From the Editor

Movie Review Archive

Thank you for checking out my movie review archive. I'm in the process of transitioning to something else, so I will no longer post new reviews to this blog. In the meantime, I will keep these reviews archived; these are from the fall of 2008 to April 2011. Please watch this blog for more info and keep in touch (you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter). Here's to more great movies!

Wes Singleton

North Texas Film Critics Association

Monday, June 29, 2009

Public Enemies - B

Rated R for gangster violence and some language, 140 minutes

Depp the best part of the compelling, low-key "Public Enemies"

Those legions of Johnny Depp fans will be pleased to know that he and his earnest new film about John Dillinger, "Public Enemies" deliver some compelling, entertaining moments. What's really surprising is that it's remarkably conventional and subdued given the source and the magnetic leads, Depp and co-star Christian Bale and director Michael Mann, of "Miami Vice" and "Ali." "Public Enemies" brings with it some of Mann's flaws: heavily styled, colorful visuals and an overlong, meandering pace, but the story is well-told and superbly acted.

"Public Enemies" is based on the Bryan Burroughs book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-34" and essentially tells two stories: Dillinger's crime wave and then the pursuit of Dillinger, led by FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Bale). As the FBI organizes itself to seriously fight crime, it transforms itself from a largely powerless organization led by a publicity-seeking tyrant J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). They find themselves defeated at every turn by Dillinger and his men, who eventually team up with another gangster, Baby Face Nelson (played by Stephen Graham here) to become wealthy robbing banks. But Purvis and his men gather strength when they find some real Southern sharp shooters (from Texas, no less) to help bring Dillinger and his gang down.

"Public Enemies" is an entertaining and well-acted though a restrained, earnest look at how the FBI evolved into a powerful agency and how they initially dealt with organized crime. Those expecting an over-the-top bloody Tarantino-esque "Reservoir Dogs" can look elsewhere, not that it isn't enjoyable: Mann works wonders with detailed, colorful visuals, particularly costumes and sets, though his meandering, all-too conventional script needs more energy.

Of course, Depp makes the most watchable Dillinger seen on film, infusing a unique likability and humaness with a crime figure not seen since "Bonnie & Clyde." His romance with Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard (another affecting performance) as one of Dillinger's real girlfriends gives the film some romantic buoyancy away from all the shoot-and-steal scenes. Best moment: Dillinger strolls into the Chicago Police Department unnoticed and catches the cops assigned to him listening to a baseball game.

Given Depp's charm and ability to carry a movie, Dillinger's storyline is by far the more involving plotline in "Public Enemies." When it veers off to the FBI, things unfortunately turn to the banal side, unfortunate primarily for Christian Bale. Bale, much like Depp, can be the most alluring of actors and he contributes a benign, low-key performance (and with less screen time) as real-life agent Purvis, but it would've helped to bring the two actors on screen more. They share only a single scene together in the 140-minute film, so those expecting a Dark Knight-Jack Sparrow showdown will be sorely disappointed.

Mann makes some cinematic alterations to "Public Enemies" fact-based story as well, including the familiar climax in which Dillinger is brought down, an anti-climactic moment that could've used more force and dramatic resonance, which could really be said of the movie itself. (It also doesn't make the FBI look good, who made some missteps along the way but were ultimately successful.)

Yet "Public Enemies" is made palpable by its centerpiece figure played by Depp, who gives another fantastic, malleable performance as the gangster who also became public enemy number one, along with the first-rate production. The superbly accurate costumes, sets, and automobiles are all Oscar-worthy and evoke the feel of the early 1930's. Less successful is Mann's flawed, overlong script, filled with excessive, non-essential characters: blink and you'll miss Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, not to mention familiar character actors Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor and Shawn Hatosy in barely-there parts (but Diana Krall fans, watch for her in a cameo as - what else - a torch singer).

