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127 Hours, Tangled, Love & Other Drugs, Faster 

127 HOURS

***1/2

Let's be honest with one another. I'd be dead. You'd be dead. Almost everyone we've ever known would be dead. But not Aron Ralston. When this young man found himself trapped, as the saying goes (and as Ralston named his own memoir), between a rock and a hard place, he did the unthinkable. After five days of slowly withering away while his right arm remained lodged between a boulder and a rocky wall in a Utah canyon, he used a small, dull knife to cut off the arm so that he might continue to live.

127 Hours, based on Ralston's book, is writer-director Danny Boyle's mesmerizing account of those fateful five days in the outdoor enthusiast's life. But while a stirring parable about the indomitability of the human spirit, this story doesn't quite lend itself to a cinematic rendition -- it just sounds too simple, too constricted. But Boyle and co-scripter Simon Beaufoy (the team behind Slumdog Millionaire) expand the picture in all sorts of marvelous ways.

Visually, the film is always hopping with the same energy as its protagonist (played in a career-best performance by James Franco), relying on split-screen techniques and other lively tricks of the trade. And thematically, the picture doesn't settle for the expected "man vs. nature" route, instead realizing that it isn't nature that's at fault but one man's own near-fatal folly.

By turns funny, frightening, inspiring and, yes, nauseating, 127 Hours turns cinema into an extreme sport, leaving us satisfactorily spent.

TANGLED

***

Pixar came into power circa the same time that Disney lost its hold on the toon crown, and while the former animation giant may never reclaim its title, its acquisition of John Lasseter's trendsetting outfit suggests that it at least might be able to ascend from its status as court jester to a more regal standing (Disney Princess?).

Tangled follows last year's The Princess and the Frog (both executive-produced by Lasseter) as an indication that, after years of dreary product (Chicken Little, anyone?), old-school Disney might be making a comeback. Yes, the animation is CGI rather than hand-drawn, but both Frog and Tangled benefit from strong storylines that stir memories of the outfit in its distant prime.

In the case of this latest picture, it's a loose retelling of the tried-and-true saga of Rapunzel, she of the loooong golden hair. Forced by an evil woman she believes to be her mother (and who looks like 80s-era Cher) to stay hidden in a tower 24/7, Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) reluctantly complies until the day a devil-may-care thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) happens to come along.

This one's no classic-in-the-making, but it's certain to remain one of the season's best bets for family entertainment, with a pleasing mix of music, mirth and oddball supporting characters. Even the kid-oriented comic relief, Rapunzel's right-hand chameleon, is likely to charm the adults, further designating Tangled as silky-smooth entertainment.

LOVE & OTHER DRUGS

***

For all the pleasure it reportedly provides, Viagra does flirt with potential side effects, including headache, upset stomach and blurred vision. Similarly, while Love & Other Drugs offers its own pleasures, this adaptation of Jamie Reidy's Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman results in such possible side effects as irritation, frustration and disgust.
And yet, the final product is easily worth any potential pitfalls.

For the most part, this is an intelligent piece in which cocky pharmaceutical salesman Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to make his mark in business while simultaneously engaging in a no-strings-attached relationship with the no-nonsense Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway). The picture is initially as light and carefree as their romance (and kudos to an American motion picture that actually isn't afraid of sex), but as their mutual commitment deepens, so does the film, with Maggie's medical misfortune -- and Jake's reaction to it -- resulting in some standout sequences and coaxing a knockout performance from Hathaway.

With so much going for their film, why do writer-director Edward Zwick and co-scripter Charles Randolph feel the need to occasionally cheapen it? The idiotic character of Josh Randall (Josh Gad), Jamie's odious brother, has no business being in such an otherwise mature seriocomedy, and some formulaic romcom trappings (such as an embarrassing vehicular chase) feel equally out of place. The mental and emotional stimulation caused by the majority of the picture is strong enough to recommend it, but had Zwick trimmed the flaccid passages, he could have had an awards contender on his hands.

FASTER

**1/2

Like most of our macho movie he-men, Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) makes up in low-simmering charm what he lacks in genuine acting chops. At his best gently mocking his own tough-guy image (Be Cool, Get Smart) and at his worst pandering to family audiences (The Game Plan, Tooth Fairy), Johnson has lately gotten away from the straight-ticket action flicks that kick-started his screen career after years in the wrestling arena.

Faster marks his return to hardcore action fare, with one significant difference: It's smarter, deeper and all around better than the mediocre movies that were initially his bread and butter. If some rickety plot mechanics prevent it from fully making the grade, it still registers as a worthy try.

The basic outline sounds simple enough, as a taciturn man billed as "Driver" (Johnson) is released from prison and begins bumping off those responsible for his incarceration as well as the death of a loved one. As he carries out his mission, he's pursued on one side by "Cop" (Billy Bob Thornton) and on the other by "Killer" (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who could pass for Jake Gyllenhaal's British cousin).

But Faster isn't merely interested in upping the body count. Driver spends a lot of time thoughtfully listening to a religious radio program, a plot device far more integrated and effective here than in the recent Stone. Cop is a hardcore drug user who's treated with disdain by everyone from his skilled partner (Carla Gugino) on the job to his estranged wife (Moon Bloodgood) living separately with their son (the presence of this portly kid inevitably stirs memories of Thornton's Bad Santa).

And Killer is a wealthy computer genius who became a hit man out of sheer boredom with his life, only finding satisfaction with a girlfriend (Maggie Grace) whose idea of foreplay is firing off a few rounds in the backyard.
An inexplicable close-up of a photograph two-thirds through the picture blows any chance at keeping the twist ending under wraps, and this unfortunate error somewhat tempers the mounting tension. But despite this miscue and a few lapses into illogicality, Faster largely succeeds as an efficient actioner.

 

 

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