Renaud of Blue Sky Studios have envisioned a wildly enjoyable animated feature that should rightfully earn a spot in childrens’ DVD collections. Carell and the three young actresses all do exceptional voiceover work in a well-casted acting ensemble. The real scene-stealers though, are Gru’s yellow, miniature gibberish-speaking minions who all have between one and two eyes. I think they might have a life similar to Scrat the Squirrel of the “Ice Age” pictures, starring in numerous other spinoffs and short subject animations.

Dinner for Schmucks

The only schmucks are the audience  **1/2

“Dinner for Schmucks” is a movie comprised of a man who feeds his pet vulture by regurgitating food into it’s mouth, a ventriloquist married to his dummy, and a woman who believes she can talk to the souls of dead animals. If any of this strikes you as funny you’ll likely find “Dinner for Schmucks” to be a satisfying comedy. Perhaps my funny bone is broken, but I just didn’t laugh at much of “Dinner for Schmucks.” The film is a prime example of a comedy that tries too hard to win the audience over.

Paul Rudd plays Tim, an executive who realizes his superiors at work are a bunch of jerks. Yet, he still wants to be promoted to their floor to impress his long-term girlfriend, played by Stephanie Szostak. Tim gets this opportunity when his boss invites him to one of his monthly dinner parties. This isn’t a typical dinner party though. It’s a contest where everybody brings a guest who is a complete idiot for their amusement. 

Tim finds his idiot when he accidentally runs his car into a man named Barry, played by Steve Carell who seems to be in every other comedy nowadays. Barry works for the IRS although his true passion involves dressing up dead mice in elaborate outfits. He’s the perfect schmuck to bring to the party. When Barry tries to work his way into Tim’s personal life though he becomes harder to get rid of than Del Griffith in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.”

Rudd and Carell have a great chemistry, which is no surprise given their previously work together in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Anchorman.” They both stay true to their characters and never reveal any sign of awareness that they’re in a screwball comedy. Carell does an especially amazing job at turning Barry into a three-dimensional character. In the hands of another actor Barry might have been an irrefutable nuisance much like Jim Carrey’s character in “The Cable Guy.” However, Carell manages to make him into a kindhearted human being that sincerely wants to help Tim.

As talented as the whole cast is, a majority of the players are underused. Jemaine Clement, who I loved on “Flight of the Conchords,” has a fun role as a bearded, sex-driven photographer who wears a centaur outfit. The problem is that his character comes off as a retread of Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow. Another “Flight of the Conchords” cast member not used to her full potential is the very funny Kristen Schaal, who is given virtually nothing to do as Tim’s secretary. There’s also Zach Galifianakis, one of our most gifted comedic actors, as Barry’s rival at work. He’s essentially limited to the one joke that his character believes he has mind control abilities. This gag gets pretty old pretty quickly.

Despite it’s shortcomings, I did laugh at a fair deal of “Dinner for Schmucks.” There’s a funny and well-timed subplot involving Lucy Punch as a stalker obsessed with Tim. But Director Jay Roach, who has made some good comedies like the three “Austin Powers” movies and the two “Focker” pictures, struggles to make the somewhat cruel premise funny. This is one of those movies with all the pieces to make an A-list comedy. However, the filmmakers never quite mold the pieces together. The end product comes off as the poor man’s “I Love You, Man.”

“Dinner for Schmucks” also gives into a cliché that’s becoming more and more common in movies like this. If somebody drives a Porsche or any nice car it will unquestionably get wrecked. Is it me, or am I the only one starting to get tired of all the automobile abuse in movies?

Easy A

Grade-A comedy ****

Emma Stone is an actress most people probably know better by face rather than name. Her most recognized screen credits include Jules in “Superbad” and Abigail Breslin’s elder sibling in “Zombieland.” While Emma Stone might not necessarily be a household name, I think that’s all going to change with “Easy A.”

Stone plays Olive, an average high school student who is unnoticed by all her fellow peers. I find it hard to believe that Emma Stone would be invisible to all the boys in school, but I suppose it’s no more improbable than Jessica Alba and Jessica Biel being without suitors in “Valentine’s Day.” To avoid going on a camping trip one weekend with her best friend, played by Alyson Michalka, and her nudist parents, Olive lies about having a date with a college student. This tiny fib leads to another when Olive says she lost her virginity to this nonexistent man. Olive suddenly goes from being a ghost to the most talked about girl on the playground.

With the entire school gossiping about her, Olive confines in her gay friend, played by Dan Byrd, about her fake one-night stand. He pleads with her to pretend to have sex with him so everyone will stop tormenting him about her sexual preferences. Olive reluctantly agrees. After this phony sex stunt Olive’s popularity skyrockets to even greater heights as more helpless virgins seek her out. Deemed as a slut by the school, she is inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Scarlet Letter” to stitch a red “A” onto her clothing.

This premise might sound no more promising than some recent trashy teen comedies like “The Girl Next Door” and “I Love You, Beth Cooper.” But what distinguishes “Easy A” from those movies is it’s refreshing sincerity. Where most high school movies depict teenagers as mean-spirited and driven only by sex, “Easy A” paints a realistic portrait about the pressure of loosing your virginity and finding acceptance.

Like the best John Hughes movies, which the film respectively pays homage to, “Easy A” speaks true to the high school experience and the crushing feeling of being an outcast. And while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Juno” or “Mean Girls,” this generation’s quintessential teenage movies, the film comes very close.

Another attribute “Easy A” has going for it is the outstanding supporting cast. There are hilarious performance all around from Thomas Haden Church as Olive’s favorite teacher, Lisa Kudrow as a guidance councilor from hell, and the apparently retired Amanda Bynes as Olive’s extremely religious nemesis. The funniest performances of all come from Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive’s consciously corny parents. It’s comforting to see a movie with parents this understanding that shower their children with love no matter what.

As wonderful as the whole cast is, this is truly Emma Stone’s movie. Stone is funny and delightful here, which I’ve come to expect. But she also brings a one of a kind heart to her role that few other young actresses could. She makes us genuinely care about, and even love, Olive, wanting to see her overcome her peculiar dilemma. Walking out of the movie your first thought will be, “Now there’s a star.”

Edge of Darkness

It's hell being Mel **1/2

After taking several years off from acting to direct and harass Jewish people, Mel Gibson returns to the silver screen with “Edge of Darkness,” inspired by the short-lived television series from the ’80s. Gibson gives a solid comeback performance, reminding us all what a dominating screen presence he can be. Unfortunately, the film itself is fairly routine and kind of a letdown. If it weren’t for Gibson’s performance, “Edge of Darkness” wouldn’t be particularly memorable at all. Although he almost — just almost — saves the film, the picture never quite exceeds the average margin.

Gibson plays Thomas Craven, a Boston homicide detective. The only family the honest cop has is his adult daughter, Emma, played by Bojana Novakovic. Shortly after Emma returns to her hometown to pay her dear old dad a visit, she is killed in a drive-by shooting. Craven is devastated, believing he was the intended target. He soon discovers, though, that his seemingly perfect daughter was part of a cover-up that cost the lives of three innocent people. Craven becomes determined to solve the mystery of his daughter’s murder by any means necessary.

What I appreciated about “Edge of Darkness” is that, unlike so many recent action pictures, the film is not merely a string of mindless chases. The movie actually attempts to tell a story and create characters. A majority of the characters are never fully realized though. Ray Winstone gives a genuinely good performance as Jedburgh, a mysterious man who aids Craven in his investigation. But his character only seems to exist to pop up and provide ironic comments every now and then. The same can be said about Shawn Roberts as Emma’s boyfriend, Burnham, who is given virtually nothing to do here. Danny Huston is especially bland and even wimpy as the film’s villain. The movie truly belongs to Gibson, who is tailor made to play a rogue cop with nothing to lose. But then we’ve seen him play this same role a million times before in movies like “Mad Max” and “Lethal Weapon.” As good as Gibson is here, he’s not exactly stretching his acting muscles.

The gifted Martin Campbell, who breathed life back into the James Bond franchise with “Casino Royale,” directed the film. Campbell brings plenty of style to “Edge of Darkness” and producers a well-shot picture. However, the movie ultimately feels like a “Taken” wannabe. Personally, I’m starting to get sick of movies about fathers on manhunts to track down their daughter’s killers/kidnappers. I’d like to see more revenge movies about mommies with a vengeance instead.

I’m literally stuck in the middle on “Edge of Darkness.” At the end of the day, however, I can’t quite give the film a pass. Despite it’s superior qualities, the final product is slowly paced and never really takes off. There are a couple of interesting twists and exciting moments in the final ten minutes. Even then, it’s too little, too late. As much as I wanted to love this movie, “Edge of Darkness” never left me on edge.

Fair Game

A fair movie  ***

“Fair Game” might not be among the best contemporary film’s inspired by factual political scandals, but it is certainly an interesting, well-executed one. The film does a modest job at depicting its subject matter in addition to capturing the erratic atmosphere of early 21st-century America, when President George W. Bush was beginning the war in Iraq.

Naomi Watts demonstrates some of the strongest work of her career as Valerie Plame, a real-life undercover agent for the CIA. Her husband is Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador played by Sean Penn. Like all married couples in movies about people who work for the government, they have their share of problems. Plame isn’t thrilled with Wilson’s outspoken righteousness when it comes to discussing politics at dinner parties. Wilson often wakes up in the middle of the night only to find Plame still hasn’t returned home from work. Nevertheless, they still manage to maintain a loving, mutual partnership.

In 2002, the CIA sends Wilson to Niger to investigate a potential deal Saddam Hussein had in order to purchase uranium. Although he finds nothing there, the invasion of Iraq presses on. Wilson challenges the Bush Administration in a New York Times article entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” Shortly after the article’s publication, Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent is exposed in a newspaper. Plame is fired from her job after years of substantial service.

I was a little worried that “Fair Game” might leap into pure fantasy territory and become another action thriller, given that the director, Doug Liman, previously made “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” But Liman respects the story of Wilson and Plame, making what is probably his most mature film to date. The screenplay by Jez and John Butterworth, while a little sluggish at times, has its share of sharp, well-written dialogue. What holds “Fair Game” together in the end is its two leads, who both deliver uniformly stellar performances

Needless to say, Watts and Penn are phenomenal actors. Here, they have an absorbing dynamic as two strong, determined people. The difference between them is that Wilson is content with going on television and challenging the White House while Plame desires no more publicity. The best scenes in the movie are the quieter moments between Wilson and Plame, demonstrating one of the most encouraging examples of a marriage I’ve seen on screen in a while. In that sense, “Fair Game” actually works better as a story of a prevailing marriage rather than a political thriller.

The Fighter

Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight! *****

I can imagine some audiences shying away from “The Fighter,” reluctant to see a movie about boxing. As a boxing movie, “The Fighter” is certainly one of the finest I’ve ever seen. It’s a spectacular entertainment that’s every bit as rousing as the original “Rocky.”

But “The Fighter” is much more than a meager boxing movie as some skeptics might label it. “The Fighter” is also a great character study about family, addiction and ego. It’s an incredibly uplifting movie and at times even very funny one. There’s not an instance in “The Fighter” where you can sense that the filmmakers have anything less than absolute respect for the art of boxing and the people who inspired this project.

The film takes a traditional underdog story and makes it as fresh as any sports movie of recent memory. The hero of the picture is Mickey Ward, a real-life Irish-American boxer played by Mark Wahlberg. Mickey has the potential to be a contender but is brought down by his dysfunctional family. His mother, played by Melissa Leo, poorly manages him while Dicky, his drug-addicted brother/trainer played by Christian Bale, always forgets to show up to his fights. The most rational person in Mickey’s life is Charlene, his girlfriend played by Amy Adams, who motivates him to seek training and management outside his family.

Christian Bale has become an obvious target for satire over the years with his grizzly Batman voice and infamous “Are you a profession” rant. Yet, he has always been one of our most interesting and underrated actors. Here he delivers the pinnacle performance of the film as Dicky, who might have gone onto become a champion had it not been for his crack addiction. He claims HBO is making a documentary about his comeback when the movie is really about the effects of crack. His one major achievement was beating Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight. Dicky holds onto that victory, knowing it is the only highlight of his otherwise ruined life. 

Bale practically looks like another person here, with a severe loss of weight, hair, and teeth. His performance somewhat resembles Nicolas Cage’s role in “Leaving Las Vegas.” Just as Cage’s character was drunk throughout the entirety of that movie, Dicky always appears to be on crack or suffering from the repercussions of the drug. This is a risky role that could have easily misfired in the hands of another performer. As energized as Bale is in “The Fighter” with his over-the-top mannerisms and speech, he never overacts or strikes a false note as Dicky.

The entire ensemble is nothing short of phenomenal. After doing fine work as a character actress for years, Mellissa Leo achieved the rank of an A-list star with her Oscar-nominated performance in “Frozen River.” Here she gives another nomination worthy performance. Amy Adams has based her career on playing innocent, good-hearted people in movies like “Junebug,” “Enchanted,” and “Doubt.” In “The Fighter” she takes an unexpected and outstanding turn as the strong-willed Charlene, who is not afraid to tell off Mickey’s mother or get into a fight with one of his white trash sisters.

The supporting cast is so exceptional that at times they outshine Mickey Ward himself, which prevents the character from being in the same league of Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” Nevertheless, Director David O. Russell and screenwriters Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy never forget that this is truly the story of Ward, who we rout for every step of the way. The film’s depiction of Mickey Ward, along with the rest of these fascinating individuals, all contribute to making “The Fighter” one of the best biopics ever made about an athlete or anybody else for that matter.

Get Him to the Greek

Snow's forgotten all about Sarah Marshall ****

A Judd Apatow film’s key to success is that regardless how childish or complex the characters might be, every one is lovable in his or her zany way. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was a comedy that overflowed with such memorable players, I felt the cast was worthy of a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Acting Ensemble. With exception to Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus in “Tropic Thunder,” there probably hasn’t been a finer comedic character to emerge from the cinema this decade than Russell Brand’s creation of rock star Aldous Snow. It only makes sense that this hilarious crossbreed of Johnny Depp and Hugh Grant should get his own spin-off in “Get Him to the Greek.”

Brand reprises his role as Snow, who after staying sober for seven years has fallen off the wagon. His last album, “African Child,” was a monumental flop and his girlfriend and mother of his child, played by Rose Byrne from the FX series “Damages,” has dumped him. With his career in a rut, Snow spends all his time drinking and doing drugs at his flat in London. Meanwhile in Los Angeles lives Aaron Green (Jonah Hill), an intern at a record company. Green is in a long-term relationship with a woman named Daphne, played by Elisabeth Moss from “Mad Men.” But she’s so worn out from an internship at a hospital that she rarely has time anymore to go out with her boyfriend. Green is given the opportunity of a lifetime when his boss (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs) asks him to pick up Snow from London for a reunion concert at the Greek Theater. But Green doesn’t realize the numerous parties, orgies and benders that accompany Snow.

Hill previously played a waiter and wannabe singer obsessed with Snow in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Here he has tremendous chemistry with Brand, producing one of the funniest on-screen duos since Seth Rogan and James Franco in “Pineapple Express.” In addition to Hill and Brand, there are hilarious performances from the entire cast. Byrn reveals a completely different side of her in her native Australian tongue as singer Jackie Q. I knew Elizabeth Moss could be funny from a self-parody of her character Peggy Olson on “Saturday Night Live,’ but here she’s a delight as a woman who might seem controlling at first,but really does love her boyfriend. Stealing the whole show is P. Diddy as Sergio Roma, a foul-mouthed record company executive who I wouldn’t mind seeing paired up with Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman, the hotheaded, overweight producer from “Tropic Thunder.”

At the film’s core is another outstanding performance from Brand as this unforgettable character. Aldous Snow might not seem like somebody who could evolve beyond a supporting role. However, director and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller brings just the right amount of depth to the picture. He builds Snow into a three dimensional individual with a fragile ego and more inner demons than you might expect.

“Get Him to the Greek” isn’t quite as funny as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” or some of Apatow’s best work, like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Superbad” and “Knocked Up.” Nevertheless, it’s still one of the best comedies of 2010 and certainly the funniest film in theaters right now.

Get Low

Duvall gets back in business ****

Since Robert Duvall made his speechless film debut as Boo Radley in “To Kill A Mocking Bird” in 1962, he has continued to be one of the most reliable actors. Along with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, he’s one of the few living performers on the verge of Screen Legend class. For the past ten years or so Duvall has primarily been doing strong extended cameos in movies like “Crazy Heart” and “Thank You For Smoking.” In “Get Low” the 79-year-old actor gives his best leading man performance in some time.

Duvall plays Felix Bush, a grizzly bearded hermit who has been living in a cabin just outside of town for forty years. The townsfolk still gossip about his mysterious past and feel uncomfortable simply being around him. When Felix has a near death experience one night, he begins to realize that he’s going to die sooner than later. Felix decides to throw himself a funeral party before he even passes. At this party he will raffle off his land and try to set the record straight about a terrible deed he supposedly committed years ago. Felix hires a funeral home owner, played by Bill Murray, and his partner, played by Lucas Black, to help get his affairs in order.

In the beginning, Felix is made out to be a standard crotchety old man who scares children off his property and puts up “stay away” signs. As the film unfolds, the audience slowly comes to care about this shell of a man who is seeking forgiveness, but cannot quite bring himself to confess his sins. Through his pursuit for deliverance, Felix rekindles a friendship with Mattie, a former lover played by Sissy Spacek. The audience expects this relationship to go one way. The screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell takes an unexpected twist, and it becomes more than a tale of a second chance at romance.

As wonderful as Duvall and Spacek are, the film’s best performance comes from Murray as Frank. Murray brings his trademark droll sarcasm to the role, providing some of the movie’s funniest lines. But like the rest of the ensemble, there turns out to be more to his character as well. At first Frank only seems interested in making some cash off of Felix. It’s eventually revealed that Frank too is looking for redemption and wants to see Felix find peace, as well. Murray is humorous and at the same time consoling here. Many felt he should have won the Oscar for “Lost in Translation” a few years ago. While it may be a little early to be placing award wagers, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy compensated for Murray’s loss by granting him a Best Supporting Actor award.

This is the debut feature from director Aaron Schneider who won an Oscar for his short film, “Two Soldiers.” Just as first time director Scott Cooper did in “Crazy Heart” last year, Schneider has made a great film about an aging man seeking salvation. “Get Low” is a wise and optimistic film comprised of one of the year’s most memorable protagonists. As for Duvall, he has shown us all that he is one of the matchless treasures of cinema’s past fifty years … not that we needed reminding.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Any movie about a girl with a dragon tattoo has got to be good *****

Niels Arden Oplev’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was initially titled “Men Who Hate Women” in it’s native country of Sweden. This adaptation of the first novel in the Millennium Trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson consists of many reprehensible pigs that despise the female gender. The film features one of the offensive rape scenes I’ve ever seen put on film. What’s even more shocking though is how the victim retaliates against her rapist, who indeed has his punishment coming.   

Despite the brutality these women endure, this is not a movie that hates women or believes all men are sadists. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is in fact one of the most empowering films about women in a while. It’s actually appropriate that the title was changed for the film’s American release. In the middle of the unspeakable acts men commit towards women here, the movie is truly about a strong-willed, rebellious young lady with a dragon tattoo.

