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Volume xviii, Issue 30 ~ July 29 - August 4, 2010

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The Moviegoer


A femme fatale wreaks havoc in this quick bruiser.

© Columbia Pictures

Accused of being a Russian agent, Angelina Jolie takes to fight and flight to save herself.

reviewed by Mark Burns, July 29, 2010

CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie: Wanted) is just leaving her spy office for an anniversary dinner with hubby when a Russian defector appears out of nowhere and spoils her bliss. In the interrogation room, he claims she’s a Russian operative who intends to kill the Russian president during a state visit. Instantly suspect, she’s detained for a moment before she breaks loose and leads a dangerous chase — rushing to save her butt and find her husband. But Salt isn’t exactly out to prove her innocence as she wrecks through every layer of national security.

The result is a perfectly capable action thriller, a Bourne-style rogue spy caper seasoned with a dash of Cold War paranoia à la The Manchurian Candidate. The constant rush kicks off with a MacGyver-styled assault and an escalating pursuit that careens by foot and motor across D.C.’s cityscape and highway onramps. Here and beyond, Jolie serves up admirable kick-assery as she strides confidently from one scene to the next, dispatching all challengers with sharp hand-to-hand and gunplay. Plus, she debuts a form of remote control driving that’s the very height of ridiculous resourcefulness.

Salt indulges constantly in action’s extremes, unleashing anarchy with doomsday abandon. But it’s good fun. Big explosions, audacious tactics and swift choreography make the sell.

Unrelenting action makes for a super-fast pace as story whips by in a focused march. Story is by no means intricate; it’s spare action fare merely serving as substrate for serving up calamitous destruction. But the framework is surprisingly whole. There isn’t much break in the action for development, so flashbacks are used to gradually piece together the hero’s truth. Director Phillip Noyce (Catch a Fire) is just stingy enough with explanation, muddling the mystery well enough in the buildup to keep curiosity alive. Predictable twists are complemented by surprise turns, and a couple of false stops send the movie down new paths of intrigue and upheaval.

Jolie is a solid hero. Liev Schreiber (Repo Men) as CIA boss Ted and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity) as counterintelligence agent Peabody do well enough as the requisite sympathetic and fanatic pursuers. The defector and assorted evildoers, however, do little to serve up a front-and-center nemesis, instead serving as instigators for Salt’s run-in with a deep and nefarious plot.

The drawn-out adventure stretches thin toward the end. The movie just doesn’t want to die, to the point of setting up for sequel. Ultimately, this is no masterpiece. But it’s a swell enough action fix.

Good action • PG-13 • 100 mins
Prediction Quality: Off the Mark

Despicable Me

Bumbling villainy meets willful cuteness in this smart and charming cartoon.

© Universal Pictures

Evil mastermind Gru’s villainy goes awry when he adopts three orphan girls.

reviewed by Mark Burns, July 15, 2010

Mastermind of villainy Gru (Steve Carell: Date Night) is annoyed when some new bad guy on the scene steals his villainous thunder. To climb back on top he aims to steal the moon, and all that’s missing from his master plan is one critical piece. To get at it he adopts three little orphan girls: Margo, Edith and Agnes. Their want for family proves formidable, though, and Gru swerves through strange territory as the dream heist and fatherhood come into conflict.

So plays the inaugural movie for Illumination Entertainment, Universal’s answer to Pixar. It’s an impressive start.

Despicable Me works toward a generally predictable ending and, as is pretty much given, revolves around the thawing of a Grinch-like heart. But the filmmakers play around inventively with the journey. Story veers through fun twists and turns as Gru goes up against his rival in villainy and copes with his new dad role. Pacing is brisk and even, delivering quick action even while taking care to nurture personality. No character is wasted: Gru and the girls carry the day, but even his bit-character mother is a blast to watch.

Speaking of blasts, the movie delivers best in its rediscovery of Looney Tunes verve. Gru’s rocket-powered SUV and weirdly conceived airship crown a collection of goofy/ridiculous props. Victims of slapstick violence, when attacked by a bristle of missiles that Wile E. Coyote would be proud of, stumble forward with the trademark gunpowder smudge. The movie strikes a balance between the polished aesthetic of Pixar and the delightful abandon of classic Saturday morning cartoons.

The effect is goofy, light and breezy fun. Humor is all very cute and family friendly, but it’s smart — and there’s just the slightest malicious edge to Gru’s character to make him click. Gru’s rival as a juvenile caricature of Bill Gates is great, and Gru’s many minions — ovoid yellow oddballs that speak in gibberish — are great scene-stealers that play like Three Stooges versions of Toy Story’s aliens.

Rapper Pharrell contributes a crisp and light soundtrack to round out the atmosphere. Carell’s clunky eastern European accent is perfect for the role, and he’s supported by a talented voice cast including Julie Andrews, Kristen Wiig, Will Arnett, Russell Brand and Jason Segel.

All told, this one’s a gem. It’s light, cute fun that’s gentle enough for the smaller kids yet smart enough for the grown-ups.

Great cartoon • PG • 95 mins.
Prediction Quality: Off the Mark

The Last Airbender

The air blows foul in this flop of a fantasy.

© Paramount Pictures

To save the world, Noah Ringer, the last airbender, must master the other three elements, fire, water and earth.

reviewed by Mark Burns, July 8, 2010

Four elemental nations — Water, Earth, Air and Fire — are led and protected by benders, powerful mystics who wield their native elements with kung fu moves. The Avatar, a reincarnated hero who can bend all four elements, keeps the harmony. Or should. When the last Avatar disappeared 100 years ago, the Fire nation set to conquering and now threatens to ruin the world. Now the new Avatar, 12-year-old airbender Aang (newcomer Noah Ringer), wakes from century-long hibernation to a world where the airbenders have been wiped out. It’s on him, the last of his kind, to master the remaining three elements and defeat the Fire Nation.

The flick is adapted from an inventive three-season Nickelodeon cartoon, in which each season, or “book,” is centered on an element Aang has to learn. This first of an intended movie trilogy tackles book one, condensing over eight hours of episodic cartoon story into less than two hours of live-action movie.

Maybe this wasn’t the smartest choice of adaptation. It’s certainly no small challenge, as producer/writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Happening) handily proves.

The telling is a jumble of random scenes plucked from the series, shuffled and modified for the movie’s purposes. There’s no fresh invention to set up the scenes, build suspense, bridge events, or give any appreciable degree of context. Dots are merely connected by exceedingly poor narration blabbed by Katara (Nicola Peltz: Deck the Halls), a waterbender girl joining Aang on his quest. Narration is supplemented by equally poor expository monologue that tells about key events and developments rather than showing them on film. Even puppy love sprouts and dies out of nowhere. Really, the movie is like a lavish and angry production of Reading Rainbow at some points.

Personality is strikingly flat. Shyamalan pays no mind to developing his characters. Aasif Mandvi, a comic correspondent on TV’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is inexplicably cast as chief villain Commander Zhou and handed a script as lame as his acting. So much for menace. Prince Zuko (Dev Patel: Slumdog Millionaire), as a “complex” Fire Nation enemy, evidences barely a hint of his supposed obsession with capturing Aang. Even the hero is blandness. You wouldn’t think a kid modeled after a Buddhist warrior monk and given a loyal, six-legged wind bison to ride through the sky would be boring. But Shyamalan found a way to make him flatline.

Humor, too, has died in Shyamalan’s world. The comic relief and goofiness of the cartoon are quashed save a few klutzy attempts. Otherwise the world is heavy and dark. Such atmosphere might at least be good for action, and there is some payoff. Elemental bending as supported by special effects can be fun to watch. But even the elemental magicking is weighted by overwrought gesticulations that only serve to eat up time, and fight choreography looks as though it was orchestrated by the light saber kid from YouTube.

All said, this is a bad movie. The story is too wrecked to welcome newcomers, and fans loyal to the toon might take particular offense — many have even stirred up a controversy over non-Asian casting as rudely misrepresentative of the original characters. Either way, you’re better off watching the original series on DVD. It’s good stuff and brilliant by comparison.

