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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Aliens in the Attic - D+

Rated PG for action violence, some suggestive humor and language, 86 minutes

Even kids may not enjoy the inane, dumb "Aliens in the Attic"

Generally when films don't get an advance screening for critics, it often means the film isn't any good and/or its studio has no faith in it. That was probably the case with the new kids film "Aliens in the Attic," a dumb, contrived and mean-spirited but fast-paced fantasy-adventure where most of the action takes place in one central place: upstairs. Most of the film is ridiculously laughable even for something like this, in spite of the presence of "High School Musical's" starlet Ashley Tisdale, the only real draw for the film, and she can't act. (Guess this is what she gets for acting in a non-Disney film.)

A bickering, dysfunctional family heads to their wooded summer house for vacation. Teens Tom (Carter Jenkins) and Bethany (Ashley Tisdale) barely speak to each other, and when they do, it's usually to insult each other. Along comes cousin Jake (Austin Robert Butler), Nana (Doris Roberts ) and Uncle Nathan (Andy Richter) not to mention Bethany's older jerk boyfriend Ricky (Robert Hoffman) who obviously has Bethany's dad (Kevin Nealon) fooled. The kids discover some little green aliens who use the attic to map out their plot to overtake the world, but not if the kids can help it, who must somehow keep all of this from the clueless adults.

"Aliens in the Attic" is modestly enjoyable and energetic kids flick, but they'll be amazed at how dumb this movie is. It's an interesting premise, but the fact that most of the action takes place inside the house is a plot contrivance that never really works well. The CG aliens are ugly, stupid and in no way lovable or funny, though that may be the real point. They have ambitious plans to take over the world but can't get out of the dern house to do so. Heck, they can fly. Forget the kids and on to bigger things. Much of the plot shenanigans is really just pointless padding until the muddled, predictable climax. Even at a brief 86 minutes, this seems to go on forever, I'm amazed that the filmmakers were able to get that much out of the thin, tired premise.

What's most unfortunate about this mess of a movie is the fact that it wastes a decent cast, most of whom are experienced comedic veterans. The most memorable is "Everybody Loves Raymond's" Emmy winner Roberts, who gets in a high kick or two at the aliens. The rest of the adults are wasted and mostly stand around baffled (much like the audience), including the likable Nealon, Andy Richter and Tim Meadows, woefully miscast as a sheriff. The kids, most of them unknown, are decent actors who play second fiddle to the cheap, ultra-fakey CG aliens, who aren't integrated into the film well. The only voice of note among the aliens is "Sideways" Thomas Haden Church, normally a funny guy but who phones it in "Aliens."

Tisdale is a pretty young celebrity non-actress and is charmingly empty as the older sister, who's given very little to do but run around in a bikini. That alone should be a draw for the younger boys, who'll mostly forget this mess in a moment. "Aliens in the Attic" isn't recommended and makes the forgettable "G-Force" look like "Citizen Kane." Stay away if at all possible.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

G-Force - C+

Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor, 89 minutes

Energetic, harmlessly silly "G-Force" strictly for the kids

If there's ever a movie that parents could drop their kids off at the theater while do something useful, "G-Force" is your movie. Harmless, energetic and altogether silly stuff, the big-budgeted, Disney-produced "G-Force" is geared for and will be most enjoyed by those under 10 years of age. For every brilliant Pixar flick, there's forgettable dreck like this that Disney produces and calls entertainment. It won't hurt anyone, but then it certainly doesn't help the world of cinema, either.

"G-Force" is about a team of trained secret agent guinea pigs that takes on a mission for the U.S. government. A specially trained squad of guinea pigs led by human special agent Ben ("The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis) is dispatched to stop a diabolical billionaire (played by Brit Bill Nighy in a take-the-money-and-run performance), who plans to taking over the world with household appliances. Darwin (Sam Rockwell), Hurley (Jon Favreau), Juarez (Penelope Cruz), Blaster (Tracy Morgan) and Spreckles (Nicolas Cage) risk life and limb to save the world from evil.

"G-Force" is an enjoyable piece of puffery, in spite of the big-budget, all-star cast and voice talent and respectable writing team that Disney has all assembled. It's really a lazy excuse to have a movie about some cute talking guinea pigs that have your kids wanting the things after they see the movie. Of the big name talent, the more memorable voices from Cruz, colorfully voicing the female guinea pig whose gets to wear a dress and lipstick. Cage is also decent, but the most peppy voice comes from Steve Buscemi in a brief role as a half-hamster/ferret who wants all the snacks (not to mention the cage) for himself. Will Arnett, as one of the human FBI Agents, is also good for a few fun moments, though it's unusual that he's not voicing one of the guinea pigs, given his distinctive voice.

