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The Mist ***

The Mist marks writer-director Frank Darabont’s third adaptation of a Stephen King property, and because he’s not shooting for Oscar gold this time around (the previous titles were the reasonably enjoyable but grotesquely overrated pair, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), he’s able to ease up on the pedal of self-importance and deliver an old-fashioned “B”- style genre flick. But even here, Darabont hasn’t completely abandoned his high-minded ideas, meaning that The Mist manages to offer some accurate evaluations of human nature in between all the expected bloodletting. Owing a nod or two in the direction of John Carpenter’s The Fog, this concerns itself with a group of people who, in the aftermath of a horrific storm, are gathered at the local supermarket stocking up on emergency rations when a mysterious mist envelops the entire area. It soon becomes clear that something evil resides in the fog — oh, about the time that a bag boy gets shredded by a monstrous tentacle beyond anything witnessed in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — and the shoppers wisely decide that they should remain indoors rather than venture out into the parking lot. It’s here that Darabont’s script (adapted from King’s short story) reveals its cynical roots, as Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a religious zealot certain that the creatures outside are God’s final solution in response to humankind’s litany of sins, converts many of the frightened survivors to her mode of thinking, a dangerous path that eventually leads to a Jim Jones-like environment and at least one human sacrifice. Religious nutjobs are usually tiresome (and rather benign) characters brought in to add some superficial tension, but propelled by Harden’s scary performance, Mrs. Carmody is a genuine threat, and she validates Darabont’s contention that times of crisis are as likely to turn people against each other as they are to unite them against a common enemy. Darabont’s pessimism extends to other areas of the script, to favorable (i.e. less predictable) advantage: It’s not always easy to figure out who will survive and who won’t, and the ending (altered from King’s original) will keep audience members’ tongues wagging as they exit into the parking lot — one, I hasten to add, hopefully not blanketed by a similarly impenetrable mist.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium *1/2

If the Hasbro toy company elects to issue an updated version of its popular board game Clue, it can dispense with Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the lead pipe as one of the murder scenarios. Readily available to replace it is Mr. Magorium in the wonder emporium with the gag reflex. Suffering from a fatal attack of the “cutes,” this family-aimed fizzle marks the directorial debut of Zach Helm, who caught everyone’s attention last year with his innovative script for Stranger Than Fiction. Helm’s screenplay here, though, is as lackadaisical as his previous one was inspired, with Dustin Hoffman cast as a kindly 243-year-old man who decides it’s time for him to graciously leave this earth (his reason being that he’s down to his last pair of comfortable shoes). He hopes to leave his magical toy store in the care of his assistant Mahoney (Natalie Portman), but she doesn’t think she can handle the responsibility, even with the shop’s workaholic accountant (Jason Bateman) and its best customer, a lonely little boy (Zach Mills) with a penchant for hats, around to assist her. The G-rated film combines Peter Pan’s message — the whole “Clap your hands if you believe in magic” spiel — with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s stuffed-to-the-gills set design, but with no real dramatic tension (where’s Kevin Spacey as an obvious villain when you really need him?) and a visually drab shop that remains cluttered rather than captivating, the end result is a bland confection that features an atypically bad Portman performance. And, perhaps most critically, with no playthings on the order of Buzz or Woody to enliven events, this proves to be one toy story that’s easy to skip.

No Country for Old Men ****

The Coen Brothers have always been known for the ease with which they’ve jumped from genre to genre — screwball comedy with Raising Arizona, gangster saga with Miller’s Crossing, neo-film noir with Blood Simple, etc. — but with their superb new picture, No Country for Old Men, they seem to be tapping from various wells at once. Certainly, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel smacks of a contemporary Western through its wide-open settings and signals a crime thriller via its “law and disorder” plotline. But may I add the classification of monster movie to the mix? That might seem like a stretch, but as I watched Javier Bardem’s seemingly unstoppable Anton Chigurh shuffle his way through the picture, killing left and right without remorse, I realized that it’s been a looong time since I’ve seen such an unsettling creature on the screen. Chigurh is just one of the several fascinating characters occupying screen time in a delirious drama that in its finest moments echoes such classics as Psycho, Touch of Evil and Chinatown, not only in its intricate and unpredictable plot structure but also in its look at an immoral world in which chance and fate battle for the upper hand and in which evil is as tangible a presence as sticks and stones. Chigurh, who finds it easier to murder an innocent bystander than to crack a smile, is described by another character as operating by his own set of principles, and only in a topsy-turvy world could a fiend such as this be described as principled — and, more disturbingly, possibly even deserve the designation. Chigurh spends the film, set in 1980 Texas, on the trail of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a cowboy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong in the desert (lots of guns, lots of spilled blood, lots of corpses) and walks away from the scene with a satchel containing $2 million in cash. But a sum that large isn’t about to be written off by the crime bosses, and so here comes Chigurh (working for an outfit independent from the Mexican dealers) to take care of business. The cat-and-mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss is enough to propel any standard narrative, yet tossed into the mix is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary sheriff who, baffled and deflated by the wickedness that has come to define his country, nevertheless trudges from crime scene to crime scene, hoping to save Moss and stop Chigurh. As we’ve come to expect from a Coens feature, interesting players can be found around every corner — there’s also Moss’ baby-faced wife (Kelly MacDonald), kept in the dark by a husband whose increasingly frantic behavior threatens to put both of them at risk, and Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a jocular bounty hunter who functions as a walking encyclopedia when it comes to detailing Chigurh’s crimes. All of the performances are exceptional, yet this is clearly Bardem’s picture. So magnetic and full of life in his Oscar-nominated turn in Before Night Falls, he takes the opposite stance here, portraying Chigurh as an emotionally withdrawn individual whose only defining trait (outside of his imaginative choice of weapon) is the whimsical manner in which he allows a potential victim the opportunity a coin toss to decide their fate.