Noomi Rapace is remarkable as one of the year’s most fascinating protagonists, Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth is a gothic twenty-four-year-old whose body is sheltered with piercings and tattoos. We learn limited facts about her past. It’s clear though that she has been through much abuse, which makes her open to countless sexual partners but no stable romantic relationships. She makes a living as a computer hacker who is currently spying on a middle-aged journalist named Mikael Blomkvist, played by Michael Nyqvist in a strong performance.  

Mikael is six months away from a three month long jail sentence for comments he made about an industrialist in his magazine. He’s forced to take a leave of absence from work and has no wife or children to go home to. A man named Henrik calls upon Mikael to help solve the disappearance of his beloved niece Harriet, who went missing forty years ago during a family reunion. The police gave up on the case, unable to find any leads or a body. Henrik however, believes one of his horrible family members murdered Harriet. Now in his eighties, Henrik wishes to find out what happened to his niece before he dies. With no other obligations, Mikael agrees to take on the case.

Mikael eventually discovers it is Lisbeth who has been hacking into his computer and in turn pays her to help solve the mystery. This instigates one of the most intriguing partnerships of recent memory. Lisbeth and Mikael are two completely different people who find comfort in one another during troubled states of their lives. The divorced Mikael comes to care about this mystifying woman who may be his last chance at happiness. Although Lisbeth is reminded through Mikael that men are capable of respect and love, she is still reluctant to fully give herself to anybody.

At the core “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a captivating thriller that becomes more and more entrancing as the story unfolds. Even when you think the movie has topped itself with one twist it continues to blow you out of the water. This is a rough and suspenseful feat from Director Oplev, whose other two installments of this trilogy will be released later this year. We live in an era dominated by franchises and sequels. But “Millennium” is one series that I can’t wait to see the remainder of.

The movie’s driving force is Noomi Rapace, confident, ambitious, and oddly attractive as Lisbeth. Her performance in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is probably doomed to be overlooked come award season. This is a gritty performance that does not conform to the typical glamorous Best Actress winners. But I believe Rapace deserves an Oscar nomination for her courageous portrayal here. I want to see more of this character and I can’t wait to see “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” again.

A two and a half-hour long foreign film such as this is about as easy of a sell as “Precious.” Those who seek out “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” though will be astounded by what is simply one of year’s best films.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Lisbeth Salander for President****

Lisbeth Salander is one of the great female protagonists of any entertainment medium, be it film or literature. It’s hard to think of a recent fictional heroine who has embodied such nonconformity and confidence as Lisbeth, who dresses like a Kiss groupie to a trial without second thought. Noomi Rapace has lived this part throughout the “Millennium” trilogy, based on Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novels about abusive men and women who don’t take crap. The films were released in Sweden in 2009 and have come out in America throughout this year. In “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” little was learned about Lisbeth’s mysterious past. In “The Girl Who Played With Fire” we discovered Lisbeth’s history with her abusive father. Now her story comes full circle in “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” a commendable final entry of this series.

The films picks up where “The Girl Who Played With Fire” left off. Lisbeth is recuperating in the hospital after a shooting. Once Lisbeth is released she will have to face a judge for the attempted murder of her father Zalachenko, who is recovering from an ax to the head. Mikael Blomkvist, Lisbeth’s dedicated friend and on-and-off lover once again played by Michael Nyqvist, works diligently to get her exonerated. All the while, Lisbeth’s lethal half-brother, Ronald Niedermann, is still on the loose.

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” isn’t quite as action driven as the first two “Millennium” chapters. It’s more along the lines of a courtroom drama. As a courtroom drama, the film still works as a suspenseful and exciting thriller that keeps the audience consistently on their toes. After three films the audience has become genuinely invested in the fate of these characters, and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” does not disappoint in the outcome of their story.

If there’s one problem with the film, it’s that there aren’t quite enough scenes between Lisbeth and Mikael. In the “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” they shared a fascinating partnership as two people who love each other but cannot engage in a romantic relationship. In “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” and also “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” Lisbeth and Mikael are separated a majority of the time, which is kind of a missed opportunity. That doesn’t mean they’re any less interesting as individual characters though. Lisbeth in particular is compelling as ever, despite being confined to a hospital room for a good chunk of the movie.

If I had to single out the best film of this trilogy, director Niels Arden Oplev’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is the clear favorite. Nevertheless, these two sequels from Daniel Alfredson are still pretty good. Compared to other movie trilogies, “Millennium” is one of the best ever adapted to the screen. The only downside is that there will not be another entry to this series because of the death of Larsson. Rumor has it that Larsson was developing a fourth book at the time of his death in what might have been a ten part series. In that case I suppose “Millennium” is his unfinished masterpiece.

David Fincher, director of “The Social Network” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” is already working on an Americanized remake of the “Millennium” trilogy starring Daniel Craig and newcomer Rooney Mara. Quite frankly I’m more than optimistic about the project. I just hope the American remakes will not cause these original three films to fall through the cracks. This is a trilogy to seek out and, as a whole, is truly one of the cinematic achievements of the year.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

The beginning of the end ****1/2

Sitting in the theater, waiting for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” to start, it occurred to me that nine years have passed since the release of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” I was stricken with a similar epiphany last June when I realized the eleven-year gap between “Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3.” This is truly turning out to be a year of sequels that make me feel like an old man. Remember when Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint had high-pitch voices and were prepubescent kids learning the fundamentals of wizardry and Quidditch? Now they’ve matured into young adults, as have many diehard “Harry Potter” fans. Where has the time gone?

When I first heard this final chapter of the “Harry Potter” series would be split into two separate movies, I thought it to be an obvious gimmick for Warner Bros. to continue milking one of their most successful franchises. No doubt the studio will now make $2 billion, as apposed to the meager $1 billion they would have profited off of one “Deathly Hallows” film. The good news is that splitting up the movies has proven not only to be a brilliant financial decision, but a wise creative choice as well.

For the most part, the “Harry Potter” film saga has remained loyal to the tone and major plot points of J.K. Rowling’s books. But only staying practically true to the classic novels has not been enough to please some nitpicking “Harry Potter” fanatics that consider any changes whatsoever to be blasphemy. When I go to the movies I do my best not to compare the film to its original source material, and interpret it as stand alone entertainment. Personally, I’ve loved all previous six “Harry Potter” movies. As somebody who has read the books though, it’s hard not to be a little underwhelmed with the disappointing, yet necessary, exclusion of some material.

By splitting “Deathly Hallows” in two, the filmmakers cover more ground than ever, allowing more time for character development. While “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” packs in more story than any of the previous screen interpretation, not a minute of the film feels overstuffed. This is possibly the best paced and least rushed of the “Harry Potter” films, making for a terrific beginning of the end.

It seems a tad pointless to discuss the plot, seeing how virtually everyone has read the book by this point. And if you haven’t, why are you reading this review? Allow me to give you the cliff notes version. Lord Voldemort is at the peak of power. Harry can no longer return to his safe haven of Hogwarts, nor can he rely on Albus Dumbledore for guidance. The fate of the wizarding world depends on Harry and his friends destroying the remaining horcruxes, which embody the Dark Lord’s soul.

This is the third “Harry Potter” film to be directed by David Yates, who produces the most technically achieving entry to the series yet. The world of “Harry Potter” has never appeared more appropriately menacing with bracing cinematography from Eduardo Serra and a chilling musical score by the great Alexandre Desplat. Utilizing unblemished visuals, Yates creates several brilliant action set pieces, such as when Harry and his allies are pursued by Death Eaters through the skies of London. The most dazzling sequence of all is a rendition of “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” a classic wizard fairy tale, with the same essence of a Tim Burton stop-motion animation.

Visuals aside, it’s the perpetual chemistry between Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that completes “Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” The three young actors have been portraying these characters from the beginning, and haven’t hit a wrong note once. The relationship and circumstances of the trio here somewhat resembles the dynamic between Frodo and Sam in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” They are more vulnerable than ever, not only confronted with the challenge of defeating Voldemort, but also internal struggles of jealousy and paranoia. Fans fell in love with these characters in the books, and these actors make us fall in love with them all over again. Yates never allows the special effects to overshadow the drama of the story and its underlying themes of friendship, love, perseverance, and loss of innocence.

Is this the best of the “Harry Potter” movies? That’s hard to say at this point. I’ll always admire the wonderful whimsy of “Chamber of Secrets” and the darker approach of “Goblet of Fire.” With “Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” it feels as if I’ve only seen one half of a great film. However, if “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” proves to be as stellar as its predecessor, the two together might make for the standout of the franchise. But “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” flawlessly does its job. Nowadays, it’s rare that I walk out of a two-and-a-half-hour movie desiring to see another two-and-a-half hours.

Hot Tub Time Machine

The title says it all ***1/2

“Hot Tub Time Machine” is one of those movies where the title says it all. This is a stupid and at times disgusting comedy full of undistinguished, gross-out humor. Unlike “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” or “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” however, “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a movie with more to it than an amusing title. As ridiculous as the entire concept may be, “Hot Tub Time Machine” actually tells a story about believable characters with relatable problems. In addition, there are also some pretty big laughs in the movie. “Hot Tub Time Machine” isn’t a film that’s so bad it’s good. It’s just plain good. 

The film stars John Cusack as Adam, an insurance salesman who has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Craig Robinson as Nick, a dog groomer who has taken his wife’s last name, Rob Corddry as Lou, a foul-mouthed, divorced looser, and Clark Duke as Jacob, Adam’s nephew who is more interested in his second-life online than his real life. When Lou almost kills himself, Nick and Adam decide to take their pal to the ski lodge where they had the best weekend of their youth. Jacob comes along as well.

They arrive at the lodge, disappointed to find it rundown and overrun by old and homeless people. They discover a hot tub on their balcony where they get drunk and…do I really need to explain the rest? The friend’s wake up in the year 1986 during the same weekend when Adam got stabbed in the eye by his girlfriend, Lou got his ass kicked, Nick banged a chick in a bath tub, and Jacob was conceived by his alcoholic mother.

Like “The Hangover,” “Hot Tub Time Machine” succeeds due to the chemistry between the immensely appealing cast. Cusack continues his string of underappreciated performances, bringing a great deal of sincerity to his character who deeply regrets the romantic decisions he’s made and is given the chance to get his life right. The real scene-stealer though is Corddry who has done great comedic work on “The Daily Show” and as the over-the-top homeland security agent in the “Harold and Kumar” sequel. This is his best performance, delivering one uproarious one-liner after another. The only character that is never entirely explained is Chevy Chase as a Hot Tub repairman. Who is this man and why has he sent these men back in time? But I suppose there’s no point in trying to find logic in a movie called “Hot Tub Time Machine.”

The movie has plenty of fun with the 80’s when Michael Jackson was still black and the kids all rocked out on 8-track tapes. At times the movie is even reminiscent of “Back to the Future.” Speaking of “Back to the Future,” “Hot Tub Time Machine” even stars Crispin Glover as a bellhop who has lost his arm in the future. This provides a hilarious running gag in which the character finds himself in numerous hazardous situations in the past.

“Hot Tub Time Machine” might not be among the best comedies of the past few years like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Superbad,” or “The Hangover.” But for what it is the movie is a funny and even clever farce with more depth than one may expect. While some might not be able to get past the sheer idiocy of the picture, a lot of people are going to have a good time at “Hot Tub Time Machine.” I certainly did.   

I Spit on Your Grave

I spit on this movie 1/2*

Steven R. Monroe’s “I Spit on Your Grave” is a film every bit as vile and despicable as the title suggests. This is a malevolent piece of filth that attempts to pass off the raping of an innocent woman as a good time at the movies.

One the film’s many victims is Sarah Butler, a young, attractive and talented actress, who I’m truly sorry had to endure the making of this movie. Butler plays Jennifer, a writer who rents a cabin in the middle of nowhere to work on her second novel. A word of advice: If you’re a successful writer in search of tranquility who can afford boxes of wine and a fancy car, don’t stay at a rustic cabin that calls out “Rape Central.” Check into a hotel. You’d think after encountering a rundown shack in the woods with a stained mattress, hedge clippers and a bottle of lye inside, Jennifer would run for the hills. But of course she stays and undergoes some of the harshest treatment any individual has ever suffered on screen.

Four men break into the cabin one night along with the local sheriff. They start off fondling Jennifer against her will. This leads to a grotesque extended sequence in which the four threaten her with a gun, cut her clothes off with scissors, drag her through the woods and take turns molesting her. Jennifer escapes against all odds and comes back at her rapists with a vengeance. Her methods of revenge involve fishhooks through eyelids, castration and worse. Some may construe this as entertainment. I call it sick, reprehensible, and unpleasant to watch.

Walking out of the film, I reflected on Niels Arden Oplev’s brilliant adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” That film featured numerous men committing heinous acts towards women, most notably one of the most graphic rape scenes ever put on film. Despite the actions of some of its male characters though, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is not a movie that hates women. Rather, it’s a movie that empowers women through its strong-willed heroine and also demonstrated that men are just as capable of compassion and love. The focal message of “I Spit on Your Grave” is essentially that all men in this terrible world are depraved, especially those of Southern decent.

“I Spit on Your Grave” is a remake of a 1978 film by the same name. Every once in a while a horror remake comes along that really tries to improve upon the original. Take Breck Eisner’s recent remake of “The Crazies,” for example. “The Crazies” didn’t break new grounds for the genre. However, it was a stylish and enjoyable romp that succeeded as a horror movie. “I Spit on My Grave” is not a horror movie. It’s torture porn at it’s worst that actually makes all six “Saw” movies and two “Hostel” movies look like amateur hour. If you want to see a great horror remake currently playing in theaters, check out “Let Me In.” If you see “I Spit on Your Grave” you risk never wanting to sit through another movie again.


Dream Escape *****

Over the past decade Christopher Nolan has continually established himself as one of the definitive storytellers of our generation. Through “Memento” he crafted an unforgettable thriller of ingenious narrative. In his two “Batman” films he redefined the superhero genre by bringing a character often regarded as a comic book figure into the real world. Now with his eagerly awaited “Inception,” a passion project he has been envisioning for years, Nolan delivers nothing less than a cinematic masterpiece.

This is a film that works on every conceivable level. As a science-fiction thriller it earns comparison to the most accomplished works of Spielberg and Kubrick. As a mystery it will both fascinate and frustrate you from beginning to end. As a heist movie it will thrill you unlike any other entertainment currently occupying theaters. In a clutter of uninspired sequels and action pictures that appeal to the lowest common denominator, “Inception” is one of the year’s most unique and brilliant films.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a thief who specials in the theft of knowledge through other people’s dreams known as extraction. A businessman named Saito, played by Ken Watanabe, approaches Cobb and his partner Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He asks them to do an inception, the insertion of an idea into another person’s mind. The mind to be infiltrated is Robert Fischer’s, played by Cillian Murphy, who has inherited his late father’s company that rivals Saito’s. Through the inception Saito desires to run Fischer’s empire into the ground.

Between his performance as a federal marshal on the verge of madness in “Shutter Island” and now his gripping work in “Inception,” Leonardo DiCaprio is a shoo-in for another an Academy Award nomination come next January. Like his character in “Shutter Island,” Cobb is haunted by the choices he’s made concerning his ex-wife, beautifully played by the luminous Marion Cotillard. Another pivotal performance comes from Ellen Page as a student named Ariadne, who Cobb hires as an architect to create a dreamland. In the process Ariadne digs deep into Cobb’s tormented past and begins to fear that this man is not only going to endanger himself but everyone on the mission.

Visually “Inception” is as outstanding as any film I’ve seen in recent memory, maybe even more so than Tim Burton’s gorgeous “Alice in Wonderland.” Although visual effects have gotten to the point where anything is possible, I still often feel conscious that I’m watching a special effect in a majority of modern blockbusters. The effects in “Inception” however are seamless. When Ariadne bends the streets of Paris with her mind or when Arthur floats through a tilted hotel lobby free of gravity, you’re convinced that these CGI effects are real. This is not a meaningless execution of technology like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “The Last Airbender,” or “Terminator: Salvation” in which objects senselessly explode. The effects here are intelligently and carefully put to use to imagine a series of images that could only exist in a dream. Cinematographer Wally Pfister photographs some of the most extraordinary and impossible shots I’ve seen this century. If Pfister doesn’t win his first Oscar for “Inception” I don’t know what will.

While the look of the film is spectacular, “Inception” is really driven by it’s complex ideas and plot. Even with the full capacity of your brain you’re bond to walk out of the film scratching your head. The final shot in particular will leave audiences more baffled than the conclusion of “Lost.” The meaning behind the ending of “Inception” is one that will be debated and analyzed for years. Although many will be dissatisfied with the way Nolan chooses to close the film, the ending is not just a middle finger to the audience like in “The Matrix Revolutions.” It’s actually a fitting way to end a nonconventional film.

Maybe Nolan himself doesn’t entirely know what the ending means. Perhaps it’s up to each individual audience member to decipher his or her own perspective of the ending. The finish and the entirety of “Inception” will inspire numerous heated discussions, which is a rarity in films nowadays. If you go to movies just for mindless amusement to kill two hours every week, this will not be your cup of tea. Anyone who really appreciates the art of film though will be aghast by the sheer genius of “Inception.”

Is “Inception” the best movie of Christopher Nolan’s career? That’s hard to say based on only on viewing. To wholly appreciate any of Nolan’s pictures you have to observe them at least twice. Many felt Nolan’s “Dark Knight” not only should have earned a Best Picture nomination but Directing and Screenwriting recognition as well. Don’t be surprised if Nolan finally gets his due for “Inception,” a revelation of contemporary film making.

Iron Man 2

lron Man, Iron Man, does whatever an iron can ***1/2

I did not initially recommend the original “Iron Man” when it was released in May 2008, claiming that the movie was anticlimactic and lacking in a compelling villain. An inbox full of hate emails for declining the film though prompted me to believe that maybe I made a mistake. After revisiting the film on DVD, I realized that I had indeed made a catastrophic error on my behalf. On a second viewing I appreciated “Iron Man” more for its fast passed action, wit, and the exceptional performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. One of the hardest things for any critic to do is to admit that they gave a movie an incorrect rating. I’m stating for the record now that “Iron Man” was terrific entertainment. “Iron Man 2” is every bit as fun and humorous, if not more so, as it’s predecessor and a considerably better action/comedy than the overblown “Losers,” another adaptation of a graphic novel released a few weeks ago.

Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark, who as you may recall revealed his secret identity of Iron Man to the world at the end of the previous movie. Since then Iron Man has played a tremendous role in upholding peace between the nations of the world. Some spectators however, including a Senator played by Gary Shandling and a defense contractor hilariously played by Sam Rockwell, believe that Stark should hand over the Iron Man weapon to the government out of fear that other countries may copy the equipment.  Tony refuses to part with the suit though, claiming that no other country will develop the technology for another twenty years. Shortly after he makes this accusation though, a Russian named Ivan Vanko, played by Mickey Rourke, who as developed an arc reactor of his own, attacks Tony. Shortly after the incident, Tony starts to contemplate whether or not be can handle the power of Iron Man.

