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 30, 2010

The Kids Are All Right - A-

Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use, 106 minutes

"The Kids Are Right": intelligent, satisfying dramedy

"The Kids Are All Right" is a superbly acted, warm dramedy about a contemporary family facing some unique challenges. It also features two of today's best actresses in superb turns as a lesbian couple in Southern California whose children meet up with their biological father. "The Kids Are All Right" is one of the year's best films and will likely end up with many accolades for its acting, writing and directing.

The story centers on a lesbian couple, entrepreneur Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), a doctor, who each gave birth to a child using the same anonymous sperm donor. When the older child, Joni ("Alice in Wonderland's" Mia Wasikowska), turns eighteen, her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson of "Bridge to Terabithia"), asks her to contact the sperm bank in order to meet their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). They begin an unconventional relationship with him as they spend more time with him; the mom's, especially Nic, are reluctant at first but eventually warm to the idea. As Paul is welcomed into the family, they face some unexpected challenges along the way that could threathen their modern family unit.

"The Kids Are All Right" is a glowing, poignant and amusing portrait of an unconventional family facing some of the same age-old challenges we all face. The low-budget independently made dramedy benefits from a believable script and direction from Lisa Cholodenko ("Laurel Canyon") and an excellent cast who generates some electric chemistry. As the caring moms, both Moore and especially Bening give Oscar-worthy, believable and touching performances; Bening is the uptight overprotective one, and Moore is the relaxed hippie-chick who doesn't let things bother her as much.

Wasikowska gives a strong performance as the daughter about to go off to college, and the always likable Ruffalo is used to good effect as a handsome, sensitive restauranteur who becomes involved in the family. Hutcherson, in his first serious, sizable turn, is also good in an underdeveloped role. He should continue to develop into a decent actor in strong films such as this.

Moore is luminous, Bening is simply wonderful and their on-screen chemistry together make them a great pairing. Both are smart actresses and it's a crime that these ladies have been nominated, but never won an Oscar. Bening is the stronger actress, but they play off each other beautifully, and both have the ability to use their faces and little dialogue to subtly communicate emotions and ideas.

Some of "The Kids Are All Right" seems a little too new-agey let's hug-it-out and cry at times but the poignancy is wholly plausible and all the actors make it a worthwhile, satisfying venture. Some angles are a little too predictable, especially in Moore and Ruffalo's relationship, but it's a minor flaw. "The Kids Are All Right" is enjoyable, amusing and superbly acted and written, and well worth a look.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks - C+

Rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language, 114 minutes

Mildly amusing but pointless "Dinner for Schmucks"

I will say upfront that I enjoy a good, smart comedy, but you won't find that in "Dinner for Schmucks," an pointless reflex movie that's strung together by a series of contrived, easy laughs. Sure, there are a handful of genuinely funny moments, but when you get down to it, there's not much there and it loses it's way early on. A game cast, including an effusive Steve Carrell and the cranky Paul Rudd try to keep the forgettable "Dinner for Schmucks" moving past the main course.

Rudd is a rising executive Tim in a financial company that doesn't seem solid. To get where's he's going in the company, he must attend a "dinner for idiots" and bring with him a buffoon that he and some of the top executives will make fun of. Reluctant at first but sensing his ambition, he quite literally runs across Barry (Carrell), a nitwit IRS employee with marital problems, a penchant for artistically using dead mice, has an even more of a pinhead boss (Zach Galifianakis) and who is as Tim calls it, "a tornado of destruction" upon his personal and professional life. Barry may have a shot a being awarded the king of the buffoons for the evening but ends up teaching Tim more important lessons about life.

"Dinner for Schmucks" is a mildly enjoyable but slack comedy that could've been far better considering the talent. As we've seen before in films like "The 40-Year Old Virgin" and "Anchorman," Rudd and Carrell make for a genuinely game, silly team, and without them it'd be far worse. Both have done better before, especially Carrell, but "Dinner for Schmucks" (interestingly, the term 'schmuck' is never used in the film) isn't all their fault.

Jay Roach, director of "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers," can't get a good grasp on the mean-spirited, largely aimless script that's actually based on a 1998 French film "The Dinner Game," which itself an adaptation of a French play. It's really more a set-up to show the highjinks that ensue when Rudd and Carrell get together, and while some bits are funny, others fall flat - in particular - a run-in with one of Tim's former flames. Worst of all, the climactic dinner scene is a bit of a letdown, save a funny and too-brief mind-bending showdown between Carrell and "The Hangover's" Galifianakis.

