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The Tale of Despereaux

These animators have the tools to breakdance but are instead curtsying about like some stiff 19th century Whigs.

reviewed by Mark Burns

What a weird little flick.

Dor is a fairy-tale kingdom with a unique fixation on the magnificence of soup. Soup Day, explains the narrator (Sigourney Weaver), is bigger even than Christmas. All is luscious until Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring rat, follows his well-meaning nose unto holiday cataclysm. The tragedy ruins life for one monarch, who in turn lashes out against soup and vermin with a decree of criminality.

Enter Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a bold young mouse who refuses to bend to the Mouseworld order of timid scurrying. The large-eared mini-mouse’s outsize hunger for adventure delivers him into fealty to Princess Pea (Emma Watson), and so does he quest through human, mouse and rat society to restore the golden days of Dor.

The Tale of Despereaux, adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s book, stews in the charisma of original charms. Most notable is the strange and mystical centrality of soup. Of course, there’s that tiny mouse with enormous ears as hero. And a raft of children has been held in thrall by vivid imaginings of little creature-societies. Directors Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and rookie Robert Stevenhagen take a care to craft intricate realities in these vermin havens.

Still, it lacks spark. While DiCamillo offers much for the filmmakers to play with, jokes lack pop, and characters lack magnetism.

Characters go through the basic motions well enough, but their expressions, emotions and reactions come off tepid. These animators have the tools to breakdance but they are instead curtsying about like some stiff 19th century Whigs.

Story, taking a cue from the book, unfolds from the four perspectives of Despereaux, Roscuro, Princess Pea and Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), a pig farmer’s daughter turned princess’ chambermaid. It’s a bit much to take on in the brief format of a kids’ feature, and compressing all angles has abridged the better parts of the story.

Forgoing the finer points of storytelling, the filmmakers jump gaps in plot and hammer points home with an omniscient narrator who, at least to this adult, sounded flat and condescending.

For younger kids, however, the matronly serves to guide children through a tragedy and themes of loss, anger and forgiveness.

As animated films go, it could be worse. The Tale of Despereaux offers a lesson-rich fable in a gentle tone that kept a theater’s worth of young kids raptly attentive.

Fair animation • G • 100 mins.

Taking Woodstock

© Focus Features

Jonathan Groff and Demetri Martin in Taking Woodstock.

You’ll smile amiably along, enjoying the good vibes.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

An anxious young man tries to keep his parents and community afloat by bringing in a rock music festival, forever remembered as Woodstock, in the bittersweet comedy Taking Woodstock. Master director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tells us the behind-the-scenes story (or at least one behind-the-scenes story) of the 1969 festival in his usual adept and gentle style.

Twenty-something Elliot (Demetri Martin) lives in New York City but returns regularly to his depressed upstate resort hometown of White Lake to help out with his folks’ rundown motel and lead the local Chamber of Commerce. The locals find him to be a nice, helpful boy but don’t take him all that seriously. That is until lighting strikes and Elliot manages to bring the Woodstock Aquarian Exposition with 3 Days of Peace & Music to town. Suddenly, the locals are divided along lines of xenophobia and making money, and concert organizers and concertgoers descend on the town in droves. Meanwhile, Elliot’s small-town values and youth-culture world collides.

On its face, it might seem weird to do a movie about Woodstock that never shows one performer or performance. But that’s exactly what director Lee does. I suppose Lee figures the film filled with the performances has been done: the original 1970 documentary that made the Woodstock experience such a worldwide phenomenon. Instead, we get some of the back-story of how Woodstock came to be, and we get to experience the Woodstock that most who were there probably experienced. Let’s face it, out of the half a million people who went to Woodstock, how many could actually see and hear the performances clearly?

Comedian Martin is terrifically believable in his first real movie role as the quietly determined Elliot. If anything, he underplays the lead, which makes him more sympathetic. Lee’s typical directorial inclinations are to pull back on delivering big emotional wallops and let the on-screen actions speak for themselves. Along those lines, this film refuses to build up to any wow moments. Indeed, this is a story that really doesn’t go much of anywhere except to share some basic Woodstock experiences and present some simple and expected conclusions. The comedy — and this is Lee’s first real comedy — also rarely smacks us in the face with any big jokes. Instead, we just smile amiably along, enjoying the good vibes.