If you think for one moment that "G-Force" will let the destruction of the world actually happen, think again. Everything to get to that predictable moment seems like padded schtick to entertain the young ones. A few fun moments here and there don't make a great movie and in spite of the game, splashy voice cast (and Tracy Morgan, you are delightfully funny, but please do not scream your lines) this one won't be remembered until the next big kids movie comes along. Parents, if you can find anything productive to do rather than seeing "G-Force," I'd recommend it.

Funny People - B-

Rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality, 146 minutes

Funny People is enjoyable, clever and well-written but at 146 minutes, far too long for a comedy

Admittedly, I’m not an Adam Sandler fan. He started out well, but his immature, high-strung humor has become irritatingly repetitive over the years, as he essentially plays the same character in every one of his films. Knowing his brand of humor, I wasn’t exactly excited about seeing him play a comedian for 2 ½ hours in his new movie, "Funny People."

Fortunately, he’s paired with a smart, talented writer like Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up") whose skillful with his comic sensibilities, making "Funny People" entertaining, clever and fun with Sandler mellow and tolerable. Apatow knows quick-witted comedic writing, but he's a self-indulgent filmmaker and should learn the value of efficient storytelling (i.e. editing) and the realization that comedies, even character-driven ones like this one, should not be an epic 146 minutes long.

Sandler is George Simmons, a former stand-up comedian who hit the big time making some silly, mostly awful crowd-pleasing movie comedies such as "Mer-man." He’s diagnosed with a terminal, inoperable illness that forces him to re-evaluate his life. With few genuine, real friends, he starts doing stand up again in L.A. and meets a relatively new performer to the stand up game, Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), and soon takes him under his wing as his assistant and writing some of his jokes.

As George’s health begins looking better, he re-establishes a friendship with an old flame, Laura (Leslie Mann), who has since gone on to marry and have a lovely family with a successful but fiery Australian businessman (Eric Bana). As George and Ira’s friendship grows, they soon realize their complexities may be too much for each other.

"Funny People" is a pleasant, flavorful but overlong dramedy with well-developed, nicely shaded characters and humor. Apatow’s quick wit and the cast chemistry is the film’s highlight with some fine original touches (those faux bad movie clips and posters are especially amusing), but as a director "Funny People" represents his most excessive and overly ambitious film. It starts out well as a sharp yet downbeat look at successful comedians, but meanders when it bogs down on family drama; the last section in particular could’ve been considerably tightened, making the film a full half-hour too long.

"Funny People’s" warm, engaging cast almost makes up for the film’s length. Sandler as he plays in a restrained, benignly charming performance. Though it’s not exactly a great stretch for him playing comedian, you also won’t find the usual Sandler gags of farting, screaming or physically harming people (in one twist, he actually gets beat up). Sandler is essentially playing a version of himself, but it’s also one of his more accessible (and least annoying) parts, even if he lacks the depth required for it.

Sandler’s well-teamed with Rogan (they’re George and Ira – as in Gershwin – a nice Apatow touch), who delivers some of the film’s best lines and keeps pace with Sandler in wit, timing and physical presence. The Sandler-Rogan chemistry carries the film and if "Funny People" is a big hit, it’s what people will remember most. It’s fun seeing them write jokes together, teasing the doctors and teasing each other.

Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann is delightful as Sandler’s love interest, and it’s fun seeing the normally intense Bana ("Munich") playing light comedy in a small role. As Ira’s geeky pals, Apatow regular Jonah Hill ("Superbad") and Jason Schwartzman steal some of "Funny People’s" more humorous moments, particularly Schwartzman (who also does some of the folksy music in the film) as a second-rate actor on an even worse TV show. And in another bit of casting nepotism, watch for Apatow and Mann's real-life daughters playing Mann's daughters here and who seem to have a natural talent in front of the camera.

There are loads of cameos in "Funny People" by many, many comedians - really too many to name here - but the most memorable ones come from two non-comedians – singers Eminem and James Taylor in separate scenes, delivering profane lines that can’t be repeated here.

Apatow has a gift for writing comedy, and he and Sandler deliver the goods in "Funny People," a pleasing, yet overlong and caustic look at comedians. They hit a double here, but if they want a home run, they need to get there a lot quicker and more expediently.

In the Loop - B+

Not rated (strong language), 102 minutes

British-American relations on view in the sharp satire "In the Loop"

"In the Loop" takes a familiar, fictional and often spirited look at British-American political relations and what might happen in the event of a war between the two countries. A spin-off of the British comedy TV series "The Thick of It," it's dialogue-heavy, character-driven and relying heavily on the banter of its players. Fresh, witty and foul-mouthed, it may be too talky for some but those that enjoy series like "The Office" will enjoy it.

The US President and UK Prime Minister fancy a war, but not everyone agrees that war is a good thing. US General Miller ("The Sopranos'" James Gandolfini) certainly believe so and neither does the British Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander from "Pirates of the Caribbean"). But when the mild-mannered minister inadvertently appears to back the war on national television, he promptly attracts the attention of the PMs aggressive communications chief Malcolm Tucker ("The Thick of It" actor Peter Capaldi), latching onto him like a hawk. Soon, the Brits find themselves in D.C., where diplomatic relations collide with overseas spin doctors and off-hand misunderstandings quickly spirals into an insurmountable mountain of conflict.

