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Idlewild has problems, yet despite intense ADHD jitters it stays a fun, slick and novel ride. It’s a musical made for MTV.

reviewed by Mark Burns

OutKast duo André 3000 and Big Boi put scratches and beats on the speakeasy scene in this frenetic musical.

Idlewild, Georgia, is a podunk peachville of the early 1930s. Best friends Rooster (Antwan A. Patton aka Big Boi, ATL) and Percival (André Benjamin aka André 3000, Four Brothers) help light up the night scene’s only bright spot, Sunshine Ace’s swinging juke joint Church. Honorific bootlegger Spats keeps Church wet, but as he tries to retire from the game, flunky Trumpy makes a power grab by offing his boss and Ace. Now Rooster is in charge of the place, and he must figure out how to avoid being squeezed to death by the new crime boss. Meanwhile, introvert Percival meets his muse in Angel, pushing him into love and toward his musical dream.

There’s promise here. Imagine: OutKast hip-hop artists known for their transformative melding of musical influences, molding their talents to embody a speakeasy musical. Sweet. Hip-hop tinted tunes on a ’30s-era stage may seem odd, but the mish-mashing of eras has worked before. A Knight’s Tale successfully combined rock and Chaucer for a fun flick. Moulin Rouge was pop brilliance on top of 1920s Paris. More obscurely, the anime Samurai Champloo blended Edo-period samurai with hip-hop aesthetic to great effect. So there’s reason to believe this film could be a gem.

At its best, it is. Brilliant, even. The opening sequence of the friends’ childhoods is particularly strong, as creative editing of shots and stills makes for a creative pop-and-lock visual effect. Here, the story gets a good start as the friends’ personalities are established and the film finds its vibe with a snappy overlay of hip-hop on period scenes. Song-and-dance numbers are also strong, especially in Big Boi’s turns as Rooster. Director and writer Bryan Barber, a prominent hip-hop video director, shines brightest in this material. There are even bright flashes of inspiration throughout the dramatic bridges, as Barber entertains with creative visual experimentation so emblematic of the music video genre.

Ultimately, though, you can tell Barber is a feature-film rookie. For starters, his first script is choppy and incomplete. While the tale and ensuing action are fun and interesting, he can’t quite make the cool cohere. Percival and Rooster are on two separate story paths that rarely intersect or directly relate. Instead their arcs are intermingled in an often-confusing mélange of cut scenes. Rooster’s tale tends to dominate, as it’s the most complete blend of humor, drama, music and action. Percival, in contrast, explores a neglected emotional storyline undercut by short development of the story of budding love, inner conflict and paternal issues.

Slapdash video aesthetic, plus preoccupation with nifty visuals, reduce the dramatic portion to rat-a-tat Cliffs Notes summation rather than a whole tale. Once beyond childhood, the story increasingly jumps around without transition or explanation, leaving holes for assumption to fill. As the film rolls along, the director seems to grow more impatient with storytelling, pinballing off major plot points to the finish. It becomes a string of music videos connected by thinning strands of plot.

The tunage is a blast, jiving from jazz age to hip-hop with a little slow guitar tossed in and every mix of genres in between. The variety can be hectic; there is little to soften transitions between the omnipresent record-scratch tracks and other styles. Transitions from drama to dance are often weak, as well. But the music shines through, injecting the film with infectious energy.

Acting, when given the time, is also done well. Journeyman actors Benjamin and Patton fill out their characters nicely, and Terrence Howard makes a good villain as Trumpy. Ben Vereen is seen too little as Percy Sr., while supporting actors Ving Rhames and Macy Gray plus a smart cameo by Patti LaBelle enrich the film.

Idlewild has problems, yet despite intense ADHD jitters it stays a fun, slick and novel ride. It’s a musical made for MTV.

Fair musical drama • R • 90 mins.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Not unlike the B-movie serials to which the Indiana Jones movies pay homage, there is little in the way of smart plot here.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Harrison Ford returns as that adventuring archeologist Indiana Jones in the fairly rollicking if not numbskulled Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Director Steven Spielberg, who has directed all four Indy films — working with a story co-authored by Indy creator George Lucas — keeps the action coming at us with references to Indy movies past. But for those looking for more, keep looking.