Good comedy • R • 121 mins.

Talk to Me

Don Cheadle so stands out as 1960s’ D.C. disc jockey celebrity Petey Greene that we overlook the movie’s more unbelievable and maudlin moments.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

An ex-con becomes a Washington, D.C., disc jockey celebrity in the involving and solidly entertaining bio-pic Talk to Me. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) tells a very straightforward chronological tale, supported by a lead performance from Don Cheadle so outstanding that we overlook the movie’s more unbelievable and maudlin moments.

Petey Greene (Cheadle) cut his deejay teeth working the microphone and spinning records at Virginia’s Lorton Prison. His charming fast-talking ways may have even allowed for his early release and return to the streets of his native D.C. There Greene pushes his way through the door of soul radio station WOL and demands that straight-laced program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) put him on the radio. Through sheer will and his connecting with Hughes, Greene gets his wish, creating controversy and growing an impressive audience. The partnership of Greene as star and Hughes as manager flourishes before ultimately breaking.

Talk to Me is based on the life of the real Petey Greene, yet much of it seems the stuff of tall tale. It hits its stride in dealing with the struggles to succeed and the changing face of celebrity during the 1960s and ‘70s. Indeed, in many ways Petey Greene foreshadowed today’s shock jocks. While Greene was certainly shocking, he also was telling it like it is, without a lot of bluster for bluster sake. That, at least is what the film leads to believe.

As a long-time resident of D.C., I was hoping for a little more D.C. history, as well as more ’60s and ’70s shots of neighborhood locales. Instead, this low-budget film had to rely on sets and back. Still, Talk to Me does a standup job of walking us through what surely was an intriguing part of a changing America and a changing D.C. 

The film echoes a time when celebrity was often created and could thrive locally, whether by deejays or local bands or local TV personalities. Talk to Me directly takes on the plight of the regional radio star and the ability, inability or unwillingness to make it big nationally. The film says there was only one Petey Greene, but its subtext reminds us that there were surely Petey Greenes in cities across the country.

Good drama-comedy • R • 118 mins.


Smart, entertaining, well crafted and grandly stylized, the graphic novel based on the Battle of Thermopylae makes rousing cinema.
reviewed by Mark Burns

Spartans rage for freedom against the Persian empire in this grandly stylized Hoplites vs. Immortals glory film.

The manly men of Sparta are plodding through a spate of peace when emissaries of the Persian king Xerxes come riding into town bearing ill tidings. Offer tithings to their god-king, Xerxes commands, and submit to Persian rule. This ruffles the war brush of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, the Phantom from Joel Schumacher’s 2004 Phantom of the Opera), who responds by marching out to the hot gates, a seaside mountain pass, with a host of 300 elite Spartans. There he makes a stand to be remembered for the ages as his small force of warriors and allied Greeks check Xerxes’ massive invading army.

The film, adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, is based on the Battle of Thermopylae, perhaps the most storied battle of antiquity. In truth some 7,000 Greeks, led by 300 elite Spartans, did make a stand against a Persian army at least 150,000 strong (Herodotus claimed over five million) and ultimately spared Greece from Xerxes’ conquest.

In this tale, the odds are more like 300 vs. a million with uncounted token Arcadians thrown in behind Leonidas. Greek traitor Ephialtes is re-imagined as a Gollum-like hunchback. Xerxes and his heralds are the gods of glam in their glittery menace. Warty old priests consult an oracle atop a great stone spire, and the swarms of Immortals at Xerxes’ command are as mad wraiths. The conquering army lunges at the defenders with gnarled freaks and fantastically adorned exotic beasts plucked from the dark edge of antiquity’s maps. It’s a bold mix of history and fantasy, surprisingly loyal to truth given its rabid stylization. The Spartan struggle is given full respect, the warriors’ history elevated to myth in true Greek fashion.