Downey Jr. once again flawlessly captures the essence of the wise-cracking and cocky, yet emotionally repressed, Stark in one of the great superhero performances. But what’s surprising about “Iron Man 2” is the strength of the supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow shined in the first “Iron Man” as Pepper Potts, Tony’s dedicated assistant who knows him better than anybody. Here she continues to excel not as a mere damsel like Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson, but an independent woman who saves Tony from disaster just as much as he saves her.

Another pivotal performance comes from Don Cheadle, who takes over for Terrence Howard as Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who worries that his close friend Tony is going to seriously endanger the world and himself if he continues to be Iron Man. There’s also some first-rate work from Scarlett Johansson as Tony’s new assistant, Natalie Rushmore who may be concealing an alter ego of her own, Jon Favreau, the film’s director who also portrays Tony’s limo driver, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury who desires to recruit Iron Man for a little team known as the Avengers.

The one department that “Iron Man 2” somewhat falls short in is it’s antagonist. Mickey Rourke is a significant step up to Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane in the first movie. However, he’s not nearly as menacing or interesting as Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” or Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus in “Spider-Man 2.” What “Iron Man 2” lacks in a villain though it makes up for in the hero division with another stellar performance from Robert Downey Jr. Besides, it’s probably better that the “Iron Man” franchise isn’t so heavy on villains. Otherwise we might get something like the original four “Batman” movies or “Spider-Man 3,” which centered more on the bad guys than the title character.

What I appreciate about these two “Iron Man” pictures, and to a greater extent Christopher Nolan’s two “Batman” films, is that the movies have brought superheroes into the real world. Unlike most superhero movies, which are about good V.S. evil, the “Iron Man” films tackle issues we face in contemporary America regarding global safety and the people in position of power. Along the way “Iron Man 2” delivers more thrills than one could possibly desire in this early season of summer. By the hammer of Thor this is an entertaining movie.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

A funny story and more ****

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” assembles a multi-talented cast to adapt a celebrated literary work about a teenage boy surrounded by colorful individuals. Walking into the movie, it was hard not to be reminded of Ryan Murphy’s disastrous interpretation of the best selling memoir, “Running With Scissors.” That film treated mental illness in a demented sitcom fashion and resulted in one of the most annoying ordeals I’ve ever had at the movies. It is not the same case with “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” Where “Running With Scissors” was loud and cruel, this is a film that finds inspiration and tenderness in its bleak subject matter.

Keir Gilchrist of Showtime’s “United States of Tara” gives a breakthrough performance as Craig, a sixteen-year-old boy with supportive parents and plenty of friends. Yet, he still has suicidal thoughts about jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Fearing that he may actually jump off that bridge, Craig checks himself into a mental hospital. Shortly after meeting some of the disturbed patients, including his middle-aged roommate who refuses to get out of bed, Craig begins to think that he doesn’t belong there. But the staff physiatrist, played by Viola Davis, convinces him to stay the mandatory five-day period.

An eccentric, emotionally concealed patient named Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) takes Craig under his wing and shows him the ropes. After years of doing work as a character actor Galifinakis established himself as a great comedic player in “The Hangover.” While Galifinakis brings his own strange breed of comedic timing to the role of Bobby, he also takes a semi-dramatic turn along the lines of Will Ferrell in “Stranger Than Fiction.” The movie depicts Bobby as a bottle-up, troubled human being who is likely to be struggling with his inner demons for a long time. It’s a great performance from Galifinakis, which leads me to believe that he might be able to pull off a wholly dramatic role.

Julia Roberts’ niece, Emma Roberts, gives the best performance of her young career as Noelle, a fellow sixteen-year-old patient who catches Craig’s eye. Not much is revealed about why Noelle is in this mental hospital other than some scars on her wrists. A part of me would have liked to know more about her seemingly dark background. The relationship that blossoms between her and Craig is so irresistible though that this flaw is easy to neglect.

The directing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made a smart film that realizes suicidal young adults are not only the ones that come from broken homes. Sometimes the kids suffering from depression are simply under pressure by school and family. Craig’s workaholic father, played Jim Gaffigan, and clingy mother, played by Lauren Graham, are not abusive parents like in some movies about teenagers. Rather, they’re understanding people who love their son and just want to see him happy. Their only misgiving is that maybe they push Craig a little too hard to succeed. The staff at the hospital is not dim-witted and wants to help Craig. Even Craig’s friends understand where he’s coming from, opening up to him about their own stress at school.

Like “Easy A,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is another coming of age tale that works because of the sincerity of its characters. While “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” has an occasional John Hughes motif, such as a musical number, this is an all together original film that goes deeper than typical teenage drama. Although the movie isn’t always as gritty as its topic, I had difficulty not smiling all the way through this funny and clever winner of a movie.

Jack Goes Boating

Jack goes overboard  **1/2

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has truly evolved into one of our premium character actors. From his Oscar-winning portrayal of Truman Capote to his role as the lingering Father Flynn in “Doubt,” Hoffman has proven time and time again that he is a complete performer. He never plays the same part twice and always brings new zest to every one of his characters. After nearly twenty years of screen acting, Hoffman finally makes his directorial debut in “Jack Goes Boating,” a well-shot and strongly acted first feature. The weak link of “Jack Goes Boating” is its narrative, which never strikes the right tone.

In what I guess is supposed to be a dark romantic dramedy, Hoffman casts himself in the title role in addition to directing. Jack is a middle-aged, socially awkward limo driver who wears a winter cap almost all the time. His only friends are a fellow limo driver named Clyde, played by John Ortiz, and Clyde’s wife Lucy, played by Daphne Rubin-Vega. “Jack Goes Boating” is based on a play by Bob Glaudini, which also starred Hoffman, Oritiz, and Rubin-Vega during its initial run. These are all talented actors who have clearly mastered their parts. Their characters are so ill at ease and confused though that after a while you start to get annoyed with them. As Jack has never been in a long-term relationship, his pals decide to set him up with a friend from Lucy’s work. Jack’s blind date is a woman named Connie, played by Amy Ryan. Connie is sexually repressed and timid with low standards, making her the seemingly ideal mate for Jack.

As good as Hoffman is here, his character is fairly underdeveloped. Constantly wearing a winter hat and a pair of headphones, Jack comes off more mentally challenged than merely socially awkward. Amy Ryan is a wonderful actress just on the brink of stardom with her Oscar-nominated work in “Gone Baby Gone” and reoccurring performance on “The Office.” In “Jack Goes Boating” she brings as much grace and charm to the role of Connie as any actress can. But Connie is such a clumsily written woman who rambles on about the death of her father throughout her first date with Jack. She’s a bit like the Debbie Downer character on “Saturday Night Live,” only instead of being uncomfortably humorous is just uncomfortable.

At times the film reminded me of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” both of which told tales of romantically inept men whose lives are enriched by the love of women. I believed and genuinely cared about the romance between the leads in those movies though. Here I never felt for a minute that Jack and Connie were really falling in love. They seemed more like two immensely insecure people settling for one another. The movie also meanders with a subplot involving Clyde and Lucy’s deteriorating marriage.

“Jack Goes Boating” is a movie with good intentions and some fine acting. But for a film that confronts many issues regarding marriage and finding love, it never decides what it wants to say about relationships. As for Hoffman as a director, he has a stylish eye for filmmaking and I hope this isn’t his last directorial outing. Next time around I just hope he can find better source material.

Jonah Hex

What the Hex *1/2

In a fanboy’s perfect world every superhero would be done justice through feature film. The sad truth is that some characters from the DC and Marvel Comics universes make for more interesting screen protagonists than others. Batman, Superman, Iron Man, and Spider-Man reign supreme at the top. Jonah Hex on the other hand, is more towards the bottom of the spectrum with Ghost Rider, Constantine, and the Hulk as far as I’m concerned. The character without a doubt has a strong fanbase and perhaps some will enjoy his big film debut. As for me though, I forgot all about this chestnut, brooding antihero the minute I walked out of the theater.

Josh Brolin plays Jonah Hex, who once lived an honest and simple life until he accidentally killed the son of the corrupt Quentin Turnbull, played by John Malkovich. To even the score Turnbull burns down Hex’s house with his wife and son inside. If that weren’t enough, Turnbull severely brands his right cheek to forever remind Hex of the man who took away everything from him. Hex eventually tracks down Turnbull and avenges the death of his family. With nothing left for Hex he naturally becomes an outlawed bounty hunter who rides alone.

For a while it looked like Brolin was destined to become a washed-up former child star, not doing much since he played Brand in “The Goonies.” In recent years though Brolin has made a significant comeback in movies like “No Country For Old Men” and “Milk,” which he received a deserved Oscar-nomination for. In “Jonah Hex” Brolin does what he can with the tormented character. There are times in the movie where Brolin exemplifies the persona of a young Harrison Ford. As a matter of fact, there’s one bar scene in which Jonah Hex shoots a drunk then pays the bartender for the mess ala Han Solo in “Star Wars.” This is a good performance from Brolin. It’s just too bad that he isn’t given a very interesting character to work with.

The closest relationship Hex has is with a prostitute named Lilah, played by Megan Fox aka the greatest actress of the cinema. Fox looks just a little too luminous and clean in this movie to be an old western whore. She has the appearance of a contemporary supermodel playing dress up. Although I’m sure none of the horny teenage boys who go see this film will have a problem with her casting. They’ll accept her in this role just as they accepted her as a high school teenager in “Transformers.”

 Anyways, on with the inexplicable plot. Jonah Hex gets called in by the American government to bring down a terrorist in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Hex is unwilling until he learns the person planning this attack is Turnbull who somehow survived their last encounter. Fortunately Jonah has developed the power to communicate with corpses, which helps him to track Turnbull down.

The problem with “Jonah Hex” is despite it’s impractical premise the film takes itself far too seriously. I really must apologize for this criticism because I’ve made the same complaint with other recent action movies like “G.I. Joes: Rise of Cobra” and “10,000 B.C.” But why play a film like “Jonah Hex” with a poker face? Seeing how the plot is already so preposterous and the film stars the very funny Will Arnet in a strait performance, why not give “Jonah Hex” a little more down-to-earth humor? But I suppose if the filmmakers had gone too over-the-top we could have gotten another “Wild, Wild West.” Yikes!

The movie does have it’s moments of wit such as when Hex delivers three dead bodies and a severed head, saying the rest of the forth man was too fat to carry. Much of the picture though just feels mechanical and mundane. At only 80 minutes, “Jonah Hex” isn’t overbearingly long. The film is well stylized and is without any offensive violence. The entire experience is just unmemorable and kind of dumb. 

Just Wright

Just Alright **1/2

“Just Wright” is about as formulaic as romantic comedies get. If I wanted to I could easily tear the film to shreds for its sheer predictability. However, I’ve gotten to the point as a moviegoer where I’ve officially come to accept the clichés of contemporary romantic comedies. That’s one of the reasons why I accepted last year’s screwball romance “The Proposal” for what it was. After all, not every romantic comedy can be as fresh or inspired as “Definitely, Maybe” or “500 Days of Summer.” All I ask is that the movie is funny and appealing. On that basis, “Just Wright” almost makes the cut.

Queen Latifah plays Leslie Wright, a 35-year-old woman with a great, optimistic personality. But all the guys she goes out with merely think of her as a ‘homegirl’ rather than girlfriend material. Leslie isn’t particularly concerned with finding a man. Her best friend Morgan, played by the lovely Paula Patton, on the other hand, makes marrying a NBA All-Star her top priority. Morgan is so obsessed with bagging a famous, wealthy husband that she makes Tiana’s prince-crazy best friend in “The Princess and the Frog” look like an independent woman.

Leslie, a born and raised Nets fan, is psyched when she runs into the team’s star player Scott McKnight, played by the rapper Common, at a gas station. The two hit it off and Scott invites Leslie to his birthday bash. At the party, though, Scott overlooks Leslie when he lays his eyes on the luminous Morgan. Scott and Morgan begin to pursue a relationship, which leads to a premature marriage proposal. But shortly after they announce their engagement, Scott critically injures his knee during a game. It appears that Scott may never play basketball again. Fortunately Leslie just so happens to be a physical therapist. She helps to mend Scott’s wounded knee and … well, I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what happens from there.

Latifah is charming and full of life as Leslie, which leaves me wondering why she doesn’t play romantic leads more often. Common, who typically plays grittier roles in movies like “Wanted,” “American Gangster” and “Terminator: Salvation,” is surprisingly likable as Scott. Most romantic comedies today such as “What Happens in Vegas” and “The Ugly Truth” fall completely flat due to the unpleasant and inexplicable leads that would never fall in love in real life. Latifah and Common though, have terrific chemistry together as two people who are cleanly right for each other, hence the title.

The problem with “Just Wright” is that there simply aren’t a lot of laughs. I smiled every now and then due to Latifah’s lively spirit. But I didn’t laugh out loud once throughout the entire duration of the picture. Given the recent downfall of the romantic comedy, I’m almost tempted to grade “Just Wright” on a curve and upgrade it to three pitchforks. However, I can’t knowingly send people to a romantic comedy with a significant lack of humor.

“Just Wright” is far from a bad movie and might make for a pleasant rental on a Saturday night. It’s just not worth spending your $10 and an hour and a half of your life on. If you were planning on going to the cineplex in search of a date movie, though, I’d highly recommend that you settle for “Just Wright” over “The Bounty Hunter” or “The Back-up Plan.”


There's a hero in all of us, even the nerdy ones ****1/2

I walked into the superhero satire “Kick-Ass” fully intending on getting a couple of good laughs. Never did I anticipate that I would fall madly in love with the picture. This is one of those comedies with one great laugh after another and when you’re not laughing you have a constant smile stitched on your face. In April of 2008 I said there wouldn’t be a funnier movie that entire year than “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Now I’m going out on a limb once again and stating that there won’t be a funnier movie in 2010 than “Kick-Ass.”

While the film delivers numerous moments of pure hilarity, “Kick-Ass” is so much more than a laugh riot. In addition to being one of the most endearing comedies in quite some time, “Kick-Ass” also tells a real story about characters with motivations and inner demons. This isn’t a mere lampoon like “Superhero Movie” or “Epic Movie” with one obvious, irrelevant joke after joke. It’s a complete and near perfect piece of pop entertainment that earns comparison to “The Incredibles.”

At some point in our youth we’ve all dreamed of becoming a superhero. It’s interesting that nobody has ever attempted to do it given all the comic book fanatics out there. High school student Dave Lizeski, played by Aaron Johnson, finally does what so many have only dreamed of when he purchases a green wetsuit online. Wielding a pair of nightsticks, Dave manages to save a man from three thugs outside a diner one night. A couple of kids tape the fight on their cell phones and soon the masked vigilante of Kick-Ass becomes the biggest hit on youtube and myspace.

Kick-Ass inspires a wave of other superheroes such as a schoolgirl who packs heat named Hit-Girl, played by Chloe Moretz, and Big Daddy, played by Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage of all people. Cage has hit a couple of rough patches this past decade not only with his financial problems but also with thankless roles in “The Wicker Man,” “Next,” and “Bangkok Dangerous.” Here he gives one of his finest and most outlandish performances since “Adaptation” as Damon Macready, a single father who kind of looks like Stanley Tucci’s rapist serial killer in “The Lovely Bones.”

Chloe Moretz was positively wonderful as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s younger sister in “500 Days of Summer.” In “Kick-Ass” she adds another scene-stealing credit to her resume as Damon’s daughter, Mindy aka Hit-Girl. The daddy daughter duo team up to bring down a ruthless coke dealer named Frank D’Amico, convincingly played by Mark Strong. Frank manages to get his own superhero on the inside though, his nerdy son Chris, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse of McLovin’ fame, who arises as Red Mist.

The reason that the performances work so well is because the actors never wink at the camera or appear aware that they’re in a comedy. They play the roles matter-of-factly and take their work every bit as seriously as an actor like Christian Bale would in a “Batman” film. Although the movie could never happen in real life, we still believe these people and that’s what makes them so funny and appealing.

Aaron Johnson is especially strong as Dave aka Kick-Ass, who starts off enjoying his second life. He soon realizes however that he’s way in over his head and many sacrifices come with being a hero. Like Peter Parker in the “Spider-Man” films, Dave eventually wants to go back to his normal life and settle down with his new girlfriend Katie, played by Lyndsy Fonseca who was recently seen in the also enjoyable “Hot Tub Time Machine.” In many ways, “Kick Ass” is a more insightful look into the dilemmas of superheroes than the “Fantastic Four” movies or “Ghost Rider.”

Matthew Vaughn, who made the criminally underappreciated “Stardust”, directed the film. Vaughn brings the same sense of whimsy, style, and wit of that movie to “Kick-Ass.” And although Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman pack the film with plenty of profanities and over-the-top violence, there’s a heart. “Kick-Ass” is a surprisingly sincere comedy about people the audience cares about and remembers long after the film’s screening. 

“Kick-Ass” is perhaps destined to develop a vast cult of followers. Over the next few weeks buzz for the film should only increase and people will be attending showings dressed as their favorite characters. Come next October, you won’t be able to find one Halloween party without a kid dressed as Kick-Ass, Red Midst, Big Daddy, or Hit-Girl. Maybe the film will even inspire some to create their own superheroes and start taking justice into their own hands. We can only hope so. 

Kick-Ass: Morally Reprehensible? Give me a break.

This past weekend, the superhero satire “Kick-Ass” became the number one movie at the box office, grossing roughly 19 million dollars. In addition, the film received fairly positive reviews with a score of 77% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. I myself praised the pictures with a rating of four out of four stars, calling it “one of the most endearing comedies in quite some time.” While some critics are describing “Kick-Ass” as…well Kick-Ass, others have labeled it as “too violent” and “morally reprehensible.” Watching “Kick-Ass,” I had a feeling that the film would steer up some controversy with it’s use of gore and profanity. However, I believe to even call the movie “mean spirited” is a stretch. To refer to it as “morally reprehensible” is just silly. At the most “Kick-Ass” is just wicked.

Much of the controversy regarding “Kick-Ass” is due to the character Hit-Girl, a thirteen-year old girl who slices bad guys and has a vocabulary more vulgar than the kids on “South Park.” Hit-Girl is played by Chloe Moretz, an extremely talented young actress who was last seen as the little sister in “500 Days of Summer.” The problem many have with Moretz’s character is not only that she kills people but is shot at and bludgeoned by grown men. I’ve always felt that having a child in constant jeopardy is one of the cheapest shots in movies. This is one of the various reasons that I named “Funny Games,” a film where a little boy is tortured, shot, and killed, as the worst film of 2008. This did not bother me in “Kick-Ass” though. The audience knows from Moretz’s first scene where her father hilariously shoots her with a bullet proof vest on that she’s going to be okay and is more than capable of taking care of herself. Moretz maintains a cheerful and enthusiastic attitude throughout the entire film, which is one of the many traits that make her performance and the movie a winner.

I don’t think I need to inform the critics who panned “Kick-Ass” for it’s violence and language that the movie is a pure satire. I’m sure they’re all well aware that the film is a parody. There’s nothing I can say to change their minds about what they find “morally reprehensible.” What I can argue is that Hit-Girl’s behavior is no more “morally reprehensible” than Jodie Foster’s under-aged prostitute in “Taxi Driver” or Linda Blair’s possessed child in “The Exorcist.” Just last year we saw Abigail Breslin shooting and getting attacked by zombies in “Zombieland.” Why is it so unacceptable for a child to kill evildoers when it’s okay for a grown woman to commit the same deeds in “Kill Bill,” which I might add had much more graphic violence than “Kick-Ass.” I guess we all just have a different code of ethics.

