The latest from writer-director Kevin Smith is always likable even if it isn’t always inspired. As he proved with Chasing Amy (still the Citizen Kane of his output), Smith can deftly pull off the proper mix of sweet and funny and raunchy; in this case, though, only the “funny” clears all hurdles, as the “sweet” is of the standard variety while the “raunchy” often overwhelms the picture. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are aptly cast as Zack and Miri, lifelong best friends and present-day roommates who are so broke that they can’t even afford to pay their utility bills. After a life-altering high school reunion, Zack hits upon the brilliant idea of making their own hardcore adult film in order to raise significant amounts of green. Initially, the eight-person cast and crew (played by, among others, Smith vets Jason “Jay” Mewes and Jeff Anderson and former porn star Traci Lords) plan to mount a Star Wars spoof titled Star Whores (featuring such characters as Hung Solo, Princess Layher and Darth Vibrator), but after that falls through, they opt to use a coffeehouse as their setting. Rogen and Banks are both utterly winning, and their charisma helps offset the fact that their characters’ romance takes off down a disappointingly predictable path (remove the risqué trimmings, and we’re left with a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com). The vulgar material is alternately hilarious and off-putting, although any movie with the imagination to cast perpetually boyish Justin Long as a gravel-voiced Hollywood gay porn star obviously has much to recommend it.
The award for the year’s most generic title thus far handily goes to Pride and Glory, a moniker so instantly forgettable that, in just a few short weeks, folks will be remembering the film as Honor and Justice or Law and Order or Cops and Crooks or, with apologies to Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment. Then again, this snoozy title reflects the picture bearing it, since this is nothing but one more look at police corruption, a subgenre that’s become especially threadbare during the course of this decade (Narc, Dark Blue, We Own the Night). What’s especially lamentable is that this movie strands yet another exemplary turn by Edward Norton, who once again is superior to the material surrounding him. Here, he plays Ray Tierney, part of a clan of cops: His father (Jon Voight), his brother Francis (Noah Emmerich) and his brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell) also have NYPD blood coursing through their veins. Troubled by a past tragedy and therefore satisfied to be working a quiet desk job, Ray is reluctantly pulled back onto the streets after four police officers are fatally gunned down in the line of duty. As Ray works his connections in the back alleys and juggles a handful of clues, he makes the startling discovery that the murders are connected to dealings within his own family. For the first hour, Pride and Glory wears its formulaic trappings fairly well, but a movie that refuses to offer anything fresh -- watching Farrell go hyper for the umpteenth time certainly doesn’t qualify -- has no reason to clock in at a strenuous 125 minutes.
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that George W. Bush is a remarkably controversial figure, so how is it possible that Oliver Stone has managed to make a movie that’s about as incendiary as Kung Fu Panda? Stone has been down this road before, when he tried to inject sympathy and dignity into the tale of Tricky Dick in his 1995 effort, Nixon. Yet that feature looks as hard-hitting as All the President’s Men when compared to W., which suggests that Dubya’s only real character flaw is that he isn’t always the sharpest tack in the box. The film flashes back and forth between the years, but it never manages to find time for any mention of, for starters, his ineptitude in the face of Katrina or his paralyzed state during those first fateful moments of 9/11. Its primary focus from 2000 to now is how sweet, trusting George was largely duped into attacking Iraq since his advisors convinced him that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. Stone further decides that every move Dubya makes in his life is to seek approval from a perpetually disappointed father (played by James Cromwell). The two women in his life -- wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and mom Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) -- do little more than offer, respectively, support and criticism. As W., Josh Brolin provides the proper mix of swagger and insecurity. In fact, practically all of the actors are solid, even if they don’t really represent the real-life figures they’re playing. Jeffrey Wright probably comes closest: His Colin Powell is a conscientious man who’s ultimately too weak-willed to stand up against the warmongers surrounding him. Thandie Newton is amusing as Condoleezza Rice -- she elicited audience giggles whenever she spoke in that clipped accent. Scott Glenn is suitably oily as Donald Rumsfeld, and this character comes off as the only truly odious one in the film. Yes, you read that right. Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney seems more like a well-meaning if occasionally cantankerous uncle, while Toby Jones’ Karl Rove comes across as a smart, likable guy who’s no worse than any other political player.