Naturally, there can be no myth without heroic action, and the film delivers strong. The silly gesticulations of Brad Pitt in Troy are forgotten as Leonidas’ Hoplites form up in phalanx against the crashing hordes of Xerxes’ army.

To see the previews, one might gather that the film is naught but blood and battle cry. Granted, there’s much of both. They’re Sparta’s manliest men, after all. But surges of testosterone are broken by interjections of intelligent story.

Smart writing includes historical quips and runs with ballsy attitude. Sparta’s culture of strength and survivalism is driven home in recounting the king’s rites of passage. Once battle looms, a timely cleverness evolves within the story. At home, Queen Gorgo tries to win the council’s support while shady rival Theron decries her husband’s war as illegal. Even as this subplot unfolds, Leonidas rallies soldiers at the battlefront, touting the battle as a conflict of Greek reason and freedom versus Persian mysticism and oppression.

Similar nods mirror modern controversy, tempting conclusions of parallel without totally beating it into viewers’ heads. In doing so, the ancient tale is thrust into modern debate, lending relevance. That the story is so wholly developed and nimbly executed lends the movie real muscle.

Visually, the film’s a beauty. Director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) has infused nearly every shot with some manner of digital tinkering, whether a painted sky or distorted nemeses. Wild seas, lavish skies and cold stone all speak to the Spartan warrior aesthetic even as the colorful hedonism of Xerxes’ tent speaks to his own excess. The characters are rendered monstrous by costume and effect alike, and it’s by these combined visuals that the tale ascends to mythic proportions.

All said, 300 makes for rousing cinema: smart, entertaining and well crafted. Politicals might perceive neocon fantasy, but whatever your angle it’s a great ride.

Great action film • R • 117 mins.

3:10 to Yuma

Amble in to check this one out; it’s probably the best Western since Unforgiven.

reviewed by Mark Burns

One dusty loser rides for redemption in this smart Western.

Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is down on his luck, squeezed by drought and a merciless land grabber. Worse, he’s missing a decent bit of one leg and can’t get a drink of respect even within his struggling family. Chance pops him out of his dusty rut, though, when notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) storms through on a heist.

Wade missteps his way into handcuffs, and Evans stumbles into joining the posse meant to bring him to justice. More specifically, Evans wrangles a deal with a Pinkerton to earn $200 for helping deliver the outlaw to a distant railroad town and putting him on the 3:10 train to Yuma. Being the Old West, it’ll be a hard-won reward as they try to stay ahead of Wade’s vengeful gang, dodge gunslingers and survive the charismatic monster they’re delivering as human cargo.

Following the lead of Clint Eastwood’s moody Unforgiven, director James Mangold’s Yuma (adapted from Elmore Leonard’s short story) runs deep for its moralistic wrestling match along the muddied boundary of good and evil. Evans’ pride is almost as dead as his land, and this quest is his cure for the sad parch of his soul as much as it is for the cash. A strict sense of morality leads him stubbornly forward along the promised quest.

Wade, strangely honorable in his own right, wavers from near-decency to ferocity as a wild-card captive trying to veer Evans to his own cause. Complementing this wrestle of codes is a patchwork of others’ tainted motives and spotty truths, giving strength to the story by multiplying the shades of gray.

The tale proves a good yarn, delivering a character-rich Old West drama that considers one man’s struggle to reclaim his honor. Though the price, especially in hindsight, might seem a little ridiculous. Cold assessment might liken Evans’ introspective self-therapy to Dr. Phil with a body count.

Predictability creeps in now and then, and the ending comes into sight a bit early. These are minor blemishes, however, as the tale proves in whole to be a smart, fresh take on the Western quest.

While falling in step behind destiny, Yuma never delves so deep into introspection as to approach the deep pondering of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (a poetic gem). Bright action prevents this film from getting lost in its own head. Heels dig in for a brilliant start with an armored stagecoach heist. Gunslinging, occasionally tarted up with deft gun-twirling, proves exciting and peppers the film regularly enough to keep the pace brisk. Violence teeters toward savagery from time to time, but gore is minimal and the camera refrains from any torturous lingering.