The mere notion of a child shooting and killing people isn’t automatically funny. However it can certainly be funny if executed in the right way. What I appreciated about “Kick-Ass” is that despite it’s over-the-top violence and profanity, the film still maintains a heart. Underneath it’s rough exterior, the film tells a sincere story about a father/daughter relationship and even a high school romance. The movie got just as many laughs out of me than “The Hangover” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and certainly more than “Hot Tub Time Machine,” a comedy that I actually kind of liked. Call me “morally reprehensible,” but I will always stand by “Kick-Ass” and can’t wait to see it again. 

The Kids Are All Right

The kids might be all right. But are their parents? ***1/2

“The Kids Are All Right” accurately defines the term indie pic. The movie comes fully equipped with sketchy opening credits, a hipster soundtrack, a quirky screenplay, kids with peculiar names like Joni and Laser, and two lesbian moms. Throw in a Best Feature Film win at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival and you’ve got yourself certified indie comedy.

The underrated Juliane Moore and Annette Bening play Nic and Jules, a middle-aged, same-sex couple with two teenagers. Their oldest daughter is Joni, an 18-year-old on her way to college, played by Mia Wasikowska who was delightful in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Josh Hutcherson, who has significantly matured since he was last seen in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” plays their 15-year-old son, Laser. While Jules and Nic have provided their children with a loving environment to grow up in, Joni and Laser are still curious to whom their dad was. They contact the sperm bank and learn their biological father is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a swinging, laidback bachelor who owns a restaurant. Nic feels fairly betrayed that her kids want to form a relationship with this man while Jules takes an unexpected liking to Paul.

Writer and director Lisa Cholodenko has crafted a fundamentally intelligent film about family. The earlier scenes flawlessly embody the awkward tension of meeting an estranged parent as the kids and their moms attempt to build a rapport with Paul. Moore and Bening have an especially strong screen presence together. Although their characters love each other, they are not without their emotional and physical conflicts. The film finds much humor in gay marriage but never cops out with easy gags like something out of an Adam Sandler picture.

The movie takes a wrong turn in its second half when Paul and Jules develop an attraction toward one another. This seemed more like a requirement of the screenplay than a realistic decision. I would have preferred if the movie dealt more with the relationship between Paul and his kids instead of his love affair with Jules.

What redeems “The Kid’s Are All Right” is the strong performances from the cast and a few winning, written sequences from Cholodenko. There’s a great deal of truth to her movie, which does not necessarily wrap up everything nicely in the end. Some characters are left heartbroken and not everybody goes through the dramatic changes you’d expect. The film takes a subject matter that a range of people have experienced, telling a clever story kind of in the spirit of Diablo Cody’s “Juno.” Even though it doesn’t contend with that indie treasure, “The Kids Are All Right” succeeds with charm and genuineness.

The King's Speech

The stammerer who would be king  ****1/2

Colin Firth is one of those character actors that some audiences might not know by name, but he always leaves an impression as you walk out of the theater. Through “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and the television miniseries version of “Pride and Prejudice,” Firth has established that no actor working in movies today is more gifted in portraying charmingly befuddled men. In a sense he’s kind of like Hugh Grant, only with range as an actor. Last year the Academy honored him with a Best Actor nomination for “A Single Man.” Firth might have lost that award to Jeff Bridges for his brilliant performance in “Crazy Heart.” But with “The King’s Speech,” Firth outdoes himself in a performance that should engrave him as an Oscar-winner.

Firth plays Albert Frederick Arthur George, or Bertie as his family called him, the man that would one day rule England as King George VI. When King George V passes, his eldest son, Prince Edward, is to inherit the throne. Edward relinquishes the title though, so he may marry his twice-divorced mistress. George VI is next in line to govern England. He is unconfident in his ability to rule however, due to his speech impediment. Simply maintaining a conversation with another human being is a struggle for the stuttering George VI. When he has to make a speech in front of his pupils in the film’s uncomfortable opening scene, he can barely utter more than two words at a time.   

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, George’s loving and fiercely dedicated wife played by Helena Bonham Carter, encourages her husband to consult a speech therapist. She drags him to an Australian therapist named Lionel Logue, played by the always entertaining Geoffrey Rush. George is at first reluctant to accept counsel from Logue. The fact that the therapist casually refers to him as “Bertie” only makes George VI more uncomfortable. But after successfully completing a monologue without stammering through a musical exercise, George VI is given little choice but to continue seeing Longue.

The focal point of the movie is the friendship between King George and Logue. Firth and Rush are both at the top of their game as they exemplify one of the most intriguing student teacher relationships ever depicting on film. The fact that the student happens to be the King of England only makes the relationship even more fascinating and poignant.

Another significant relationship is between King George and Elizabeth. Helena Bonham Carter plays a key role here as the women who unconditionally loves her awkward husband and raises him up when he doesn’t believe in himself. Two other principle people in King George’s life are his daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth, the future Queen on England. Towards the beginning of the movie we see George VI being playful with his children, imitating a penguin as he tells them a story. When his daughters first see him dressed in regal attire though, they bow down and address him as “Your Majesty.” Nevertheless, King George still prefers the customary hug from his daughters. All of these people contribute to providing the insecure King George VI the confidence to not only overcome his stammer, but to also accept his royal duties.

David Seidler, whose only previous credits have included television movies and mediocre animated features such as “Quest For Camelot” and “The King and I,” wrote the film. He has developed an original screenplay of unparallel wit and engaging dialog. Long stretches of the film take place in one setting, typically with only two or three people sustaining a discussion. In the hands of Director Tom Hooper though, “The King’s Speech” never feels like a stage production clumsily transferred to the screen. Rather, he supplies the film with the same epic scope that he brought to the HBO miniseries, “John Adams.” Together, Hooper and Seidler have made film that is both wildly absorbing and entertaining in its portrayal of a lesser-known piece of history and one of the most charming friendships of recent memory.

Knight and Day

What does that title have to do with the movie? Don't ask me. ***

“Knight and Day” is an adequately enjoyable action/comedy, which is prevented from being just standard due to its stars. The film is far from being any sort of masterpiece and isn’t necessarily important to see. In one of the driest summers in some time tough, “Knight and Day” stands out as one of the more compelling escapes of the season.

The Plot: Cameron Diaz is June, an ordinary woman on the way to her little sister’s wedding. On the plane she gets caught up with a secret agent named Roy, played by Tom Cruise. Roy is in possession of a battery with unlimited energy. In addition to being hunted by the bad guys that wish to obtain the battery, Roy is also on the run from his employers who believe he’s gone rouge. There are chases, explosions, exotic locations, and all the while Cruise and Diaz look highly attractive. I think that sums it up.

This is a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest so there’s really no point in arguing about the preposterous setup. The fundamental question is whether or not “Knight and Day” is entertaining. On the most simple-minded level that appeals to the lowest common denominator, yes it is. James Mangold, who made the great remake of “3:10 to Yuma” and “Walk the Line,” brings plenty of craft to the film. The action sequences are breezy, fast-paced and not just obnoxious like in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Given Mangold’s skill as a filmmaker though, it’s a bit of a disappointment that he couldn’t have taken the action to another height of exhilaration. While the action sequences are never dull, there’s not really anything to them that we haven’t seen before.

In the midst of all the mindless action are two strong performances from Cruise and Diaz. They have an undeniably appealing romance reminiscent of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” or Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in “Romancing the Stone.” They’re certainly not Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest.” But few actors, dead or alive, could ever match the chemistry Grant and Saint shared in that romp. It’s the star power that makes or breaks a movie like “Knight and Day” and both Diaz and Cruise are well up to the task. The film is not at it’s best when it’s leads are avoiding certain death but when they’re allowed the chance to sit back and exchange dialog. If we had gotten more of those scenes, “Knight and Day” might have been a near-great picture instead of a pretty good one.

“Knight and Day” didn’t exactly wow me and it’s not a film I’m likely to remember by the year’s end. For what it is though, the movie succeeds as lightweight, admirable entertainment that will be liked by anybody who enjoys the presence of Cruise and Diaz. As long as you check your brain out before entering the theater, you’re likely to walk out refreshed and satisfied.

The Last Airbender

May it be the only Airbender Zero stars

M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” is the most joyless experience I’ve had at the movies in some time. Not since “Batman & Robin” in 1997 has a director taken a great license and massacred it in such an unholy fashion. This is a movie to be regarded along with “Battlefield Earth” and Uwe Boll’s “Alone in the Dark” as one of the cinematic abominations of this century. I should consider myself grateful that the screening I attended showed the film in glorious 2D as apposed to 3D. Watching a movie already so unattractive and overdone in a format as pesky as 3D would be the equivalent of pouring lemon juice on a fatal wound.

“The Last Airbender” is inspired by the first season of the Nickelodeon series, which has developed a vast following of not only elementary school students but older audiences as well. There was much to admire in the show, which combined a stunning anime drawing style with humor, action, and a story of friendship. Whatever charm the animated series had though is lost in this unbearably boring live-action interpretation that provides not a single moment of wit or imagination in it’s whole running time.

The film takes place in a world composed of the Water Nation, Earth Nation, Fire Nation, and Air Nation. The only person with the power to exercise all four elements is the Avatar, whose purpose is to keep the peace between the nations. When the Avatar disappears though, the Fire Nation takes over. One hundred or so years of the Fire Nation’s tyranny passes. Then one day a young waterbender named Katara, played by Nicola Peltz, and her brother Sokka, played by Jackson Rathbone, discover a frozen child named Aang, played by Noah Ringer. They learn that Aang is the Avatar and is the world’s only hope to stop the Fire Nation. Shyamalan handles this exposition in such a rushed and incoherent way that you need to have seen the series to grasp any understanding of what’s going on.

The performances are uniformly awful. All of the actors utter their lines as if they never even looked at the script and are reading cue cards. Even the talented Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” comes off as flat and unintentionally laughable as Zuko, the banished prince of the Fire Nation seeking the Avatar for redemption. The biggest disappointment of all is Ringer as Aang, whose name is mispronounced throughout the entire film. Where Aang was depicted as a jumpy and cheerful kid in the series, Shyamalan’s script reduces the character to a winy, bruiting, and bland hero with no personality what so ever.  

“The Last Airbender” is full of questionable casting. In the series all the characters appeared to be of Asian descent. Here though, the three leads are played by white actors and the entire Fire Nation is made up of Indians. What is Shyamalan trying to say here? That his people are all ruthless dictators that want to rule the world? But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Whether there’s a message behind the casting or not, all of the actors are miscast.

Frankly I don’t see why the film needs to be in live-action. Should Hayao Miyazaki’s great “Princess Mononoke” and “Castle in the Sky” or Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akria” be remade in live-action just because we have the technology? There are some stories born for animation and could never work in live-action. “The Last Airbender” is one of them. Had the film been animated maybe a bright and inventive feature could have been produced in the spirit of “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” or “The Animatrix.” In the hands of Shyamalan though, the movie is a senseless disaster with art direction, costumes, and effects so distractingly flashy that they outshine whatever little story there may be.

It might sound like I’m basing my criticism of “Last of the Airbender” on it’s inaccuracy to the series. But even if the animated series never existed, this movie would still be a catastrophe. The ending sets us up for the possibility of two more sequels, which overwhelms me with despair. Where the kids of the 70’s and the 80’s got to grow up on the original “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” trilogies, the minds of today’s youth are being corrupted by movies like “The Last Airbender.” With “The Sixth Sense” M. Night Shyamalan made one of the most fascinating and iconic motion pictures of the 90’s. With “The Last Airbender,” “The Happening” is only the second worst movie of his career.

There is one upside to my viewing experience of “The Last Airbender” though. I’ve officially won a five-dollar bet that James Cameron’s “Avatar” would be better than this adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” But that five dollars and the satisfaction of being right are hardly worth the 103 minutes of my life wasted on this reprehensible mess.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

 The Last Airbender you SHOULD see *****

In December of 2009 a wager took place. For the past several months I had been eagerly awaiting James Cameron’s science fiction epic “Avatar.” But a friend of mine, lets call him Aaron Jones, was confident that a movie centered on giant Smurfs would never work and the film would flop. He was much more excited to see M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action interpretation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” to be released the next summer. Although neither of these films had anything in common other than the word “Avatar,” we made a five dollar bet on which picture would be superior.

Several months later, “Avatar” is the highest-grossing movie of all time and earned nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. “The Last Airbender” on the other hand, has become one of the most despised motion pictures of the past ten years that’s a definite contender for numerous Razzies. I myself gave the film a rating of absolute zero, a grade I don’t just pass out to any bad film. To sink lower than one star or even half a star a movie has to earn it and be free of any redeeming qualities. That’s “The Last Airbender” for you. Even Aaron admitted that the movie fell short of his expectations with terrible dialog and performances.  Our bet isn’t entirely settled though seeing how Aaron still hasn’t seen “Avatar.” If I could bring myself to see this year’s worst movie though, the least Aaron could do is see one of last year’s best films and cough up my money.

But I digress. I’ve already given my two cents on the live-action “Last Airbender” and I don’t plan on writing an entire article about an insignificant five-dollar bet. Rather I’d like to take this time to discuss the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series. I didn’t watch “Avatar: The Last Airbender” during it’s run on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. I assumed the series was this generations “Pokemon” or “Dragon Ball Z,” both of which I enjoyed in my youth. Looking back on them now though they’ve pretty much lost all their appeal. Fixated on dramas like “Lost” and “Mad Men” I believed my tastes had grown too mature to give what appeared to be a children’s cartoon a chance.

Last June I figured I might as well allow the show a viewing so I could have something to go on when M. Night Shyamalan’s film came out. As far as I’m concerned I made a tremendous mistake neglecting the series all these years because it’s fantastic. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is not only as magnificent as any animated series ever produced but ranges up there with the best primetime programs of the 21st century. The show tells an epic story over the course of three seasons, creating a universe of it’s own occupied by characters the audience cares about. Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, both of whom are alumni of “Family Guy,” have made the “Star Wars” of animated series.

Set in a world divided by four nations of water, earth, fire and air, the series follows an Airbender named Aang, voiced by Zach Tyler. Aang is the twelve-year-old reincarnation of the Avatar, the only person in the world with the power to exercise all elements and keep balance amongst the nations. Aang has been gone for the past one hundred years though, frozen underwater in suspended animation. In his absence the Fire Nation has taken over and all of the other Airbenders have been wiped out. It’s Aang’s destiny to challenge the corrupt Fire Lord, provided with a menacing voice from Mark Hamill, and save the world.

Some of my regular readers might be amazed that I, a prestige critic of such sophisticated stature, am going into analysis of a cartoon primarily marketed to children. But “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is much more complex and character driven than any other show on Nickelodeon, or the Disney Channel for that matter. Most cartoons revolve around frantic chases that cause Attention Deficit Disorder in children. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” however, confronts adult issues about loss, regret and responsibility. It takes the time to develop the demons and relationships of the characters so whenever an action climax occurs you really care if the heroes survive.

Aang’s problems in particular go much deeper than whether or not he is strong enough to bring an end to the Fire Nation’s reign of terror. As everyone tells him the only way to save the world is to kill the Fire Lord, Aang fears his code of ethics will be corrupted. Although he realizes that the Fire Lord is an irredeemable murderer that’ll never willingly back down from his tyranny, Aang contemplates if killing him will only make him a murderer as well. This story of a young, unlikely protagonist wisped into an inevitable battle between a dark lord strikes resemblance to “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings.” One of the many traits that distinguishes “Avatar: The Last Airbender” from any other franchise though is the richness and intricacy of it’s hero, who remains a playful kid with many juvenile instincts despite his daunting responsibilities.

A Waterbender named Katara, voiced by Mae Whitman who also played Ann on “Arrested Development,” aids Aang in his journey. The relationship that arises between the two is one for the ages. Although Aang is the most powerful being in the world, he feels unbearably shy to reveal his true feelings to Katara. In an episode entitled “The Cave of Two Lovers” they are finally forced to confront some of their repressed emotions towards one another. I will not give away what happens in this episode for the sake of those who haven’t seen the series. What I will say is that it features one of the most elegantly handled love scenes I’ve seen in television or film.

Providing the show with much of it’s comedic relief is Katara’s older brother, Sokka, a skinny-boned teenage who considers himself to be an expert warrior and strategist. Although a majority of his plans backfire and result in him becoming the Coyote in the rat race of the Roadrunner. Comedian Jack De Sena voices Sokka, deriving his inspiration for the character from the manic persona of Jim Carey. Another key player of the group is Jessie Flower as Toph, a resilient young girl who has mastered the art of Earthbending regardless of the fact that she’s blind.

It’s one thing for an animated series to steer up affection for people. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” takes it to another level though by making the audience sincerely care about vocabulary-free animals. The animals in question are Aang’s flying Bison, Appa, and a winged lemur, Momo. Appa and Momo never speak with exception to a couple of noises provided by Dee Bradley Baker. But like WALL-E and Gromit of “Wallace & Gromit” they’re characters you become invested in. In one of the series strongest episodes Appa gets separated from Aang and ventures on a journey to find him. This tear-jerking half hour alone would have made for an outstanding animated short.

Opposite Aang and his allies is Prince Zuko, voiced by Dante Basco. Zuko has been banished from the Fire Nation and is in pursuit of the Avatar for redemption. In the beginning Zuko comes off as a straightforward villain. As the series progresses however, it’s revealed how Zuko’s father literally scared him for life. Consumed with hatred and the need for acceptance, Zuko dedicates his life to bringing in Aang. Zuko’s voice of reason and true fatherly figure proves to be his nurturing Uncle Iroh, voiced by the now deceased Oscar-nominated actor Mako. Their relationship is a provocative one about father and son and choosing your own path. All of these characters, be they heroes, villains or a little bit of both, are fully realized individuals whom the audience identifies with.

Despite some of it’s serious themes, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” also provides the same refreshing humor that you’d find in a more traditional American cartoon. There’s a particularly hilarious episode called “The Ember Island Players” where the heroes attend a stage production centered on them. When the show commences they are offended and dazed to find Aang being portrayed by an effeminate woman and Sokka as a dope who makes terrible jokes. What’s great about the humor of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is that in spite of occasionally being silly it is not random. The show plays off the character’s personalities and it’s all based on situation.

Although “Avatar: The Last Airbender” utilizes a stunning anime drawing style and numerous themes of Eastern culture, it was actually produced here in America. For that reason, some diehard anime fanatics don’t consider it to be in the same family of other anime series that originated from Japan. Whether or not “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is real anime or not, I think it earns comparison to the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The show has the gripping action of “The Castle in the Sky,” the humor and charm of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and the infinite imagination of “Spirited Away” all in one. Above all else “Avatar: The Last Airbender” tells a genuine tale about love and friendship, which has always been the driving force of a Miyazaki film.