"Public Enemies," in spite of its flaws (it's also about 20 minutes too long), has more to like about it than not. It's an entertaining but conventional, low-key look at how the FBI brought John Dillinger to justice, and of course it also stars the always fascinating Johnny Depp in another compelling performance. "Public Enemies" is an unusual, serious choice for a summer movie among loud robots and special-effects, but adults can now appreciate a movie geared for them.

Ice Age 3 - B-

Rated PG for some mild rude humor and peril, 94 minutes

Same 'ol laughs, fun and antics return in familiar "Ice Age 3"

If you saw "Ice Age" or "Ice Age 2" then you've also seen "Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," the latest entry in the 20th Century Fox CG-animated movie series about an unusual prehistoric group of animals surviving the wild. "Ice Age 3" is still suitable, goofy fun strung along in some modestly humorous and loose episodes, even if the laughs are warmed over and largely forgettable.

Life has been changing for woolly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) and his friends since the last "Ice Age" movie. He and his female counterpart Ellie (Queen Latifah) are now a couple and expecting their first child. Scrat, the sabre-tooth squirrel in an never-ending pursuit to hold onto that acorn, now has to deal Scratte, a female sabre-tooth squirrel who grabs his attention more than that acorn.

Diego the sabre-toothed cat (Denis Leary) is struggling to find where he fits in and realizes he's getting older by the minute, while the opossums Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck) are continually causing trouble. Meanwhile, the lonesome Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) steals some dinosaur eggs for company, unearthing an unforgettable adventure and journey that puts the whole gang in peril.

"Ice Age 3" is a modestly enjoyable, pleasant animated comedy sequel that doesn't unearth anything new in the way of laughs, but is an entertaining outing for the whole family this summer season. The only new thing about this film is that it's being shown in 3-D in many theatres, which is largely unnecessary but does enhance the CG animation, typically the highlight of the "Ice Age" films. Clean, crisp and colorful, the animation adds bounce, energy and buoyancy to the film that makes up for the stale, often padded storyline. The animation comes close to first-rate Pixar, but the story pales in heart and imagination.

One new bright spot to the "Ice Age 3" story is the adventure-seeking one-eyed weasel, voiced with enthusiasm by British comedian Simon Pegg, currently seen as Scotty in the new "Star Trek." Other than that, the rest of the cast voices with typical charm, with the more memorable scenes generally coming from Sid the Sloth (merrily voiced by the always engaging Leguizamo, who usually steals these movies in slobbery tone) or the oppossums voiced by Seann William Scott and Josh Peck.

An "Ice Age" film wouldn't be complete without the zany, hyper squirrel Scrat, who always commands our attention. He's on screen in different episodes just long enough to be reasonably amusing yet slightly annoying; the addition of the female squirrel adds more charm to these brief mini-episodes and it's nice seeing Scrat focus on something other than that dern acorn. The dinosaurs may be mildly intense for very young ones, but there's enough packed throughout to keep their attention.

As vibrant as the animation is in "Ice Age 3" the script is bland and lacks any genuine sense of real imagination (and has a strange, underlying theme of reproduction that'll fly high above the kids heads). The whole herd treks along in an upbeat but predictable fashion to once again save Sid from being eaten by dinosaurs: it's not that complicated or unsurprising to figure what'll happen in the end.

"Ice Age 3" is benign, mildly amusing and simple fun for the entire family. You've been on this journey twice before with Manny, Ellie, Diego, Sid and friends, but you'll come along again and like the simliar trips you've been on before, will enjoy yourself. In honor of the real Ice Age and to get yourself some real flavor, enjoy a snowcone after the show.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - C

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, language, some crude and sexual material, and brief drug material, 150 minutes

Loud but entertaining "Transformers" sequel: optimus overdone-us

I will say upfront that I'm not a "Transformers" hater, though I never was an avid fan of the TV show that's been around in some form since the 1980's. The initial 2007 big screen version was an entertaining but vacuous action-adventure film with some engaging, eye-popping special effects. The behemoth of a sequel, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is more of the same - lots and lots more to be exact - clocking in at 2 hours, 20 minutes before the credits roll but still lacking any semblance of depth. Director Michael Bay has reassembled the machines and his cast in another entertaining yet exceedingly loud, overdone and overlong spectacle that's sure to the big hit of the summer. Get your large popcorn and beverage and settle in for a very long ride.