Very Bad fantasy • PG • 103 mins.
Prediction Quality: Way Off the Mark

Solitary Man

© Anchor Bay Films

Imogen Poots, Michael Douglas and Jesse Eisenberg in Solitary Man.

A once-decent man acts the cad in this accomplished but tiring character study.

reviewed by Mark Burns, July 1, 2010

Ben (Michael Douglas: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) is a 60-something sunk low by personal recklessness. The former retail Beemer magnate has lost his wife and wealth through ethical self-destruction. He has a chance to put that same dearth of character to work for him, using an auto industry insider’s daughter to reestablish himself. But when seedy impulses sink him ever lower, via a highly inappropriate and gross fling, Ben finds himself at his Boston alma mater reexamining life from the bottom.

So proceeds a character piece that strives to find wit and drama in the vulnerable dysfunction of a clod.

Story is a patient delve into Ben’s character. The movie opens with a flashback revelation cut short, then picks up in the present with the man as he is. His flaws and faint glimmers of vestigial decency emerge naturally with the flow of events, as does the picture of what he’s lost. The why of his transformation is hinted at and danced around, a predictable nugget that isn’t mined until the final lines of dialogue. The character-driven tale doesn’t have much motive other than to see what’s next: will he dig ever deeper or scramble out of the hole he’s dug himself into?

Writer/director Brian Koppelman (Knockaround Guys) guides a decent expedition through this territory of wrecked vanity. Scripting is smart, wit taking the form of blunt dialogue bounced among direct personalities. Douglas, ever the plutocrat, plays the cad well. Together, actor and director weave a character study of the scoundrel that’s smart and thorough.

Perhaps too thorough. For every seed of possible redemption there’s a further slide toward the oily. It’s difficult to cultivate empathy for the guy as he blows chance after chance to improve, and without empathy the film wears thin.

There is wit, but the comedy angle of this self-purported dramedy is understated and used to illustrate gall. The gall goes sour when filmmakers, discontent with pushing the envelope, roll it up and try to gag you with it as they have 65-year-old Douglas making out with and lusting after an 18-year-old character. It isn’t a “daddy thing” like the writers put it, it’s a granddaddy thing and it’s gross.

Oh, well. That’s the point: to illustrate the callous durability of a sleazeball. If you appreciate character study, you may appreciate the effort. But if you’re out for entertainment you may be frustrated.

Fair drama • R • 90 mins.
Prediction Quality: Off the Mark

Toy Story 3

© Walt Disney Pictures

As a now teenaged Andy readies for college, his toys have lost their appeal in Pixar’s Toy Story 3.

Castaway toys fight to return to the side of the teen who
outgrew them in this fun sequel.

reviewed by Mark Burns, June 24, 2010

Andy (John Morris: Toy Story) has outgrown his toys. Woody (Tom Hanks: Angels & Demons), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen: Redbelt) and the rest of the playtime crew languish forgotten in the confines of an unvisited toybox. When Andy finally gets ready to move on to college, an unfortunate mix-up finds bitter toys escaping as donations to a daycare. It seems like paradise until teddy bear Lotso’s (Ned Beatty: Charlie Wilson’s War) sinister overlording threatens to break them in the most literal sense. So soured luck turns the toys regretful, and they must mount a daring escape to rejoin their warm home.

The Toy Story world is, as always, a charmer. Wayward toys finding their way home for the third time might have grown tiresome, but the context of a jailbreak and a kid growing out of his youth lends enough new energy to keep the fun alive.

The overarching story is sentimental, with flashbacks to golden youth and the current pangs of a kid leaving behind innocence to grow up. Sandwiched between the Hallmark scrollwork is quick adventure serving up a smartly comic toyland take on the jailbreak flick — right down to the creepy, unblinking cymbal monkey who watches all on the security monitors. The movie’s two selves strike a gentle balance, yielding a neatly ordered and well-paced tale that fends off monotony with smart interplay.

Humor is gentle. Cute gags and grade school goofiness keep the movie focused on the kids. Mr. Potato Head’s morphs are particularly emblematic of rug rat slapstick. Yet the movie is universal in its fun: Even the gentlest gags cue at least a smirk on adults, and Michael Keaton’s scene-stealing Ken doll makes for one gloriously out-of-date, clothes-crazy ’80s guy. His clueless narcissism, Barbie charming and two-facedness eke some of the movie’s best laughs. The old toys have retained most of their charms and wits, and even the most insubstantial new toys deliver at least blips of amusement.

Comedy blends seamlessly into creative action as the toys put their built-in features to work for freedom. Lotso gives them something solid to run up against, a well developed villain whose evil scheming serves as a fun challenge. It plays out in grade-A animation that is still more refined than before.

Sure, it’s not all flashes and beeps. Some of the freshness has dissipated. Woody thrives at center stage while Buzz’s stature shrinks, and the other returning toys seem as echoes. Only Ken and Lotso among the new toys get much life breathed into them; other characters seem like so much filler. Much of the tale is predictable, and Randy Newman’s recycled refrain has grown stale.

It’s still bright fun. Pixar fans or families looking for a night out will be very pleased.

Good kids movie • G • 103 mins.
Prediction Quality: Off the Mark

The Karate Kid

© Columbia Pictures

Jackie Chan takes on the role of Kung Fu master, teaching 12-year-old Dre (Jaden Smith) to stand up for himself against ruthless Beijing bullies in this remake of The Karate Kid.

Fans of the 1984 original might gripe, but get over it.
This is good, fresh fun

reviewed by Mark Burns, June 17, 2010

Twelve-year-old Dre (Jaden Smith: The Day the Earth Stood Still) is pretty bummed. Mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson: Date Night) has followed work to Beijing, and he’s barely stepped onto the new scene when he gets mixed up with a kung fu bully and his posse. Maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan: The Spy Next Door) will come to his rescue, though, teaching Dre the form and philosophy of true kung fu in just enough time to win confidence and respect in a martial arts tournament.

It shouldn’t work. The flick remakes an esteemed classic, ditching the Kung Fu Kid working title for fuller embrace of the rip-off. High school drama is now preteen angst. And the filmmakers picked Harald Zwart to direct; this guy’s dubious resume includes Pink Panther 2, Agent Cody Banks, and One Night at McCool’s.

Yet somehow, against odds, it does work.

Story uses the exact same template as the original. Names, scenes and circumstances may have changed, but pretty much every major element arrives in familiar sequence. Patience is focused early — on settling in, establishing a crush and beginning training — but wanes into quicker summary once Dre unlocks the fundamentals. There’s fine development of Dre’s predicament, and the tale has a solid footing. But attempts at cutting to the deeper id of Chan’s Han and expanding on the teacher/pupil relationship are glazed over.

The second take is so loyal to original formula that you can’t credit the filmmakers for much innovation. But new context keeps it fresh. China replaces California as the new land of milk and honey for a displaced auto-industry mom. Dre’s struggle in Beijing might be seen as allegory to America’s awakening to a strange new postindustrial reality. Deep, huh?

More superficially, Smith owns the role with goofy charisma, channeling the influence of dad Will. Culture clash adds depth to the fish-out-of-water experience, and fantastic kung fu locales lend a certain Zen vibe to the quest. Chan’s Han follows in the best tradition of Pat Morita’s Miyagi, a fun sage enlivened by smart acting and Chan’s own signature affability.

Dre totally sweeps Daniel-san’s leg in terms of action. Fights here are limber and fierce, easily outshining the stiff bouts and thrown punches of 1984. Bullying actually feels threatening, as opposed to the cartoonish malice of yore. The new bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), is quick with powerful rage and better acting. He could take out all of Cobra Kai. And Smith is just more adept at martial arts than Ralph Macchio. Much love to the crane kick, but — wires or not — this kid throws down more killer moves even before the climactic match. A theater full of moviegoers broke into applause at the victorious strike.

Fans of the old-school movie might gripe, but get over it. This is good, fresh fun that deserves a chance. Besides, it does more to honor the spirit of the original than any of the three sequels (see Hilary Swank’s tussle with the hall monitors from Hell). There’s certainly room on the shelf for this one.

