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Mad Money **1/2

Around this time last year, moviegoers were suffering through Because I Said So, a Diane Keaton vehicle so horrific that it barely got beat out by License to Wed for the top spot on my year-end 10 Worst list. Luckily, Keaton’s new film Mad Money is much better, simply by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t tempted to cram a gun muzzle into my mouth this time around. That’s not to say it couldn’t have been better. Callie Khouri won a well-deserved Oscar for penning Thelma & Louise, and it would have been interesting to see what additional shadings she could have lent to the situations on display here. But for Mad Money, she only serves as director, leaving the writing assignment in the hands of Glenn Gers. The Anthony Hopkins-Ryan Gosling thriller Fracture (which Gers wrote) was a pleasant surprise last year, and Gers fares best in this latest picture when he focuses on the intricacies of the heist that our leading ladies intend to pull off. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Keaton stars as Bridget Cardigan, an upper-middle-class wife reeling from that fact that her husband Don (Ted Danson, very good in his best role in ages) has lost his job and they may now be in danger of losing their home and comfortable lifestyle. As a temporary solution, Bridget takes a job as a cleaning lady at the Federal Reserve Bank, where she eventually devises an elaborate scheme to steal the worn-out bills marked for destruction in the building’s shredding facilities. She enlists the aid of two co-workers, sensible single mom Nina (Queen Latifah) and vivacious party girl Jackie (Katie Holmes), and the trio set about pulling off the most unlikely of heists. Mad Money is a generally entertaining picture, even as it dabbles in implausibilities and often fails to get a firm grasp on its characters (for example, several scenes attempt to paint Holmes’ Jackie as an utter dingbat when she clearly isn’t).

27 Dresses **

The filmic equivalent of a baby: cute, pampered, craving attention, and somewhat smelly thanks to all the formula passing through it. Katherine Heigl is Jane, a perpetual bridesmaid who (as the title hints) has attended 27 weddings in that capacity. Jane feels that it’s payback time from the gods -- that she should land her own man and her own wedding -- and she’s long been pining over her boss George (Edward Burns). But he’s never shown any interest outside of their close business relationship, and once her perky, irresponsible and blonde supermodel of a sister (The Heartbreak Kid’s Malin Akerman) breezes into town, George is hopelessly smitten. Nice-girl Jane refuses to interfere, even though she knows her sister and her boss aren’t right for each other, and she’s frequently distracted by the unwanted advances of the cynical Kevin (James Marsden), who she knows to be a writer but doesn’t realize that -- get this -- he’s the one who writes the heartwarming newspaper wedding columns that she clips out with religious devotion. Director Anne Fletcher and writer Aline Brosh McKenna (who had better luck adapting The Devil Wears Prada for the screen) offer a couple of modest examples of plot tweaking -- for example, George isn’t the usual self-centered jerk of a boss but a genuinely nice guy -- and the actors are all pleasing, especially Judy Greer as Jane’s sarcastic best friend (yes, the Lisa Kudrow role, only fresher). But for the most part, 27 Dresses is so cliched that it even includes the standard scene in which our drunken leads persuade an entire bar of people to join them in singing along to a pop hit. In this case, the tune being played is Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets,” but a more apt selection would have been The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song.”

The Bucket List *1/2

If Morgan Freeman and Judi Dench ever made a film together, would the world simply explode? After all, Freeman always plays the smartest character in his movies and Dench always plays the wisest character in her pictures, so wouldn’t this fall under some sort of “irresistible force meets immovable object” scenario? At any rate, it’s an idea more worthy of discussion than any of the pseudo-weighty nonsense on view in The Bucket List, an interminable film about terminal patients who learn important life lessons before, yes, kicking the bucket. Freeman plays Carter Chambers, an auto mechanic with an IQ equal to that of Stephen Hawking. Dying of cancer, he shares a hospital room with the filthy rich Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), who’s beginning to realize that money can buy everything except an extended lease on life. With each man facing less than a year to live, they both elect to go out in a blaze (or at least daze) of glory, by dutifully performing tasks on their self-penned “bucket list” of activities they’ve always wanted to do. The list includes such items as “go skydiving” and “laugh until I cry”; unfortunately, “entertain audiences who pay to see this Bucket of s***” is nowhere to be found. A lazy and condescending package from top to bottom (with uninspired efforts put forth by Nicholson, Freeman, director Rob Reiner and especially scripter Justin Zackham), The Bucket List isn’t nearly as torturous as the similar, “laughing in the face of death” Patch Adams; then again, neither is a broken back.