Interestingly, the most fascinating part about "Dinner for Schmucks" is the detailed, colorful and artistic displays of stuffed mice that Barry puts together, with miniature re-creations of everything from The Last Supper to Van Gogh to the Wright Brothers. Galifianakis also steals a couple of hilarious scenes as Barry's off-kilter boss, who believes he has the power of mind control.

"Dinner for Schmucks" could've been a four-star meal to savor considering the talent involved, but you'll only get a handful of delectably funny nuggets.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Charlie St. Cloud - C-

Rated PG-13 for language including some sexual references, an intense accident scene and some sensuality, 99 minutes

Handsome Efron can't infuse life in the flat "Charlie St. Cloud"

Zac Efron can see dead people. If you've seen the trailers for his new film "Charlie St. Cloud" you might quickly come to that conclusion, though it's not a horror film and in no way a sequel to "The Sixth Sense." Efron's confusing new film is part coming-of-age-drama, part romance, part letting go and wholly uninteresting. "Charlie St. Cloud," in spite of Efron's wholesome appeal, lacks the depth and strong emotional core to resonate with audiences.

Charlie St. Cloud (Efron) is a young man graduating high school with a bright future. He's a star scholar, athlete and caring older brother to Sam (Charlie Tahan), but his life comes apart when he and Sam are in an automobile accident, Sam is killed and Charlie himself is brought back to life. He is overcome by grief at the death of Sam, so much so that he puts his college plans on hold and takes a job as caretaker of the cemetery in which his brother is buried. Charlie has the ability to see Sam and meets up with him every night to play catch and talk, keeping his promise to Sam before the accident. Then Tess (Amanda Crew) comes into Charlie's life and he’s forced to choose between keeping his promise to Sam, or going after the girl he loves.

The vacuous, uneven "Charlie St. Cloud," based on Ben Sherwood's 2004 best seller "The Life and Death of Charlie St. Cloud," is only memorable for the fact that it'll further establish the likable, becoming Efron as one of Hollywood's hottest young stars. "Charlie St. Cloud" isn’t a terrible film, but it needs two things: a better script to translate some of Sherwood's more complex ideas of life and death, and a stronger actor than Efron to communicate those ideas. There’s no denying that Efron is a handsome, magnetic force, whose performance here consists of poses, grins, a few well-placed tears (Ben Affleck, anyone?) and of course the obligatory shirtless scene, but an actor of emotional depth he’s not.

"Charlie" starts out well as its intriguing premise unfolds, but it stumbles midway through; its muddled romance subplot not only rings false but it never makes much sense, either. For what it's worth, Crew is a lovely Canadian actress with Jennifer Love Hewitt overtones, but her role is underdeveloped and significantly changed from the novel. The film works slightly better when it focuses on the brothers’ relationship and the playful chemistry between Efron and Tahan, though it’s secondary to the romance.

Blink and you'll miss some decent, considerably underused actors in Oscar-winner Kim Basinger (a scant, minutes-only role), Ray Liotta, playing a softie this time in just a couple of scenes, and James Franco's younger brother Dave, as one of Charlie's high school buddies, whose wide smile makes a brief but lasting impression. "Charlie St. Cloud's" best asset is the beautiful Canadian scenery that stands in for Massachusetts, where the film is set.

"Charlie St. Cloud" isn't successful in establishing a strong emotional connection, with a predictable, unsatisfying conclusion (seriously, if you were a twenty-something male, what would you choose, the gorgeous girl or playing ball with your dead brother?) that raises more questions than it answers. All of it feels a little watered down, but the camera does love Efron, and as bland, eye candy entertainment goes "Charlie St. Cloud" succeeds grandly. On any other level, don't expect much.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore - D

Rated PG for animal action and humor, 82 minutes

Campy, dull "Cats and Dogs" sequel lacks bite

"Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" is a campy but sloppy kids movie with an all-star cast of voices. In spite of a few silly moments that only kids will find funny, this forgettable, predictable sequel to the 2001 hit film "Cats and Dogs" poops out early. The whole talking animal idea is an expensive one that has languished since "Babe" in the 1990s and usually only provides a lame excuse for movies like this to exist.