Good kung fu action for kids • PG • 140 mins.
Prediction Quality: Intuitive

Get Him to the Greek

Bleary excess, pop culture idiocy and odd sincerity undulate wildly in this uneven comedy.

reviewed by Mark Burns, June 10, 2010
© Universal Pictures

An intern for a flagging record company, Jonah Hill must deliver fading rock star Russell Brand to LA for a comeback concert.

Wide-eyed Aaron (Jonah Hill: How to Train Your Dragon) is in over his head. An intern for a flagging record label, he’s been tasked with escorting fallen rock god Aldous Snow (Russell Brand: Bedtime Stories) from London to LA by way of New York to stage a comeback concert. The errand quickly gets wrecked when the impulsive rocker starts dragging the kid astray through bars and parties even as Aaron tries desperately to steer him. The quest takes on added urgency, though, as Aldous and Aaron get to wrestling personal issues the nearer they get to the West Coast.

So it becomes a buzz-addled misadventure through the bad boy lifestyle of a rocker — with sentimental asides of frustrated love.

As such, the story is weird. The farce side moves quickly and randomly from night out to bad choices to hangover and back again, flopping Aaron around in a vicious cycle. That much works out okay, driving the quest westward while dredging up some pretty choice bits of comedy. If the tale were all farce, a la the Will Ferrell society, the movie might have rated brilliant.

But Aaron goes all Jerry Maguire on Aldous, eventually insisting on managing the person rather than the commodity and driven to save him from self-destructive hedonism. That much is annoyingly derivative. This movie’s further insistence on hewing to the Judd Apatow school’s tendency for shading in depth with more sober sincerity throws this one even more off kilter, as the guys wrestle with wrecked romances. The riot of unreal idiocy thumps into a wall when the filmmakers’ “very special episode”-style “real moments,” such as a drug dependency baring its (blunted) teeth or a romance getting wrecked. It might’ve been all right in different context, but here the zaniness is so extreme that the straight-faced moments throw the whole movie off pace.

Could be auteur remorse is to blame. To judge by missing scenes from the teaser, it would appear that writer/director Nicholas Stoller, whose only other directing credit is Forgetting Sarah Marshall, slashed at the film with last-minute editing.

Unbalanced or no, the farce yields worthy comedy. Hill’s straight man Aaron is comically overwhelmed by the freewheeling, and Brand uses his own wild past to enliven his off-the-hinges rocker. Drunken missteps are inventive fun, and Stoller does a great job of lampooning pop culture. Original gag songs help in that task: Stoller and crew wrote a full album for Snow’s character. The soundtrack boasts 19 full-length ditties written in thinly veiled sex metaphor, particularly the tracks of Aldous’ flame Jackie Q. On the other hand, the Apatow school’s awkward candor is hit or miss. Stoller delivers a great Today Show scene, but also patches in a threesome that’s full-on skeevy, ripping off then going leaps beyond what Kevin Smith did with Chasing Amy.

The movie is distracted and messy, but there is quality fun to be had. It’s a worthy laugh — if you find yourself in the right mood and company.

Fair comedy • R • 109 mins.
Prediction Quality: Intuitive

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

A disgraced prince fights to save the world in this bland video game adaptation.

© Walt Disney Pictures

While action abounds, story and plot are less solid in Prine of Persia: The Sands of Time.

reviewed by Mark Burns, June 3, 2010

Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal: Brothers) is a hero of Persia at the height of fortune after sacking a holy city, with a betrothed beautiful princess and a magnificent dagger taken as his prize. But fortune sours when he’s framed for regicide and set against his brothers. He goes on the lam with princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton: Clash of the Titans) and soon discovers his new dagger is actually a mystical device for peeling back time. Clued into conspiracy, he adventures across the sands and back again to clear his name and protect the dagger from being used to unleash Armageddon.

The movie has roots in a 2003 video game, but they don’t run very deep. Story merely takes fundamental elements from the game (prince, Persia, dagger and sand) and tarts them up with heaps of new invention. Dastan is presented as an urchin raised from the streets; the theme of brotherhood is offered as dramatic underpinning; new compatriots are patched in at Dastan’s side. Such additions do yield some worth: Dastan’s new background offers empathy and character for the role, and the brotherhood angle gives the movie a theme. The game’s notions are fleshed out into a more movie-friendly tale to grab and hold interest.

Overall, though, the movie is remarkably shallow. Dastan’s connections to his past are superficial, ultimately offering no depth to his character or friendships. The brotherhood is all exposition that comes and goes, sapping the high drama of rivalry, betrayal and amends of any thrust. Compatriots are a joke: His band of warriors and best buddy amount to little more than extras. A band of outcasts emerges only to flip-flop around from pointless joke (see the non sequitur of ostrich racing) to foils to allies with frustrating randomness. All pieces fall prey to summary development, as the filmmakers introduce new ideas that never evolve beyond concept.

Action, thankfully, is more solid. Parkour’s stunts deliver a fine echo of the game’s leaping, tumbling and wall-running acrobatics. Swordplay clangs away, and the team of Hansansins on Dastan’s trail have inventive ways of killing, even if they are a half-formed menace. Momentum is bolstered by snazzy effects that make the time travel snap.

There’s fun to be had, enough to nibble away at your popcorn by. But you might as well wait for the DVD and pop it at home. This is no grand adventure worthy of the big screen.

Fair action • PG-13 • 116 min
Prediction Quality: Off the Mark

Shrek Forever After (3D)


A domesticated ogre wishes himself out of existence and fights to win back what he took for granted in this snoozer.

reviewed by Mark Burns, May 27, 2010

Shrek (Mike Myers: Inglourious Basterds) is more popular than he’d prefer and feeling blunted by routine. He’s nostalgic for his old life, when he was reviled, fearsome and alone in sweet privacy. Enter Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn: Shrek the Third ), a devious peddler of magical contracts who grants Shrek’s wish to live just one day as his old self. But there’s a catch: Shrek winds up in an alternate reality where he was never born and Rumpelstiltskin is king. The ogre will disappear from existence unless he can score true love’s kiss from Fiona (Cameron Diaz: My Sister’s Keeper) before his day is done. Too bad she’s become the emotionally distant leader of the resistance.

Shrek Forever After might tempt hope. After all, the first movie was gold, and sequel Shrek 2 was only slightly diminished fun. But the half-baked third movie has already proven they’re out of smart ideas for the series. And this fourth flick does little to pull the ogre out of the mud.

There are a few decent laughs. The what-if versions of returning characters can be amusing, such as Puss in Boots and Gingerbread Man recast as a fat cat and gladiator. A kid pestering Shrek to do the roar gets maybe the biggest laugh. But the insistence on dragging out bit characters for cameo is a distraction. Wit is stunted and the choicest material was spoiled by previews. In fact, the previews play better, having punched up the scenes with smarter editing. Dreamworks should’ve had the ad crew run this project.

Story is neat enough, but it’s insubstantial. The convoluted setup is carefully constructed, but Shrek’s clumsy rush to save himself by reseducing Fiona is a bland and underdeveloped quest with a predictable march toward the you don’t know what you have until it’s gone lesson. The whole ogre liberation angle of the alternate world is a waste, thrust on you out of nowhere and snuffed before it’s started. Rumpelstiltskin is a flat villain, right down to the wholly uninteresting army of witches. He’s denied even the moment to stomp out a temper tantrum.

The filmmakers try to distract from lameness with the returning element of wacky musical numbers, courtesy of the Pied Piper. No dice. Dance scenes are forced and unoriginal, and the pop culture references are stale.

At least Dreamworks doesn’t skimp on the graphics. But the 3-D visuals, aside from adding a little depth, are unremarkable and not worth the added expense.

The movie did at least keep the kids entertained, even if they were a little distracted. Still, it’s not worthy of the big screen. This one should have gone straight to DVD.

Poor animated comedy • PG • 93 mins.
Prediction Quality: Intuitive

Robin Hood

The noble thief’s legend meets quasi-historical context in this epic origin tale.