The Great Debaters ***

The Great Debaters is being positioned as an Oscar contender, and it already has a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture (Drama) to aid it in its journey. Yet Denzel Washington’s previous film as director, 2002’s admirable Antwone Fisher, failed to grab the Academy’s attention, and I suspect the same fate will befall this inspiring if overly familiar story that owes its allegiance not so much to history (it alters many facts) as to Dead Poets Society, Hoosiers and countless other “Seize the day” flicks. Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, the coach of the debate team at an all-black college in 1930s Texas. With four members under his tutelage -- played by talented thespians Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker (no relation to co-star Forest Whitaker, who plays his stern father), Nate Parker and Jermaine Williams -- Tolson is determined that his squad will emerge as one of the best, if not the best, in the nation; to accomplish that goal, however, he and his charges will have to contend not only with the racism of the time but also with tensions within their own ranks. PC to a fault -- I love how in the debates, Tolson’s team conveniently always gets to argue the right side of any given topic (poverty, equal rights, etc.) -- The Great Debaters is nevertheless sincere in its belief in the power of education and in the importance of language.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

National Treasure: Book of Secrets is essentially the same movie as its blockbuster predecessor, meaning it’s a draggy combination of The Da Vinci Code and matinee-style thrills. Only Nicolas Cage’s Benjamin Franklin Gates is no Indiana Jones, and (like the first flick) this isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moving ahead at breakneck speed and with no time for rhyme or reason, it’s a disjointed yarn in which Gates, in an effort to prove that his great-great-grandfather wasn’t one of the conspirators behind Abe Lincoln’s assassination, must locate a legendary lost city of gold by uncovering clues hidden on historical artifacts in Paris, London and at the White House. Practically the entire principal cast returns from the original film -- Jon Voight as Gates’ dad, Diane Kruger as his girlfriend, Justin Bartha as his sidekick, and Harvey Keitel as the sympathetic FBI agent hovering around the margins (a role that exists for no discernible reason) -- and they’re joined by a slumming Ed Harris as a one-minute-he’s-a-bad-guy-now-he’s-good-no-wait-he’s-bad-again treasure seeker and a slumming Helen Mirren as Gates’ feisty mother.

I Am Legend **1/2

Will Smith may be the only one receiving above-the-title star treatment on the new apocalyptic sci-fi yarn I Am Legend, but he’s hardly the one who runs away with the film. In fact, pretty much everything in this picture -- the other actors, the FX work, even the art direction -- is shown up by Abbey, who delivers a terrific performance which in a perfect world would be up for an Academy Award in a couple of months. Granted, there’s the small technicality that Abbey’s a dog -- a German shepherd, to be exact -- but still... I Am Legend is based on Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name, and while it’s not the first theatrical version of the time-honored tale -- there’s also 1964’s The Last Man On Earth and 1971’s unintentionally campy The Omega Man -- it’s certainly the best. As Robert Neville, the scientist who appears to be the sole survivor in New York City after a virus has wiped out most of humankind, Smith brings the right mix of vigor and vulnerability to the part, and director Francis Lawrence maintains a fair amount of tension as long as Neville (and audience members) can’t size up the shadowy menace. But once the bloodthirsty creatures show themselves, they’re disappointingly conventional (at least by CGI zombie standards), and the film has trouble continuing its momentum.

Atonement ***

This year’s sight-unseen, automatic Oscar entry mostly lives up to its lofty expectations, even if it doesn’t possess the sweeping emotion that provided other British period pieces like Sense and Sensibility and The Remains of the Day with their enduring resonance. If a finger must be pointed, it would most likely fall in the direction of director Joe Wright, who previously teamed with his muse Keira Knightley on 2005’s breezy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Knightley essays the role of Cecilia, who finds herself attracted to the family servant’s upwardly mobile son Robbie (James McAvoy). But Cecilia’s precocious younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has also developed a crush (albeit a more chaste one) on Robbie, and she grows jealous as she witnesses events that she feels attests to the bond between the lovers. Eventually, Briony uses a tragedy that occurs on the estate grounds as a way to get back at Robbie, not comprehending the long-term implications of her actions. It’s only when she herself has grown up (and played at this point by Romola Garai) that she’s able to grasp the magnitude of what she did -- and work on setting matters right. Knightley’s role doesn’t allow her to flourish as she did under Wright’s direction in Pride and Prejudice, which is fine, since this is Briony’s story and McAvoy’s film.