Kitty Galore (Bette Midler), a hairless Sphynx cat, is fed up with dogs and her fellow cat comrades, so she decides to take over the world and enslave the humans. Diggs (James Marsden), a German Shepherd police dog, and his mentor, Butch (Nick Nolte), are selected by the Dogs HQ spy force to stop her. Having no other option to stop Kitty Galore, the cats, led by secret agent Catherine (Christina Applegate) join forces with the dogs with additional support from a pigeon named Seamus (Kat Williams) to block Galore's evil scheme. In an unprecedented move, the cats and dogs work together bring down Galore before she takes over the world.

An over-the-top Midler as Kitty Galore and comedian Williams, as a pigeon spouting one-liners faster than he can fly, is the best reason to see the mildly enjoyable but callous "Cats and Dogs," which has little to with the first film. Butch and Lou, the main characters in that first film, are secondary in this one and are voiced by different actors, Nolte and Neil Patrick Harris, replacing Tobey Maguire and Alec Baldwin, respectively.

Mr. Tinkles, still voiced by "Will & Grace's" Sean Hayes, makes a cameo here in a couple of scenes and is the film's few genuinely funny moments, a direct homage to Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs." It also doesn't help that the first "Cats and Dogs" was 9 years ago, which in movie years (much like dog years) is an eternity, since the target audience will have no knowledge of the first film not to mention this film doesn't measure up in terms of originality or quality.

Throw a bunch of money at the screen ($150 million) and an all-star cast of voices, and you'd think "Cats and Dogs" would be better, but more money has been spent making those animals talk than writing a coherent script or clever direction. Marsden and Applegate, the central characters here, are as bland in voice as they are in person and are easily upstaged by Williams and Midler at every turn. Listen closely, and you'll also hear Michael Clarke Duncan, Roger Moore, Wallace Shawn and Joe Pantoliano. Chris O'Donnell, Fred Armisen and Jack MacBrayer are the few humans with any lines in the film, but they're all just a passing presence in this film full of animals.

Young ones will likely enjoy the canine and feline silliness (a couple of memorable ones: a cat in tank-crate-like contraption and the high on cat nip kitties) and "Cats and Dogs" is really for them. The best thing about the movie: it provides a brand new Looney Toons short featuring Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, which provides more laughs in two very brief minutes than all 82 minutes of "Cats and Dogs."

Sloppy direction, bad editing and bland voice work in "Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" all add up to a forgettable sequel that'll likely cough up a hair ball at the box-office.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ramona and Beezus - B

Rated G, 104 minutes

Relaxed, sweet fun with "Ramona and Beezus"

If you have young children, in particular young girls age 6 to 12, they should enjoy the infectious, clean fun from precocious Ramona Quimby in the new children's movie "Ramona and Beezus." Based on the characters created by noted author Beverly Cleary in her classic series of children's books, the movie is uneven and has too many things to keep track of, but the movie has just enough clean, light-hearted fun and pleasant appeal to keep the family engaged.

"Ramona and Beezus" centers on the Quimby family, with young, precocious Ramona (Joey King) and big sis Beatrice or Beezus for short (played by teen star and Texan Selena Gomez) at the heart of the story. Imaginative, mischevious but never mean, Ramona has a good heart even when it gets her in trouble. Her family finds themselves at a crossroads when Ramona's father (John Corbitt) loses his job and her Mom (Bridget Moynahan) has to go back to work. They find themselves downsizing, forcing Ramona to get creative in helping save the family home.

Ramona is essentially a female version of Dennis the Menace with less menace and more creativity and heart. Though teen sensation and singer Gomez is the big draw here, not to mention a cast of familiar faces, including Corbitt and Moynahan, as well as Sandra Oh ("Grey's Anatomy") as her beleagured teacher and Ginnifer Goodwin ("Big Love") and Josh Duhamel ("Transformers") as Ramona's aunt and her aunt's long-lost flame, the real heart of the story is Ramona, played with infectious appeal by newcomer King, who's downright cute as the young girl who has her heart in the right place.

The filmmakers know Gomez is the drawing card and while she is certainly pretty, her role is clearly secondary and supporting to Ramona's, and the film could've easily been called "Ramona" and it would've worked just as well. It introduces way too many characters to keep track of and does very little with them (Henry Huggins, who was Cleary's first protagonist before switching to Ramona, is seen in a small role as her best pal).