Decepticon forces return to Earth on a mission to take Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBouf) prisoner, after the young hero learns the truth about the ancient origins of the Transformers. Joining the mission to protect humankind is Optimus Prime (voiced once again by Canadian actor Peter Cullen), who forms an alliance with international armies for a second epic battle. Embedded with some valuable information that could aid the Transformers in their battle, Sam, along with girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) trek across the globe to bring down Decepticon forces led by Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving) and Devastator (voiced by one of the original "Transformer" voices Frank Welker) as they threaten global domination.

The big question will be: does "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" deliver? Yes and no. The energetic but lengthy film does everything bigger, better and longer - with those amazing special effects and action set pieces the best parts of the film. Everything else? Not so much, but that shouldn't be a big surprise given that most will go for the special effects and action and little else. Bay is seemingly the perfect director to helm this epic big-budget adventure, deftly handling the action scenes and effects with such colorful fervor you'll certainly take notice over the forgettable, ridiculous plot and wooden acting that's creakier and more threadbare than any old Autobot locked up in your garage.

The new "Transformers" is basically a three-act big screen action-adventure play. The first section starts out with fun and energy, reintroducing us to the main characters and the basic plot. But Bay could've greatly trimmed the film's meandering and considerably drawn-out second act that sets up the spectactular, climactic desert battle between good machines and bad machines. That last section is the clear highlight of the film and what people come to expect from these types of movies, it just takes so darn long to get to that point. And yes, this "Transformers" noticeably leaves it open for future installments, in case you're wondering.

The acting in "Transformers?" Yeah, right. It's intentionally secondary to any special effect, and what's there could've been acted by non-humans. LeBouf ably carries the film and is once again an engaging, likable hero but the blank stares provided by the pretty Megan Fox add little substance, if anything to the film (as for her boobs, that's another story). The rest of the cast has been padded with specific purpose - Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel for their looks, John Turturro for comic relief and so on, but the special effects - in busy overabundance this time but still enjoyable - are the real show here (and two "mini" Autobots named Mudflap and Skids are the most fun).

Those memorable special effects and well-placed action sequences will make the pricey "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" a huge hit in spite of its glaring lack of substance, which shouldn't matter as there are many eagerly anticipating this film based on the trailers alone.

"Transformers" is about 40 minutes too long, but it still entertains on many levels - loads of action, loads of special effects, lots of pretty actors - what more can you ask more this summer? How about earplugs, Aleve and generous padding for your theater seat, all required for viewing "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

My Sister's Keeper - C

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking, 109 minutes

Weepy, contrived “My Sister’s Keeper” isn’t a keeper

“My Sister’s Keeper” is a weepy, contrived adaptation of a weepy, contrived best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult. Sensitive and well-acted with a few poignant moments, it’s largely implausible, forgettable but warm and will attract those seeking an chick-flick alternative to all the “Transformers” hype going on this weekend. Though it has a talented all-star cast and a decent director in “The Notebook’s” Nick Cassavetes, this contrived cry-fest disease-of-the-week soaper really belongs on the Lifetime Network than on the big screen.

The story concerns the Fitzgerald family: Sara (Cameron Diaz), Brian (Jason Patric), Jesse (Evan Ellingson), Kate (Sofia Vasselieva) and Anna (Abigail Breslin). Middle daughter Kate contracts leukemia and doctors feel the best way for a cure is to conceive again via in vitro fertilization, and they have Anna. Their lives have all been interwined because of the move to make Anna an involuntary donor-recipient from the time she’s born. By the time Kate reaches 13, she goes into renal failure needing Anna’s kidney, but Anna, tired of donating organs and still seeing her sister suffer, hires a hot-shot attorney (Alec Baldwin) to sue her parents for rights to her own body. The move not only threatens Kate’s life but also threatens to tear apart the family.