Despite creeping old age, Indiana Jones (Ford, who turns 66 this year) is still trekking around the globe in search of treasure and archeological knowledge. Soviets (it’s the 1950s and there’s a Cold War on) led by psychic commander Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) are in search of a secret crystal skull, and they’ve employed Indy — forced at gunpoint numerous times — to help them find it. Indy’s adventuring partner this go round is rebel with a clue Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who gives Indy a letter and coded treasure map from an old friend who sought the crystal skull. Onward to jungle trouble in pursuit of the skull and its secrets.

This new Indiana Jones film delivers on the action, but that’s about it. Not unlike the B-movie serials to which the Indiana Jones movies pay homage, there is little in the way of smart plot here. Sure, the film tries to interest us with a Da Vinci Code like mystery. But the more the movie explains this muddled mess, the worse it gets.

It’s the dumb action fun that we really came to see, and on that level it mostly succeeds. The opening scene announces that visual master Spielberg is in charge. Unfortunately, we are also reminded that he is in charge when the movie goes on for too long, like almost all Spielberg movies.

Best of all for Indiana Jones fans are plenty of references to the old movies, especially the return of Karen Allen, from some sort of self-imposed Hollywood sabbatical. She seems more fit for action than creaky Harrison Ford, and she still has the wisecrack punch to his stoic machismo. 

Fans of Indiana Jones will enjoy this film enough. It’s more of the same — and certainly is no worse than that bubblegum mess of a second film. No obnoxious kid either, though depending on your taste, I guess LaBeouf might fit that role. Ultimately, one could do worse than forgettable summer blockbuster action with some familiar faces.

Fair action • PG-13 • 120 mins.


The book may be silver-tongued, but the movie stutters.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Father and daughter struggle to thwart written villains made real in this tweedy fantasy.

Meggie (Eliza Bennett: Nanny McPhee) enjoys a unique childhood, bookworming across Europe with dad Mo (Brendan Fraser: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), as he searches for a rare book. Though she doesn’t know it, her dad is a silver-tongue: By the simple act of reading a story aloud, he can bring its characters into reality. He needs a particular book — Inkheart — to sort out some past catastrophe. But Meggie and Mo have bigger problems to vanquish first.

Displaced fire-eater Dustfinger (Paul Bettany: The Secret Life of Bees) is hot on their heels in search of passage back to the pages even as crossed over villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis: Gollum/Smeagol in Lord of the Rings) hunts Mo to use in his evil plans.

Inkheart is based on the novel by German author Cornelia Funke, being the first book of her Inkworld trilogy (trailed by Inkspell and Inkdeath). It’s evocative of Neverending Story (also based on a German fantasy novel, by Michael Ende): A reader wields dominion over a living fantasy world that becomes blurred with his own reality. Only here, his interference is more direct, and it’s the real world that’s in peril.

Story plugs ahead cleanly, driven by Mo’s desperation and Meggie’s journey of discovery as hastened by Capricorn’s grasp for power. It’s an interesting enough trip to ride along as Meggie discovers Mo’s past and awakens to her own role. Unique touches — like the stuttering silver-tongue who can’t fully withdraw characters from fiction — imbue the tale with original personality.

Unfortunately, plot holes perforate this tale, be it the fault of source story or summary adaptation.

Scenes of magical reading are redemptive for their creative execution. If only there were more. The filmmakers could have stoked deeper curiosity by adding further demonstrations of the magic. As it is, parts of the quest seem dry. The old country serves perfect backdrop for a storytelling adventure, though at points director Iain Softley’s (The Skeleton Key) plain filmic style reduces scenes to Sci-Fi Channel production value. Characters are adequately portrayed, but no one stands particularly bold.

This adaptation lacks spark and isn’t exactly book smart. It’s as though the stuttering silver-toungue read it into being. Less finicky younger fans might enjoy the film, but my bet is a second reading would make for a better time.