Character delivers this film; Pinkertons and railroaders and lawmen and outlaws comprise a flavorful stew of personalities. Bale realizes Evans’ dichotomy with just the right mix of weakness and resolve, while Crowe enlivens Wade with healthy doses of charisma and viciousness. Threatening to steal the villain spotlight, though, is outlaw Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand). Wade’s lieutenant is menacing as a smart, cold, deadly ferocious quick-draw boasting particularly nimble gunplay. At the opposite end, Evans’ teen son William (Logan Lerman) provides a nice counterpoint of wide-eyed innocence.

All plays out amid striking hues of Arizona scrub and genuine-looking setwork absorbed by skillful cinematography emphasizing grit over pop. The soundtrack has enough twang to stay country while lending itself to the overall classiness of the production.

There are just enough hiccups in the film to dissuade claims of greatness, but this film is easily library-worthy and deserves to be seen on the big screen. It’s probably the best Western since Unforgiven and, as a Western quest piece, ranks right up there with Lonesome Dove.

Consider it good, plus superlatives, and amble in to check this one out.

Good western • R • 117 mins.


An action flick with brains. Who expected that?

by Mark Burns

Conflicting loyalties color the thrills of this intelligent action/suspense flick.

Explosives expert Samir (Don Cheadle: Ocean’s Thirteen) is a deeply faithful Sudanese-American Muslim and former special ops soldier who’s knee-deep in the illegal arms trade. By a few convolutions, he ends up in prison with mid-level terrorist leader Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui: Vantage Point), and the two bond. With Omar’s endorsement, Samir becomes an agent for the global jihad with a direct hand in terrorist acts. The FBI is hot on his trail.

But all is not as it seems. Samir is an off-the-books deep cover agent guided by an autonomous CIA handler. When the U.S. comes under threat, Traitor becomes a race to stop Samir — even as Samir is racing to explode a terrorist network.

There is action and chase and violence, but Traitor is more a suspense piece about Samir’s harrowing personal journey than it is an action movie. Here’s the story of a man isolated between worlds:

Samir’s cover is so deep that he is considered a traitor to his country. As a peace-embracing Muslim, he is a self-styled traitor to his faith for the extreme means by which he combats terrorism. Then he’s ultimately branded a traitor to the cause of jihad. His tough fix runs a close parallel to Donnie Brasco, with an extreme undercover gig yielding unlikely bonds, the dilemma of how far to go to maintain cover and the theme of betrayal.

For all the character study, the plot maintains its urgency and dynamic, consistent flow as Samir — hunted by the FBI and called upon to prove himself to the terrorists — feels the press on both sides.

The tale also deserves kudos for its thinky contribution to terrorism flicks. It’s especially notable for using a devout African-born Muslim as its hero. The character of Samir serves as window on the moderate Muslim world, and Cheadle carries the role naturally through the extremes of internal and external conflict.

Additionally, the filmmakers give much attention to dissecting motivations and worldviews through conversations and smart theological debates between Samir and Omar. Even lesser baddies are humanized, as we’re introduced to the idea that at least some of the underlings are naïve victims of plotting, silver-tongued hypocrites. The plotting hypocrites have the least depth of interest, coming off as action flick caricature.

Action scenes are unextravagant but hit home with a solid punch of context and reality. Unlike typical action fare, even the successes are marred with tragedy, and moral victory is ambiguous. This plays well into the overall mood of the film as Samir endures for the greater good.

Traitor comes off a tad preachy at times. Sometimes literally, with frequent debate of Quran scripture.

Still, it’s a worthy ride. Director/screenwriter Jeffrey Nachmanoff (scripting for The Day After Tomorrow) capably adapts Steve Martin’s (yes, that Steve Martin) concept to great effect. Go figure. An action flick with brains. Who expected that?