Depressing subject matter for sure, “My Sister’s Keeper” is a downer of a movie - a repetitive, tiresome weepfest of a movie - focusing too much on the banal family drama and not enough on the intriguing premise. Director Cassavetes, who’s treaded this type of water before with “The Notebook” and “John Q,” elicits good performances from the cast but unevenly fills the movie with too many maudlin scenes. And those familiar with the novel will note that the controversial ending in Picoult’s novel has been significantly changed. Some may like it, others will bemoan that it only adds to its tremendous implausibility.

Diaz (miscast here) and Patric are likable but bland parents in “Keeper,” overshadowed by more memorable and stronger performances from the supporting cast. Breslin is always a treat to watch and as the cancer-stricken daughter, Vassilieva (who you’ll notice from the TV show “Medium”), is remarkably upbeat and optimistic. The best scene in the movie has few words and comes mid-way through the film, when Breslin shares a scene with a no-nonsense judge (the always excellent Joan Cusack, underused here) and the two share their grief and loss experiences upon deciding the best decision.

“Keeper” is also in need of a better editing job. The choppy, episodic feel of the film doesn’t help advance the story but by the time you get to the overdone, overemotional climax, you’ll be reaching for your tissues in abundance. Those looking for an alternative to “Transformers” may be disappointed in the fact that “My Sister’s Keeper” is just as forgettable (though considerably quieter and shorter) as that machine-filled summer blockbuster. This one isn’t a keeper and better suited for the small screen (i.e. DVD rental).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Year One - D

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence, 90 minutes

"Year One": Inspired casting, veteran director, lousy comedy

This summer has been a mixed bag for comedies. The modestly budgeted "The Hangover" has stormed the box-office recently to become a sleeper hit, but the lame $100 million Will Ferrell vehicle "Land of the Lost" crashed and burned in the same time period. The prehistoric buddy comedy "Year One" starring "Tropic Thunder’s" Jack Black and "Superbad’s" Michael Cera is another tediously unfunny and mostly offensive misfire that should join "Land of the Lost" in the circle of this summer’s big movie flops. On paper this should work – with the seemingly inspired casting of Black and Cera and the direction by comedic veteran Harold Ramis (of "Ghostbusters") - yet it comes across as an overlong, cheap skit full of bad hair and worse costumes.

The set up for "Year One" is all too simple. Black is Zed, Cera is Oh, two ancient village idiots who are cast out of their village after causing trouble. On their journey, they run into the likes of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and more before they end up in Sodom and Gomorrah, where the two are mistakenly assumed to be “the chosen one” that will deliver the land from drought and famine. Somewhere along the way, this is supposed to be funny and while there are a few tidbits of humorous lines and moments, the rest of "Year One" falls way, way flat.

In a nutshell, "Year One" stinks - an overwhelmingly sloppy, mediocre production that Hollywood seems to churn out these days. On one hand is the sheer affability of its two stars and it’s true the zany Black and the deadpan Cera work well together, but on the other hand nothing else really works. The few amusing moments and funny lines there are don’t add up to a great movie (Black: “You could be my right hand man.” Cera: “I’ve seen what you do with your right hand. No, thank you.”) – the rest is so badly pieced and strung together there isn’t much to go on. "Year One" certainly won’t win awards for its cheesy sets, hair or costumes – Cera in particular looks like a pre-teen girl – the studio backlot has never looked so slipshod.

If "Year One" was even mildly funny, which it isn’t, you could overlook the blatantly sacrilegious, pointless and low-brow script from Ramis, not to mention his careless, misguided direction. He basically lets Black – who much like Ferrell is growing tremendously overrated by the minute – run amok in his wild, zany antics that grow tiresome after about 3 minutes. And some of "Year One’s" scenes just don’t work – in particular the woeful Cain and Abel sequence that utterly wastes two gifted comedic actors in David Cross and an all-too-brief cameo from Paul Rudd. Even worse is any scene with the usually funny character actor Oliver Platt, who’s basically unwatchable in garish makeup and a ridicously bloated costume.