© Universal Pictures

Russel Crowe satisfies any hunger for swords-and-arrows conquest in this latest version of Robin Hood

reviewed by Mark Burns, May 20, 2010

Robin Longstride (Russel Crowe: State of Play) is an archer for Richard the Lionheart. The king’s army is plundering along their route home from the crusades when the royal is felled in a siege. In the chaos, Robin and friends make for home and deliver the bad news. Prince John (Oscar Isaac: Body of Lies) eagerly takes the throne, but his rule may be cut short — the traitorous confidant Godfrey (Mark Strong: Sherlock Holmes) would topple England through civil war. Only Robin, then, can save his country from Godfrey’s plot even as he deflects John’s heavy-handed rule with a push for basic human rights.

Director Ridley Scott (Body of Lies) makes an ambitious attempt to grow the hero of legend into an epic figure. His Robin is England’s own Braveheart, and Scott seeks to make his vision plausible through nuggets of historical context: Richard the Lionheart did die from complications of an arrow wound received during a siege in France; King John, his brother, was the ruler who acquiesced to the Magna Carta; the movie does reference places scholars associate with the historical bandit.

Story works well enough to add order, neatly unknotting a central conspiracy. But the telling is at best a summary, even at two and a half hours. There are some father issues that ought to be pretty bold, since they help set Robin’s course, but instead they peek out when needed and introduce a random and undeveloped freemason reference. Nottingham’s forest is full of feral, outlaw orphans — one in a creepy leather mask. But they never amount to anything. Robin’s forgotten past is a simplistic letdown resolved in a snap. The romance with Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is unromantic, climaxing in a stupidly timed kiss.

Character development is spare: Robin is not nearly as smirking and charismatic as you would hope, and even the central corps of merry men — Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck — are barely relevant.

For all its faults, though, the movie does entertain. It may be summary, but the conspiracy stokes interest. Pacing is consistent and quick, never lapsing into lull as it marches into plot twists through smart bursts of action. Action is one thing that Scott succeeds at, with scenes of siege and brawl that sate any hunger for swords-and-arrows conquest.

In short, as a classic Robin Hood experience this one is outfoxed even by Disney’s animated version. But it is a bold take on the origins of the hero, serving up enough novelty and substance to pass as a decent popcorn flick. Might be worth a try if you’re game.

Fair historic action · PG-13 · 140 mins.
Prediction Quality: Intuitive

Iron Man 2

The iron isn’t as hot for this second strike. But it still gets forged into a solid blockbuster

reviewed by Mark Burns, May 13, 2010
© Paramount Pictures

In this sequel, Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr., finds new nemeses including War Machine, played by Don Cheadle. They deal heavy damage, battering exoskeletons and wrecking all manner of scenes and machines in a blunt tumble leading to a disbelievable finale.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.: Sherlock Holmes) is riding high on his popularity as Iron Man. The world has enjoyed a spell of peace on his watch, and he’s ditched the arms business to work on building from the peaceful side of his father’s legacy. But Russian genius Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler) is on a mission for revenge. His dad died bitter about a perceived Stark betrayal, and the son devises a power suit of his own with which to do some damage.

But wait, there’s more: Congress is breathing down Stark’s neck to surrender the suit; rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell: Gentlemen Broncos) is trying to develop his own power suit; super-secret agency SHIELD is keeping tabs; and Stark is challenged by the side effects of having a reactor core in his chest.

Busy guy.

Story branches wide in this sequel, attempting to fill out the superhero’s myth. To keep it under control, returning director Jon Favreau anchors tale to paternal legacy: Stark strives to exceed and Vanko seeks to destroy. The angle makes for some of the more interesting dramatic points, motivating action and serving up raw material for the key twist. But this core story is touch-and-go, never developed into meatier plot. The movie is too preoccupied with the bangs and booms, losing the thread amid a tangle of clamoring action, quick overtalk and one-liners.

At least it rates higher than Ang Lee’s Hulk papa drama. And, though it is distracted, the story gives a framework to the action tale.

Action is bigger and busier this time out, with some prime highlights: See one drunken grudge match for the ages and the kung fu scene stealing of Scarlett Johansson (as the slinky executive assistant with a secret). Stark and Vanko deal heavy damage, battering exoskeletons and wrecking all manner of scenes and machines. Effects remain crisp, and the new suits deliver fresh novelty. Choice spectacle sometimes devolves to chaos; the ultimate conflagration is a pretty blunt tumble with a disbelievable finale. But it’s a good, fast ride overall.

The fun, tongue-in-cheek vibe remains intact from the first movie. Stark is still the narcissistic rascal at the center of ricocheting banter and zingers. Garry Shandling’s senator serves up a particularly fun foil.

In short, the iron isn’t as hot for this second strike. But it still gets forged into a solid blockbuster. Certainly worth seeing on the big screen if you’re a fan of the first.

Good superhero action · PG-13 · 124 mins.
Prediction Quality: Intuitive

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Freddy’s back. Kind of.

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Freddy’s back, in a remake of the 1984 cult classic.

reviewed by Mark Burns, May 6, 2010

Nancy (Rooney Mara: Youth in Revolt) and a group of high school friends are dazed by menacing nightmares. All have dreamt of Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley: Shutter Island), a burn-scarred psychopath wielding a glove with knifed fingers. Sleep’s terror turns real when friends are violently killed. So Nancy and Quentin (Kyle Gallner: Jennifer’s Body) struggle to fight off sleep, evade Freddy and reveal the truth their parents are hiding in an effort to survive the nightmare.

The movie, of course, is a remake of Wes Craven’s 1984 original. While not especially frightening, the first Nightmare put an original spin on slasher flicks with its signature villain’s blurring of waking and dreaming perception. Camp scares, cheap effects and a certain tongue-in-cheek vibe defined the movie, which never pretended to be more than a Halloween funhouse ride.

Music video director Samuel Bayer’s take, on the other hand, is a few shades more self-serious. He dials the camp way back, burnishes the effects and refines the tale in a try for bigger scares.

Story works, to a point. Rather than reshooting the old script, the filmmakers opted for an update, a remix that loyally follows the original while shuffling a few whos and wheres to better match new attempts at story development. Development is pretty decent for a horror film, offering up surprising context and back-story. The remix keeps some surprise intact in the remake.

On the downside, smirking strangeness and glib lines are pretty much trashed. Fresh invention isn’t enough to keep the film surprising for anyone who’s seen the original. And the most significant new invention is also the least worthy: Filmmakers tinker unkindly with the friends’ Freddy connection. In a distasteful and unnecessary twist that comes off as a botched stab of psychological horror, a new childhood angle is introduced to explain Freddy Krueger’s offenses.

Scares do give a shock. Basic jump scares are still effective, and the polished visual effects often lend a stronger punch to the hunt. But frights are tame overall.

Acting certainly bests the original, but character is still lacking. It’s just a bunch of brooding teens running from a madman. Freddy, especially, doesn’t cut the muster. He’s less vicious camp and more malicious creepo. Plus, it doesn’t help that a new actor is trying on a role defined by Robert Englund.

This movie was hamstrung at first concept. It’s not easy, or wise, to remake a classic. Fans of the original can skip this with a clear conscience, though if you’re craving a slasher jolt you could do worse.

Fair Horror • R • 95 mins.
Prediction Quality: Intuitive


Fabulous photography shoulders aside intellectual insight in this very Disney documentary.

reviewed by Mark Burns, April 29, 2010

© Disneynature

A boy runs toward the beach with his friends and stops suddenly at the dunes. He surveys the churning waves as narrator Pierce Brosnan sets up the experience. The sea is a big place with a big story: The only way to understand it is to see it, be in it, feel it. Then the camera plunges under.

There, in the deep blue, directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud wow with premium footage. Even the earliest images of a marine iguana or the unveiling of a blanket octopus are fascinations, part of the filmmakers’ attempt to shine a little screen time for the underrepresented creatures of the deep. It’s a worthy aim; watching sunlight dapple through a school of jellies is a thing of beauty. But they also seek new encounters with old familiars, angling for perspectives on documentary’s A-list creatures.

Oceans works these subjects into a balanced blend of fluid observation and racing action, easily shifting between gears as the documentary plays out. Quiet moments, such as a walrus mom cradling her baby, shine character-rich illumination. In the other direction, crescendo booms in a feeding frenzy filmed from sky and scuba as dolphins, sharks and diving birds corral and feast on a massive school of sardines. Each mode benefits from smart cinematography that captures the dynamism of sea life.