"In the Loop" is hilarious, amusing and intelligent fun, a sharp political satire on the inner-workings of the British and American governments. "In the Loop" is helmed with great fun by Armando Iannucci, creator of the British comedy TV series "The Thick of It" that is the basis for the fun. If you've seen that series, he treads similar ground here, except a more expansive script that includes a view inside the American government. The quick hand-held camera movements give "In the Loop" a personal documentary-like feel, seemingly like "The Office."

The large mostly British cast performs sublimely well, including a couple of actors from "The Thick of It." Capaldi reprises his role as British official Malcolm from that series, and he is viciously funny, particularly when he's angry, which is most of the time (a brief scene when he attempts to meet with a much-younger American official is hilarious), anchoring the film well. Addison is decent as Toby though his storyline too often resembles the Jim-Pam love angle on "The Office."

Gandolfini has some good moments in "In The Loop" as as U.S. general, showing an underrated comic side, and he and Malcolm have an amusing exchange (he calls Malcolm "a creepy English gay mercenary"). Hollander has some memorable moments as the befuddled Simon, and he utters the film's funniest line: "I feel like Simon Cowell, except for the ability to say "f--- you." Interestingly, "In the Loop" marks a film comeback for Anna Chlumsky, who as a child played the title role in the 1991 iconic film "My Girl." Grown-up and playing an American official, she does well with an underwritten as an American official whose document sparks war interest.

Fortunately, "In the Loop" is completely fictional and by the time it gets to its end, some characters will be standing and some won't but the governments will continue to run as efficiently as the people who are in charge. "In the Loop" is a clever, cutting satire that's recommended, except for those who may hold or desire a government job.

The Collector - D

Rated R for pervasive sadistic bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity, 88 minutes

Gruesome, bloody awful "Collector" is a "Saw" ripoff

If the new horror film "The Collector" seems familiar, it's because it channels other horror films, namely "Saw" and "Halloween." In spite of some a few nice, tense moments, it's mostly a (no pun intended) a collection of very blood special effects and make-up. The low-budget "The Collector" is a cheap, schlocky affair, with awful, third-rate acting, directing and writing. Forgettable schlocky horror trash, "The Collector" is strictly for those horror-film devotees.

Desperate to repay his debt to his ex-wife, an ex-con named Arkin (TV actor Josh Stewart) plots a heist at his new employer's country home, unaware that a second, masked criminal has also targeted the property, and rigged it with a series of deadly traps. He along with a young girl named Jill who lives at the home ("Californication's" Madeline Zima) work against time to escape from the man, a deadly, sadistic serial killer who not only kills but also tortures people, "collecting" them and putting them in a box to take to his next victims.

Disappointing horror thriller "The Collector" provides any true chills, with the few moments of intensity provided not by the blood, but by the deadly cat-and-mouse game inside the house. It could've worked well, except that director and co-writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton already did this with the last couple of "Saw" films. The traps, along with all the torturing and blood and gore, are fun to watch but have a "been there done that" feel to it. And the whole masked serial killer character ("The Man") seems to be Michael Myers long-lost brother.

"The Collector" is unsurprisingly a cheap affair, with mostly TV or no-name actors who are given little to do under all that blood, and there is a lot of it. The best scenes are the ones with a cat-and-mouse feel to it, but they don't last too long in between all the torture scenes, which like "Saw," are repetitive and uncomfortable to watch. The predictable, laughable climax tries to shock, but it only serves to generate a rolling of the eyes.

It's also no surprise that "The Collector" wasn't screened for critics, but then horror fans are known to make a good showing to see what it's all about (witness all the "Saw" films, none of which have been screened for critics but have still opened at number one at the box-office and are very profitable). If you can't get enough of this time of thing, wait about 3 months until the 6th "Saw" installment is released. By that time, "The Collector" will be long forgotten.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Orphan - C

Rated R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language, 123 minutes

"Orphan" provides a few jumps but stale horror

I couldn't help but think during the new horror film "Orphan" that the adoptive parents names are John & Kate. Where the plus 8? There's been plenty of creepiness in the news lately with the Gosselin family, though they're far more interesting than the family in the pale horror thriller "Orphan," a mediocre uninteresting and badly written combination of "The Omen" and "Bad Seed" rolled into one very bad little girl who needs to be locked up rather than spanked.

John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga), parents to two small children, lose a third in childbirth and decide to adopt an innocent, fresh-faced young Russian girl named Esther (newcomer Isabelle Fuhrman) from the local convent. Bad move. Esther turns out to be quite evil indeed, ripping apart this already damaged family; Kate's alcoholism and John's infidelity don't help, not to mention their 12-year old son (Jimmy Bennett) is a bit rowdy and their youngest, Max (Aryana Engineer) is nearly completely deaf. Esther turns the family upside down until it leads to a final, shocking climax that can only lead to tragedy.