The film's script is also slight: it's essentially a series of episodes of Ramona strung together trying to save the family film and getting into all sorts of trouble, and while some work well, others do not (in particular an extended episode involving paint and an old jeep). Another humorous bit has Ramona using a bad word, for which she eventually decides to use "guts." The climax and ending are as predictable as they come, but Ramona and company have some good, clean fun along the way, and in an era of smart-alecky kids saying and doing worse things than adults, "Ramona and Beezus" comes as a pleasant surprise.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Salt - B

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, 100 minutes

"Salt:" Fun, over-the-top Jolie spy chick action movie

Add a little spice to your summer by seeing the enjoyable, straightforward new spy flick "Salt," starring Angelina Jolie. Implausible, over-the-top and utterly preposterous, Jolie still makes it watchable along with some terrific, fast-paced action set-pieces that give the movie some heft. Move over Bond, Jolie is a tough, sexy spy chick and "Salt" has just as much, if not more, flavor than the last two 007 flicks, not to mention many recent action flicks.

As a CIA officer, Evelyn Salt (Jolie) swore an oath to duty, honor and country. Her loyalty will be put to the ultimate test when a Russian defector accuses her of being a Russian spy. Salt is then forced to go on the run, using all her skills and years of experience as a covert operative to elude capture. Trailing her is her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), who believes in Salt's innocence, and her brash colleague Peabody (Chitewel Ejiofor) who believes the opposite. Salt's efforts to prove her innocence only serve to cast doubt on her motives, as the hunt to uncover the truth behind her identity continues and the question remains: "Who is Salt?"

Who or what is "Salt?" It's a vastly entertaining cat-and-mouse, explosive speed chase of a movie, heightened by Jolie's voluptuous, durable spy girl, who may or may be who she says she is. Jolie has more than proven her action-adventure skills with "Tomb Raider" and "Wanted," and whatever your personal feelings for her, she centers the movie quite well. Director Phillip Noyce, who tread similar ground with "The Quiet American" and "Clear and Present Danger," keeps the action flowing at a nice, quick pace, with a couple of breathless shootouts (one in a church) and a couple of fun car chase scenes (and if they look realistic, it's because Jolie supposedly did most of her own stunts).

"Salt's" isn't perfect on every level, though; the uneven and often absurd script from Kurt Wimmer and Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") hardly lacks subtly or implausibility. "Salt" is as simplistic, maybe overly so, in contrast to the complexities of the recent "Inception." Characters aren't fully developed and the action always happens in a big, colorful way; even the twists and turns are excessively flashy. But there's no denying that "Salt" is also big fun, accomplishing exactly what it set out to do: entertain. And while Jolie is certainly in full control, there are a couple of decent supporting performances from Ejiofor as her suspicious colleague and Schreiber as the boss who has his own secrets.

The hokey-ish ending certainly leaves it open for more "Salt" assignments (interestingly enough this was originally intended for a male lead - Tom Cruise - who may be kicking himself after his recent spy movie "Knight and Day" disappointed) and if they're as highly charged and entertaining as this, that would be a welcome thing. "Salt" isn't perfect, but overall it's a satisfying spy flick peppered with some superb action set-pieces and one tough spy chick.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cyrus - B

Rated R for language and some sexual material, 91 minutes

Quirky indie rom com "Cyrus" has a good heart, cast

Quirky independent films are a dime a dozen these days, and the mildly unusual new indie rom com "Cyrus" is no different. It pulls no surprises and seems too low-key, but it has a great cast and a sensitivity that could draw some in. And anything that has one of my favorite actresses Catherine Keener, even in a small role, is something I can watch.

John (John C. Reilly) is seven years divorced from his wife (Keener) and is having trouble adjusting to his new life. After meeting Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party, he thinks that maybe he has found the perfect person again. There's just one problem: Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly's grown son. John must find a way to make his romance with Molly work despite intentional and unintentional interference by Cyrus, but only one of them will be left standing.

"Cyrus" is an unconventional rom com with a handful of funny moments made better by a remarkably A-list cast for such a placid affair. Reilly in particular is the standout here, in a comedic role that's better suited to his talents than the stupid Will Ferrell films that misuse his talents. His frustrated schlump is the heart of the film, and you become endeared to him quickly. Tomei is lovely as is Keener, though they could've easily switched roles and it would've worked just as well.

As the title role, and the film's trickiest role, Hill is good and slowly becoming a decent young actor in the process, though it would've been far more entertaining to have him and Reilly in more of a showdown mode, and the script treats him well considering that it's largely an unsympathetic, slightly creepy role. "Cyrus" is directed and written by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass (of the horror film "Baghead"), who are venturing into the rom com genre with this film.