These grand visuals, though, are sapped of context, leaving the documentary to drift without a rudder on a sea of images. Narration is so scant, so drowsy, so redundant, so vaguely reflective that the filmmakers might as well have done away with it altogether a la Baraka. Or, alternatively, employed Cheech Marin for a more expert portrayal of stoner wonderment.

BBC’s Planet Earth series proved how powerful nature documentary can be when fantastic images are paired with intelligent interpretation. Here, with only half the equation, you’re left guessing after the whys and whats, sometimes even the wheres. The format of a broadly focused 90-minute movie doesn’t lend itself to tremendous detail, but there would have been time to inject a bit of intellectual spark.

Strange currents amplify the sense of drift. Perrin doesn’t find a way to order his trip, either by evolution, geography, life cycle, theme or species. He’s a topical toddler, toying with one idea before being distracted by another, then, bored again, returning to the original. The departures and revisits don’t track progress and tend toward redundancy. Even Perrin’s ultimate point, environmental peril and a plea for conservation, is awkwardly grafted in.

By tone and attendance, Oceans is aimed at children. As such it is successful: The movie held a theater full of kids in thrall even through the credits. Scenes of predation are toned down for the G rating, and the frequent switch-ups seem tailored to miniature attention spans.

In the end, this movie offers mighty visuals but proves to be no enlightener. That walrus scene is cool, but you’ll learn more about walrus biology watching 50 First Dates. Still, it’s a stunner and worth a view if you don’t mind the stunted education.

Fair documentary · G · 86 mins.

Prediction Quality: Intuitive


A couple of minors plus one oldster with issues live the superhero fantasy in this raucous what-if melee.

© Lionsgate
reviewed by Mark Burns, April 22, 2010

Dave (Aaron Johnson: Nowhere Boy later this year) is an unremarkable teen who gets the notion that becoming a superhero would be cool. So he buys a green wetsuit, adopts the alter ego Kick-Ass and starts wandering around with costume under shirt until he gets his chance to do good. But his naïve effort gets mixed up with the deadlier rampage of another costumed vigilante, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage: Astro Boy), and he finds himself in the crosshairs of underworld reprisal.

Story is a surprisingly smart upturning of superhero myth, casting an everyday Joe as lead and stripping him of the conventional motivations and lofty ideals. Dave’s evolution from concept to action is carefully developed, a fantasy turning real by natural turns. Common-sense consequence informs humor, drama and action alike as he follows a wending path of delusion and reawakening. His journey is complemented by Big Daddy, a strange and vengeful eccentric who makes us wonder what Batman might really be like. His war on a crime boss motivates the larger story and provides for some of the best action, especially as delivered by his 11-year-old daughter/sidekick Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz: Diary of a Wimpy Kid).

Hit Girl steals the spotlight, serving up audacious spectacle as a kung fu dynamo with dead-on marksmanship, crass language and a fondness for butterfly knives. In action she’s a purple blur trailing blood as she ricochets among the baddies, easily the most graphic vehicle for vigilantism. Not that it isn’t all pretty graphic. Kick-Ass gets wrecked in a series of vicious attacks and brawls, and Big Daddy serves up deliberate warfare. Action transmits pain with solid thumps, but it’s dosed out evenly so as not to dominate story.

It’s a well-done movie, likely benefiting from the simultaneous development of movie and comic through the collaboration of director Matthew Vaughn (Stardust) and authors Mark Millar and John Romita. Yet for all the novelty, a lack of style in the telling sells eccentricity short.

Early buzz held that Kick-Ass would be a superhero Kill Bill, but the movie lacks deeper eccentricity and creative execution. The villainy is capable but flat. The trip can run a little thin between flash points.

Still, if you’re intrigued instead of offended by an 11-year-old superhero assassin — and you don’t shy from gratuitous violence — you’ll be entertained.

Good comic book action • R •117 mins.
Prediction Quality: Intuitive

Date Night

© 20th Century Fox

Steve Carell and Tina Fey must run for their lives before returning home to the kids when their date night goes awry.

A boring/bored suburban couple wander around New York
in a run for their lives in this tame comedy.

Married couple Phil (Steve Carell: Get Smart) and Claire (Tina Fey: Baby Mama) are in the rut of parenthood. Their friends’ impending divorce has them nervous about being too routine, so they dare to venture into the big city for a night on the town. But by stealing a reservation for the Triplehorns at a posh New York restaurant, they’re mistaken for underworld blackmailers. Now they’ve got to run for their lives before returning home to the kids.

Fey and Carell are given room for riff as the comics ad lib to the entertainment of director Shawn Levy (The Pink Panther). Their on-screen matrimony clicks in comic ode to dull routine, such as in the retainer scene of preview, and they excel at the subtler bits of personal glitch.

When story gets unsubtle, though, their comic energy doesn’t rise with the tide. Action comedy shines in a clever car chase and a nifty first escape. Yet the pacing putters when the Fosters pause to puzzle out the next step or hash out marital issues. You couldn’t call it banter; there’s too little wit or rivalry. Zingers are directed safely outside the couple zone. There are bright blips of action to which they are tethered, but the couple never seems to elevate beyond a flatline of mild panic.

A strong character actor as foil would help jolt the funny bone, but Levy neglects supporting crew. A couple of dirty cops have no personality, and they only pop up when absolutely necessary to get the Fosters running again. James Franco and Mila Kunis liven things up as the real Triplehorns, delivering diversion as a seedy pair. But their screen time is all too brief. The deviant baddie at the source of all troubles is weakly realized, and the good cop trailing after the Fosters is virtuous plainness.

Fey and Carell are fun, but they can’t carry the whole film without help. The filmmakers aren’t up to the assist. Despite a couple of laugh-out-loud moments and a running smirk, this one has the body of sugar-free vanilla pudding. Give it a whirl if you’re in the mood for a gentle laugh, but don’t expect brilliance.

Fair comedy • PG-13 • 88 mins.
Prediction Quality: Off the Mark

Clash of the Titans

Myth serves springboard to an adventure of defiance in this dull remake.

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Sam Worthington plays an angry Perseus bent on revenge against the gods in the remake of Clash of the Titans.

reviewed by Mark Burns; April 8, 2010

Perseus (Sam Worthington: Avatar), unknowing son of Zeus, is sailing into Argos with his adoptive family when they stumble on the demolition of a statue of Zeus. His unlucky family dies in the wrath of Olympus when Hades (Ralph Fiennes: The Reader) swoops in and gives the uppity visage-ruining mortals what for. So when further sacrilege puts Argos deeper in the red with Olympus, Perseus steps to the fore to defy the gods and save innocent beauty Andromeda (Alexa Davalos: Defiance) from sacrificial appeasement.

The movie is based on Desmond Davis’ 1981 original, a cult film that cast pre-LA Law Harry Hamlin as the hero and the legendary Laurence Olivier as Zeus. Filmmakers took liberties with the source myth, condensing the epic for a simpler storyline. Stir in a hefty dose of old-school effects and action, and you’ve got a campy cult classic.

Alas, this new flick is a dull thump of forgettableness.

Where the first was a rescue adventure, this is a grudge match. Perseus quests not for love of Andromeda, gain of throne or salvation of a city-state. He is motivated solely by revenge against Hades. The hero bristles at notion he’s a demigod and refuses the help of Olympus, demanding to stand on his own two mortal feet. Story lumbers forward with little development, sapping the quest of urgency and, ultimately, point.

Story development is too boring for director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) to bother with, so action dominates. Worse still, the mythical arsenal is depleted. There’s never a gift of mystical shield, no helmet of invisibility. Perseus never tames Pegasus, and the strange mechanical owl is tossed aside before the quest begins.

Andromeda, the damsel at the heart of the story, is dumped for Io (Gemma Arterton: Quantum of Solace), who in myth was turned into a cow after resisting seduction by Zeus. Here she is cursed to stay forever young, because that’s hotter for Hollywood. She, the ultimate cougar, has watched over Perseus from birth and waited to fall into his embrace. That incident comprises the whole of their romantic strain and the limit of the film’s passion.

This one’s a waste. Even a row full of eager teens was yawning through the movie — they’d have been better off renting the original.