"Orphan" is a plodding, uninvolving attempt to essentially update the "Bad Seed" story with far more contemporary complexities and shows what a bad script can do with decent actors. It starts out well until we're dragged into the banality of the family drama and Esther literally goes wild at every turn. It's no wonder that many adoption and foster parent organizations are throwing a fit over "Orphan," it makes them look just as bad as Esther. It's hard to believe that the adoption agency wouldn't run some sort of background check on such a troubled girl instead of waiting until she's living with her family.

"Orphan" does have a few decent jumps and some aspects of the story are creepy, but that doesn't really add up to a great horror film. In addition, one of my favorite actresses, CCH Pounder, is considerably underused (i.e. Esther gets to her way too early in the film and quite brutally) by Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose biggest production to date has been the awful remake of "House of Wax."

Farmiga and Sarsgaard are both intriguing actors, but the script doesn't give them much to do. The more memorable scenes come from two young, new actresses; first, there's Fuhrman, who makes for a truly wicked child, and cute, curly blonde Engineer, who's quite adept at playing the younger deaf sister (her scenes with Fuhrman are the most frightening ones in the film).

"Orphan" goes on way too long and becomes repetitive - OK, we get the point, she's a nasty young girl - now what happens? A pretty shocking twist at the end that you won't see coming and while fun, doesn't really belong in a film that lacks potency and genuine scares to begin with. "Orphan" tries to be fun but takes itself far too seriously and is a disappointment considering the premise and the acting talent. Outside of a few jumpy moments, you'll be bored.

The Ugly Truth - C

Rated R for sexual content and language, 97 minutes

"The Ugly Truth": not such a pretty (or funny) attempt at romantic comedy

There's no denying that Katherine Heigl of the hit TV show "Grey's Anatomy" and Gerard Butler, the rugged star of "300," are attractive and charming. Too bad the same can't be said of their profane new romantic comedy "The Ugly Truth." To be brutally honest, "The Ugly Truth" is tasteless, predictable, misogynistic and an unfortunate waste of talent. Sure, Heigl and Butler are nice eye candy and there are some reflex, crowd-pleasing laughs, but this largely forgettable, shallow star vehicle plays like a modern "Pygmalion" with lots of profanity and sexual innuendo.

Abby Richter (Heigl) is a successful yet romantically challenged TV morning show produce whose search for Mr. Perfect has left her hopelessy single. Uptight and controlling, she runs a tight ship but her TV show is struggling in the ratings. Abby's in for a rude awakening when her bosses team her with Mike Chadway (Butler), a hardcore TV personality who promises to spill the ugly truth on what makes men and women tick, not to mention huge ratings for the station. When Abby has a promising suitor, a hunky doctor named Colin (Eric Winter), she hopes this will be the one, until Mike steps in to help and all sorts of unexpected things happen.

You won't buy a minute of this stale, unreal and predictable tripe that Hollywood throws upon audiences every few months or so, calling it "romantic comedy." The set up in "The Ugly Truth" can be seen coming from the first frame. Two polar opposites who initially hate each other then grow to like each other then fall in love. This formula has been done before many times before and much better since the Hepburn-Tracy era.

What's truly remarkable about "The Ugly Truth" is that it intends to reveal some romantic notions by supposedly uncovering how men and women think. It would help if director Robert Luketic (responsible for last year's hit "21" but also for the dreadful "Monster-in-Law") helmed with an original touch, or if the script - ironically written by two women - wasn't so one-dimensional or misogynistic. Heigl plays a "strong, intelligent" character but then she lets Butler attempt to "shape" her (ala "My Fair Lady") into the woman that men really want, an idea that's so blatantly false and unrealistic. No matter how hard they try, Butler and Heigl are not Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.

That's not to say that "The Ugly Truth" has some fun moments or that Heigl and Butler aren't nice to look at. Heigl in particular (who interestingly enough, gets a co-producer credit on this) is a game comic actress and displaying some decent timing (fun scenes: falling out of a tree, vibrating underwear) when she isn't annoyingly whining. Butler's character is so shallow, offensive and one-dimensional (and worst of all, with no real attempts to change him) that it's striking this pair would even consider each other romantically.

The most fun in "The Ugly Truth" comes from a few wacky supporting players. John Michael Higgins (a Christopher Guest mockumentary player and seen currently on DirecTV commercials) and Cheryl Hines ("Curb Your Enthusiasm"), play a married TV couple who really need the relationship advice and have some humorous, entertaining on-air exchanges. Nick Searcy, another familiar comic face, memorably and energetically plays Heigl's exasperated and ratings-hungry boss determined to keep the show going at all costs.