"Cyrus" is a little too low-key at times and it tends to meander, but the cast makes it work and there are a few good scenes of a frustrated Reilly nearly losing it. It's worth a look for the Reilly performance.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Standing Ovation - D

Rated PG for some rude behavior, 100 minutes

Third-rate "Standing Ovation" doesn't earn one

I attempt to go into most films with little to no expectations, hoping that it will surprise me and provide some entertainment value. I went in with little expectation for "Standing Ovation," a small independent film that also bills itself as a musical about some teens going for a big prize. Maybe channel some of that old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney spirit, right? (Young ones will not even know who that is!) "Standing Ovation" is a amateurish, third-rate production with among the worst acting and writing I've seen this year, with more talent found at a high-school talent show.

Five Atlantic City middle-school studnets form a dance troupe to compete for a million-dollar prize in a national television music-video contest. Brittany (Kayla Jackson), Blaze (Pilar Martin), Maya (Na'jee Wilson), Cameron (Kayla Raparelli), and Tatiana (Alexis Biesiada) are best pals with a dream. Together they form "The 5 Ovations," a dance troupe that supposedly has what it takes to hit it big. But they're not the only ones with big aspirations, because their pretty rivals "The Wiggies" have a flashy image and a reputation for underhanded tactics to win. Glamorous and wealthy, ambitious sisters Ziggy (London Clark), Zoey (Jeana Zettler), Zita (Ashley Cutrona), Twiggy (Devon Jordon), and Angel (Erika Corvette) who also have a very ambitious father, Mr. Wiggs (Sal Dupree). With everything on the line, the 5 Ovations are prepared to razzle and dazzle.

Musicals have always been a tricky genre to begin with, particularly in the modern movie era. Only a handful such as "Grease" and "High School Musical" have the ability to charm and become big hits in the process. "Standing Ovation" will not be among those hits. Geared directly for the tween market, it's not altogether impossible to score a hit - the aforementioned "HSM" has done that - but you need a talented cast and production team to succeed, which is where "Standing Ovation" clearly fails, and in a big way.

The musical numbers seem slapdash, rushed and too obvious they're lip-synching and everything in between is even worse. I mean, is there any real doubt as to what will happen and/or if the tweens will actually get what they want in the end. Overall, the blundering production is so cheap and awful even most tweens will know crap when they see it. Though I'm hardly a fan of the "Twilight" series that would make a far better choice than this drivel.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - A-

Rated R for language and sexual humor, 84 minutes

"Piece of Work:" Brilliant doc on a brilliant performer

Love her or hate her, you have to admire the energy and stamina of comedian and all-around funny lady Joan Rivers, 77-years young and still going strong. A ground-breaking comedian, a workaholic and a smart, brilliantly funny person on and off-stage, the new documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" follows Rivers for a year chronicling the ebb and flow of her career. As well known as she is, she takes work - any work - she can get whether it's "Celebrity Apprentice" or performing at a Wisconsin casino.

Ironically, even the filmmakers couldn't have predicted what happened during the filming of the documentary. As it opens, Rivers seems desperate for work and is truly frightened by the possibility of having an empty calendar. She appears on "Celebrity Apprentice" and lo and behold - ends up winning the thing - and transforms herself for another career resurgence. A happy ending but up until then, Rivers seemed to have peaked following her appearances on "The Tonight Show" and the downward spiral of her career after her own late-night TV show tanked that essentially killed her manager/husband, Edgar Rosenberg (he committed suicide after Joan's show was canceled) and nearly killed her career.

Yet Rivers, as "Piece of Work" effortlessly chronicles, is a survivor, with strength to carry on a career that has included other daytime talk shows, books, plays, jewelry, and TV red carpet host (ironically, it's the thing that seems to be missing the most from the documentary). Rivers has had a tough go of it, and much like other comedians, is surprisingly insecure and even reserved at times, but is also smart, tremendously irreverent and hilarious wherever she's at.

"Piece of Work" doesn't delve deeply into all facets of Rivers personality - there are things that could've been explored more (namely her relationship with her late husband and anything having to do with Annie Duke from "Celebrity Apprentice") - but it's full of funny clips from past and present. It shows Rivers pre-plastic surgery (and it is amazing to see what she's had done but she's also forthright about it) stand-up routines, which are still as funny as her current, profanity-laden routine.