The Secret Life of Bees is the sort of Southern-spun, honey-soaked confection that, in the wrong hands, could have turned out dreadful. Yet Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood largely stays away from grandiloquent gestures designed to manipulate audience emotions, relying instead on sound storytelling and a set of accomplished performers to punch across the story’s humanist appeal. Set in 1964 South Carolina, the story centers on young Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), who’s haunted by memories of her late mother (Hilarie Burton) and ill-treated by her unfeeling father (Paul Bettany). Hoping to learn more about a mom she barely remembers, she runs away from home, dragging her caregiver Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) along with her. She heads to a town where she knows her mother once stayed, and, upon arrival, she and Rosaleen end up taking shelter in the home of the Boatwright sisters: patient August (Queen Latifah), suspicious June (Alicia Keys) and sentient (if simple-minded) May (Sophie Okonedo). There, Lily not only finds the answers she seeks but also the family she never had. It’s only been two years since I last saw Fanning (in Charlotte’s Web), yet she seems to have passed that vaguely defined mark between adorable moppet and self-assured teen.
Imagine The Constant Gardener after a frontal lobotomy, and that’s basically Max Payne in a nutshell. The latest bomb based on a popular video game, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as the title character, a New York cop who, years after the fact, is still solely obsessed with solving the murders of his wife and baby. It sounds like standard Death Wish fare; the picture even opens with Max luring three drug addicts into a subway restroom, then proceeding to inflict Payne -- excuse me, pain -- on them. But as in The Constant Gardener, a major pharmaceutical outfit figures into the proceedings, though it’s safe to say that Ralph Fiennes never had to contend with winged demons flying all over the cityscape.
Nick and Nora (no “h”) were the sophisticated sleuths played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the wildly popular The Thin Man movies back in the 1930s and ‘40s, and this married team never encountered a criminal they couldn’t bring to justice. By contrast, the Nick and Norah in this new feature are vanquished by the piece’s villains, who are eventually revealed to be director Peter Sollet and scripter Lorene Scafaria (adapting the book by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan). In short, this is one Thin Movie. Michael Cera, who needs to play a Norman Bates-like character to shake things up, stars as Nick, a high schooler and rock’n’roller dismayed by the fact that he’s been dumped by Tris (Alexis Dziena), the sort of vapid princess who in real life wouldn’t even give someone like Nick the time of day, let alone six months of quality dating time. Through plot contrivances too laborious to outline here, Tris’ pal Norah (Kat Dennings) ends up meeting Nick, not initially realizing that he’s the ex who’s been making all these great CD mixes for an unappreciative Tris. One thing leads to another, and Nick and Norah end up spending an entire after-hours session combing New York for both Norah’s drunken friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) and a secret jam session by the city’s latest “It” band, Where’s Fluffy. Dennings displays a slightly off-kilter personality that marks her as someone to continue watching (she’s also appeared in Charlie Bartlett and The House Bunny), and Cera’s teddy-bear cynicism provides extra zip to a few of his better lines.
Diane Lane and the Tuscan countryside prove to be a more dynamic duo than Diane Lane and the Outer Banks, an assertion that immediately becomes clear when placing Under the Tuscan Sun and Nights in Rodanthe side by side. The coastal-Carolina-shot Rodanthe starts off well as Tuscan Sun’s more serious-minded cousin, but it eventually sinks under the weight of shameless plot devices. Lane, teaming with Richard Gere for the third time, plays Adrienne Willis, who agrees to look after her best friend’s beachfront inn at the same time that her philandering husband is begging her to let him come back. Gere co-stars as Paul Flanner, a doctor brooding over a minor surgery procedure that went tragically wrong.
A number of British costume dramas focus on the efforts of a corseted beauty to land a husband to call her own. These tales generally end on a “Happily Ever After” note, but The Duchess begins where the others end and takes matters down a darker route: What if the man you snag turns out to be a complete lout? That’s the storyline establishing The Duchess, which hands Keira Knightley another plum leading role and serves as yet another example of how Ralph Fiennes’ brooding brand of acting can be successfully employed for all manner of characters. Knightley stars as Georgiana, who, as a teenage girl in 1774, is entered by her mother (Charlotte Rampling) into a marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana discovers the Duke’s only interest in her is that she produce a male heir, so after she gives birth to a couple of girls, he embarks on an affair with her best friend, Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell). Georgiana finds herself contemplating an illicit romance with acquaintance Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Knightley has established herself as England’s go-to girl for this sort of period epic. A bright and sunny presence in Pride and Prejudice (albeit used far less effectively in Atonement), she’s given greater depths to explore in this picture. She doesn’t disappoint. cs