Bad Mythic Fantasy • PG-13 • 118 mins.
Prediction Quality: Intuitive

How to Train Your Dragon

Paramount Pictures

One Viking outcast dares to favor brain over brawn
for the sake of his clan and dragons alike.

reviewed by Mark Burns; April 1, 2010

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, She’s Out of My League) is the runt among brutes in his cliffside Viking village on the North Sea. All he wants is to help slay the plague of dragons, but he just isn’t built for the job. Instead, on meeting a dragon he knocked out of the sky, he discovers a new path as “dragon whisperer.” So Hiccup studies, befriends and trains the creature on the sly, developing a strange new way with dragons that holds the townsfolk in fascination. His heroic dragon-slaying father and chief Stoick (Gerard Butler, The Bounty Hunter) won’t dig the truth of it, but the son might have just found the solution to all their troubles.

So plays a kid-and-creature tale peppered with inventive action and farce as informed by Cressida Cowell’s source kids’ book.

Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who collaborated previously on Lilo & Stitch, run with Cowell’s fun vibe. In particular, Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon, is a grand success. He benefits from a dash of Stitch’s rogue charm; a wide, expressive mouth and gigantic eyes echo character. Rich personality endears the dragon and sells the story. The brogue-speak Vikings are a blast also; Stoick is a cart-hurling bear of a redbeard, and tutor Gobber (Craig Ferguson, TV’s The Late Late Show), with his interchangeable prosthetics made of iron, wood and stone, is a scene stealer.

Story is smart, if a little abbreviated for the kids’ sake, and peppered with appreciable wit and subtle gags that adults can enjoy. Father issues add girth to the “be yourself” tale, as Stoick is the beefy dad who must reconcile his love of Viking legacy with having a unique son. Violence-prone Astrid (America Ferrera, Our Family Wedding) offers a fun twist on puppy love, though somewhat underdeveloped.

Just as well. This one is for the man cubs, and they’re here for the battle and fire-breathing beasties — both of which are delivered in spades. It gets a little harrowing, but not so intense as to traumatize the kiddos.

DreamWorks excels in the visuals, and it’s no empty superlative to say they’ve achieved new heights for computer animated cartoons. Finely detailed texture and fluid animation enlivens this reality, sparking life without wandering away from cartoony roundness and into the creepy waxworks aesthetic of A Christmas Carol. Lifelike facial expressions and body language are especially impressive, handing in better performances than the actors might have been able to achieve themselves. Not that their voicing isn’t top notch.

In short, this flick is a lot of fun and worth seeing on the big screen. It’s not as pandering to the grown-ups as Shrek, but it’s still likely to please.

Good animated adventure • PG • 98 mins.
Prediction quality: Intuitive

Repo Men

© Universal Pictures

Repo Men Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker provide gore galore — but nothing more.

Blood spatters and drips and gushes and squooshes and spews in this lousy slice-’em-up sci-fi.

reviewed by Mark Burns, March 25, 2010

Remy (Jude Law: Sherlock Holmes) and Jake (Forest Whitaker: Our Family Wedding) are best buds from childhood. The scrappers have become ace partners in a marginally legal repo scheme for The Union, a megabusiness dealing in artiforgs (artificial organs). The pair track down delinquent customers, which most customers eventually become, and harvest their organs for resale. It’s all fine and dandy until Remy turns soft, first served ultimatum to leave repo by his wife and then traumatized into an artiforg patient himself. Suddenly the switch of conscience flips, and he battles to save both himself and a bounty-laden chanteuse from repossession.

Repo Men borrows widely across the sci-fi spectrum. It looks to Logan’s Run for the hero who flees the fate he used to bestow; RoboCop for evil corporate oligarchy; Brazil for twist; and even Blade Runner for cyborg crush. Alas, the borrowing proves more burden than writer/director Miguel Sapochnik (new to features) can repay, and the movie defaults on its debts.

Setup is weak. Sapochnik tries to establish an aggressive future through spare touches of flat newscasts depicting a nation perpetually at war — subtle cues that lapse into forgetting. Recycled elements of Blade Runner’s streetscape make appearance under prettier skies before disappearing behind the idyllic veneer of suburbia. No-man’s land is merely a recycled image of dystopian slums from any number of sci-fi flicks. Shallow, dippy attempts at echoing RoboCop’s or Demolition Man’s touches of strange consumerism culminate in the dimly conceived Larry the Lung artiforg mascot.

The director steals pieces he doesn’t know how to use, dumping them into a flavorless stew devoid of character or style. There’s no noir, there’s no satire, there’s only flat routine of murder set against plain-Jane atmospherics.

That routine is exhausting for its psychotically emotionless relentlessness. If Sapochnik wasn’t in pictures he’d probably be in wanted posters. Tranquilizer disc gets fired into victim, repo man graphically slices open said victim, repo man retrieves an organ by squirming his hands under dermis. Leave the victim to die, repeat with a different blood spray pattern. Until Remy gets his the movie is murderous repetition, story treading water as the pair ply their trade. Each repetition seeks new depths of gore before a steady, unflinching camera.

Chase is the movie’s ultimate game, yet suspense is absent. The victims are labs to the slaughter and Remy’s so firmly established as a sick jerk that you can’t root for him. Aimlessness saps thrust from quest and the grand climax is mere idiocy, one final gross-out scene that sexualizes crude surgical invasion. For one last kick in the gut they toss in a predictable but frustrating cheat.

Sapochnik steals old bones for movie’s skeleton and heaps on tripe to create a witless scab of a film. Play film school and try to find the higher concept if you like, but this is why people movie hop.

Horrible sci-fi misery • R • 111 mins.

Green Zone

© Universal Pictures

Matt Damon plays propaganda point-man in Green Zone.

Conspiracy fiction fills the gaps of rhetoric in this jaded
Iraq War thriller.

reviewed by Mark Burns; March 18, 2010

Chief Warrant Officer Miller (Matt Damon: Invictus) heads a crack Army squad charged with hunting down weapons of mass destruction amid the chaos of war-torn Iraq. After hitting yet another dud site he gets tweaked over bogus intel and speaks truth to deaf power. So, when local informant Freddy (Khalid Abdalla: The Kite Runner) interrupts just another snipe hunt with a real lead, Miller is all too eager to dive in after some big fish. Through a series of turns he winds up questing for the truth behind American claims of WMDs, struggling for the noblest way forward in the gray zone between clashing ideologues.

Toss the popcorn and soda. This one begs for Tums and a highball.

Revulsion toward Bush’s campaign in Iraq deeply informs this politically motivated riff on recent events. Film stokes ire by blending real-world hubris and missteps with an infusion of popular conspiracy theory.

Critical perspective is informed by the ground work of Rajiv Chandrasekaran, former Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post and author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City. His lauded nonfiction chronicles life inside Baghdad’s Green Zone and depicts a failure of American leadership in invasion’s aftermath. Scenes and assertions from his journalism serve setup, from the surreal insulation of the Green Zone to the conceits and concepts of American leadership.

Just to ensure your ulcers open up, the filmmakers amplify this perspective with accusatory fiction. Key figures of fact are removed from camera’s view as the worst aspects and assumptions of American leadership are rolled into one bilious character — DoD suit Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear: Flash of Genius). He’s about as blunt as his name suggests as he hammers through his vision (against a CIA challenger) and makes explicit the belief that WMDs were a manufactured pretext.

The blend is weird and unsettling, especially since the movie makes an inflammatory, accusatory leap of lies, infighting and ineptitude even as the war in Iraq continues. The message, whether you agree with it or not, is propaganda. If story ever thrives, it’s in the gray zone, as Miller picks his shade of gray to champion and battles his own countrymen in a race to chart the right course. But even then it’s preachy and predictable fare.

At least director Paul Greengrass (the Bourne series) knows how to make a jolting ride. Action is sharp, suspense is taut and the execution of warfare is smartly depicted in both procedural detail and chaotic climaxes.

This one’s a good choice if you want to stoke your anti-war righteousness or have a compulsion to feel gnarled. But if it’s escapism you seek, run the other way.

Fair war conspiracy thriller • R • 115 mins.