Shallow isn't necessarily a bad thing, really. That's what makes the first part of "The Ugly Truth" mildly enjoyable, even fun at times. Then it falls apart in its last act when it shifts from shallow to serious and attempts to make the audience believe that these two would fall for each other, when when we knew that was coming within the first few minutes of the film. Heigl and Butler are appealing, talented actors who are better than "The Ugly Truth," a forgettable, otherwise not-so-pretty attempt at romantic comedy.

The Hurt Locker - A-

Rated R for war violence and language, 131 minutes

Explosive "Hurt Locker" commands your attention

If you like war and combat movies, then "The Hurt Locker" is for you. It's explosive, superbly directed and acted and will engage your senses for 2 hours, balancing a pertinent storyline with some forceful, very intense action scenes. "The Hurt Locker," skillfully directed by Kathryn Bigelow, features a largely unknown cast but is one of the best movies you'll see this year and should be remembered come awards time.

"The Hurt Locker" is concerns a group of elite US soldiers in Iraq who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: disarming bombs in the heat of combat. When a new sergeant, James (Jeremy Renner), takes over a highly trained bomb disposal team during violent conflict, he unexpectedly and recklessly plunges two of his two subordinates, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), into a dangerous, very deadly game of urban combat on the streets of Baghdad. Sargeant James feels as if he's indifferent to death. As Sanborn and Eldridge struggle to control their wild new leader as their duty winds down, the city explodes into chaos, and James' true character reveals itself in a way that will change all of them forever.

"The Hurt Locker" is a fiercely made, wholly involving and superb dramatic character study with the war in Iraq as the backdrop. It's an exciting, powerful and timely look at the war but also a superb look into three remarkably different characters. Three relatively unknown actors play the three leads, but this should catapult them all to better parts and awards consideration. Jeremy Renner (seen on the TV show "The Unusuals" this past spring) is ferociously engaging and one of the most memorable portrayals of a maniacal, renegade captain since Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now."

All three actors are palpable and believable and remind of the storyline in Oliver Stone's "Platoon." Both Mackie ("Notorious") and newcomer Geraghty deserve as much acclaim as Renner, with Mackie as the by-the-book-solider and Geraghty the insecure newbie. Watch for a few name actors in cameos: David Morse, Evangline Lilly, Ralph Fiennes and very briefly at the beginning, Guy Pearce. Memorable scene: James has his two underlings go at it like dogs in a wrestling match egging them on as much as possible.

As good as the actors are in "The Hurt Locker," the real star of this show is director Kathryn Bigelow, who expertly and skillfully brings to life Mark Boal's ("In the Valley of Elah") busy script. She helms the action scenes with grace and ease and balances the storyline well into the action. It helps that she used many 16mm handheld cameras to give it a documentary, realistic feel that personally brings breathlessly right into the action. "Hurt Locker" will hopefully bring better films for Bigleow, who up to now has directed the cult classics "Point Break" (yes, that one with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze) and "Strange Days."

Thankfully, "Hurt Locker" seems to stay neutral with any overt political messages, though the depressing spectacle of it all only reinforces that it's an anti-war film, which is really the point of the film. The conventional combat scenes isn't anything new for this genre, only to underscore that war is hell and extremely brutal. The only real flaw with the film is that as adeptly handled as the action is, sometimes it moves too quickly and energetically to completely understand what's going on at all times.

Intense, honest, hard to watch and sad, "The Hurt Locker," while also conventional in many ways, is a war film that shouldn't be missed.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - B+

Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality, 153 minutes

Dark, overlong "Half-Blood Prince" still carries emotional weight

Dark but impressively stimulating, the sixth installment of the “Harry Potter” series, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” carries with it the ardency of killing off a major, beloved character. Harry Potter and his pals at Hogwarts, along with movie audiences, may not be the same again. It also sets the stage for the final act, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” which will be split into two movies. Overlong, intense but moving, “Half-Blood Prince” is balanced between the arcane and the poignant that makes it more easily accessible for non-fans than the last two overly glum entries.

Lord Voldemort’s grip is tightening on the world of wizards and Muggles and Hogwarts is no longer the safe haven it once was. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) suspects that dangers lay ahead, but Dumbledore’s (Sir Michael Gambon) goal is preparing him for the final battle he knows is fast approaching. They work together uncovering keys to unlock Voldemort's defenses and, to this end, Dumbledore recruits his old friend and colleague, the unsuspecting but knowledgeable Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who may hold crucial information. In addition, they must are suspicious of Lord Voldemort’s heinous associates, including aloof fellow Hogwarts student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) along with one of Voldemort’s chief “Death Eaters” Bellastrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter).