As solemnly played by Ronan, the teenage Briony comes off as a bad seed writ large, with an IQ that, coupled with her naivety, makes her especially dangerous. It’s a memorable performance in the best-written role, yet it’s the excellent McAvoy who injects the proceedings with a notable degree of compassion.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ***1/2

This is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway smash, but it hides its stage roots so thoroughly that it feels like a piece created for the silver screen. In refashioning Sweeney Todd for the movies, Tim Burton and scripter John Logan have presented audiences with a big, bold endeavor that functions as an upscale slasher film: It’s bloody but also bloody good, with the gore tempered by the melancholy love stories that dominate the proceedings. Burton’s go-to guy, Johnny Depp, delivers a haunted performance as Benjamin Barker, a sweet-natured barber who’s falsely imprisoned by a lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who covets Barker’s wife. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London a changed man: Now calling himself Sweeney Todd and looking like a zombie who’s already been buried a couple of times, he sets about planning his revenge. He’s aided in his efforts by Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a lonely widow whose love for Todd will clearly remain unrequited. As partners-in-crime, however, they’re matched beautifully: A crazed Todd slits the throats of all who sit in his barber’s chair, while Mrs. Lovett grinds up the corpses to use in her increasingly popular meat pies.

Charlie Wilson’s War ***

Sterling entertainment punched across with enough glitz to sell it but not too much to bury it. Aided by a big-name cast and a sharp script by Aaron Sorkin (adapting George Crile’s nonfiction book), Nichols has crafted a winning if occasionally facile work whose level of intelligence is measured by how much (or how little) each individual viewer wants to put into it. Kicking off in the 1980s, it follows Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a blustery politician not above lounging in Vegas hot tubs with busty strippers, as he becomes interested in Afghanistan’s ineffectual attempts to oust the invading Soviet army. Charlie’s spurred to take action at the insistence of his politically savvy friend Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, little more than serviceable), a born-again right-wing millionaire who also hails from the Lone Star State. Charlie does his best, but it isn’t until he teams up with prickly CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, marvelous) that the ball gets rolling and the Afghans are able to defend themselves. But at what cost to the future? Charlie Wilson’s War doesn’t answer its own question, preferring instead to let viewers mull over the response.

The Golden Compass **1/2

Christians have been on the warpath for believing that the film attacks their religion. Non-Christians have been furious because they’ve heard that the movie removes all condemnations of Christianity. Book lovers have braced themselves for a bastardization of their beloved text. But a movie is a separate entity from a book and as such deserves to be judged on its own terms. And on that level, The Golden Compass is an acceptable piece of fantasy fluff, a cluttered mishmash that nevertheless can lay claim to its own scattered charms. An ambitious tale set on an alternate world, The Golden Compass opens with an expository crawl meant to set up the story, but not since 1984’s ill-fated adaptation of Dune has a supposedly helpful introduction been so impenetrable. Top-billed Nicole Kidman plays the villainous Marisa Coulter, but the lead is actually Dakota Blue Richards, a talented child actress whose presence goes a long way toward keeping this story grounded. Richards stars as Lyra, the spunky lass whose devotion to her uncle, the explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and to her young chums contributes to her landing in the middle of a large-scale skirmish that finds the fascistic members of the religious ruling body fighting all manner of outsiders in an effort to not only hold onto power but insure that they eliminate the notion of “free will” entirely.

Lyra emerges as the unlikely leader of the revolution, backed by such disparate characters as an airborne cowboy (Sam Elliott) and an armor-packing bear (voiced by Ian McKellen). Zipping from one adventure to the next, it often plays like a highlights reel from a multipart miniseries. Craig appears in two segments before disappearing from the story (presumably, he’ll rack up more screen time in the planned sequels). And Eva Green (Craig’s co-star in Casino Royale) flits about the screen as a kindly warrior-witch, but I’ll be damned if her place in the saga is ever properly explained. But for all the narrative shortcuts taken by director-adapter Chris Weitz (yes, he of American Pie fame), the movie still works fairly well as a high-flying fantasy tale for the younger set. Budding girls are sure to fall behind Richards’ sassy heroine, while boys will dig the hand-to-hand -- excuse me, paw-to-paw -- combat between two fearsome CGI bears (and here’s a rare occasion when ample use of computer-generated effects enhances the project rather than overwhelms it). As for the adults, they can enjoy the fine work by Kidman, who’s all slinky, silky menace as the purring Marisa Coulter.

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.

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