Had "Year One" had a better script and director, it might have worked a little better than the mess it ends up being. Some truly gross-out moments that’s becoming too common for current movies like this don’t help either: Cera urinates on himself, Black eats crap (and not in the figurative sense), not exactly the type of thing that generates laugh-out loud moments. As if there weren’t anything better to put in the film, it ends with outtakes and bloopers, some of which are funnier than the actual movie.

If you’re looking for a good outing at the movies this summer, "Year One" isn’t it. Black or Cera fans may show up out of curiosity the first week of release, but they’ll be sorely disappointed when they discover what a lousy movie it is. Stay far away.

Whatever Works - B+

Rated PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material, 90 minutes

Delightful, witty "Whatever Works" one of Woody's better efforts

Whether you like him or not, Woody Allen has certainly left his iconic mark on movies. Year after year, the prolific, veteran filmmaker continues to write, direct and sometimes star in movies, regardless of how they do at the box-office or how they're received critically. Last summer, he released "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (which was one of his most successful financially) that won an Academy Award for Penelope Cruz. This summer, it's the refreshingly witty yet overly familiar "Whatever Works," which teams him with "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Larry David. Also dark at times, "Whatever Works" doesn't always work perfectly, but it's sublimely performed by an inspired cast that Allen has once again assembled and should garner awards favor for two more actresses in the film.

Former Columbia Professor, self-proclaimed genius and contemporary New York City cynic Boris Yellnikoff (David) has survived a failed marriage, career and even a suicide attempt. Boris spends his days earning a meager living by instructing - or mostly insulting - young kids on how to play chess. His pessimistic tirades on everything hasn't exactly endeared him to many, but he likes it that way. He meets and helps a homeless girl named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a Southern girl who has big aspirations of making it in the big city. He relentessly insults Melody but the two become an item, until Melody's parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) show up and unexpectedly change themselves and everyone around them.

"Whatever Works" is a satisfying, dark and offbeat comedy but is Woody's better efforts of late (and better than some of his London-themed movies). Allen wrote the screenplay back in the '70's for Zero Mostel, but when Mostel died he put it on the backshelf for awhile. Ironically, it's the dusty script that could use a little work, though his direction is as solid as ever. David, a "Seinfeld" writer who became a star in his own right with "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is inspired casting, whose sharp, biting wit can enable the audience to love and hate him at the same time. His insults are mean-spirited and tasteless at times but also the more entertaining parts of the film (one bit that doesn't work: talking directly to the audience/camera).

Woody's New York-themed multiple-love-triangle story treads familiar ground and doesn't entirely work - the whole much younger woman with much older man angle - as eerily biographical as it is - is altogether creepy at times, but the talented, ecclectic cast make it work, particularly Wood and Clarkson, as mother-daughter whose lives change when they meet Boris. Both will likely garner Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for their work, especially Clarkson. Wood is exceptionally charming (but maybe a tad young for the role) as the dense Melody and has the movie in her hand until Clarkson shows up, who charms us more and steals the movie as Melody's delightful but sexually frustrated mother.

Allen's balancing of dark humor and lighter tones in "Whatever Works" is also a little uneven, with the amusing parts far more memorable, and the script works too hard to tie up loose ends in its predictable but amusing last act. Overall, one of Woody's better comedies in recent years and should gain him more favor.

The Proposal - B-

PG-13 for sexual content, nudity and language, 105 minutes

Reynolds, Bullock charming in "The Proposal," but Betty's still golden

Just when I was about to divorce myself from romantic comedies, along comes "The Proposal," a lively, amiable view of relationships. It’s certainly nothing new and it’s predictable as the unpredictable Texas weather, but "The Proposal" is held together by two engaging actors in Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds and you’re likely to leave the theatre with a big smile on your face. Even with such winning leads, "The Proposal" is stolen by a former Golden Girl who’s still quite golden when it comes to comedy.