Meanwhile, the students are under attack from a very different adversary as teenage hormones rage with the confines of Hogwarts. Harry finds himself attracted to Ginny (Bonnie Wright), but so is the athletic Dean Thomas (Alfred Enoch) while Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) has decided that Ron (Rupert Grint) is the one for her. And don’t forget Hermione (Emma Watson), simmering with jealousy over Lavender but determined not to show her true feelings for Ron. Love is in the air, but tragedy lies ahead for Harry and his Hogwarts pals.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is somber fun lightened by an air of teenage romance, as our young trio – Harry, Ron and Hermoine – begin their quick ascent into maturity. Overlong and thickly plotted, many adult themes are evident here (namely grief) but more of it works than not, and you'll still have a good time at the movies.

Director David Yates, who directed the “Order of the Phoenix," keeps a tight pace and focuses on the novel’s major themes, though “Harry Potter” fans will contend this isn’t exactly a faithful adaptation. Screenwriter Steve Kloves has condensed (i.e. cut) some details and minor characters that are in Rowling’s opaque novel, which isn't surprising given that very reason. Even with that, it's advised to brush up on your “Harry Potter” knowledge beforehand to keep track of the heavy plot that wastes no time in getting started.

It’s easy to see how Harry has matured from the first film eight years ago with each entry getting darker and scarier. Given that fact, "Half-Blood Prince" may may warrant a brief explanation along those lines especially if young children are attending, as there are more intense, frightful scenes, particularly the climax that features some zombie-like characters. However, the Quidditch matches, missing from the last film, make a grand return for some of the film's livelier scenes.

Technically, the standouts of this entry are the inventive, first-rate special effects and the breathtaking sets from Oscar-winning set designer Stuart Craig, all of which have evolved creatively with each “Harry Potter” installment. “Half-Blood Prince” is also the most handsomely filmed of the movies, which only enhances the film visually.

Radcliffe, Grint and especially Watson all give steady, likable performances as they continue to mature, though the latter two are largely absent from the film's last act. A couple of pleasant additions to "Half-Blood Prince": Oscar-winner Broadbent, adding some nimble comic flavor as a bemused professor while newcomer Cave has jolly fun as Lavender. The rest of the gang is back too, including a handful of distinguished actors: Julie Walters, David Thewlis, Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham Carter all have brief but lasting impact. Gambon makes for a typically stoic Dumbledore while Alan Rickman drips with evil as the corrupt Professor Snape.

Our Harry is growing up. Love, grief, good and evil - some complex, thoughtful themes to contend with - and this film juggles it all well. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is superbly dark entertainment for young pre-teens and up casting its spell with superior, memorable visual effects and first-rate photography and sets. Recommended, fun movie-going but this time out don't forget to take the tissues.

Moon - B

Rated R for language, 97 minutes

Affecting, thoughtful sci-fi thriller "Moon"

Those of us with very lives have often wanted to clone ourselves to accomplish much more. You might think twice about that after seeing the timely, stirring sci-fi thriller "Moon," written and directed by Duncan Jones, David Bowie's son, and starring "Frost/Nixon's" Sam Rockwell. An independent film shot on a modest budget, it accomplishes far more with less footage, a thoughtful story and simplified special effects than the overdone "Transformers 2."

Rockwell is Sam Bell, an employee based at a lunar station for Lunar Industries, a company who has been able to harvest energy from the moon and provide it for most of planet Earth in the near future. On a three-year contract with the company, he has no direct, real-time contact with anyone outside the lunar station except for an intelligent computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), who's function is to attend to his daily needs. With two weeks left on his contract, he begins to feel the isolation set in and begins having hallucinations, which cause him to have an accident in a harvester. When he awakens, he discovers there may be more of him than expected, which leads to more startling clues as to his real identity and what, if anything, awaits for him when he gets home to Earth.

"Moon" is a powerful, unique and intriguing journey of one's man self-discovery - a discovery that he has been cloned - that's not as bizarre as it sounds but is still filled with many interesting complexities. It's often too slow and ponderous, but independent character actor Rockwell gives one of the year's best, layered performances in "Moon" that makes it all the more watchable. Rockwell, accustomed to giving peculiar, offbeat performances, perfectly captures his character's frustrations of isolation and having someone around that looks and acts just like you.

Director and writer Jones, in his first modestly budgeted big-screen attempt, proves to be a writer of skillful depth, though some of it, particularly the scenes with the computer (stoicly and humorously voiced by Spacey) too often channel "2001: A Space Odyssey." Still, the involving story keeps you engaged until the energetic climax,

"Moon" is a layered, skillful and affecting sci-fi character study with a showcase performance by Rockwell, who carries the film in what is really a one-man show. Recommended especially for sci-fi buffs who enjoy a good story.

500 Days of Summer - A-

Rated PG-13 for sexual material and language, 95 minutes

Two reasons to like the quirky, bittersweet "(500) Days of Summer": Zooey Deschanel

I have two announcements that I'd like to formally make right here to start my review: I have a big crush on the darling actress named Zooey Deschanel, who steals your heart, not to mention Joseph Gordon-Levitt's, in the new offbeat but tenderly bittersweet romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer," which I'd like to anoint as the sleeper hit of the summer, maybe even the year. It's an unconventionally amusing, often pensive but moving love story.