Beowulf ***

Director Robert Zemeckis, whose 2004 The Polar Express felt like an animated feature that had been embalmed, again employs the “performance capture” technique (or “digitally enhanced live-action,” per the press notes) with far greater success, overlaying real actors with a cartoon sheen and placing them in the middle of a CGI landscape. In 2D, which is how the film is being shown in most theaters nationally, this runs the risk of looking as soulless as many other CGI works, but in 3D (presented only at select venues), it results in a positively astonishing experience. Tossed coins roll directly toward the camera, spears poke directly out at audience members, and even an animated Angelina Jolie’s, umm, assets seem more pronounced than usual. Based on the ancient poem, a staple of most school curriculums, the script by fantasy author Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary doesn’t always match the movie’s visual splendor (burp and piss scenes show that the makers are clearly hoping to attract the fanboy crowd), but their modifications to the ancient text are more often than not respectful. After the gruesome monster Grendel (voiced, or, more accurately, snarled by Crispin Glover) wreaks havoc on the castle of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his followers, the heroic (and boastful) Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives to save the day. Yet he finds himself not only having to confront Grendel but also the misshapen creature’s mother (Jolie), envisioned here as a seductress with the power to lead any noble warrior astray.

Enchanted *1/2

It’s a nice touch having Julie Andrews serve as (unseen) narrator for the bookend sequences in Walt Disney’s Enchanted. Andrews, of course, played the title nanny in the studio’s Mary Poppins, which contains the famous phrase “practically perfect in every way.” And I can’t think of any better way to describe Amy Adams’ performance as Giselle, the animated damsel who doesn’t long to be a real girl but becomes one anyway. Enchanted begins in the style of the classic Disney toon flicks of yore, with the beautiful Giselle, at one with nature and its furry inhabitants, longing for “true love’s kiss” from the lips of a handsome prince. She gets her wish when she meets Prince Edward, but his scheming stepmother Queen Narissa, not wanting to relinquish the throne, banishes Giselle to a faraway land, which, it turns out, is our own New York City. Now flesh and blood, Giselle turns to a stranger, a buttoned-up divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey), to help her survive in this bewildering city; meanwhile, others arrive in the Big Apple in pursuit of Giselle, including Edward (James Marsden) and the evil Queen (Susan Sarandon).

August Rush **1/2

There’s no denying that the movie, which often plays like Oliver Twist as conceived by the dance troupe Stomp, is sweet and heartfelt and full of passion. But there’s also no denying that it’s clunky, haphazard and not especially well-written or efficiently directed. If you’ve seen the trailer, which seems to go out of its way to reveal every important scene (even the climax), then you already know that August Rush is the story of Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore), an orphan whose parents — a cellist (Keri Russell) and a guitarist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) — don’t even know he exists (Mom was told by her controlling father that he died during childbirth). But young Evan is determined to find his parents, and he believes that through music they can be reunited; i.e. that they’ll be able to magically hear him and locate him. Thus, he escapes from the orphanage, making his way to New York City and falling in with a band of street kids working for a Fagin-like musician-promoter (Robin Williams). That Williams’ character turns out to be a controlling bully is one of the picture’s few surprises; everything else falls neatly into place, thanks to a script that needs about 128 coincidences to retain its forward momentum.

Bee Movie **

Unfortunately, Bee Movie is the same nondescript toon tale we’ve pretty much come to expect from any animated outlet not named Pixar. In this one, it’s Jerry Seinfeld contributing the vocals to the central character, a bee (named Barry) who, not content to work inside the hive until the day he dies, opts instead to see what’s going on in the world outside. He finds a New York City full of sound and fury, but also one that contains a sweet florist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). Breaking the long-standing rule that bees must never talk to humans, Barry makes contact with Vanessa, and the two strike up an unorthodox friendship (although Barry’s constant ogling of Vanessa makes it clear that she stirs strange sensations in his stinger).

American Gangster ***

For all its familiar trappings, director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian invest their tale with plenty of verve. Denzel Washington has been charged with bringing Frank Lucas to the screen, and, as expected, he turns the Harlem kingpin into a magnetic menace who, after serving as an apprentice to bigwig Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) throughout the 1960s, becomes a millionaire by eliminating the middle man in the drug trade, thereby infuriating the Italians who are used to being at the apex of this particular food chain. Scott and Zaillian offer up a standard movie hero in Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the honest cop tasked with busting open the New York/Jersey drug racket. Roberts could have come across as a cardboard saint, but thanks to Crowe’s deft underplaying, he’s an interesting figure and strikes a nice counterbalance to the more dynamic Frank Lucas.

While it never achieves the epic grandeur of, say, The Godfather, it manages to pump a measure of respect back into a genre that thrives on it.

Dan in Real Life **1/2

This is a warm and fuzzy tale of a popular newspaper writer (Steve Carell) whose column, “Dan In Real Life,” offers practical advice that he can’t seem to apply to his own life. A widower with three daughters, Dan travels to Rhode Island for the annual family get-together with his parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney), his siblings and their significant others. He falls for Marie (Juliette Binoche), a Frenchwoman he meets in a book store, only to be devastated when he learns that she’s the present girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook).

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