Good action-adventure • PG-13 • 114 mins.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

© Paramount Pictures

Human co-stars Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf take a backseat to the destruction let loose by the Autobots and Decepticons in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Director Michael Bay chases the first flick with more: more battles, more destruction, more boom, more power. More “arg!”

reviewed by Mark Burns

Michael Bay was once asked to contain himself. This is what happened when he exploded.

Megatron is defeated. Optimus Prime and the victorious Autobots have allied with Army humans to exterminate the last of the evil Decepticons. Earth boy Sam (Shia LaBeouf, Indiana Jones), meanwhile, has ditched protector ’bot Bumblebee for college. But when Sam discovers one last shard of the Matrix and becomes the unwitting repository of Transformer history, he is hunted out of the quiet life by a resurgent Decepticon force. So he reunites with the Autobots both to save himself and fend off a new threat that means to destroy the planet.

This sequel swerves through a slew of new ’bots and battles, hitting hard with action from the outset. Director Michael Bay chases the first flick with more: more battles, more destruction, more boom, more power. More “arg!”

In fact, he has injected so much raw testosterone that the flick is in danger of pimples and blind rage.

So much emphasis is placed on battle that story is left skeletal. The few quiet points among the ruckus have been filled with generic one-liners and spastic overlapping dialogue. Moments that might have been better developed for suspense are shattered by still more violence; even the subterfuge of intrusion has been reduced to smash and grab. The climax is a letdown, as the major villain and key assist seem short-lived and unimpressive. It’s just a denser concentration of boom, and by then you’re desensitized.

Human characters are likewise desensitized by poor scripting. Among robots, the magnetic Bumblebee seems under-used. Jetfire, exceedingly popular among the toys’ and cartoon’s now-grown fans, has been warped unrecognizable by movie twists yet not significantly fleshed, if you will, for the sell. All characters, flesh and fake, seem like so many props in a shallow march to Armageddon.

Comic relief offers some personality with Wheelie, a Pesci-style trash-talking RC truck. But there are hiccups even in the comedy. Bumblebee’s radio-routed speech impediment seems rusty now, especially in light of his supposed cure. Perhaps the writers got lazy trying to infuse fresh wit in the character. And there is that controversial turn of questionable taste in the bantering gangsta-wannabe robo-twins Skids and Mudflap (one with a waggling gold tooth).

All said, it is a popcorn movie. You could do worse in your pick for a summer spectacle. Plus, fanboys will probably dig appearances by the Constructicons (Devastator!) and a smartly updated Soundwave. So it can be a decent way to pass a summer afternoon.

Fair sci-fi • PG-13 • 150 mins.

Tropic Thunder

In a movie that’s much more blunt object than sharp satire, if you don’t enjoy silly comedy, you’ll quickly start mapping your escape from the theater.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Big-time stars film a war movie in Vietnam and get a lot more than they bargained for in the Hollywood send-up Tropic Thunder. Writer-director-star Ben Stiller presents a cleverly conceived action-comedy on the behind-the-scenes egos and ids of Hollywood, while still going for the gut when it comes to the laughs. The results are hit and miss.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) was the world’s biggest action star, but his career is on the downward slope. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Oscar winner known for his chameleon-like dramatic turns. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a comic box-office star thanks to his juvenile comedies. The three are brought together on location in the jungles of Southeast Asia to shoot a Vietnam War picture. To make it more realistic, the actors are dropped in the middle of the jungle to fend for themselves with minimal script direction. The result: What they think is just a movie turns out to be real.

It’s always a treat to take a peak behind the cameras, especially when it is a parody done by actual Hollywood stars. Not only are Stiller, Downey Jr., and Black legitimate stars, so is the cast filled out with the likes of Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey and — best and biggest of all — Tom Cruise. The proceedings take on a more believable atmosphere when it is stars making fun of stars.

But the script’s conceptual cleverness is not what delivers the laughs. It’s the rude and bawdy (and borderline offensive) humor. Lazarus is a blue-eyed Australian who has undergone a surgery to make him African American. Speedman’s big flop featured him as a mentally challenged boy. The racial and mental-capability jokes fly fast and furious and continue through the end. Some hit, but more miss.