There are some shows from our youth that hold up as terrific entertainment even after adolescence such as “Batman: The Animated Series.” A majority of them however loose their touch as the years go by and are only appreciated for nostalgic purposes. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is the kind of series we all wish we could have grown up with as kids. Seeing it as an adult however is an equal pleasure. To refer to it as a “Nicktoon” or even a “Cartoon” is impertinent. This is a full-fledged animated series composed of adventure, comedy, mythology and romance that’s exceptional entertainment for all ages. With that said allow me to leave you on these two notes:

1. Even if you aren’t an admirer of an anime, have prejudices against animated programming or have had the misfortunate of witnessing M. Night Shyamalan’s abomination of a movie, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a wonderful series to behold.

2. Aaron, pay me my five-dollars!

Let Me In

Let me into the theater ****1/2

Earlier this year, Chloe Moretz stirred up much controversy with her character Hit Girl in “Kick-Ass.” Various skeptics found it morally reprehensible to depict a girl just on the verge of adolescence being shot at, killing people and exercising the “C” word. Now Moretz tackles another risky role as an eternally 12-year-old, bloodthirsty vampire who tears people to shreds in “Let Me In.” Whether or not you have reservations with Moretz’s character in “Kick-Ass” or in this film, one thing is for certain: She is one of the best young actresses working in movies today whose daring film choices resemble that of a young Jodie Foster. Let’s hope her uniqueness and gallantry as a performer will carry into her adult years.

In this loyal remake of the 2008 Swedish film, “Let the Right One In,” Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Owen. This 12-year-old boy has no friends at school, and is constantly tormented by a bully and his gang. In one instance the bully gives Owen a wedgie so brutal he makes the Karate Kid’s schoolyard nemesis look like the Dalai Lama. His religious, soon to be divorced mother, whose face we rarely see, is too distressed to pay any attention to him. His father is absent for the entire movie, with exception to a brief phone conversation they share.

A pale young girl named Abby (Moretz), and her alleged father, played by Richard Jenkins, move into Owen’s building. He and Abby meet out in the courtyard one night. Owen is at first baffled by this strange girl who never wears shoes despite the snowy whether. Although Abby tells him that they cannot be friends upfront, the two nevertheless form an unbreakable bond. But around the same time Abby moves in, mutilated bodies begin to turn up around town.

Director Matt Reeves supplies the film with an appropriately cold tone. Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino renders a score that’s every bit as lingering as his theme to “Lost.” The cinematography from Greig Fraser is especially inspired, particularly in a brilliantly executed car accident sequence filmed from the automobile’s interior. All of these attributes contribute to making “Let Me In” the most effective and genuinely creepy thriller of the year. For the first time in a long time, this movie actually made me feel compelled to check the back seat of my car walking out of the theater.

The real surprise regarding “Let Me In” is the friendship that unfolds between Owen and Abby. Their relationship is touching and, in its own twisted way, even charming. I realize that “charming” is the last word that comes to mind when considering an abundantly gruesome vampire movie that indeed earns its R-rating. But Owen and Abby share a connection so sincere and tender, in spite of the harsh circumstances, that I can’t think of a better word to describe it. Their relationship is based on love and understanding, unlike some unions that revolve only around lust like Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.

At times “Let Me In” even reminded me of films such as “My Girl” and “Bridge to Terabithia” … that is if you threw vampires into the equation. This makes “Let Me In” more than a captivating thriller. It’s fundamentally a great film about childhood friendship.

Our nation is in the midst of a vampire fad, not only with the “Twilight” series but also “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries.” Among all the American depictions of vampires released in the past few years, “Let Me In” is the most accurate in capturing the nature of these creatures. There’s more at stake here than whether or not the sexy vampire can be with Kristen Stewart or Anna Paquin. The film realizes that vampires are truly tragic figures, especially the ones under 12.

The Losers

Just as Kick-Ass lived up to it's title, so does The Losers **1/2

“The Losers” is like a series of action sequences and dialogue stolen from other movies and rolled into one ludicrous film. There’s the big heist scene in which the characters steal a truck via a helicopter and giant magnet, the scene where somebody breaks into an office building to download a file and, of course, the inevitable shot of the heroes walking in slow motion with the American flag in the background. Along the way there are more shootouts and explosions than one could possibly desire. Sometimes the experience is actually kind of amusing. But most of the time it’s just bland and shallow.

Based on a series of graphic novels, “The Losers” follows five members of a United States Special Forces unit with the names Clay, Roque, Cougar, Pooch and Jensen. (What a colorful and outlandish group of names, huh?) The unit, portrayed by actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, Oscar Jaenada, Columbus Short and Chris Evans, respectively, is betrayed on a mission to Bolivia. They then embark on an operation to find the man who double-crossed them and tried to have them murdered. Along the way, the feisty Aisha (played by Zoe Saldana of “Star Trek” and “Avatar” fame), a woman who may have an agenda of her own, accompanies them.

What makes it difficult to root for any of these characters is how egotistical and self-aware they are. All the people in this movie seem to think that they’re the bomb when they’re really about as fascinating and unique as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everything the characters say seems to be a one-liner like they’re fully conscious that they’re in a ridiculous action movie. This would be acceptable if the one-liners were humorous. Instead, they’re just uninspired and lazy, as if a student fresh out of high school crafted the screenplay.

The only person in the movie who ever has anything interesting to say is Jason Patric as Max, a villainous madman who wants to manufacture weapons of mass destruction capable of destroying an entire island. Patric is so over-the-top here that he makes John Travolta’s train-jacking villain in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” seem believable. But at least when Patric was on screen, I expected to be entertained. That’s more than I can say about any of the other characters.

Despite the film’s flaws, I did find myself getting caught up in some of the preposterous action sequences. This is a well-stylized movie, and the cast clearly had a fun time making it. The problem is that director Sylvain White, who made “Stomp the Yard” and the straight-to-DVD “I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer,” never quite decides what he wants to accomplish with “The Losers.” He appears to want to make a trashy, completely outrageous piece of entertainment like “Wanted.” I felt the 2008 Angelina Jolie hit worked though because the filmmakers went all the way with the absurdity and never looked back. “The Losers” on the other hand, seems to be restraining itself. If the film has gone that extra mile, I may have been tempted to recommend it as splashy, mindless fun. Ultimately, though, the final result is just mixed.


99 minutes, MacGruber! ***

A few years ago Will Forte wrote and stared in “The Brothers Solomon,” one of the absolute worst comedies of recent memory. While my detestation for that film hasn’t diminished, apart of me thinks I was too hard on Forte in my review. I believe my exact words were “Forte proves here that he is not capable of carrying a comedy.” The truth is that I’ve actually enjoyed some of Forte’s outlandish comedic stylings. He was hilarious in a recent episode of “30 Rock” in which he played a Jenna Maroney/ Cher transvestite. Given the right material, Forte can be very appealing as a performer.

The one-minute-long reoccurring skit of “MacGruber” didn’t strike me as inspired material for a feature. Unlike a majority of the theatrical adaptations of “Saturday Night Live” sketches though, this is one of the rare ones that works. Not necessarily because the characters are rich, the plot is revolutionary, or the humor is groundbreaking. The movie simply succeeds in its expedition to provide one stupid, dumbass laugh after another. I won’t go as far as to say that the film measures up to either of the “Wayne’s World” pictures. But the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do and produces possibly the best “MacGruber” movie possible.

Forte of course plays MacGruber, a gadget concocting special operative who has gone into hiding for the past several years in an Asian village. Our hero is approached by his old friend Col. James Faith, played by Powers Boothe, who wants MacGruber to come out of retirement to prevent a nuclear attack. MacGruber is reluctant at first until he learns the man behind the attack is Dieter Von Cunth, played by Val Kilmer, the man who murdered his beloved wife. MacGruber assembles an elite team that includes Ryan Phillippe as Lt. Dixon Piper, a rookie who finds his new boss’s methods beyond questionable, and the always-welcome Kristen Wiig as the timid Vicki St. Elmo, who holds a torch for MacGruber.

What makes “MacGruber” superior to some of the other “Saturday Night Live” movies is that it does not just string together a series of sketches. The film actually tells a story to an extent and in the process satirizes the undercover spy genre. The movie pokes fun at all sorts of clichés that pollute action movies such as the scene with the hero walking away from an explosion and the passionate sex scene set to music. A lot of the time this material is really funny. Other times the film is a little too reliant on gross out gags and profanities. “MacGruber” is only 99 minutes long. If you removed all the “F” words from the film though, it would probably only be roughly over an hour.

“MacGruber” doesn’t rank up there with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Kick-Ass,” or “The Hangover” as one of the funniest movies of the past decade. It places more in the middle with “Step Brothers,” “Hot Rod,” and “Hot Tub Time Machine.” It’s not a comedy that I need to see again any time soon or that requires a sequel. But funny is funny and “MacGruber” packed in enough juvenile humor to put a big, fat smile on my face. I guess you can either accept a movie like this for what it is or shut your butt.


A dog of a movie *

In Marley & Me Owen Wilson played the owner of a Labrador he referred to as “The world’s worst dog.” Now in Marmaduke Wilson provides the voice of a Great Dane that makes Marley look like Lassie herself. The original “Marmaduke” comic strip was only one panel long and typically merited no more than a smile. It’s hard to imagine that a producer read a “Marmaduke” comic strip and said, “This would be great source material for a motion picture.” I suppose Marmaduke is just further evidence that Hollywood will literally attempt to stretch anything into a feature.

I can’t quite remember the last great live-action movie centered on talking animals. It probably goes as far back as the early ’90s with films like Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and Babe. Everything since then, from Good Boy! to Beverly Hills Chihuahua, has been down right horrendous. Unfortunately Marmaduke is no exception. The problem with all of these movies is that filmmakers no longer think giving animals the ability to talk is enough. They need to sing, dance, surf, constantly knock things over and make terrible puns to hold children’s attention. Movie studios should take a note that when it comes to talking animals sometimes less is more.

Lee Pace demonstrated terrific appeal as an actor on the show Pushing Daisies. In Marmaduke though, Pace is given the thankless role of Phil Winslow. When Phil gets a job offer at a dog food company in Orange County, he decides to pack up his wife, played by Judy Greer, his three children, and his trouble-making dog Marmaduke. There’s also the families pet cat, Carlos, voiced by George Lopez. Why is it that all of these movies require at least one talking animal with a Hispanic accent?

When Marmaduke arrives in the O.C. he falls into a pack of mutts lead by a dog named Mazie, voiced by Emma Stone. Marmaduke has the hots for a foxy Collie named Jezebel, voiced by Fergie. But she’s going out with Bosco, the toughest dog on the playground, voiced by Kiefer Sutherland. That’s right, Jack Bauer himself as a bullying dog. It’d be funny if the entire experience of Marmaduke weren’t so depressing.

There are virtually no laughs in this movie. Much of the attempted humor is derived from the well-intentioned Marmaduke accidentally making life hell for the long-suffering Phil. There are at least 15 instances in this movie in which the Winslow family whines “Marmaduke” in a disappointed tone. But when Marmaduke runs away and Phil must decide between finding him or giving an important sales pitch, which do you think he’s going to choose? There’s also a subplot about the overworked Phil not being able to find family time because we haven’t seen that in a million other movies before.

Parents, I understand that between this and Shrek Forever After, there’s not much in theaters right now to hold your kids over until Toy Story 3. Perhaps some children will say they like Marmaduke because it’s colorful, loud and has no nutritional value. But given all the quality family movies available at your local video store, such as The Princess and the Frog, Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox, Marmaduke is certainly not worth your hard-earned money. Especially after Dug the Dog made his triumphant debut in Up last year, Marmaduke isn’t a very compelling protagonist. He's the first dog that actually made be sympathize with Michael Vick.


It's no Despicable Me  **1/2

A few months ago animated comedy “Despicable Me” from Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment opened in theaters. The film was about a diabolical super villain, Mr. Gru, and his expeditions of evil and fatherhood. Now we get DreamWorks’ “Megamind,” another animated comedy where the villain is allowed the opportunity to be the protagonist. In “Despicable Me,” Gru had no superhero to face, making it easy for him to reek havoc. Megamind, on the other hand, is confronted with a super adversary the day he arrives on earth.

Provided with the energetic voice of Will Ferrell, Megamind is a blue alien with a noggin that could rival that of the Red Queen’s in “Alice in Wonderland.” He is only an infant when his home planet is sucked into a black hole and his parents send him to earth. Little Megamind starts off trying to win the affection of earth’s inhabitants. But he is always one-upped by another young otherworldly boy. This other alien grows up to be Metro Man, a chisel-jawed Superman voiced by Brad Pitt. With the hero role filled, Megamind assumes the villain position. Along with his fish Minion, voiced by David Cross, he engages in a never-ending war with Metro Man to claim Metro City.

Among the citizens of Metro City are a plucky, Lois Lane-like reporter named Roxanne Ritchi, voiced by Tina Fey, and her chubby, ginger haired cameraman, voiced by Jonah Hill. Roxanne is constantly finding herself in the middle of Metro Man and Megamind’s quarrels. This happens so often, she doesn’t even cringe when Megamind kidnaps her and unleashes his alligators and death ray. Everything has become routine. Matters change when Megamind actually succeeds in destroying Metro Man, leaving nothing behind but his cape and skeleton.

This is a promising premise for a satire that follows the age-old question, “What would happen in the coyote caught the roadrunner?” Unfortunately once Metro Man is defeated, the film quickly runs out of things for Megamind to do. With nobody to challenge Megamind, he goes about the city stealing from banks and littering. After a while though, he starts to miss the thrill he got from battling his old nemesis. He wishes Metro Man were still around to provide that missing action and so does the audience.

“Megamind” is beautifully animated, creating a dazzling city of mounting skyscrapers that are wonderful to look at in 2D or 3D. There are great voiceover performances all around. But where  “Megamind” lacks is in the joke department, missing many chances to poke fun at the superhero genre.The film does provide some occasional clever in jokes such as a reference to Marlon Brando’s role in the original “Superman.” But most of the film feels like it’s on autopilot and provides few laugh out loud moments at all.

The high point of the movie is the relationship that blossoms between Megamind and Roxanne Ritchi. There’s a surprising sweetness to their romance, although I don’t want to even think about what their offspring would look like. DreamWorks Animation Studios has been known for this role reversal scenario in which an unlikely being saves the day and gets the girl, most notably the “Shrek” films.

While “Megamind” has the craft and talent to make an A-list animated film, it doesn’t have the wit or inspiration of the best contemporary animated features. It’s not a film I can quite recommend for older audiences to see. But if you parents give into your children’s demands to see “Megamind” this holiday season, chances are they won’t be disappointed.

Morning Glory

It's no glory hole ***1/2

“Morning Glory” opens with a scene that’s been done in movies time and time again. An eccentric, pre-occupied morning news show producer named Becky, played by Rachel McAdams, meets a handsome fellow on a blind date. Throughout the date Becky talks far too much and cannot separate herself from her cell phone. The minute Becky’s back is turned her date asks for the check. From there the movie delivers another tired scene where Becky thinks she’s getting a promotion but ends up getting fired.

Ten minutes into “Morning Glory” I was ready to declare it as just another formulaic romantic comedy. But from that point on, something interesting happens to the movie. As apposed to some other comedies of its kind, like “The Ugly Truth” and “You Again,” “Morning Glory” truly gets its act together beyond its exposition. The end result isn’t necessarily unpredictable. However, it certainly leaves you with a feeling of enjoyment.

After getting canned, Becky manages to find a job as a producer for “Daybreak,” the morning news show with the lowest ratings. Her new boss, played by Jeff Goldblum, practically tells her off that bat that he doesn’t believe in her ability to pull the show out of the toilet. But anybody who has ever seen a movie knows that by the end Becky will indeed prevail. Diane Keaton plays the icy senior anchor on the show, Colleen Peck, who has little faith in Becky either. Becky thinks a new co-anchor to play opposite Colleen is just what “Daybreak” needs. She sets her eyes on hiring Mike Pomeroy, a legendary reporter played by Harrison Ford. But when she finally meets the journalist she idolized so much, he turns out to be more hot-tempered than Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino.” Since Mike is under contract, he is left with little choice but to participate.

In terms of awards, Rachel McAdams hasn’t quite reached the heights of actresses such as Anne Hathaway and Reese Witherspoon. But I think she definitely has the potential, doing some of the most underrated work from an actress in recent years. McAdams continues to prove that she can without a doubt carry a romantic comedy as the endearing Becky. McAdams shines like a golden starlet here and is the principle reason to see “Morning Glory.”

Ford has fun with his role, stealing the film’s funniest lines. Patrick Wilson is also good as Becky’s love interest. If there’s one weak link in the cast it would be Keaton, who you’d think would be the standout given she’s the film’s only Oscar-winning performer. But her character is never really used or developed, which is a bit of a shame.

“Morning Glory” might not be the best or most realistic film ever made about news broadcasting. There are things in the movie that would never happen on a real morning news show, like a reporter getting a tattoo on his butt live on the air. What the movie is though is funny and occasionally sweet. Seeing how most people probably want to see a movie that is funny and sweet rather than realistic, “Morning Glory” might be just what the doctor ordered.

The Other Guys

Ferrell and Wahlberg together on the big screen at last ****

Buddy cop movies are notorious for so many clichés that you’d think the genre would be open to numerous great satires. Films such as “Hollywood Homicide,” “Taxi,” “Showtime,” and most recently Kevin Smith’s “Copout” however, have proven that poking fun at buddy cop movies is easier said than done. Although there have been some successful send-ups of the genre like “Hot Fuzz,” a majority of these movies fall flat because they never decide whether they want to be a lampoon or a flat-out action comedy. Where some of these films have fallen short, “The Other Guys” is a buddy cop comedy that works due to the chemistry of its leads and some hilariously written dialogue.

The movie opens in New York City as two badass hero cops played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson attempt to stop a bunch of robbers. They catch the criminals in a high-speed chase that’s about as probable as the most preposterous scenes in “Wanted” or the two “Bad Boys” movies. Even though their actions cause thousands of dollars in damages, the two cops are still praised as heroes. It’s then revealed that these action stars are not the focus of the movie but rather two desk jockey’s, aka the other guys.

Will Ferrell plays Alan, a nerdy forensic accountant who is forced to carry a wooden training gun, unqualified to operate a real one. His partner is Terry, a once promising, up-and-coming cop who accidentally shot a MLB all-star, played by Mark Wahlberg. While Alan is comfortable at his desk getting picked on by his co-workers, Terry pines to become a hero cop. They get caught up in a crime involving an evil businessman played by Ray Stevenson. I won’t get into that though because it’s the least interesting aspect of the movie.

Ferrell and Wahlberg are about as likely of a pair as Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Yet, they make for an indisputably endearing duo with Ferrell as the sensitive good cop and Wahlberg as the gritty wannabe bad cop. Also funny here is Eva Mendes as Ferrell’s dedicated wife who, despite being glamorous, is treated like an old bag by Alan. After providing the voice of the fashionable and possibly homosexual Ken in “Toy Story 3,” Michael Keaton continues to revive his talent as the police station’s captain who works a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond. In addition there’s a left-field twist involving the characters played by Jackson and Johnson, which I will not reveal for it will ruin the movie’s greatest laugh.