Alice in Wonderland (3D)

© Walt Disney Pictures

Mia Wasikowska stars as Alice in her latest venture down the rabbit hole, courtesy of director Tim Burton.

Disney applies convention to nonsense in this liberal reshuffling
of Lewis Carroll’s works.

reviewed by Mark Burns; March 11, 2010

Wonderland is reduced to a vague bother of nightmares for Alice (Mia Wasikowska: Amelia), now 19. But her strange visions will soon rediscover context. Ditching a garden party to chase the white rabbit, she tumbles back through a magical burrow and into the nonsensical paradise. On emerging through the tiny door, she discovers her dream made real, making new introductions with old acquaintances and gradually awakening to a prophecy: It falls to her to slay the Jabberwocky and liberate Wonderland from the stifling tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince).

Alice of Arc?

Wonderland is made to toe the line and serve up a simple, linear tale. Author Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical wizardry is sampled and recast into video game-style quest: Blue Caterpillar serves oracle, Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp: Public Enemies) is set at the fore of an underground movement, and Alice is made to quest for the Vorpal Sword so she might fulfill her destiny on Frabjous Day. The Dungeons & Dragons storyline serves to ground the weird in a simple vein that’s easy to follow, setting up smart action and channeling the buffoonery unto — against all odds — a point.

The simple story, however, doesn’t exactly nurture eccentric charm. There is room for oddity to breathe: Depp’s Mad Hatter, Anne Hathaway’s White Queen and the March Hare take advantage of free reign to be as daft as they may. But Carroll’s strange characters and loose logic take backseat to the canned epic fantasy-adventure. Alice, though hardly the shrinking violet, is unremarkable. Doormouse is more akin to Shrek’s Puss in Boots, and Tweedles Dee and Dum (Matt Lucas: BBC’s Little Britain), taken together, are less roly poly than Flat Stanley.

Director Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd) is more at home painting the roses. He thrives in crafting a vivid 3D fantasyland that uses the books’ original illustrations as leaping points. Creatures such as the Cheshire Cat, Bandersnatch and the Jabberwocky are fine creations and even the Mad Hatter wows with a bizarre dance. The film doesn’t make the greatest use of 3D, but the immersive nature and a few winning moments keep the wow-factor intact.

Fans of Carroll might well balk at this Hollywoodization. But despite its departure from source and its abbreviated story, this return to Wonderland at least makes for a good escapist spectacle.

Good escapist nonsense • PG • 108 mins.

Prediction was: Intuitive

Cop Out

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis in Cop Out.

Save this one for a sick day with basic cable.

reviewed by Mark Burns; March 4, 2010

Cops Jimmy (Bruce Willis: Surrogates) and Paul (Tracy Morgan: 30 Rock) have been suspended for behaving stupidly in the line of duty. Now they’re about to find trouble off the clock: Jimmy is robbed of his rare baseball card in a hobby store heist. He needs the precious collectible to pay for his daughter’s wedding and best her tool of a stepfather. The quest for the card, though, makes a U-turn toward the case that got them suspended in the first place. So they run head-to-head against an ambitious kingpin across a cityscape littered with clips and quips.

Cult icon Kevin Smith (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) is an unlikely director in the buddy cop caper formula. Flashes of his misfit vibe crop up. But for the most part, the director, cast and script don’t get in the groove. Neither Willis nor Morgan links up with Smith’s tone, flattening even the better moments. Willis, though awesome for action, is too much of a cudgel for Smith’s comedy. His deadpan is undone by defaulting to action reflexes. Morgan’s loose goofiness delivers blur in lieu of needed sharpness. His running gag of working movie references into police work makes for some of the lamest material.

Story is decent. The raw narrative makes sense of the adventure and keeps detours in context. But it isn’t all smooth. The tangent complication of Paul’s suspicion that his wife is unfaithful is a poorly developed distraction. Predictability saps the tale of popping surprise, and one early detour follows a half-baked premise.

Action is a mixed bag. Gunplay is decent, but the car chase is rookie stuff.

This one needs a mulligan. Fans will be frustrated by missed potential: an unrefined tale stacked with good scenes botched or dulled by poor delivery.

Poor buddy cop farce • R • 107 mins.

Shutter Island

© Paramount Pictures

Teddy, Leonardo DiCaprio, investigates the escape of an inmate/patient from a the hospital for the criminally insane, while Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Cawley, the malevolent hospital director.

A U.S. Marshal struggles to unknot conspiracy in this smart psychological thriller.

reviewed by Mark Burns; February 25, 2010

Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio: Revolutionary Road) is a deputy with the fledgling U.S. Marshals. He and his new partner have come ashore on Shutter Island, a rock amid Boston’s Harbor Islands and home to a high-security institute for the criminally insane. One of the patient inmates has managed an impossible escape. Their investigation, however, stirs suspicions of something more wicked as Teddy quests to expose sinister purpose at the institute.

First know this is no horror. Previews have tempted the misconception with images of the stringy haired shushing lady, catacomb stalk and the threat of murderous lunatics. Those promises are here. But this one, adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River; Gone Baby Gone) is instead a head game.

From the start we learn Teddy has his own tortured past: he’s a war veteran tragically widowed by arson. Flashes of Dachau and his lost wife assail him in visions as he’s drawn into the madness around him, increasing in frequency and severity by the shrinks’ apparent manipulations. Despite his role he’s not in control, seeming ever more the rat in overseer Dr. Cawley’s (Ben Kingsley: The Love Guru) maze.

The maze makes for good story. Martin Scorsese (Shine a Light) weaves a tidy web of intrigue. Convolutions and twists keep the film unpredictable, veering it through detours and strange bends without getting lost in its own head. Even Teddy’s numerous visions are coherent and contextual enough so as not to abandon the viewer to an asylum ward. They instead feed mystery, which Scorsese is adept at nurturing with just enough clues to keep it interesting without tipping his hand.

Flashes of violence bring fine danger but are carefully dosed as crescendo to smart suspense at key moments. It’s enough but not too much, supplemented by Teddy’s own internal conflict and the inhospitable island. Stalk and conspiracy keep the film from going slack, yielding a proper thriller that’s taut and well paced.

DiCaprio excels at playing the damaged hero, and Kingsley is a smart foil. Mark Ruffalo (Where the Wild Things Are) does well as partner Chuck. Their roles play out in rich atmosphere, as Scorsese makes best use of some epic Massachusetts landscapes and locations.

The grand climax is a fascination, but it’s also the film’s weakest moment. Clues snap together snugly enough, but implausibilities may irritate some. Either way, it left a full theater dumbly fixed, with one slow, plodding clap from the rear as tentative appreciation. Judge for yourself in this must-see.

Great thriller • R • 138 mins.

The Wolfman

© Universal Pictures

The Wolfman provides some quality frights … so long as you can forgive sloppy storytelling.

There will be entrails.

reviewed by Mark Burns, February 18, 2010

Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro: Che) is a traveling actor, returned to the foggy moors of his family’s estate by news of his brother’s disappearance. When Lawrence discovers his brother’s grisly demise, he sets out to investigate. He’s prowling the moors for answers on a full-moon night when he is mauled. Lawrence will soon howl at the moon. Between rampages, he will fix his affection on his brother’s fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt: The Young Victoria), and seek revenge on the werewolf that turned him and killed his brother.

So plays this loose adaptation of 1941’s The Wolf Man, in which a guy named Larry goes home to Wales and is bitten in a scuffle with a werewolf. Parallels, nods and direct connections in the reprise offer touchstones of inspiration, sometimes even loyalty. Yet this one doesn’t quite follow.

To start, 1941’s harrow is not 2010’s horror. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry wrestled with the actor’s own German shepherd and staggered away hand-on-neck, insinuating the werewolf’s bite. Killings were hammy or vague; climactic cane beatings had the hero swinging away at something obscured by a dark tree. Here, Del Toro’s Lawrence is graphically mauled in the neck after watching the beast tear heads, limbs and fingers from other victims.

There will be entrails.

Such savagery crops up regularly throughout director Joe Johnston’s (Hidalgo) shadowy peek-a-boo. He’s done a decent job crafting fright. Classic monster-movie jump jolts and hunter’s stalk yield respectable suspense across an inky dark landscape shrouded by every available fog machine in Britain. The creepy mausoleum, wicked asylum and dilapidated hunter’s manse further elevate the brooding atmospherics.