Funniest is Cruise disguised in fat suit, baldhead and hairy chest as Hollywood producer Les Grossman. Cruise is surely inspired by every loud, foul-mouthed, king-of-the-world producer he has ever dealth with.

Cruise’s over-the-top, darn funny bits are emblematic of the film as a whole. This comedy is much more blunt object than sharp, subtle satire. You’ll either enjoy enough of the silly comedy, or you’ll quickly start mapping your escape from the theater.

Good action-comedy • R • 115 mins.

27 Dresses

A simplistic antidote to 2005’s edgier and much funnier Wedding Crashers

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

That old cliché always a bridesmaid, never a bride comes to life on the big screen in the insipid romantic comedy 27 Dresses. Director Anne Fletcher (Step Up) and writer Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) fail to deliver good or original ideas past the initial one in this lightweight movie whose only saving grace is the occasionally evident comedic talents of its leading lady.

Katherine Heigl plays Jane, a pretty 20-to-30-something who has been a bridesmaid 27 times but has never fallen in love and gotten married. The role of bridesmaid suits Jane well, because she is a great helper and organizer. Indeed, she is even a great assistant in the workplace, which is what she is. It’s there that she has an unrequited crush on her boss, George (Edward Burns). Just one problem: He falls for Jane’s sprightly model of a little sister, Tess (Malin Akerman). Meanwhile, a wedding reporter for the big city paper, Kevin (James Marsden), develops a thing for Jane. But Jane thinks Kevin is a lowlife. We know where all this is going, and that’s exactly where it goes.

It’s hard not to watch 27 Dresses and think of it as a simplistic antidote to 2005’s edgier and much funnier Wedding Crashers: a sort of clichéd female fantasy of being able to play a part in so many beautiful and wonderful weddings in juxtaposition to the male fantasy of going to so many weddings for the booze and the babes. In both films, what ultimately confronts these wedding-goers’ lifestyles are the cold hard realities of falling in love. Ahh love! Amazing how it can screw up even the most enjoyable of lifestyles. Both movies get worse as love seeps in.

Heigl is entertaining, at least, as the dopey Jane. She clearly has more skill at this romantic comedy stuff than most of her contemporaries who have given it a try: Jennifer Garner, Ann Hathaway, Katie Holmes and the lot. In a Hollywood that has long lost its ability to create stars who are romantic comedy female leads — a type that once dominated Hollywood’s Golden Age — Heigl shows potential. However, one wonders if she will become a real star or if she isn’t destined to quickly flame out like so many others of her ilk. For now, at least, she wears it well.

Fair romantic comedy • PG-13 • 107 mins.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

© Summit Entertainment

Taylor Lautner, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson wrestle with their emotions in the brooding, teen-Goth The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

Sloppy, soapy melodrama puts the suck in vampirism with this gothic teen fantasy.

reviewed by Mark Burns ~ December 3, 2009

Brooding belle Bella (Kristen Stewart: Adventureland) is just totally wrecked for undead dreamboat Edward (Robert Pattinson: Little Ashes), one of an animals-only people-friendly vamp clan. Already she has been swept off her feet by his bedazzled dermis (sparkles like diamonds in sunlight) and dashing rescue from his less ethical peers. He, in turn, finds rapture in the smell of her uniquely beautiful blood.

All is the Pacific-Northwest-overcast version of happy until Bella gets a paper cut on her birthday, spurring a snack attack. Fearing for Bella, Edward leaves with the clan in hopes she’ll survive them. So does Bella fall to woe even as Jake (Taylor Lautner: TV’s My Own Worst Enemy) — cursed doubly to be werewolf and best friend — strives to protect and woo the vampire magnet.

Twilight fans may go gaga on premise alone, what with the emerging love triangle between a human, her glittery vampire soul mate and a hunky Native American werewolf. They might also know what to expect: New Moon makes no secret that it’s a thickly gothic romance peppered with hunky monster action. The film plays to its fan base, pumping up the melodrama and populating the cast with poster-pretty teen idols. Trendy pop is woven into the soundtrack, and heaving declarations of love and dedication are made as only a hormone-addled adolescent could conceive.

