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New releases: What Happens in Vegas, Speed Racer 

What Happens in Vegas

When invited to join me at the press screening for What Happens In Vegas, a good friend of mine declined, e-mailing, “I can only stand one romantic comedy a year, and No Country for Old Men was it for me in ‘08.” That quip’s funnier than anything found in the actual movie, and 20th Century Fox would have done well to hire him to pen the film’s screenplay.

As it stands, this is the year’s umpteenth assembly-line rom-com, although it’s admittedly easier to take than most of its predecessors: It’s less obnoxious than Fool’s Gold, less forced than Made of Honor and less formulaic (well, by a sliver, anyway) than 27 Dresses. Cameron Diaz plays Joy, an ambitious Wall Street trader who’s just been dumped by her fiancé (Jason Sudeikis); Ashton Kutcher is Jack, a slacker who’s just been fired from the company business by his own dad (Treat Williams). They both decide to head to Vegas, where they meet, get drunk and wind up married. After sobering up, they realize they don’t even like each other, so once they’re back in New York, they try desperately to get a divorce. Instead, the judge (Dennis Miller) sentences them to six months of marriage, requiring them to visit a counselor (Queen Latifah) weekly to monitor their progress.Diaz is typically winning, while Kutcher doesn’t blend in with the furniture as much as he usually does. But those attending the film hoping to scope out the title city will be disappointed, since most of the action takes place in New York City.

Speed Racer

To complain about the excesses of Speed Racer would be like bitching that there are too many rib eyes kept on ice at your local steakhouse, or that there are too many references to God in the Holy Bible. Anyone who ever watched the original 1960s cartoon series (which, along with Kimba the White Lion, largely introduced Americans to Japanese anime long before it became the mainstream rage) can recall that show’s frenetic pace, often zippy visuals and gaudy color schemes. In fact, those were the reasons kids tuned into the series in the first place; certainly, it wasn’t to marvel at the flat characterizations or infantile dialogue. The Wachowski Brothers, who created a whole new world with The Matrix, have now decided to push the envelope once again, this time by transforming the cheesy, on-the-cheap cartoon into a gargantuan, all-expenses-paid summer blockbuster. It’s clear that one of their goals was to introduce a new visual vocabulary to cinema, perhaps even influencing the direction of the medium itself. That’s not likely to happen. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the visual wizardry behind Speed Racer. But visual wizardry is about all that the movie has going for it, and it’s hard to rally the troops behind so chilly a leader. Not that the film doesn’t eventually warm up a degree or two. At first, though, it’s all bombast, as we see how Speed Racer (Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch), part of a loving family whose members include Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon) and kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his pet monkey Chim Chim (older brother Rex is thought to have been killed in a car crash), dreams of nothing but racing and gets behind the wheel every chance he gets. His automotive prowess earns him an invitation to join the team owned by filthy-rich industrialist Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam, channeling Ian McDiarmid’s Chancellor Palpatine from the Star Wars flicks); he declines the offer, causing an angry Royalton to retaliate by smearing the Racer family name. Determined to do the right thing, Speed joins forces with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) in an attempt to bring down Royalton and his corrupt empire. Much as Francis Coppola did with his audacious interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Wachowskis use vintage or off-kilter cinematic techniques to tell their tale -- note the frame-wipes designed to segue from one sequence to the next. Moving far beyond Coppola, though, the siblings soup up the old-school ideas with cutting-edge CGI. Because their use here is largely relegated to inanimate objects like cars and racetracks, the result is frequently stunning. It’s also something of an artistic mind-meld: Peter Max by way of Andy Warhol by way of Dr. Seuss.

Then She Found Me

Before Then She Found Me, it appeared that only two reactions to the soft-spoken Colin Firth were at all possible. Either audiences found him charming in that brooding sort of way (as did the legions of women who swooned over him in Bridget Jones’s Diary and the miniseries Pride and Prejudice) or they found him on the dull side in that drowsy-Brit sort of way. But with this picture, Helen Hunt successfully turns Firth into something new: an annoyance. Firth delivers such an aggravating performance that you just want to separate him from his character and slap them both. Then again, everything about Hunt’s directorial debut -- she also co-wrote the script and served as one of the 13 producers -- is similarly obnoxious, to say nothing of arch and artificial. Hunt stars as April Epner, an elementary school teacher who, at 39, is desperate to have a baby. Having been adopted, she’s insistent on giving birth herself, a problem when her newly anointed husband Ben (Matthew Broderick, becoming less interesting all the time) abandons her. She does strike up a relationship with the dad (Firth) of one of her students, but even that romance is fraught with tension. Most of her troubles, however, come from the fact that her natural mother (Bette Midler) shows up after all these years hoping to get to know the daughter she gave up decades earlier.Hunt, an overrated actress (her Oscar for As Good As It Gets should be classified as a felony on the part of the Academy), directs as unimaginatively as she performs, which is to say in the traditionally limiting manner of the TV sitcom genre in which she garnered her fame and fortune.

Iron Man

Given their general status as popcorn flicks heavier on the decadent calories than on the nutritional value, I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much care Hollywood studios take when it comes to casting their superheroes in franchise flicks.

Otherwise, we’d have had to endure such box office draws as Adam Sandler as Superman, Will Ferrell as Spider-Man and Mike Myers as Wolverine. Instead, we’ve been lucky enough to have been privy to (for starters) Christopher Reeve as Superman, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (George Clooney as Batman, not so much). With Iron Man, Paramount Pictures settled on an actor who turned out to be both unexpected and just right. Robert Downey Jr. is hardly an unknown, yet any baggage he brings to the role only serves to enhance the character, not diminish him. Centering on the Marvel Comics character created back in 1963, Iron Man smoothly updates the action from the Vietnam War era to the Iraq War era without missing a beat. Swaggering, self-centered inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) has attained both fame and fortune by providing the U.S. military with its most reliable weapons of mass destruction. While in Afghanistan to show off his latest invention, Stark is captured and injured by a group of insurgents who drag him off to their mountainside lair. There, a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub) creates an electromagnetic device that prevents shrapnel from reaching Stark’s heart. Realizing that this is only a temporary fix, the two set about working from Stark’s designs on how to build a special suit of armor. Back home, Stark re-evaluates his life and realizes that instead of continuing to build instruments of death, he wants to dedicate himself to fighting for peace. This decision perplexes his faithful right-hand woman Pepper Potts (a game Gwyneth Paltrow), his best friend Rhodey (Terrence Howard, asked to coast until the next film) and his business partner Obadiah Stane (an imaginatively cast Jeff Bridges). Nevertheless, Stark won’t be swayed, and to accomplish his goal, he sets about building a sleeker, more efficient and infinitely cooler outfit. Stark’s difficulties provide the film with many of its most amusing moments, as do the flirtatious interludes between Stark and Pepper (Downey and Paltrow work well together).

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