When a powerful, domineering book editor and Canadian Margaret (Bullock) faces deportation to the north country, the quick-thinking exec declares that she’s actually engaged to her unsuspecting put-upon assistant Andrew (Reynolds), who she’s abused for 3 years. He agrees to participate in the charade, but only with the condition of an important promotion. The unlikely duo takes off to Alaska to meet his offbeat but loving family and the once-decisive Margaret can’t get a handle on her new surroundings. With immigration on their tail and a last-minute wedding in the works, their future remains cloudy as they attempt to stick to their plan.

"The Proposal" is a thoroughly enjoyable, immensely calculated, overly familiar but winning romantic comedy that gets by on the charm of its leads. Bullock, who can owe her success to these types of things (and who also co-produces), continues to mine this successful but overdone formula. That is, with "The Proposal" you can probably guess the outcome just by looking at the ads: opposites attract fish-out-of water, big wedding and comedic situations ensuing.

It adds up to a few, brief humorous scenes, basically just light comic fluff, but little else in the way of a truly great movie. Reynolds is a boyishly bland, likable actor who’s more adept at blending in than conveying any genuine sense of emotion. He and Bullock have fine chemistry and modestly inspired comic timing; their initial scenes together, with Bullock at her bossiest, have the most bounce and rhythm. But as "The Proposal" goes on, it’s hard buying the two (ironically in real-life Bullock is American and Reynolds is Canadian) as anything but good friends.

Anne Fletcher, a former dancer who also helmed the first "Step Up" and last year’s "27 Dresses," takes on another chick flick. She’s an uneventful director who treads the surface yet wisely focuses on her pretty co-stars; she manages to get Reynolds and Bullock PG-naked in a well-timed and well-choreographed scene (sorry folks, no full frontal here). "The Proposal" also benefits from a fun supporting cast that includes Craig T. Nelson (always known as "Coach"), Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen and Oscar Nunez (Oscar from "The Office") as someone who can do just about anything - waiter, store clerk and in one amusing scene – a stripper.

However, "The Proposal’s" most memorable scene stealer - and really movie stealer - belongs to former "Golden Girl" Betty White as Reynolds’ no-nonsense Grandmother. She’s still quite golden in displaying comic prowess with the lackluster script. One of her first lines in the movie is its laugh-out funniest: “What shall I call you, Margaret or Satan’s Mistress?” she asks Bullock’s Margaret. She also manages to feel Bullock up (not as funny if you’ve already seen it in the film’s trailers), hop around like an Indian and stage a faux illness that’s the highlight of the movie.

"The Proposal," aside from its lovely cast, is handsomely filmed (New England actually stands in for Alaska) and down the stretch, you’ll have a very good idea of what will happen not to mention that some of its core romantic angles ring false. Bullock and Reynolds make for better friends than lovers, and while Bullock is beautiful, she’s too old for her co-star. "The Proposal" is cheerful, light fun that should satisfy those looking for a romantic comedy alternative this summer.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Imagine That - B-

Rated PG for some mild language and brief questionable behavior, 100 minutes

Well "Imagine That": the appealing new Eddie Murphy comedy isn't terrible

Eddie Murphy is a gifted, funny comedian who has had unfortunate luck with movie comedies in the last few years. With the exception of "Dreamgirls," which wasn't a comedy, and the "Shrek" movies, which are animated, his dreadful lineup includes "Norbit," "Daddy Day Care" and last year's horribly awful "Meet Dave." The pleasantly surprising "Imagine That" isn't terrible (which may not be saying much given Murphy's track record as of late), though it's calculated moves can be seen from a mile away. Predictable and bland, there are a few sweet, humorous moments that's an entertaining diversion suitable for the whole family.