I like the fact that "Piece of Work" doesn't just show a bunch of talking heads, though it's nice to see such names as Don Rickles and Kathy Griffin extol her work along with showing Joan's imperfections and problems (an issue with her manager). The best scene has Joan taking on a heckler in rare form, much of which can't be repeated here ("'s comedy, you *****...").

However you feel about Rivers may be one thing, but one thing is for sure: she's the energizer bunny of comedians and she has no plans to slow down. Good thing for us, or we wouldn't have as much to laugh about. Joan Rivers is truly a "Piece of Work" and here's hoping we have many more years with you.

Inception - A-

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, 148 minutes

"Inception:" A spellbinding sci-fi tale with DiCaprio at the center

I will say up front that "Inception" is too long, too confusing and it stars one of my least favorite actors, the overly-earnest Leonardo DiCaprio. I will also say that it's one of the most entertaining, mesmerizing films that I've seen this year, even if I still didn't quite understand all of it. But then "Inception" deals with dreams and the subconscious, something that is often hard to wrap your brain around.

DiCaprio is Dom Cobb, a skilled thief given one last shot at redemption. Cobb is the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb's rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved, including his two adorable children and a wife (Marion Cotillard) who went off the deep end and whose fate was squarely in his hands.

One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible: inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe and Ellen Page) have to pull off the reverse: their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one in the head of a young executive (Cillian Murphy). If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But no amount of careful planning or expertise can prepare the team for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming.

"Inception" is a mind-bending, cerebral but fascinating sci-fi thriller from "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan, who once again proves there's life outside a dark cape and mask. It's also thoroughly and maddeningly frustrating at times but if you stick with it you might actually enjoy it. The climax is a little muddled and overextended, but Nolan's all-star cast and eye-popping, Oscar-worthy visuals are a treat throughout the well-paced film.

DiCaprio proves himself a worthy sci-fi action hero, and proves what a good director and good material can do to tone down his normally excessively earnest portrayals (his most recent flick, "Shutter Island," proved what a good director and bad material did for him). For one, Nolan has the good measure to keep DiCaprio's typical shouting to a minimal (he reminds of other big movie stars, namely Nicolas Cage and Al Pacino, who have a penchant for shouting to prove their acting prowess). Second, he makes the visuals and the theme the movie's main star, which means that DiCaprio isn't in every shot, a good thing since Nolan has also assembled a sublime cast.

Page and Gordon-Levitt are both strong in large supporting roles, as is Murphy (if you remember, he was the villain in Nolan's "Batman Returns") in a more sensitive turn for the unusual actor. Oscar-winner Cotillard is good in what is the film's trickiest role that isn't fully explained until "Inception's" final moments. Caine, who features prominently in the film's trailers, really just cameos to bookend the film, but then Nolan has a few other eclectic actors who aren't used as much these days: "Platoon's" Tom Berenger (unrecognizable until I saw the credits), Pete Postlewaite and Lukas Haas (yes, the boy from the 1985 film "Witness," now grown up).

Of course, you can't overlook the first-rate visuals and eye-popping visuals and sets, with buildings turning upside down, trains barrelling through and houses falling into the ocean. If I tried to explain them to you, you wouldn't understand "Inception" anymore than after you actually saw it. It blurs the line between reality, the sub-conscious and redemption, and I can really say is that "Inception" is a spellbinding, mind-bending thriller about what is actually real and what isn't.

With a tolerable DiCaprio performance, some astonishing special-effects and a few well-handled action set pieces, "Inception" is a mesmerizing, highly entertaining (if not overlong at 148 minutes) and highly original film that defies explanation and is better seen than explained.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - B-

Rated PG for fantasy action violence, some mild rude humor and brief language, 110 minutes

Pleasant, mindless "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

No one has ever accused Nicolas Cage of subtly, at least not intentionally being low-key, but in a remarkable way, he doesn’t overdo it in his new film “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a live-action remake of the 1940 classic Walt Disney film “Fantasia.” Meanwhile, the film itself is an entertainingly busy big-budget action mish-mash of spectacle and special effects. Much like Jerry Bruckheimer’s other productions, this one is a bit mindless but enjoyable enough if you don’t think about it much.

Balthazar Blake (Cage) is a master sorcerer in modern-day Manhattan trying to defend the city from his arch-nemesis, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina). Balthazar can't do it alone, so he recruits Dave Stutler (“She’s Out of My League’s” Jay Baruchel), a seemingly average guy who demonstrates hidden potential, as his reluctant protégé. The sorcerer gives his unwilling accomplice a crash course in the art and science of magic, and these unlikely partners will work together to stop the forces of darkness, including an arch-rival sorcerer (Alfred Molina, chewing up scenery).