Director Adam McKay, who has worked with Ferrell on several occasions, has crafted a winning buddy cop satire with even more laugh-out-loud moments than his “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights” and almost as many as “Anchorman.” There are times when “The Other Guys” almost meanders into “Lethal Weapon” territory and becomes a routine action picture, but the film redeems those needless action sequences with some of the funniest moments of the year. Besides, I guess a couple of chases and explosions in a movie like this are inevitable.

Paranormal Activity 2

What's this? A good horror sequel? It can't be! ****

The first “Paranormal Activity” featured no A-list stars and cost a mere $15,000 to produce. Through the most ingenious viral marketing campaign in history though, the film managed to eventually attain a wide release and gross just under $200 million. Many were unable to sleep with the lights off after watching “Paranormal Activity,” hailing it one of the scariest movies of all time. But of course as it grew in popularity, “Paranormal Activity” received an inevitable backlash from those who felt it did not live up to the hype.

Personally, I found “Paranormal Activity” to be a genuinely creepy thriller that made me jump out of my seat on multiple occasions. I might not have slept with the lights on for a week, but the movie certainly stuck with me for a while. When I heard a sequel was in the works I couldn’t help but groan in dissatisfaction. All I could think of was how Hollywood will take anything even remotely original and beat it like a dead horse. The twist is that “Paranormal Activity 2” is actually good. As a matter of fact, the film is more than just good. “Paranormal Activity 2” is an equal to its predecessor. Finding a horror movie in modern cinema that is not a remake or sequel is one thing. But to see a sequel that actually improves on the original is truly special.

Since the filmmakers were gracious enough not to spoil too much in the coming attractions trailer, I’ll do my best not to give away anything major either. In the beginning of the film, a mother and father bring home their newborn son, Hunter. The only others living the house are the father’s teenage daughter from another marriage and the family dog. When somebody breaks into the house they install a series of security cameras. Shortly after that, the family starts to notice some irregular activity throughout their humble abode.

Much of what made the first “Paranormal Activity” so effective is present here too. The film slowly builds tension in the first act, leaving you paralyzed with anticipation of what will happen next. Then when the shocks do come, you’re not left disappointed. Oren Peli remains a producer and screenwriter, but hands the directors chair over to Tod Williams. Williams stays true to the tone of the original film, deriving terror from the unseen and the possibility of an attack. There’s also some uniformly excellent work from the entire cast and the sheer joy of the audience’s laughter, gasps and screams.

If you weren’t a fan of “Paranormal Activity” needless to say this sequel will not convert you. For the large following “Paranormal Activity” has developed though, this sequel completely delivers. Where most horror sequels retell the same story over again, “Paranormal Activity 2” only makes me appreciate the first film even more. It may not be as fresh as its predecessor. But then again, how could it be? Especially when the competition this Halloween includes “I Spit on Your Grave” and the final “Saw” installment, “Paranormal Activity 2” should make for an ideal date movie.

I walked into “Paranormal Activity 2” reluctantly thinking to myself, “Do we really need another one of these?” Walking out of the movie though, I cannot wait for “Paranormal Activity 3.” I can’t remember the last time I actually looked forward to a horror sequel.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Oh where, oh where did my lightning bolt go? ***1/2

Given some of the recent failed attempts to mimic the Harry Potter franchise (for example, “The Seeker,” “Eragon” and “The Vampire’s Assistant”), I wasn’t eagerly awaiting the release of “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” I’m happy to say, however, that “The Lightning Thief” is a lot more exciting and fun than the aforementioned films.This might have to do with the fact that it was made by the director of the first two “Harry Potter” films, Christopher Columbus. After making the dismal and unwatchable “I Love You Beth Cooper” last year, Columbus returns with a film that’s as whimsical as his two “Potter” pictures and as inventive as his earlier work in “Gremlins” and “The Goonies.”

Newcomer Logan Lerman plays the title character of Percy Jackson, a seemingly average teenager who can remain underwater for extensive periods of time. Percy soon discovers that he is the son of Poseidon, God of the Sea. When Zeus’s lighting bolt is stolen, the gods accuse Percy of the theft. After Percy’s mortal mother, played by Catherine Keener, is taken hostage by Hades, Percy sets out to rescue her. Along the way, Percy is accompanied by his best pal, Grover, a half boy, half goat played by Brandon T. Jackson and Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, played by Alexandra Daddario.

It’s needless to say that this entire plot is ridiculous and, at times, just plain silly. The reason that “The Lightning Thief” works, though, is because it never takes itself too seriously. Rather, Columbus and screenwriter Craig Titley acknowledge how goofy the story is and just have fun with it. “The Lightning Thief” is the rare fantasy adventure that’s willing to wink at the camera with a down-to-earth sense of humor. Besides, I don’t think any of the kids who go see the movie will question its illogicality.

Lerman, Jackson and Daddario all demonstrate great presence as the three leads. But some of the supporting performances from Uma Thurman as Medusa and Sean Bean as Zeus range from campy to simply overacting. However, we do get some excellent work from Steve Coogan as Hades and Rosario Dawson as Persephone when the heroes travel to the underworld, which is located in — where else? — Hollywood, California. Coogan as the lord of the underworld is perhaps the strangest casting decision since Vince Vaughn portrayed Norman Bates in the remake of “Psycho.” In some bizarre way, though, the performance actually works.

What elevates “The Lightning Thief” is its well-rounded characters and sense of awe. As opposed to the teenagers in those damn “Twilight” movies, Percy and his friends have genuine personalities and feelings. Unlike Bella Swan, Percy is amazed by the mystical world he is swept into and acknowledges the extraordinary situations he is under. He makes for a surprisingly compelling protagonist who is rebellious, boastful and easy to rout for.

“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is, in the purest sense, just plain fun. Columbus has crafted a wonderful looking movie with inspired art direction and effects. The action sequences are exciting and full of whimsy. But the reason why “The Lightning Thief” ultimately succeeds is the chemistry between the three highly appealing stars. The film is so good that I hope it’s a hit so the studio will be obligated to adapt the other four “Percy Jackson” books into features. Hell, maybe I’ll even check out some of the novels the next time I’m in a bookstore.


Maybe in the sequel she'll go up against the diabolical Dr. Pepper ****

The protagonists in movies like “Salt” are always escaping capture by the skin of their teeth. There’s a scene early on when the title character is sealed off in a building with the authorities just behind her. You’d never think that somebody would be able to get away under these circumstances. But Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt still manages to cook up an escape plan in an inventive and riveting fashion. “Salt” is full of on edge moments like that as the audience contemplates how this character will break free. Then when Salt finally devises a way out she does not disappoint.

The role of Evelyn Salt was originally written for a male and to be played by Tom Cruise. But it was thought that Salt was too similar to Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in “Mission Impossible” so the character was given a sex change and the part went to Angelina Jolie. If you ask me though, “Salt” shares more similarities with “Minority Report” than “Mission Impossible.” Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent, living a happy life with her husband and their dog. When a terrorist accuses her of being a Russian spy though, Salt is hunted by her employers and forced to go on the run. 

In addition to “Minority Report,” “Salt” also strikes resemblance to “The Fugitive” and the “Bourne” pictures. Those movies however, focused on people who were essentially good guys on the run. The twist here is that Evelyn Salt may very well be a Russian spy assisting in an assassination plot. Even when you think you’ve figured out Salt’s true identity there turns out to be another side to her.

“Salt” is one of the summer’s most surprising and arresting mainstream films. Director Phillip Noyce has devised an entertainment with thrilling, face-paced action and a terrific character at it’s helm. Proceeding “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Wanted,” Angelina Jolie delivers another fantastic portrayal with the makings of a first-rate action star. Jolie brings charisma, wit, and elegance to Evelyn Salt in a performance that ultimately carries the film.

The plot is no less preposterous than other recent action movies like “The Losers” or “Knight and Day.” “Salt” is so elegantly executed with superb action sequences and sharp plotting though that you’re able to overlook it’s improbability. The movie may be totally unfeasible. But it’s an intelligent and exciting unfeasible movie.

Some cynics might find the movie too far fetched and claim that they were able to figure out who Salt really was fairly early on. I on the other hand thought “Salt” was downright fun without a dull moment in it. In the shuffle of summer movies I sincerely hope “Salt” will find an audience so future installments will be inspired. It will be a grave injustice if we have to sit through two more “Last Airbender” films and we don’t even get one “Salt” follow-up.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Who'd win in a fight? Scott Pilgrim or Superman? ****

Many have wandered out of “Inception” contemplating whether or not the entire movie was a dream. Throughout “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” I kept expecting somebody to abruptly wake up to reveal the film was all a fantasy. Yet, nobody awakens. The movie takes place in an offbeat world where super powered people battle like characters in video games to their demise. When a gothic man soars through the roof of a nightclub and challenges Scott Pilgrim to a fight for the hand of his new girlfriend, nobody seems especially amazed. The incident isn’t even mentioned on the nightly news. That’s kind of what I enjoyed about “Scott Pilgrim” though. The film has no logic and makes no attempt to have any logic. So why should I attempt to find logic in it?   

Based on a series of graphic novels, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” stars Michael Cera as the title character. Scott is a twenty-two-year-old guitar player who is dating a high school Asian girl with the obscure name Knives Chau. He breaks things off with the clingy Knives though after he lays eyes on the lovely, pink-haired Ramona, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Ramona is the epitome of everything Scott’s ever desired in a woman. To make Ramona his though Scott must vanquish her seven evil exes. Scott and the exes brawl in a series of K.O. matches like the fighters in “Mortal Combat” and “Soul Caliber.” When defeated the exes perish into a pile of Canadian coins. That’s basically the whole plot.    

Cera has made a name for himself over the years playing awkward, prepubescent young adults. While he’s pretty much portraying the same character here, it’s hard to deny that Cera is appealing and funny doing his usual routine. Where Cera’s acting career will go once he begins to show some age is up for debate. Maybe he’ll end up playing a lot of nerdy fathers in teenage comedies. I imagine that Jim’s dad in the “American Pie” series was a lot like Michael Cera in his youth.

Also good here is the charming Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the woman who captures Scott’s heart. There isn’t a fault in the whole acting ensemble, which includes Anna Kendrick of “Twilight” and “Up in the Air” as Scott’s sister, Aubrey Plaza from “Parks and Recreation” as a girl with issues, and Jason Schwartzman as the final boss of the movie. The scene-stealing performance though comes from Macaulay Culkin’s younger brother Kieran Culkin in a hilarious turn as Scott’s homosexual roommate. Although it might be too late for the better-known Culkin to revive his fame, Kieran Culkin exemplifies presence here that makes me believe he will maintain a prosperous career. 

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” will be loved by anybody who read the series and probably liked by anybody unfamiliar with the source material. Edgar Wright of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” supplies the movie with the quintessence of a graphic novel brought to life. This movie is a love letter to video games, music, and comics, which makes me confident it will develop a cult following among the fanboys. It’s kind of like “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” on acid. As somebody who likes “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and acid I had a swell time at “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” I’m just kidding about my enjoyment of acid by the way.


That horse had better win, or else we're taking a trip to the glue factory...and he won't get to come ***1/2

If there’s one genre Disney is most notorious for (other than animated fairytales), it would be the inspirational underdog story. If you’ve seen “Remember the Titans,” “Miracle,” “Invincible,” “The Rookie,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played” or virtually any movie of its kind, you’ll be able to foresee every twist and turn of “Secretariat.” Like fairytales, these movies all follow a step-by-step formula. Yet, the story never grows old no matter how many times you see it. “Secretariat” is a movie you walk into knowing exactly what you’re going to get and it graciously delivers what the audience wants: to be uplifted.

One of the film’s several underdogs is Diane Lane as Penny Chenery, a devoted housewife and mother of four. When her mother passes away Penny decides to take charge of her ill father’s Meadow Stables. Without much experience in horseracing, she hires a down-on-his-luck trainer with a tacky fashion sense named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). Penny and Lucien believe they have found a contender in a horse called Big Red. They give Big Red the nickname of “Secretariat” and recruit Ron Turcotte, a hard-edged jockey played by newcomer Otto Thorwarth. The future of the farm all relies on Secretariat winning the Triple Crown, a feat that at the time had not been accomplished in twenty-five years.

With a blonde hairdo and strong-willed attitude, it’s hard not to compare Penny Chenery to Leigh Anne Tuohy, the heroine of “The Blind Side” played by Sandra Bullock, who won an Oscar for the role. While both real life women have much in common, Diane Lane makes Penny her own. Lane is plucky and encouraging as a lady who refuses to give up on her horse no matter how high the odds are. Her Academy Award-quality performance is the guiding light of “Secretariat” and raises it above being just another feel-good movie.

What holds “Secretariat” back from becoming a great horseracing movie, like “Seabiscuit,” is the lack of memorable supporting characters. Don’t get me wrong, every actor in the movie is wonderful, which in addition to Malkovich includes Nelsan Ellis from “True Blood” as a horse groomer and James Cromwell as a wealthy horse owner and breeder. But where “Seabiscuit” had three intriguing, complex characters in Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and Tobey Maguire, few of the supporting players stand out in “Secretariat.” The movie’s shining human star is Diane Lane and Diane Lane alone.

“Secretariat” does share one fundamental element with “Seabiscuit” though, and that is a terrific movie horse. Big Red immediately captures the audience’s heart from the instant he’s born, as corny as that may sound. The film’s strongest moments are its breathtaking racing scenes, elevated by stunning cinematography from Dean Semler and a magical score by Nick Glennie-Smith. Even when you know the outcome of the big race, you can feel the intensity. Once the race reaches it’s conclusion, you might very well cheer out loud in the theater. That’s the key to making a familiar story such as this seem fresh.

Shutter Island

Looks like a perfectly innocent mental institution to me ****1/2

I can’t think of a better word to describe “Shutter Island” than captivating. This a movie where the audience never really knows who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy or what’s real and what’s an illusion. Not until the final ten minutes does everything come together and even then the film kind of throws you for a loop. “Shutter Island” is the sort of film that some will deem brilliant and will leave others asking, “What was that all about?” Nevertheless, I believe this is filmmaking at it’s finest. Whether you love it or don’t get it, this is a movie that will get everybody talking.

In this physiological thriller based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a federal marshal by the name of Teddy Daniels. Along with his new partner Chuck Aule, played by Mark Ruffalo, Teddy is sent to investigate a disappearance at Shutter Island, a facility for the mentally unstable. The head physician on the island is Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley, who informs the cops that missing patient is a woman who murdered her three children. As Teddy digs deeper in the investigation though, he realizes that there’s more to the institution than meets the eye.

This is one of the best performances from DiCaprio, who’s in virtually every scene of the movie. Like Jimmy Stuart in a Hitchcock film like “Rear Window” or “Vertigo,” DiCaprio fully escapes into this character who may be on the verge of uncovering a conspiracy or simply going insane himself. For the forth time DiCaprio teams up with Director Martin Scorsese. Together, DiCaprio continues to mature as an actor and Scorsese continues to prove that he’s incapable of producing an unimpressive film.

Technically this may be Scorsese’s most striking picture to this date. “Shutter Island” is an ingeniously crafted piece of art with chilling sets, dazzling cinematography, and note-perfect editing. Unlike some films that are all craft and zero ideas, “Shutter Island” is one film that tells a story that equals it’s amazing look. Scorsese pays tribute to numerous genres, from good old fashion chillers to classic film noir. And while it may not be Scorsese’s best film in terms of story, neither are a majority of the films released in the past ten years.

Mark Ruffalo is quite strong here as DiCaprio’s partner. Ruffalo becomes Teddy’s voice of reason as he begins to loose touch with reality. He’s much more than a run of the mill movie sidekick. In a disturbing supporting performance, Michelle Williams plays Teddy’s wife, Dolores. Dolores died in a fire two years ago and appears to Teddy in several haunting dreams. There’s also a remarkable cameo from Jackie Earle Haley as an inmate who Teddy encounters in his search. They all give Oscar caliber performances.

As I stated before, the initial reactions to “Shutter Island” are likely to range from overwhelmingly positive to mixed. Like “The Shining,” “Shutter Island” will leave some people utterly baffled. It’s a film that merits multiple viewings and should only improve the second time around. Personally I can’t wait to see how I respond to “Shutter Island” when I rewatch it. My primary opinion of the picture couldn’t be higher though.

The Social Network

I like this *****

In my review of “Catfish” I discussed how Facebook and other social networking sites had the potential to provide inspiration for numerous fascinating film projects. I had problems with “Catfish,” although few others seem to share my reservations. Only one week later though, we get another movie centered on Facebook that’s not only the best film ever made regarding social networking, but also the most culturally relevant movie of this young century. The name of the film is “The Social Network,” an absorbingly entertaining depiction of one of the most influential individuals of the past ten years.  

It feels like only six years ago when Facebook was referred to as “The Facebook,” it was restricted to college students only, and the pixilated face of a young man with a Jewfro sat across the header. That man was Mark Zuckerberg, who began work on the site in his Harvard dorm room in 2003. According to the movie, Zuckerberg’s motivations for creating the site had nothing to do with making money. The project simply arose because Zuckerberg was spiteful after a breakup with his girlfriend and decided to make a site to rank the hotness of current Harvard students.

A majority of the movie is told in flashbacks, exposing the evolution of Facebook and Zuckerberg’s road to fortune. In the film’s present, Zuckerberg is facing two lawsuits. One of which is from the Winklevoss brothers, both of whom are played by Armie Hammer. The twin brothers, who would go onto row in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, accuse Mark of stealing their idea for Facebook, which was originally to be an exclusive dating site known as “The Harvard Connection.” The other lawsuit comes from Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s former best friend and CFO of Facebook played by Andrew Garfield, who was cheated out of billions.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg and he’s in every way perfect for the role. He supplies Zuckerberg with the same arrogance of a young Charles Foster Kane. He’s a fast talking genius who thinks and knows that he’s the smartest man in the room. Most of the time he doesn’t even seem to care about his surroundings, wearing casual sweaters and socks with sandals to crucial meetings and trials. For the longest time people have pegged Eisenberg as the poor man’s Michael Cera. In “The Social Network” he establishes more than ever that he is a unique actor who can bring more to a performance than a socially awkward quality. Eisenberg is so strong here that I wouldn’t just call him a good actor, but a great one.

Another career altering performance comes from Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the wiz behind Napster who lost all his money due to lawsuits. Timberlake is a talented performer who up until now has merely been a victim of poor material. In most cases he’s the only amusing aspect of the movies he’s appeared in. Here he delivers his best performance as Parker, who gives Zuckerberg some fundamental guidance in getting Facebook off the ground.

The real star of “The Social Network” though is the screenplay, which Aaron Sorkin adapted from the novel, “The Accidental Billionaires.” Despite Sorkin’s rich work on “The West Wing” and screenplays for “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has never been nominated for an Oscar. He’ll undoubtedly receive his first nomination for “The Social Network” though, which zips by without one false note in it. It’s unlikely that every event and every conversation in the film took place as Sorkin portrays it. But so what? It was hard not to be completely enticed by the film from it’s opening scene to the final image.

