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New releases: The Mist, Mr. Magorium 

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..

I’m Not There**1/2

It wasn’t necessary to be a Beatles fan to enjoy Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, and it’s not required to be a Bob Dylan devotee to appreciate I’m Not There. Of course, some familiarity with the life and times (and personas) of the former Robert Zimmerman can’t hurt, but equally integral to one’s appreciation of Todd Haynes’ latest film is a willingness to allow the standard screen biopic to push through all the sides of that ever-confining envelope. Having said that, it also should be noted that Haynes (whose Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven was the best film of 2002) and co-writer Oren Moverman have crafted a motion picture that’s as infuriating as it is inventive, hindered by a strain of affectation (some would say pretentiousness) that turns entire sections into a tough slog. Given Dylan’s status as a musical giant, it’s not surprising that Haynes hired six different performers to play him. Or, rather, six different performers play variations of him (none are named Bob Dylan), each representing the man at different stages in his life. We first meet him as the self-named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), a black boy who rides the rails in 1959, reaching back into American’s recent past for his material. We also see Dylan incarnated as Greenwich Village mainstay Jack (Christian Bale), unhappily married actor Robbie (Heath Ledger), Old West cowboy Billy (Richard Gere), poet Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), and folk-rock revolutionary Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett, achieving high scores in both appearance and attitude). Like Taymor, Haynes pays tribute not only to his subject (some scenes include lyrics like “Just like a woman” spoken as dialogue) but to music’s relationship with cinema: Don’t Look Back and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are referenced, of course, but so is A Hard Day’s Night (with Blanchett’s Jude playfully wrestling in the grass with The Beatles). But while Haynes admirably doesn’t pretend to “know” the real Bob Dylan, neither does his movie suggest any possible insights, preferring to merely offer clever riffs on the icon’s established reputation. A second showing would doubtless reveal more of Haynes’ intentions, but a solitary viewing leaves too much blowin’ in the wind.

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.

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