Fair fantasy • PG • 106 mins.

The Incredible Hulk

Just another superhero movie with well-crafted and thrilling action plus stupid romance.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

That enormous … well, hulk … of a green monster is back, only five years after the first whack at bringing this gigantic comic book hero to the big screen, in the action-packed and wholly unsurprising action film The Incredible Hulk. This new version by director Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2) is more of what we expect from a superhero action movie — for good and ill.

Edward Norton plays Dr. Bruce Banner, a scientist accidentally zapped by dangerous gamma rays. As a result, whenever he gets angry (i.e. his pulse rate jumps to over 200), he turns into a 20-foot tall, super-strong, uncontrollable, green mountain of fury. Only Bruce’s ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) seems to understand him and is able to tamp down his fury. Meanwhile, General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), father of Betty, wants to unlock the key to the Hulk’s power to use it for military purposes. Enter super-agent Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) who takes his own mega-powered serum to match up to the Hulk. (Another comic-book movie with a clone-like villain.) All hell breaks loose in New York City (one can only imagine how many innocents are killed or injured), and it’s up to the Hulk to save the day. 

This film is basically a redo by the folks at Marvel following 2003’s misunderstood and underappreciated version by director Ang Lee. This new Hulk film is more keen on action, less concerned with character and has more cameos and sly nods to the comic books and the old TV series. In short, it’s more like every other comic book superhero movie.

This is in contrast to Lee’s version, which tried a different more dramatic approach to the genre. The result was a failure with moviegoers and netted a mixed response from critics. This new Hulk is not any better than Lee’s quietly intense version, which has plenty of its own exciting action. It’s just different.

Ultimately, The Incredible Hulk is just another superhero movie, no better or no worse than what we’ve come to expect. The action sequences are well crafted and thrilling; the romantic parts are stupid and incredibly slow. Norton is a worthy Bruce Banner, though he plays him almost too realistically for this popcorn movie. But a popcorn movie it is, with silly plot lines and chock full of Hulk-smash thrills. Indeed, it will probably turn you green if you swallow too much of it.

Good action • PG-13 • 114 mins.

The Informant!

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Matt Damon in The Informant!

Corporate crime narrative makes for odd farce in this riff on a true story.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon: The Bourne Ultimatum) is a VP with agri-business titan ADM. One day he bursts into his boss’ office and sounds the alarm on industrial espionage, sparking an FBI investigation in defense of his company. When agent Shepherd (Scott Bakula: Enterprise) starts sniffing around, however, Whitacre is further compelled to out ADM’s complicity in a global price-fixing scheme. The stunned agent graciously accepts the tip and deploys the veep as mole on a two-and-a-half-year odyssey to take the business down. Little does he realize that a weirder puzzle awaits when Whitacre’s origami of deceits and half-truths unfolds.

The movie is adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s same-named book, described by the publisher as a true-life Grisham thriller. Hollywood spins it differently, aggregating characters and distilling language into a snappy take on truth. What emerges is a quirky, tongue-in-cheek tragidramedy. If there is such a thing.

Absurdity sets the tone as tale squeezes through the torsions of a strange Midwestern man’s misshapen id. Story is a twist on the caper tale, centered on Whitacre’s internal life as he tries to play the hero and get ahead. Plot moves forward neatly enough through Shepherd’s investigation. But not without the interference of Whitacre’s frequent narration, a string of non-sequiturs peppered with fact, that entangle truth and fiction while highlighting the antihero’s randomness.

Music further skews the vibe. Director Steven Soderbergh (the Ocean’s movies) deploys a ubiquitous score of flighty, slapstick music as if to emphasize the strangeness. Every moment, no matter the gravity, is soundtracked to symphonics evocative of Saturday morning cartoons. All that’s missing is the canned laughter.

What’s funny, though, is that the film isn’t. Sure, there’s droll ridiculousness, but this isn’t a chuckler. Soderbergh populates the scenes full of comics and cast-aside character actors — from Back to the Future’s Biff to the Smothers Brothers — but has them play it straight. Even stand-up comic Patton Oswalt steps in as a sensibly incredulous lawyer. This casting combines with the music and the narration to illustrate Whitacre’s perspective. All is light and fun and inconsequential, but no one else seems to be playing along. What gives?