Over the years David Fincher has shown one of the greatest ranges of any filmmaker working today. In “Fight Club” he delved into a ludicrous world of underground street fighting. In “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” he gave us a fantasy epic for the ages. Now with “The Social Network” Fincher has constructed nothing less than one of the most mesmerizing pictures of the year. Whether or not “The Social Network” is the best film of the year is a topic that’ll be argued about until the Academy Awards, where it will undoubtedly receive multiple nominations. For now all we can be sure of is that this is a relevant and above all entertaining film that’s imperative for everyone to see, principally this generations youth. 

Solitary Man

I walked into Solitary Man thinking it was a superhero movie. Instead it was about a guy who sleeps with his girlfriend's daughter. ***

It feels like all of Hollywood’s A-list aging stars are exploring movies centered on flawed men seeking redemption and purpose nowadays. Consider Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” and Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino.” Now the great Michael Douglas faces a mid-life crisis, or I suppose in the 65-year-old actor’s case a late-life crisis, in “Solitary Man.”

Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, who was a highly successful businessman in his day. A series of unwise money decisions however has left him destitute through, struggling to come up with the rent for his New York apartment. His wife, played by Susan Sarandon, has left him after years of cheating. The strongest family-tie Ben has is with his daughter, played by Jenna Fischer from “The Office,” and his grandson Scotty. When in public though, Ben insists that Scotty not refer to him as “grandpa” for it will ruin his chances of picking up thirty-year-old women.

Among the supporting ensemble, the best performances come from Fisher as a woman who wants a relationship with her father but feels he’s becoming a bad influence for her son and Danny DeVito as Ben’s college buddy who wants to help his old friend get back on track. Some of the other characters though, including Mary-Louise Parker as Ben’s girlfriend and Susan Saradon as his ex-wife, are somewhat underwritten. Parker is such a charming and even underrated star. Needless to say that Saradon is cinematic royalty. However, I wish there was a little more depth to their characters. “Solitary Man” has so many supporting players, which also includes Imogen Poots as Parker’s daughter and Jesse Eisenberg as a college student who Ben offers guidance to, that the screenplay doesn’t allow the proper amount of screen time for each of them.

What elevates the movie is an exceptional performance from Michael Douglas. After limiting himself to movies like “You, Me and Dupree” and “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” for nearly a decade, Douglas returns with a role that’s well worth his talent. Ben Kalmen is one of the most complex and questionable characters to emerge this year. As the film progresses this shallow womanizer becomes progressively unlikable with one terrible decision after another. But at the same time you can’t help but rout for the bastard and hope he’ll get his life sorted out.

“Solitary Man” isn’t a great film, especially compared to some of the other movies I mentioned above. We get a lot of typical mid-life crisis scenarios that have been done before such as when Ben oversleeps and misses his grandson’s birthday party. But it’s Douglas’ performance that adds another layer to the film and makes it something more. If you are overwhelmed by all the big summer blockbusters plaguing our theaters, you might enjoy escaping to a movie that’s likely to be seen by virtually no one. 

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

How to train your apprentice **1/2

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of “Fantasia” may be the most historic scene in the history of Disney animation. I’m sure we all remember watching the sequence staring Mickey Mouse as a child and thinking, “You know what this is missing? Nicolas Cage!” In Disney’s reimagining of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” Cage plays Balthazar Blake, a sorcerer who fought alongside Merlin. You’d think that Merlin’s star pupil would be of Britsh decent. Yet Balthazar speaks with a clear-cut American accent, centuries before the U.S.A was even colonized. It’s probably for the best that Cage doesn’t attempt to pull off an English accent though. I can only imagine how laughable it would sound.

 Merlin is betrayed and murdered by his ally Maxim Horvath, played by Alfred Molina, who decides to join forces with the wicked Morgana. Balthazar manages to trap the two evil sorcerers in a mystical Matryoshka doll. Several centuries go by as Balthazar searches for a worthy apprentice to destroy Morgana for good. In the year 2000 a young boy named Dave stumbles upon Balthazar’s shop and accidentally releases Maxim from his prison. Balthazar and Maxim duke it out and in the process are both ensnared in a magic vase. 

Another ten years pass. Dave, played by Jay Baruchel, is now a nerdy college student attempting to win the affections of a girl named Becky, played by Teresa Palmer. Meanwhile Balthazar and Maxim break free from the vase. Balthazar takes on Dave as his apprentice to help track down Maxim who wants to let loose Morgana and destroy the world.

Jay Baruchel from “Tropic Thunder” and “How to Train Your Dragon” makes for a likable hero and is absolutely convincing as an ordinary dork swooped into a world of sorcery. Alfred Molina is entertaining no matter what part he takes on. Nicolas Cage has plenty of fun playing himself. The one character that we don’t get enough of is Toby Kebbell as Drake Stone, a magician with real powers who somewhat resembles Chris Angel.

I enjoyed bits and pieces of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” However, I felt it tried far too hard to put a 21st century twist on what was originally a simple poem written in 1797. The story is all over the place and the film is more reliant on visual effects rather than real magic. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” certainly isn’t a special effects travesty that will warp your child’s imagination like “The Last Airbender.” But it doesn’t have the intricacy of the “Harry Potter” films, humor of “Enchanted,” or depth of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

If I was in between the ages of four and ten I might have appreciated “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for it’s relentless energy and colorful action sequences. When I was a kid I also thought that “Hocus Pocus” was a cinematic achievement. As a cultured and snooty adult though, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” just didn’t do much for me. It lacks the sophistication that made movies like “Toy Story 3” and “Despicable Me” entertaining for all ages. If you have young children they’ll probably dig “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as much as they did “G-Force.” For older audiences though the film is a bit of a bore.


What's the worst that could happen? The clone could go crazy and start killing everybody. That's the worst that could happen! ***

It’s evident that all the idiotic teenagers in a majority of slasher films have never seen a horror movie in their lives. Why else would they make such inexplicable decisions like going down dark hallways and running upstairs when they should be running out the door? “Splice” centers on two scientists who have obviously never seen a movie about cloning before. If they had they’d know that cloning never results in positive outcomes. Among all the movies about human cloning though, “Splice” is one of the most intriguing ones.

Oscar-winner Adrien Brody and Oscar-nominee Sarah Polley play Clive and Elsa, two romantically involved scientists who have found a way to splice human DNA with animal DNA to create a new species. Of course their superiors forbid them from testing the experiment because they’ve likely seen what happens in cloning movies such as this. Nevertheless, Clive and Elsa continue with the experiment and create a half bird, half amphibian, half human creature they call Dren. Elsa immediately opens her heart to Dren and comes to regard her as the daughter she never had. Clive on the other hand, fears they have made a catastrophic mistake.

The theatrical trailer for “Splice” makes the film out to look like a routine monster flick with a beast running around, bumping people off. However, there’s a lot more to the picture than one might anticipate. Dren herself is surprisingly likable and even sympathetic. She’s a character that some moviegoers might find strangely adorable while others will look at her as just repulsive. The relationship she develops with Elsa and Clive is at times reminiscent of “E.T.” as the humans attempt to hide Dren from the government and teach her the ways of life.

The first hour and a half of “Splice” is effective, intelligent, and slick. The film becomes beyond nutty and inadvertently hilarious in it’s final act though when Clive becomes physically attracted to Dren. In the year’s biggest WTF moment, Dren seduces Clive and the two make passionate love on a barn floor. Elsa then walks in on the two and Clive chases her out the door with his pants barely on. Seriously, I’m not making this up. Then in the last ten minutes “Splice” becomes the typical slasher movie it tried so hard not to be in it’s exposition.

“Slice” is an all-together visually impressive picture with some fine performances from the Brody and Polley. It’s a solid piece of entertainment with more inspired ideas than most cloning movies. While I’m certainly recommending “Splice” it’s a bit of a letdown that the film had to copout with a slasher climax and a bizarre love triangle throne into the mix. Had the movie been bold enough to go down a different rout we might have been looking at a science fiction/thriller classic like “Alien.” I’ll give the last act this though. It provides more laughs than the entirety of “Marmaduke.”

The Switch

When Wally Met Kassie... ***1/2

From “What Happens in Vegas” to “The Ugly Truth,” the romantic comedy genre is suffering one of the greatest depressions in cinematic history. “The Switch” is no less predictable than other recent romantic comedies. But you know what? I don’t care. This film completely won me over with its charm and warmth. There’s bound to be those who label the movie as overly sentimental; nevertheless, I found “The Switch” to be an authentic pleasure from the protagonist’s opening monologue to the final shot.

The understated Jason Bateman is perfectly tailored to play Wally, a sweater vest-wearing, paranoid, hypochondriac. His best friend is a woman named Kassie, played by Jennifer Aniston. The two dated for a brief period but eventually settled into the friend zone. The unmarried Kassie feels she is missing something in her life and decides to have a baby much to Wally’s disapproval. At her insemination party, Wally gets drunk and accidentally tampers with the donor’s … “essence.” Inspired by a magazine with Diane Sawyer on the cover, Wally replaces the donor’s “essence” with his own. Wally is so wasted that he forgets all about the incident the next morning.

After Kassie becomes impregnated she moves out of the city to raise her child. Seven years go by as Kassie and Wally drift apart. Then one day out of the blue Kassie calls her old friend to inform him she’s moving back. Wally finally meets her son Sebastian, played by newcomer Thomas Robinson. In addition to having a resemblance to Wally, Sebastian also shares many of his obsessive knacks. Although Kassie doesn’t see it, Wally begins to realize that he may be her baby daddy.

In television shows and movies wacky characters often surround Bateman while he is left playing the straight man. For that purpose I sometimes think people underestimate what a great comedic actor he is. Few comedians could do what Bateman accomplishes with each of his performances. Where some actors plead for the audience to laugh at their antics, Bateman never calls attention to himself or recognizes how funny he is. In “The Switch” he creates a real and sincere individual in a great comedic performance.

I like Jennifer Aniston a great deal, having never missed an episode of “Friends.” However, I’ve felt that she could do a lot better when it comes to selecting movie scripts. Earlier this year in “The Bounty Hunter” she was given little to do except flaunt how good her hair and figure looks. In “The Switch” she shines as a performer and reveals her full potential as a screen actress. She has a winning chemistry with Bateman in this romance that at times reminded me of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally…” But the movie’s best relationship is between Bateman and young Robinson, who also delivers a strong performance. The father-son bond that they develop is surprising and, at times, even moving without becoming manipulative.

What prevents “The Switch” from being a perfect movie is a subplot involving Patrick Wilson as Kassie’s intended donor and a relationship that sparks between the two. Wilson’s character is likeable enough as opposed to some exaggeratedly jerky antagonists in romantic comedies. I felt his character was just an unnecessary obstacle to prevent Wally and Kassie’s romance and lengthen the movie. This one misgiving is easy to overlook though given the film’s redeeming qualities.

“The Switch” might not be as wise or clever as some of the best recent romantic comedies like “500 Days of Summer.” Yet, it’s still a highly enjoyable movie about relationships and parenthood. At times it strikes a resemblance to the delightful indie comedy “The Kids Are All Right.” Bateman, Aniston and young Robinson are all at the top of their game, as is Jeff Goldblum in a fun supporting performance as Bateman’s best friend. Even though the critic in me would love to find fault in its contrived plot, I can’t refute that “The Switch” is a real charmer.


Give me a head with hair *****

Last year Walt Disney Pictures introduced their first African American princess in the hand-drawn animated feature, “The Princess and the Frog.” This year marks another milestone in Disney royalty with their first digitally animated princess in “Tangled.” Disney has experimented with digital animation before in an attempt to copy the success of Pixar and challenge competing animation studios such as DreamWorks. But a majority of their digitally animated outings, like “Chicken Little” and “Meet the Robinsons,” have lacked the trademark magic the company is celebrated for. Like “The Princess and the Frog,” and to another extent “Enchanted,” “Tangled” recaptures the magic of some of the best Disney classics. While it’s not quite as magnificent as those two films, “Tangled” is still a wonderful film from directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno that further proves that Disney is back on track.

The film opens with an old lady named Gothel who discovers a yellow, glowing flower with miraculous abilities. Rather than sharing the plant with the world, Gothel hoards the flower so she can live forever. Gothel risks extinction however, when the king’s guards find the flower and return it to the castle. The flower is given to the queen who is pregnant and fatally ill. The queen is cured and she gives birth to a golden-haired baby girl that now possesses the same magic of the flower. Gothel kidnaps the princess and raises her in a remote tower. She never cuts the child’s hair for then the flower’s power will be lost.

As you’ve probably guessed, the princess’s name is Rapunzel. Now approaching her 18th birthday, Rapunzel wishes to leave the tower just for a night so she can see a festival of floating lanterns held in the distant kingdom. But of course Gothel refuses. Rapunzel finally gets her ticket out of her tower when a thief named Flynn Rider, voiced by Zachary Levi, stumbles into her room. After uncovering a stolen crown in Flynn’s satchel, Rapunzel blackmails him into guiding her to the festival.

It’s hard not to love Rapunzel herself, supplied with the endearing and eager voice of Mandy Moore. She both looks and sounds a lot like Reese Witherspoon sharing the same undeniable ability to win the audience over. The cocky Flynn Rider is another fun departure from the traditionally bland Disney princes with no personality, although at times the character seems a little embarrassed to be in a fairytale. On their journey, Rapunzel and Flynn are helped by a winning supporting cast, including a little chameleon and band of roughhousing thugs with hearts of gold. One of the most remarkable characters in “Tangled” is simply Rapunzel’s hair. Her never-ending locks seem almost alive as Rapunzel uses her hair as rope, a whip and a vine.

The most interesting dynamic of movie is between Rapunzel and Gothel. In a great voiceover performance, Broadway veteran Donna Murphy fashions Gothel into a villain along the lines of the fairy godmother in “Shrek 2.” What adds another level of wickedness to Gothel is that she has convinced Rapunzel that she truly loves her and cares for her wellbeing. Their relationship resembles that of Quasimodo and Frollo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Perhaps Gothel does have some affection for the girl she has come to call her daughter. In the long run though all she really cares about is using Rapunzel for her own gain.

If I have one minor squabble regarding “Tangled,” it’s that the songs from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater are catchier than they are timeless. To refer to a song as catchy though is hardly a criticism. Maybe I’ve just set my standards too high for Menken, who has won eight Oscars for his previous work in Disney animations. There is one song in “Tangled” that is every bit as magical as the ballroom sequence in “Beauty and the Beast.” “I See The Light” is the best sung and best animated musical number Disney has produced in a long time, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the sheer awe of the scene.

While it may be digitally animated, the look and atmosphere of “Tangled” feels as authentic as classic Disney animations. Where digital animation has essentially dominated the market, Disney has proven that they are the one animation studio that can tackle both 3D and 2D animation in contemporary cinema. I think the recent surge of quality at Disney has a lot to do with John Lasseter’s promotion to the company’s principal creative advisor. Acting as a producer on Disney and Pixar projects, Lasseter demonstrates Walt Disney’s same ability to ensemble the most talented animators and storytellers to make the best films possible.

Temple Grandin

Rain Woman ****

Claire Danes is a young actress who continues to fascinate me. Although she is a monumentally gifted performer, her leading role in the short-lived drama from the mid-nineties, “My So-Called Life,” remains her most renowned credit. Danes was initially offered the role of Rose in “Titanic.” For some reason however, she turned it down and the part went to Kate Winslet who would go onto become the greatest up-and-coming actresses of this generation. One can only imagine the rich body of work Danes would have done had she accepted that role back in 1997.

Danes is an underappreciated screen presence, capable of achieving the status of an A-list star. In the new HBO biopic, “Temple Grandin,” Danes gives the breakthrough performance of her career that flawlessly exemplifies her talent and range as an actress. She’ll without doubt receive an Emmy nomination come next July. Had the film gotten a theatrical release though, I believe Danes could have been looking at her first Oscar nomination. Her portrayal of Grandin is revolutionary and should lead to more great work in both television and feature film.

The film follows the life of Grandin, who is labeled as Autistic in 1950. She doesn’t say her first words until age four and reveals no interest in interacting with other children. The doctors inform her mother, played by Julia Ormond, that Temple should be institutionalized. Her mother, who is completely unfamiliar with Autism up until Temple’s diagnosis, refuses to send her daughter away however. She works diligently with Temple to improve her speech using flash cards.

Ormond is magnificent her as Temple’s mother who is distressed by the fact that her daughter will never be normal. Nonetheless she loves Temple unconditionally and strives to help her succeed. There’s great performances from the entire ensemble, which includes Catherine O’Hara as Temple’s aunt who introduces her to the world of cattle, David Strathaim as a science teacher who realizes Temple’s potential, and Melissa Farman as a blind girl who acts as Temple’s first friend. We’ve seen these characters in numerous other inspirational tales such as this. However, Director Mike Jackson and Screenwriter Christopher Monger handle the material in such a delicate manner that the film never feels like a Lifetime original movie.    

As outstanding as the supporting players are, the movie really belongs to Claire Danes and her breathtaking interpretation of this extraordinary woman. Temple sees the world through pictures kind of like Russell Crowe’s character in “A Beautiful Mind.” She uses this technique to get through high school, college, and eventually become a doctor of animal science.

I think this made for television movie is in many ways a more personal and profound tale of an Autistic individual than the Oscar-winning “Rain Man.” Like Dustin Hoffman in that movie, Danes is completely convincing as a person suffering from this disorder. She goes above and beyond capturing the voice and body language of Grandin. Danes embodies this individual in what it one of the most complete biopics of recent years. 

The film all works up to a pitch perfect final scene in which Temple speaks at an Autism convention. When the parents ask Temple if her child has autism she replies, “No, I’m Autistic.” The parents are astounded to meet a grown Autistic woman as accomplished as Temple and the audience is even more astounded by the remarkable life journey they have just witnessed. 

The Town

Affleck is on the rebound ****1/2

Given Ben Affleck’s performances in “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Surviving Christmas,” and of course “Gigli,” it was starting to look like Matt Damon was the true genius behind the screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” If I said I hadn’t made that assumption myself, it’d be a lie. After making his directorial debut with the severely underrated “Gone Baby Gone” however, Affleck revealed that perhaps he was the ringleader of that Oscar-winning screenplay. Now through “The Town” Affleck continues to establish himself as a storyteller of immense promise.

In addition to directing and co-writing, Affleck also casts himself in the film’s leading role of Doug MacRay. Wearing skull masks and armed with guns, Doug and three allies rob a Cambridge bank. They have the bank manger played by Rebecca Hall open the safe, blindfold her, take her hostage, and set her free by the river. From her ID they learn that her name is Claire Keesey and lives only four blocks away. Fearing what she might know, Doug begins to follow Claire and against his better judgment pursues a romance with her.  

This is as good as any performance Affleck has ever delivered, embodying a criminal torn between the world he knows and the possibility of another life with the woman he’s growing to love. But the film’s defining performance comes from Jeremy Renner, fresh off his Oscar-nominated role for “The Hurt Locker,” as Doug’s lifelong friend and partner in crime, Jem. Renner continues to prove that he is one of the great up-and-coming actors of this generation as a man who would gladly die in a shootout before going back to jail. This is a reckless individual who genuinely enjoys inflicting pain on others. When Doug bursts into his room and says, "We gotta do something.' I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it after we're done, and we're gonna hurt some people," Rem merely replies, "Whose care we talkin'?" If Renner does not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, I will be most unsatisfied.