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is simplistic but guilty-pleasure fun summer entertainment, which isn’t a necessarily bad thing. Cage doesn’t overdo it as he normally does, a pleasantly mild surprise given his penchant to go over-the-top from scene one, and even more surprising given that the director is his “National Treasure” director Jon Turtletaub. Big-screen action adventure flicks like this usually work better when there is a decent pairing, and his apprentice, played by the always-watchable Baruchel works in part because of the tit-for-tat Cage-Baruchel chemistry. Particularly fun is Baruchel’s typical deadpan, monotone delivery that is contrast to Cage’s usual hyper-energy.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is most problematic because of the uneven script with an overload of writers; the mid-section lags and chases too many rabbits and it all ends rather way-too predictably, but there’s enough energetic fun and splashy, expensive special-effects served up Bruckheimer-style that will please the masses. Molina, as he proved in “Spider-Man 2,” shows he’s a deliciously fun, if not milquetoast, villain, but he chews on scenery you may not mind.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is bland, enjoyable and pleasant popcorn-flick fun. A month from now or even a few days from now, you may not remember much of it (“National Treasure” was the same way), but it’s a harmless summer diversion, and that’s not a terrible thing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Winter's Bone - B+

Rated R for some drug material, language and violent content, 100 minutes

Superbly chilling, well-drawn "Winter's Bone"

If you need a genuinely chilling escape from the summer heat, you'll find it in the independently-made drama "Winter's Bone." Based on the 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell and set in the backwoods of the Ozark mountains, it's a dark but finely-drawn, well-acted character piece and a powerful drama that's helmed by and starring relative cinematic newcomers.

17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) sets out to track down her father, who put their house up for his bail bond and then disappeared. If she fails, Ree and her family, including her mentally-incapable mother and two young siblings, will be turned out into the Ozark woods. Challenging her outlaw kin's code of silence and risking her life, Ree hacks through the lies, evasions and threats offered up by her relatives and begins to piece together the truth.

"Winter's Bone" is a depressing but superbly shaded, adroit drama with a powerful, star-making turn from 19-year old Lawrence, best known for her TV work on the comedy "The Bill Engvall Show." Her strong but subtle turn here is one of the year's best and should bring not only well-deserved accolades but better work as well. "Winter's Bone" rightfully won the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic Film category at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is directed and written by Debra Granik in only her second feature-length film.

The low-budget, independently-made, shot on location in Missouri, has some stark, gray visuals that cover the film well and sets the tone for the downbeat film. It also speaks well to the language and the lifestyle of those that live in the area, who tend to protect their own. Lawrence's confident turn highlights the film (she even skins a squirrel, in gory detail) but watch for strong turns from TV actors John Hawkes, as her helpful but scary uncle named Teardrop, and Kevin Breznahan as a lowlife named Little Arthur.

The powerful ending is unforgettable and will stay with you long after you leave the theater. "Winter's Bone" is one of the year's best and deserves to be seen.

Predators - B

Rated R for pervasive language, gore and strong creature violence, 107 minutes

Solidly suspensful "Predators" a worthy follow-up

"Predators" is a chilling horror follow-up from noted filmmaker Robert Rodriguez to the original "Predator" film of the late '80s and early '90s. Bloody and simplistic, there are a handful of suspensful moments that raise it above the normal horror schlock that Hollywood churns out these days. While flawed - the story is sluggish and its climax lacks momentum, "Predators" should be given credit for not overly relying on gore as so many other films in this genre do.

Designed as both a sequel and a reboot, "Predators" should please those horror-film enthusiasts clamoring for the next big science-fiction horror flick. It's set in 2010, and begins as a group of hardened criminals are literally and mysteriously dropped in the middle of a jungle on a destitute planet. They quickly realize they've been dropped in a place where they're being hunted by a deadly, smart group of ugly creatures. The smart, street-wise Royce (Adrien Brody) quickly emerges as the leader of this unusual group that also includes Isabelle (Alice Braga), who may have some prior knowledge of the predator creatures, and the wimpy but secretive doctor Edwin (Topher Grace). They try to find a way to both outwit the creatures and find their way off the planet, which is very quickly becoming a death trap for anyone who lands there.