Evan Danielson (Murphy) is a successful financial executive whose career is top priority, leaving little time for his imaginative but lonely 7-year old daughter Olivia (newcomer Yari Shahidi), who has an imaginary blanket that allows her to talk to her invisible friends. Olivia's imaginary friends uknowingly provide some sage but unusual financial advice that puts Evan on the fast track to head his firm, though he has competition from the equally unconventional John Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), who uses Native American nature metaphors in conveying financial advice to clients. Olivia's imaginary friends and Evan's quest for success provide some quality time between father and daughter, but Evan must still find a way to balance family and career.

"Imagine That" is a likable, agreeable comedy that is held together by Murphy and his chemistry with the precocious, delightful Shahidi. Murphy's loud, physical brand of comedy is toned down slightly here, and there are even a few memorable moments when the old Murphy - genuinely funny stand-up and improv comedian - shines through. Murphy sings, dances and moves around blithely to charm information out of his daughter's imaginary friends. A genuinely amusing moment: Murphy teaching his daughter to sing The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" for her school play.

The normally engaging Haden Church ("Sideways") is awkwardly miscast in "Imagine That" and his scenes with Murphy throw the movie off rhythm some, and the film steers toward the maudlin in its predictable climax, but there are enough amusing Murphy moments to keep the thin premise together. It's also good seeing Murphy reunited with Ronny Cox (he was the Beverly Hills police captain in "Beverly Hills Cop") and the reliable Martin Sheen pops in for a few scenes as a financial big-wig.

"Imagine That" is satisfying and pleasant enough but unoriginal given that Murphy really did this kid thing before in the stinkeroo "Daddy Day Care." It'd be truly refreshing to see the skilled comedian actually do something different, such as a another serious role like a villain or an independent film or return to standup or even a profane comedy that doesn't involve multiple roles or kids. Until then, enjoy the cheerfully appealing, entertaining "Imagine That."

The Taking of Pelham 123 - B

Rated R for violence and pervasive language, 106 minutes

Washington, Travolta a splashy team in the energetic remake "Pelham 123"

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is not your ordinary heist film. First, it's a remake of the classic 1974 film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Second, it's helmed by consummate visual filmmaker Tony Scott. And of course - the most important thing - it has two gifted A-list actors in Denzel Washington and John Travolta. This updated "Pelham" is fast-paced, energetic, immensely entertaining and largely implausible. But the whole Washington-Travolta pairing (who share just a few scenes together) is enjoyable enough to carry the film above its flaws.

New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber's (Washington) ordinary day is thrown into disorder by an audacious, blatant crime: the hijacking of a subway train. Ryder (Travolta), a criminal mastermind and former Wall Street guru, leads a highly-armed gang threatening to execute the train's passengers unless a ransom of $10 million is paid within one hour. As the tension mounts before his eyes, Garber uses his vast knowledge of the subway system in a colorful battle to outwit Ryder and work quickly before the thieves successfully escape with the cash and leave behind a bunch of dead hostages.

The splashy, enjoyable big-screen Washington-Travolta pairing is the highlight of "The Taking of Pelham 123," a swiftly made, vivid film from director Scott, who has directed Washington several times ("Crimson Tide" and "Deja Vu" among them). Just so you know, the intense plot unravels with such nimble pacing and dizzying editing that requires its audience to keep up and keep time.

"Pelham 123" reveals the accomplished Scott strength's and weaknesses. His strengths are colorful visuals, brisk pacing and the ability to juggle some big-name actors. His weaknesses: a lack of realism and those annoying, unnecessarily jumpy cuts from scene to scene. But "Pelham's" strengths outweigh the weaknesses, and it will carry you to a suspenseful cat-and-mouse finale on the streets of New York City between the two engaging actors.