"(500) Days of Summer" is the first anti-romantic comedy to come along in sometime, which explains a big part of its appeal. It tells the year-and-a-half story of a hopeless romantic and altogether sensitive dude and greeting card writer named Tom (Gordon-Levitt), who feels he isn't complete without the perfect woman in his life. He seemingly finds that in Summer (Deschanel), a new co-worker whom he is smitten with even after she says up front she really isn't looking for love, but maybe a good friend. Tom likes Summer. Tom loves Summer. But Summer is looking for other things, which lead the two down a unique and unpredictable but one-sided love affair.

"(500) Days of Summer" is an unsusual but bitterweet rom com with room for fun with sublime performances from the leads. The paths it takes are certainly unconventional, but remarkably moving. "(500) Days" is perfectly and exceptionally cast, with two actors who are made for something this offbeat. Deschanel is the best thing about the film: charming and quirky but wholly sympathetic as the girl who's unsure at what she's looking for, and makes you forget she was in the awful horror film "The Happening."

Just as good is the boyishly handsome Gordon-Levitt, who's morphed from the geeky mullet-haired alien boy in "3rd Rock from the Sun" to a terrific actor and a dashing leading man. Gordon-Levitt's sensitive portrayal of a guy with a rather stilted view of love and who wears way, way too many sweater vests anchors the film nicely, along with a playful chemistry he shares with Deschanel.

"(500) Days" is an auspicious first feature debut from director Marc Webb and the writing team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Their slightly peculiar views and explanations of romance are refreshingly different, though the jumpiness of the plot occasionally gives it an uneven feel, and a large part of the relationship quirks seem surface level. Still, "(500) Days" makes up for its choppiness by adding some entertaining, memorable scenes along this different romantic journey.

One such amusing scene in "(500) Days" has Tom dancing to the Hall & Oates '80s tune "You Make My Dreams" (part of a great soundtrack that should become a hit, with the exception of that hideous Patrick Swayze song "She's Like the Wind" from "Dirty Dancing") following an amorous evening with Summer. "(500) Days" goes back and forth in time, detailing the high and lows of Tom and Summer's relationship, blurring love's reality and love's expectations. What you want to happen often doesn't and what you don't want to happen often does.

As a warning, the final scene between Tom and Summer is a heartbreaking one, but Gordon-Levitt is astonishingly poignant (closely watch his face as he turns away and I dare you not to be moved). Just you think he's about to give up on love, fate brought two people together that led to bringing two more people together who were really meant for each other. Strange as it sounds, it all makes sense when you see "(500) Days."

"(500) Days" is unconventional but enjoyable, pleasurable summer fun, even for a romantic comedy. In spite of the slightly unsatisfying but brave ending, I still could watch Zooey Deschanel in anything, even with "She's Like the Wind" playing in the background.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bruno - C-

Rated R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language, 81 minutes

Rambling and flat, "Bruno" is a disappointing follow-up to "Borat"

Some believe that celebrity deaths come in three's. This summer, there will have been three-high profile comedies to have died a quick death at the box-office: First there was Will Ferrell's "Land of the Lost." Then a few weeks later Jack Black went down with "Year One." The casualty to fulfill this summer box-office failure trifecta will be Sacha Baron Cohen's painfully unfunny "Bruno," his follow-up to his sharp, original 2006 hit comedy "Borat." Unlike that ingenious, often outrageously funny film, "Bruno," based on one of Cohen's TV characters, is disjointed, dull and mostly laugh-free, leaning too much on shock-wave type of humor to generate laughs.

Cohen plays flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista Bruno, a late-night talk show host who has built up a modestly successful following. When he causes mayhem at a fashion show by showing up in a velcro jumpsuit, he's all but banned from the fashion scene. He criss-crosses the globe in hopes of becoming famous and maybe even finding true love. With a nerdish but loyal assistant named Lutz (Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten) in tow, they first go to L.A., then trek from the Middle East to the Deep South of the United States (including Dallas, Alabama and Arkansas) in one outrageous adventure to the next to try to make Bruno "uber" popular.

Tedious and tiresome, “Bruno” is mildly amusing at best and if you're expecting huge "Borat"-type laughs, you'll be greatly disappointed, maybe even bored. This is far less imaginative than "Borat” and lacks a fresh creative approach. Done in that film's same pointless/loose-faux documentary style, Baron Cohen has created a different character but essentially the same set up: cross the country and engage yourself in wild situations with real people to get their reaction. That shock-wave type of formula worked well in "Borat" because it seemed new, but in "Bruno" the witty playfulness of the earlier film has worn out (and very thin) with Cohen too often pushing the envelope to shock people into laughter, and unfortunately so. Much like “Borat,” the offensive nature of “Bruno” is evident in nearly every scene, but it doesn’t help when your material isn’t that funny to begin with (and Baron Cohen is quickly becoming a recognizable face).