"Predators" is a genuinely frightening and worthy follow-up to the original "Predator" films from years ago. On one hand, it lacks the originality and the suspense of the original 1987 Schwarzenegger film, but it has enough chilling moments to stand on its own. In being titled "Predators" (which in this case has double meaning: for the nasty creatures and the nasty humans they hunt) wants to emulate another highly successful horror sequel - "Aliens" - and while it's no match for that film in providing some genuinely scary moments - like that film it should be given credit for relying on building suspense than outright gore. It's certainly violent, but peppered with enough blood to please those looking for that.

The best moments in "Predators" come in its initial chapters and from one particular fun scene involving some "mini" predator-dog-like creatures. It's ably grounded by a muscular Brody and a tough Braga ("Repo Men"), who make for a good team. Grace is charming but predictably bland in the Paul Reiser "Aliens" role, while the rest of the cast is too brief to make an impression. Particularly unfortunate is the very brief role from Laurence Fishburne, who is wasted as a survivor who has gone insane, in what is essentially a 10-minute cameo in the saggy middle of the film, which slows down the film considerably as it begins killing off characters.

The creatures and the special effects, a mixture of people in suits and CG, is detailed, suitably nasty and graphic. The extended climax is way too predictable, but does feature a tense, bloody fight between Brody, Braga and the creatures. Directed by Nimrod Antal ("Armored"), and produced by Rodriguez, "Predators" isn't perfect but is an above-average entry in the action-horror-film-sequel genre and is certainly worth a look.

Despicable Me - B+

Rated PG for rude humor and mild action, 95 minutes

Being evil has never been so much fun in "Despicable Me"

By now you have probably seen the ubiquitous ads for the energetic new animated movie "Despicable Me," with all those oddly amusing, peculiar yellow minions running amok. They nearly steal the wistful movie, but they're just part of all the fun about an evil scientist voiced by "The Office's" Steve Carell who adopts three young kids as part of his bigger plan to regain his footing as the world’s top villain. "Despicable Me" has enough stamina, good messages and laughs to keep everyone in the family engaged, even if some of the humor goes above the head of the young ones.

Carell is Gru, now the world's #2 villain behind his arch-nemesis Vector (Jason Segel) when Vector steals the world-famous Egyptian pyramids. Gru's new plan is to build a rocket and with the help from a shrink ray, steal the moon. His plan includes adopting, or more like kidnapping, three young precocious girls from Mrs. Hattie (Kristen Wiig)'s home: Margot (Miranda Cosgrove) and her sisters Edith and Agnes. With the help of the girls, his trusted scientist Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and his legion of little yellow minions, Gru hopes to regain the #1 villain position; though in the process he becomes attached to the girls and realizes there’s more to life than being the top villain.

"Despicable Me" proves that being bad can be fun and ends up a sweet-natured, amusing occasionally peculiar look at the importance of family. It tries too hard, lacks heart particularly in the finale and is infused with too much adult humor, but its pleasant spirit is ingratiating. You can thank all those little yellow minions, who have most of the fun, not to mention the inspired voice work of a genuinely amusing comic actor in Carell (memorable moment: reading a bedtime story involving finger puppets). Segel ("How I Met Your Mother") isn't as recognizable but he too is a treat as Gru's arch child-like villain, who wears an orange track suit and keeps a shark swimming around his living room.

Brand, Wiig, Julie Andrews, Ken Jeong, Cosgrove, Jack MacBrayer and Will Arnett all lend serviceable voice support and the animation is solidly colorful though certainly not on the detailed level of any Pixar feature, which remains the gold standard in animation. "Despicable Me" is akin to "Shrek" in its bevy of adult humor, much of which the kids won't get, not to mention a little mean-spirited at times (they sure enjoy slapping and insulting each other). The movie is too slow in its mid-section and is too predictable down the stretch, but you’ll still leave the theater with a big smile.

Then there's the aforementioned minions, who nearly steal the movie from Carell every time they show up on screen. Inexplicably some have two eyes and others have one, and speak their own language, and they’re a genuinely odd visual at first but you get used to them. And stay over the credits for a humorous final episode from them. The animation is bright and simplistic, and the 3-D is unnecessary given the movie stands on its own fine without it.

You won't find many surprises in "Despicable Me," but it's a loony, enjoyable ride getting to the moon and back. Good thing the movie has the voice of Carell and those tiny minions, or it wouldn’t be near as much fun.