Speaking of which, Washington gives a remarkably subdued, low-key performance that's a striking contrast to the showy, profane and over-the-top performance from Travolta. Sure, he chews on the scenery like never before and throws out more F-bombs from an A-list actor heard in some time, but he also makes a terrific, amusing bad guy. Most of Washington and Travolta's "Pelham" scenes are initially blathering on about money, death and religion as the time clocks clicks down but the movie enlivens considerably when the two actors finally get together in the film's last act. John Turturro, "The Sopranos"James Gandolfini and familiar character actor Luis Guzman round out the gifted cast.

"Pelham" is an absorbing, above-average tense action-thriller that should please the masses. You won't believe a bit of it (minor digressions: Internet access way below ground, who works on a cash-only basis these days and why do NYC city officials seem so dumb?) and Scott paints the strokes too broadly and colorfully at times, but "The Taking of Pelham 123" does its job just fine, and you'll leave both entertained and satisfied.

Away We Go - B

Rated R for language and some sexual content, 97 minutes

Tender, quirky and leisurely, "Away We Go" is a great date movie

"Away We Go" is a small film with a big heart. Quirky, sweet and sensitive, "Away We Go" is a fresh alternative to the big summer film of the moment and a perfect date getaway for a warm evening. It may be too leisurely, unconventional and even low-key for the masses, but director Sam Mendes and leads Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski strike a few genuinely tender and fun chords about a couple trying to find the meaning of home and family.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are a loving couple who are expecting their first child. When Burt's self-absorbed parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) unexpectedly leave the country for other plans, the two travel around the U.S. in order to find a perfect place to start their family. Along the way, they have misadventures and find fresh connections with an assortment of relatives and old friends who just might help them discover "home" on their own terms for the first time.

Poignant and unconventionally touching, "Away We Go" is a road trip film about an expectant couple who encounter some wildly unexpected events in their search for a home. Director Sam Mendes, who directed the somber, ultra-serious "Revolutionary Road," takes quite a turn with this episodic, quirky romantic comedy-road movie. It wears its pecularities on its sleeve proudly, but that is also its appeal. "Away We Go's" story has some flaws: the familiar, leisurely and episodic quality sometimes gives it a choppy, uneven feel and some plot points, particularly in its final act, aren't quite fleshed out.

"Away We Go's" central leads give sensitive performances that highlight the film. Krasinski, better known as Jim on TV's "The Office," and "Saturday Night Live" comedienne Rudolph make for an interesting pair. Playing polar opposities, initially they don't seem to go well, with Krasinski looking both scruffly and nerdy in beard and rimmed glasses, while Rudolph playing the sensible, balanced and smarter of the two. But their warm chemistry grows on you after each episode and providing some fun moments, especially when Burt must "test" the heartbeat of the baby.

The initial episodes of "Away We Go" are by far the more entertaining and some talented actors add to the movie's comic sensibilities. Daniels and especially O'Hara are a treat, though Allison Janney (of "The West Wing") is altogether a hoot as Verona's former boss, a brassy broad who'll speak her mind without hesitation, regardless of who's around. The role is small enough to make a big impression and small enough not to be annoying. The next stop we're greeted to a very flaky, weird friend of Burt's LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose ideas on parenting are as peculiar as the spelling of her name.

The final act of "Away We Go" is its most tender and sweet, with Burt and Verona finally discovering their home, each other and where they want to build a family, which was really right under their noses the whole time. But their journey has taught them to remain committed and that regardless of the location of their home, the most imporant part is them (a metaphor explained vividly with pancakes and syrup).

Rudolph (who is also the daughter of '70s soul singer Minnie Riperton) is lovely and I wish she'd make more films, though her character is the more underwritten of the leads (and exactly why she won't marry Burt), and "Away We Go" unfortunately ends just as we're getting to know her. I'm also glad that Krasinski has finally decided to go the independent film route, where he could have more success than with the mediocre, mainstream choices he's made so far. Their final, touchig scene together at their new home will leave you misty-eyed.

"Away We Go" isn't a perfect film, but it is a tender, sweet one that makes you wish more films were like it.