Among the highlights: Bruno has gay sex (shocking, but in no way fun). He adopts a black baby, names it "O.J." and has a Jerry Springer-like talk show showdown with an African-American audience (briefly amusing and filmed in Dallas). The rest of his antics aren’t as memorable: Enlisting in the Army, goes hunting with hillbillies in Alabama, gets gay-to-straight conversion therapy, has a gay wresting match in Arkansas and has a wild fling with a naked dominatrix at a house full of swingers, all attempts for his character to achieve superstardom. Amusing yet slight, a few of these moments may elicit a chuckle or two but you'll be hard-pressed for any real laugh-out loud moments.

"Bruno" is only 81 minutes long, but there are too many rambling, laugh-free stretches that drag it out even longer, exposing the weakness of the material. The choppy, jumbled pace seemingly reveals that Baron Cohen and his "Borat" director Larry Charles either didn't have enough material or not enough of it was truly funny (one episode cut for obvious reasons - a joke played on LaToya Jackson), which may have many asking the same question frequently posed of Will Ferrell. Is he really that funny, or just overrated? Maybe so, but he assembles some huge music stars including Bono, Sting, Snoop Dogg and Elton John for a slapdash, badly executed charity anthem over the credits, a joke that’s as vapid as the rest of the movie.

"Bruno" may be the next "uber" disappointment, but many curiosity-seekers and “Borat” fans may come out to see what it’s all about. However, given the comedic talents of Sacha Baron Cohen, if “Bruno” completes the box-office failure trifecta it may be the summer's most unfortunate downfall. To promote the movie, Baron Cohen made a grand entrance in character at the MTV Movie Awards recently landing tush first in the face of rapper Eminem, causing quite a stir. Too bad “Bruno” the movie isn’t near as entertaining or fun, and may have trouble finding a vast audience to enjoy it.

I Love You Beth Cooper - B-

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, some teen drinking and drug references, and brief violence, 102 minutes

Don't expect much and you may enjoy the silly "Beth Cooper"

A little advice if you happen to go see the new teen romantic comedy "I Love You, Beth Cooper": lower your expectations and you may have a good time. A silly cheese ball of a movie with some entertaining, goofy moments, the younger set will enjoy it while adults may simply tolerate it. The slight premise is borrowed and unoriginal (think "Sixteen Candles" meets a PG-13 rated "American Pie"), but the young leads are charming and it benefits from a talented, experienced director.

During his graduation speech, nerdy valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) becomes overwhelmed with honesty and proclaims his love for the hot, popular cheerleader Beth Cooper ("Heroes" Hayden Panettiere). This doesn't sit well with her older, psychotic and muscular boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts), who's now out to kill him. In spite of that, Denis and best buddy Rich Munsch (Jack Carpenter) proceed with having a graduation party that they've invited Beth to. Beth shows up and ends up showing the boys a night they'll never forget.

"Beth Cooper" is energetic, fun with some hearty laughs, even if its story lacks poignancy and authenticity. Based on a novel by Larry Doyle who also wrote the screenplay, it heavily channels John Hughes (Alan Ruck - forever known as Cameron from "Ferris Bueller" - is Denis' father) and draws its characters one-dimensionally and into stereotypes, not to mention that some elements are a little over-the-top - after all - crashing through walls with microwaves and cars isn't exactly real life. Yet even as ridiculous as it often is, it works due to two things: the charming leads and a talented director.

"Heroes" star Hayden Panettiere is a gorgeous ingenue who bears the film's title, but it's lanky newcomer Paul Rust (seen later this summer in "Paper Heart" and in the fall in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds") who carries the movie in a breakout performance. With distinct features (large nose) and a wiry frame, he gives a malleable, amiable turn that's the heart of the film. Just as good is Carpenter as best friend Munsch, a movie geek who may or may not be gay with the film's most memorable scene towel whipping the bad guys. Though Rust and Carpenter demonstrate solid comedic chops and are a game team, they're a little too old (mid/late 20's) to be playing teens.

In addition, "I Love You, Beth Cooper" wouldn't be near as memorable if it weren't for director Chris Columbus - yes, that Chris Columbus, of "Home Alone" and the first two "Harry Potter" films, who seems an odd choice for this very modestly budgeted film. He's done better before and sometimes has an unnecessary, mean-spirited view of comedy (how often does the main character have to get beat up or hit?) but his sure hand keeps the film flowing with energy.

Even with the story's weak points, "Beth Cooper" manages a braver ending than most in this genre and you'll still leave with a big smile on your face. Also, don't miss the credits to see cast and crew in their graduation photo. Enjoyable, harmless fun, "I Love You, Beth Cooper" will please the younger set and is a solid alternative to the excessively loud "Transformers 2" or the profanely unsuitable "Bruno."