Yet even as pulp cinema, the movie falters.

Story is simple enough, yet the movie drags it out for over two hours with redundant mulling. Perhaps a third of the film is devoted to Bella’s abject misery following Ed’s departure. The space between lacks for substance and context. When action and twists and turns do come, they’re wholly predictable islands of flash that fail to link up with the larger storyline. Suspense falls flat, as director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) seems more intent on piecing together a highlight reel of favorite lines and effects-friendly encounters.

Script drags the film down further. At several points, it’s as though the filmmakers dredged the romantic climaxes of 1940s movies for triumphant declarations and processed them through Mad Libs to make dialogue. Ubiquitous proclamation becomes so standard that it sucks the punch out of more heated moments.

Weak delivery drives the stake through this weak film’s heart. Weitz leans on dramatic pause to ridiculous extremes; he might have dropped 30 minutes off the run time if he just got on with it. Instead the screen is filled with moments where actors shuffle their feet in silence, likely pondering how to act their way out of a paper bag. Jake is the biggest liability, a muscled dud who stares blankly through poses and relies on Fabio appeal to carry him. Bella tries to liven it up: The pain of separation has her writhing and screaming through the sleeping hours. It’s portrayed so ridiculously that one suspects psychotic breakdown or at least alien spawn preparing to burst forth.

New Moon, in the end, is a cheap escape. Fans of the series might say okay. Others, no.

Poor melodrama • PG-13 • 130 mins.

Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail

It’s certainly not the first comedy to push a message. But it might have the biggest mood swings.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Drag banter and Dickensian drama jostle for the fore in this imbalanced dramedy.

Madea (Tyler Perry: The Family That Preys) is a liberated, rumble-grumble matriarch with a penchant for meting out indignant rants and karmic comeuppance in equal portions. But her own unique sense of personal vigilantism has crossed the popo (police) one time too many. She must tread lightly lest she wear out the system’s patience and wind up in jail. Of course, as the title divulges, her impulses win out.

Simultaneously, prosecutor Josh (Derek Luke: Miracle at St. Anna) is preparing to wed his debutante coworker when he crosses paths anew with a ghost of his past. Candy (Keshia Knight Pulliam: House of Payne), a friend of mysterious origin, reemerges as a streetwalker Josh is compelled to rescue. She’s bound for jail, too, where Madea just might set her straight with some wise/wisecracking candor.

So emerges the film’s dual life, as writer/director Tyler Perry’s Medea shtick plays out in stark contrast to a very heavy dramatic counterpoint. It’s certainly not the first comedy to push a message. But it just might have the biggest mood swings.

Perry reprises his costumed roles as eccentric elderfolk with Medea holding center. Comedy swings wild with zingers, hyperbolic characters and the general silliness of elders gone wrong. Sometimes jokes connect for solid slapstick; others comprise a whiffle bat of lame juvenilia (see: Madea’s therapy session with Dr. Phil). Madea holds her certain feisty edge, but her mischief is inconsistent and too often seems uninspired rehash.

Perry may well have one foot out of the old lady fat suit, for his dramatic delve smacks of more serious ambition. Madea is increasingly squeezed out by a redemption story that seems to draw energy from the African American class debate fueled by Bill Cosby et. al. There is relevance in the tale and a strong dramatic drive as Perry pursues a harsh, if summary, depiction of addiction and prostitution.

The auteur deserves credit for his effort, but it isn’t very neatly executed. Drama here is so heavy that Madea’s comedic arc seems mismatched. She only intersects by happenstance and is operating on such a foreign plane that she never knits into the dominant dramatic story. Plot circles and dwells unto monotony as if Perry is stalling. The expected convictions arrive late in the movie, and the transformative prison experience and exercise in justice are reduced to a cheat of montage.

There is enough fun and food for thought to yield worthy moments. But Perry might have done better to divide the moments into different movies.

Poor comedy • PG-13 • 103 mins.

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