Jon Hamm from AMC’s “Made Men” plays a clean, yet fiercely determined, FBI agent hot on Doug’s trail. This is a bold role for Hamm to play, where most actors in his shoes would try to make the leap from television to film via a lazy romantic comedy or mechanical summer blockbuster. Another strong performance comes from Blake Lively of “Gossip Girl,” a show I’ve never seen being a heterosexual male, taking a huge step in her career as a drug-addicted, alcoholic mother. There’s not a performer in the film who isn’t at the top of their game.

In terms of directing, “The Town” is every bit as visually provoking and powerful as Affleck’s previous film. The opening scene alone contends with the commencement of “The Dark Knight” as one of the most ingeniously staged heist sequences of recent years. As exceptional as the action is, the truly intense moments of “The Town” are the little instances such as when Doug worries Claire might catch a glimpse of a tattoo on the back of Jem’s neck and identify them. While not without a few lagging moments at just over two hours, “The Town” is for the most part a uniformly on-edge thriller.

As he did in “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck sets “The Town” in his hometown of Boston, this time confined to the neighborhood of Charlestown. Although Affleck isn’t afraid to expose the grit of Charlestown and some of it’s inhabitants, he clearly has an undying love for his native land. With “The Departed,” “Mystic River,” and now Affleck’s two films, Boston may very well replace New York as the definitive setting for the mean streets genre. Although “The Town” is not the greatest film ever to take place in this particular city, it is possibly the most successful film in making Boston into a real character.

Toy Story 3

You're never too old for toys...except maybe Transformers *****

From the original “Toy Story” in 1995 to last years Oscar-nominated Best Picture “Up,” it’s nearly impossible to find fault with Pixar Animation Studios. They’ve hit ten strait feature films out of the park, none of which you can call anything less than a timeless classic. If “Toy Story 3” was the film that broke the invincible studio’s winning streak I would have not only felt obligated to quit my job as a movie critic but perhaps boycott the cinema altogether. Like “Return of the Jedi” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” though, “Toy Story 3” is one of the few threequels that not only lives up to it’s predecessors but makes its previous installments even better.

We’ve been getting a lot of unnecessary animated follow-ups lately, such as the previous two “Shrek” sequels, a third “Ice Age” picture, and countless strait to DVD Disney features. Pixar could have easily taken a half-day on “Toy Story 3,” confident that it would make 300 million dollars despite its quality. But first time Director Lee Unkirch, co-screenwriter Michael Arndt of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and the hundreds of storytellers and animators at Pixar settled for nothing less than perfection with this sequel, completing what is unarguably the premium trilogy of animation.

The movie commences in the old west where the unstoppable team of Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear rescue a train of Troll orphans from the evil One-eyed Bart aka Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Porkchop aka Ham the piggybank. It’s then revealed to just be young Andy at play, for only a child could envision a western with not only cowboys but also space rangers, green dinosaurs, slinky dogs, and talking potatoes. Ten years or so later, Andy has matured into a teenager preparing to leave for college. He has given away many of his toys such as Bo-Peep and Wheezy the Penguin. However, he still keeps his most adored childhood toys stashed away in his old toy chest.

After a series of mishaps the toys end up at Sunnyside, a daycare center run by a cuddly pink bear with a Strawberry scent named Lotso, voiced by Ned Beatty. The place seems like paradise for a toy because every time one group of kids grows old another batch comes in. Everything appears to have worked out for the best until the toys realize the toddlers at daycare are more interested in dipping toys in paint rather than playing with them. Sunnyside turns out to be more like a prison that makes the mental institution in “Shutter Island” look like the fun loving jailhouse in Adam Sandler’s remake of “The Longest Yard.” 

“Toy Story 3” is full of hilarious running-gags such as when Mr. Potato Head looses his potato body and must use a tortilla to improvise. There’s also a sidesplitting sequence in which Buzz is reset and takes on the persona of a Spanish soap opera star. We even get a cameo from a renowned Hayao Miyazaki character. And at long last Barbie finds her ideal mate in Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton, a fashionable and groovy bachelor who insists he is not a girl’s toy. It’s love at first sight for Barbie and Ken, instantly realizing they’re made for each other. Aside from “Toy Story 3” getting a Best Picture nomination, nothing would make me happier come next January than Keaton receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his remarkable voiceover performance.

I walk into almost all animated films confident that everything is going to work out for the best. “Toy Story 3” is the first animated feature in a long time though that truly left me holding my breath in suspense, wondering how the heroes would overcome this predicament. I felt as if I were a boy again when I actually wasn’t sure if Snow White and her prince would live happily ever after. It all leads up to a pitch perfect final five minutes that I guarantee will leave audiences of all ages chocked up.

I remember witnessing the first “Toy Story” as a five-year-old. Seeing “Toy Story 3” as a college student makes me reflect on the toys I’ve possessed over the years, many of which I’ve sold at garage sales and others I still keep on display at my parent’s house. When you’re a kid a favorite toy is more than just a piece of plastic. It’s your best friend. No matter how old you become, it’s never easy to let go of a treasured toy. “Toy Story 3” and the entire “Toy Story” franchise epitomizes the joy of playing with a toy, the guilt of loosing or mistreating a toy, and the heartbreaking day when you pass on that toy to someone else. We never consider though that letting go can be even harder for a toy than it is for the owner. “Toy Story 3” is about as clever, heartfelt, and above all wise as any film Pixar has made to date. After years of legal disputes and attempts to get the project off the ground, the third chapter of “Toy Story” was well worth the wait.

Tron: Legacy

It's "The Matrix" meets a gay night club ***

The original “TRON” was considered to be a revelation of visual effects and computer animation upon initial release in 1982. To a generation of kids that have grown up on “The Lord of The Rings” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” though, the film might look no more cutting-edge than the graphics on a screensaver. “TRON” was a stepping-stone to greater things to come, which will always make it a significant film. However, it isn’t one that has aged as well as other technical breakthroughs like “Star Wars,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Toy Story” or “Terminator 2.” This isn’t so much because the visuals of “TRON” have become dated, but because the story has always been so generic. Although some may disagree with this accusation, given the minor cult following “TRON” still maintains today.

Almost 30 years later, Disney finally returns to The Grid with “TRON: Legacy.” From a technical standpoint, this follow-up from Director Joseph Kosinski is nothing short of outstanding. Kosinski, along with his team of special effects artists and set designers, have brilliantly contemporized the universe of “TRON,” creating one of the best-looking movies I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the film falls short in the same department of its predecessor. “TRON: Legacy” is indeed a terrific movie to look at and works perfectly as a special effects extravaganza. If only they had put as much time and effort into the screenplay as they did the visuals.

The film opens in 1989 as a young Kevin Flynn, once again played by Jeff Bridges, reenacts the events of first movie as a bedtime story to his son, Sam. Kevin is thriving as the CEO of the computer technology corporation, ENCOM. But at the peak of success, Kevin mysteriously vanishes. Sam grows up to be a reckless, yet brilliant, delinquent played by Garrett Hedlund. He’s been in jail so many times that he knows the officer at the police impound lot by name. Being the key shareholder of the still highly profitable ENCOM, bail is never a problem for him. Sam goes to his father’s abandoned arcade one night where he discovers a secret room. After playing around with a computer he finds there Sam is transported to The Grid, the digital world from the first movie.

The Grid has been taken over by a program named CLU, who looks like an eternally youthful version of Bridge’s 30-year-old self. CLU is another ingenious technical creation, brought to life though the same aging equipment that was seen in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Sam eventually teams up with his now much older father and Quorra, his ward played by Olivia Wilde. CLU, who was originally created to be an ally, has trapped Kevin in The Grid. It is CLU’s ambition to travel through the portal so he can take over the world of the users. Everything relies on Sam, Kevin, and Quorra getting to the portal first.

Hedlund and Wilde have fun with their performances, as does Bridges in a duel role. If there’s one misfire in the cast it’s Michael Sheen as a nightclub owner named Zeus. Normally I like Sheen in just about anything. But he misfires here as a character that comes off like Jude Law’s gigolo mecha in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” meets Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka. Luckily his character is reduced to a trivial cameo.

A “TRON” animated series is currently in the works and another “TRON” theatrical release probably won’t be far behind. The world of “TRON” is such a unique one with so many possibilities that I do look forward to seeing the franchise continue. I just wish that “TRON: Legacy” had done more with this incredible world instead of becoming a routine action picture.

All in all, I did have a good time at “TRON: Legacy.” The film may not be as much fun as J. J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot or have the same sense of awe that elevated “Avatar.” But it definitely runs circles around “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “Speed Racer” and a certain M. Night Shyamalan catastrophe that will remain nameless. Here’s what it basically comes down to: You want a movie with kick-ass visuals that’s not too violent for younger audiences, this is the movie for you. If you want something more though, you might be better off renting “Inception.”

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

I'm Team be independent and study hard so you can have a successful career and maybe find an ordinary man who makes a steady fifty thousand dollars a year and doesn't have super natural powers **

As I sat in Harkins Cine Capri waiting for “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” to begin, the host of a local radio show asked the audience who was for Team Edward. Half the theater then erupted in applause for their darling vampire with untamable hair. When asked who was for Team Jacob, the other half of the room cheered for their beloved shirtless wolf boy. Finally, the audience was asked who was for Team Bella and all the ladies simultaneously booed for the woman attempting to steal their man. This was the high point of my evening. It was all downhill from there.

I’m not one of those people that hates this “Twilight” series simply for the sake of hating it. The truth is that I’d love nothing more than to get on board with the cultural phenomenon. Sitting among a cult of “Twilight” fanatics at the pre-screening I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this was the movie that finally won me over.” Then Robert Pattinson showed up as the same deadpan, uninteresting vampire and my hopes were gone.

After popping the question at the end of the last movie, Edward Cullen is still waiting for Bella Swan to accept his marriage proposal. But Bella, once again played by Kristen Stewart, may be concealing secret emotions for wolf boy Jacob, played by Taylor Lautner. She’s also reluctant to marry Edward until he changes her, making her a vampire as well. All the while the evil Victoria, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is forming an army of newborn vampires to take revenge on Bella for killing her lover James in the first film. But of course all you “Twilight” readers already know the plot point by point.

Pattinson continues to sleepwalk through his role, making Hayden Christian look like a young Marlon Brando, while Stewart is confined to playing a needy and feeble heroine. The only times when “Eclipse” really takes off is when the supporting cast, which includes Billy Burke as Bella’s father, Nikki Reed as the icy Rosalie, and last year’s Best Supporting Actress nominee Anna Kendrick as Jessica, are allowed the opportunity to shine.

“Eclipse” isn’t as bad as the previous two “Twilight” chapters, which I found just horrendous. This one has a little more humor, more action, and even a speckle more of a story. There’s also more at stake this time around than whether or not Bella is going to end up with a hot vampire or a hot wolf boy. At the end of the day though, it’s still the same shallow story that’s free of any creativity.

I’m not the right person to be reviewing these pictures. If you loved the books and last two movies, you’re going to love this one, too. But are these “Twilight” films really going to stand the test of time? In another 20 years will they be remembered as anything more than a footnote in early 21st century popular culture? Will they be re-watched and evaluated alongside recent Oscar-winners like “The Hurt Locker, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “No Country For Old Men?” Certainly not. Will they still be perceived as lightweight entertainment? I certainly hope not. I like to think that our society will have evolved by then.

Winter's Bone

Winter's Boner, hehe ****1/2

Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” is one of the most genuine movies of recent memory. From the dialog to the performances, not a second of it goes by that feels contrived or manipulative. The film is just about flawless in its depiction of a family scraping to get by in the Ozarks Mountain Country. Some of the most significant scenes of “Winter’s Bone” are the simple, everyday moments such as when the movie’s protagonist walks her brother and sister to school, asking them mathematical questions in preparation for a test. The movie is so candid that it will be easy for some audiences to interpret it as bleak and maybe even depressing. While it’s certainly not an upbeat film, “Winter’s Bone” is still one of the year’s most encouraging pictures about heroism.

The movie’s heroine is a 17-year-old young woman named Ree Dolly, played by the remotely unknown Jennifer Lawrence. Her meth-making father has gone missing and is wanted by the police. Ree’s mother has been so mentally damaged by her father that she has been reduced to a mute, unable to even take care of herself. It’s up to Ree to step up as the head of the family and take care of her much younger siblings. They’re able to get by with some help from friends and neighbors. But matters begin to take a turn for the worse when the sheriff shows up one day in pursuit of Ree’s father. He informs Ree that her dad’s trial is approaching and he put their home up as his bail bond. If he doesn’t turn up within the next week, Ree and her family will be evicted. With that, Ree sets out to find her deadbeat father to keep her already deteriorating family together.

Before I described Ree as a heroine. People often recognize heroes in movies and reality as those in the constant position to save lives. Although Ree has virtually no influence or power outside of her household, she proves to be as determined and courageous as any individual I’ve seen in some time. She exemplifies the kind of hero we all need in our lives. A person who will never give up in protecting and providing for the ones they love. In a way she’s kind of like Melissa Leo’s struggling single mother in “Frozen River.” These are the kinds of women who wouldn’t have their names mentioned on the news for their bravery in real life. That doesn’t make them any less fearless or determined though.

Another great performance comes from character actor John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop. In the beginning both Ree and the audience distinguish this man as a pitiful drug addict and a likely antagonist. Teardrop is an undeniably flawed human being. Throughout the course of the film though, he does prove his affection for Ree and the rest of his brother’s family. In some cases, he even sticks his neck out for them and puts their needs above his own.

Director Granik magnificently captures the grim beauty of Missouri. In addition to directing, Granik also adapted the screenplay along with Anne Rosellni from the novel by Daniel Woodrell. “Winter’s Bone” earned them wins at the Sundance and Berlin International Film Festival. How the film will fare with mainstream audiences and the Academy is up in the air. Whether or not “Winter’s Bone” receives the commercial and critical recognition it deserves, this is still a brutally honest film about family and what it means to be a hero.

The Wolf Man

I've got a full moon for ya, right here! **

The thing that instantly caught my eye in Joe Johnston’s remake of “The Wolfman” was the film’s breathtaking art direction. This is a superbly crafted production with ingenious sets, visual effects, costumes, sound, and makeup. While the look of “The Wolfman” is undeniably stunning, I didn’t care about anyone or anything in the entire film. Many people, such as myself, are likely to venture into this movie desiring a fun, entertaining time. I guarantee that a majority of audiences will walk out of the theater unsatisfied, depressed, and bored by the utter lack of imagination in this new “Wolfman” though.

The film sets itself in the late 1800’s. Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a stage actor who receives a letter from his brother’s fiancé, played by Emily Blunt, that his estranged sibling has gone missing. Lawrence returns to his hometown where he learns that his brother has been brutally murdered by a mysterious beast. While exploring the woods, Lawrence is attacked by the beast and barely manages to escape with his life. When the next full moon takes place Lawrence becomes the very creature he set out to hunt.

Benicio Del Toro is a monumentally talented actor and does what he can with the bland and dreary Lawrence. I like Emily Blunt in just about anything. But her character isn’t given anything to do here except grieve and appear distressed. Of course a romance eventually blossoms between these two, which I found kind of disturbing. Blunt’s character has just lost her fiancé. So why does she instantly fall in love her beloved’s brother? Because he teaches her how to skip rocks on a lake? Give me a break!

The film also stars the great Anthony Hopkins as Lawrence’s father who may be concealing a dark secret. Hopkins is essentially channeling Hannibal Lector with an English accent in this performance. It’s hard to watch any movie in which Hopkins is a villain and not be reminded of Hannibal the Cannibal. Here though, Hopkins seems to be doing a caricature of his career-defining role. In “Silence of the Lambs” Hopkins was naturally eerie. In “The Wolfman” he tries so hard to be creepy that he’s not believable in the slightest.

Also wasted is Hugo Weaving as an inspector who is determined to destroy the Wolfman. The problem is that the screenplay never decides whether or not he’s supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy. By the final act of the picture I was actually rooting for Weaving’s character to put the Wolfman out of its misery.

“The Wolfman” kind of reminded me of Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes,” another reimagining occupied with terrific visuals. That film succeeded because it had fun with the license and created a Sherlock for this generation. The dilemma with “The Wolfman” is that it doesn’t do anything new or interesting with the werewolf mythology. The film is basically a retread of every werewolf movie ever made jam-packed with a lot of needless gore and beheadings. But at least “The Wolfman” is better than the last werewolf-related movie I saw. I think you all know the movie I’m talking about.

You Again

Poo again *

The cast alone was enough to make me optimistic about “You Again.” The film brings together several gifted actresses who have all done great comedic work in the past. Walking into the theater I thought to myself, “This is a comedy that’s going to have potential.” Then Kristen Bell appeared in the opening shot, covered with acne and wearing thick glasses. It then became clear to me that “You Again” was not going to be ambitious and use its stars to their potential. Rather, I was in store for another by-the-numbers comedy reliant on physical humor and appearance.

Kristen Bell exemplified comedic charm as the title character in the underappreciated “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” You wouldn’t know that Bell is a talented actress based on her one-dimensional role here as Marni, a hopeless geek who is tormented by all the cheerleaders at high school. In one instance the smokin’ hot popular girls carry Marni out of the school and shut the door on her face while singing “We Are the Champions.” High school can be a cruel environment for the nerdy, but I bet there’s not a single former or current high school student who ever witnessed an act that over-the-top. I’ve seen more kids take slushies to the face.

Marni manages to overcome the brutality of her peers and grows up to be the beautiful vice president of a PR firm in New York. But when Marni returns home for her brother’s wedding, she is flabbergasted to learn that his fiancé is Joanna (Odette Yustman), the woman that made her high school experience hell. Although Joanna claims to have turned over a new leaf and has won over the rest of the family, Marni is convinced that she is still the same mean girl.

The notion that Marni’s witless brother would be marrying her high school nemesis is already contrived enough. “You Again” adds another level of idiocy to the plot when Joanna’s aunt, played by Sigourney Weaver, is introduced to Marni’s mother, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s revealed that these two were once best friends turned rivals after a senior prom incident. What the crap? Did the planets literally line up?

The film also stars Betty White, who seems to have become the most popular actress in America over the past year, as Marni’s Grandma Bunny. How much do you want to bet that it turns out there’s some drama between her and Joanna’s grandma too? White is as lovable as ever and is perhaps the only performer in the film that maintains any dignity. But her character is basically a retread of her cute, yet raunchy, grandmother in “The Proposal.” Also wasted is actress Kristin Chenoweth (Georgia), who has done some terrific work on Broadway and television. She may want to put a little more effort into choosing movie scripts after being maltreated in one terrible feature after another.

The main problem with “You Again” is similar to many movies of its kind. Every dilemma in the film could easily be resolved if only the characters would take five minutes to talk matters through. Instead they prolong the inevitable for an hour and a half. Then by time these bitter characters finally make up the audience doesn’t care.

As for the comedy, there are a lot of scenes involving people falling into ant hills, falling into pools, falling off of tree houses, getting covered with food, dropping fancy jewelry down the sink, ripping designer dresses and so on. Material like this might get by on a sitcom. As a movie though, “You Again” is as bad as any of the unfunny comedies I’ve seen this year.