The tale plays as more of a quiltwork of gnarly scenes than lucid story. There are a million delicious leads followed to nowhere. For instance, an asylum tangent serves little purpose other than to serve weak premise for shooting action scenes in London. A twist on the source’s father/son complication, if predictable, has promise. Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins: Beowulf) might have made for meaty intrigue. But it’s squandered by fractious distraction. And romance with the brother’s fiancée crops up out of nowhere.

The Wolfman is good for a few jolts executed in bold visuals. There are quality frights to be had … so long as you can forgive sloppy storytelling. This dog is feral, an unrefined mauler, in spite of its Victorian airs. But then, that might be enough.

Fair horror • R • 102 mins.

Dear John

© Screen Gems

Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried in one of the too-rare moments on screen together in Dear John.

Star-crossed lovers weave a tale to make eyes cross from boredom in this flat melodrama.

reviewed by Mark Burns, February 11, 2010

John (Channing Tatum: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), a Special Forces soldier, is just chilling on a pier being cool when Savannah (Amanda Seyfried: Big Love), a college student, drops her purse. He jumps into the waves to salvage it and promptly starts courting. In two weeks, while she’s off school and he’s on leave, the two develop a deep love that they vow to keep up in letters until his service is done. But when the attacks of September 11 prompt John to re-up, the strain of love and duty will wrench their hearts.

Dear John is yet another adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Love him or hate him, his tales are usually good for teary-eyed movies; schlock to many, but often expertly manipulative schlock (i.e. The Notebook).

Here, however, the deftness of manipulation turns thumbs. Even the dud Nights in Rodanthe brought more game than this piece. A non-fan might suspect the film did the source novel a disservice.

Story is a clumsy timeline. After taking time to paint the emotional connection between the girl and guy, the movie becomes a flat montage of passing time marked by weakly written letters recited to the audience. Director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat) films the addressee reading the letters, overlaying the writer’s narration. There is no energy, no twists, no climax.

Sparks’ world, for all its tragedies, is pillow soft, so it should be no surprise that he’d be befuddled by war. The climactic action sequence is a muffled punch, and the viewer is further doped up by a sleepy soundtrack more fit for nap-time at the nursery. Lovemaking is kisses and hugs and gentle insinuations, for maybe six minutes combined.

Tatum and Seyfried deliver surprisingly good performances, doing well with what little dramatic opportunity they’re given. Richard Jenkins (Burn After Reading) excels as John’s dad. Sadly, they can’t rescue this film.

This one is a total snoozer. For a better cry, pinch yourself.

Bad melodrama • PG-13 • 105 mins.

Edge of Darkness

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Mel Gibson dishes up a little payback in the action-thriller Edge of Darkness.

A bereaved father hunts conspirators in this capable thriller.

reviewed by Mark Burns, February 4, 2010

Emma (Bojana Novakovic: Drag Me to Hell) has come home to visit and is barely caught up with her dad when she’s murdered in a shotgun blast on the front porch. Rattled, her Boston detective dad Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) reacts with a tenacious quest to bring her murderer to justice. As he follows the evidence, though, he learns Emma was mixed up in something big. So he finds himself in the thick of intrigue involving the government and the military industrial complex even as he strives to beat justice out of the conspirators.

What ensues is a patiently unraveled mystery punctuated by smart action. For a revenge flick the aggression is restrained, especially as compared to Death Wish or Man on Fire.

The core story of investigation and revenge is neat and straightforward. Smart pacing maintains thrust through interplaying police procedural, empathetic flashback and bug-eyed pursuit.

But there is a lot of noise. Mysterious agent Jedburgh (Ray Winstone: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) is an odd duck, the game player with a British accent who helps tease away one cloak or another that amounts to little more than a distraction. The great conspiracy of tired convolutions comes off lame in the reveal, and half-formed twists serve up more frustration.

Still, director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) rescues the movie from its more questionable portions with smart suspense. Action strikes quick but stays in context, building evenly and naturally with the story.

As for Gibson, he returns to form easily in his first major role since Signs. His performance brings sinew and empathy and that weird fluttering eyelid thing he does to signal he’s a man on the brink. The only thing standing in the way of connection with his character is the actor’s own tempestuous ravings of recent years.

This isn’t the greatest flick. But it’s good, suspenseful entertainment if you’re looking to toss back some popcorn.

Good thriller • R • 117 mins.

Avatar (3D)

© 20th Century Fox

Sam Worthington plays a paraplegic former Marine, is brought in to “pilot” a biological avatar and infiltrate the alien Na’vi.

This must-see escapist fantasy rejoices in magic, mayhem and story.

reviewed by Mark Burns, December 24, 2009

Giant, blue, dragon-riding Indians fight to save their bioluminescent planet from mercenary commando space cowboys in this stunning sci-fi fantasy.

Pandora is a lush forest moon — like Endor, only groovier — orbiting a blue gas-giant planet. Its native Na’vi people are riled as an Earth-based corporation craters their home in search of unobtainium, the most precious substance known to man. Crack mercs are trying to bully the Na’vi into submission when Jake, (Sam Worthington: Terminator Salvation), a paraplegic former Marine, is brought in to “pilot” a biological avatar and infiltrate a local clan for intel. The good Marine goes native, however, with help from huntress Neytiri (Zoe Saldana: Star Trek). So when the mercs step up the aggression, he takes up the fight as fated hero to save the Na’vi homeworld.

Avatar is a resurfacing for director James Cameron. The auteur disappeared under the waves with 1997’s Titanic, embarking on a series of deep-sea explorations and documentaries. His return to Hollywood’s big screen is a refreshed attempt at spectacle as he strives to push computer animation and 3D filmmaking to the next level.

The guy weaves a good tale while he’s at it.

The woven pattern is familiar. Cameron might have titled his project The Last Samurai Dances with Wolves. But there’s ample meat on this formula’s bones. Smart tension keeps the film taut as Jake is caught between the camps of biologist/anthropologist Grace (Sigourney Weaver, recapturing her Gorillas in the Mist vibe) and warmongering Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang: The Men Who Stare at Goats). Naked avarice, aggression and racism power the corporation’s bid for colonial domination, setting good and evil in stark contrast.

Jake’s narration guides much of the film, neatly evolving from hard-boiled bluntness to wiser reflection as he immerses ever deeper into his avatar role. The telling is patiently wrought and evenly paced, helped along by quick action, deep character (including Cameron’s trademark strong women) and rich setting.

It’s the setting that really makes the sell. Pandora is Gaia theory meets neuroscience meets botany, a glowing fantasyland that has almost a video game feel. Fans of the Final Fantasy game series may especially appreciate the verve, particularly as relates to an inspired bestiary populated by dragon-like banshees, elephant-sized hammerhead rhinos with jet-intake nostrils and luminous, helicoptering lizards. The world is realized in crisply realistic computer animation blended with tangible set pieces to believable effect. The creative team at work here — the same guys who brought Gollum to life — deliver intricate realism to the Na’vi without the creep, creating fine virtual performances that sync naturally with live elements.

Action, too, is no slouch as Cameron serves up a buffet of fireballs, jungle chase, winged firepower, archery, beast wrangling and high-altitude acrobatics. Quaritch is a caricature of raw aggression riding in on a gunship bristling with a ridiculous array guns and missiles, setting himself up as a delicious force for mayhem. There’s a knife-fight sequence in a militarized power suit that’s just fun.

The 3D tech at work here is certainly better than the old-school stuff. There’s depth in every shot rather than just the odd gag, and it’s used to swell effect in action sequences. Dimension is sharper and the sunshade-style 3D glasses fit easily over prescription eyewear. That said, the view is a bit disorienting, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust, and the three-hour flick did yield mild eyestrain. A couple of moviegoers commented generally that next time they’d try the 2D experience.

Still, there will be a next time. Avatar is a rich piece of escapist fantasy that rejoices in its magic and mayhem without abandoning the more peaceful nuances of a carefully faceted story. Count this as a must-see.

Great sci-fi • PG-13 • 162 mins.

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