Nifty conceits and high concepts aside, this is an odd flick that didn’t cohere until late. Pacing often seemed to drag despite the short time, and the weirdly muffled punch lines could be perplexing.

This might be one of those movies that’s gotten on the first trip and enjoyed on the second. Or it might just be weird. I’ll let you know.

Fair tragidramedy • R • 108 mins.

Inglourious Basterds ~ take 1

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a war of attrition, wearing down its audience with glimpses of brilliance and stretches of smug mediocrity

reviewed by Diana Beechener

A group of violent GIs cuts a bloody swath through Nazi Germany in an epic World War II comedic action film. It’s not The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, Five Graves to Cairo or Inglorious Bastards (1978) — but it might as well be. Quentin Tarantino begs, steals and borrows from classic and cult World War II films — and liberally references his beloved spaghetti westerns — to create his latest overlong opus Inglourious Basterds.

Tarantino spins a tale of Jew hunters, Nazi hunters, espionage and revisionist history that spirals into a dizzying whirlpool of overly witty dialog and period pop culture references.

In a scene taken almost shot for shot from The Dirty Dozen, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt: Seven) outlines the mission (and one of the plots) for his inglorious team: Each man owes him exactly 100 Nazi scalps before the war is over. It’s a simple assignment, and when Tarantino follows it, the film blasts by with Howitzer-like power.

Another vein collaged into the epic is the story of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew who narrowly escapes sadistic Col. Hans ‘The Jew Hunter’ Landa (Christoph Waltz), who kills the rest of her family.

That’s how you know it’s a Tarantino film — everybody has a snappy nickname, a bloody character quirk or a 1970s-style rock star introduction, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

But there are problems with the Basterds. The first being the Raine’s dirty dozen crew. Pitt, who speaks with a southern accent fused from Forest Gump and George W. Bush, spouts Tarantino’s signature dialog, but his comedic delivery hinges on his mustache more than his range. Torture-porn king Eli Roth (Hostel) as Donny ‘the Bear Jew’ Donowitz, takes a baseball bat to the skull of a captured Nazi, but he can’t manage to change his expression once in a nearly three-hour film. The rest of the Basterds are treated as such, barely uttering five lines among them throughout the film.

As far as acting, the Germans easily win the war. Christoph Waltz charms, chills and connives as the German’s smartest Jew Hunter. Daniel Bruhl elicits unexpected sympathy as a Nazi version of Sergeant York, uncomfortable with his hero status and the brutality of war. Diane Kruger dazzles as mysterious movie star who may be playing both sides. Even German members of the Basterds — Til Schweiger and Gedeon Burkhard —steal their scenes from the other allied forces.

Inglourious Basterds isn’t a complete loss. Tarantino still knows how to stage a brilliant action sequence, as demonstrated by a thrilling and hilarious Mexican standoff in a basement bar. Film fanatics will get a kick out of playing Name That Tune with the soundtrack — Tarantino samples heavily from Ennio Morricone and classic war films.

Overall, Inglourious Basterds is a war of attrition, wearing down its audience with glimpses of brilliance and stretches of smug mediocrity.

Fair war film • R • 153 mins.
© The Weinstein Company and Universal Pictures

Eli Roth and Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Inglourious Basterds ~ take 2

Subterfuge, drama, insanity, and comedy whirl around each other as this movie thrusts onward.

reviewed by Mark Burns

The eponymous Basterds are a crack squad of Nazi-squooshing Jewish Americans led by moonshine maverick Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). They wage an underground war of terror against Nazis in occupied France. But their wilding finds new focus when an Allied plot is hatched to wipe out the Nazi leadership in one swipe. Meanwhile, escaped French Jew Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) has become a German war hero’s object of affection and uses the situation to plot similar revenge on the same targets. Stalking the avengers, however, is calculating inquisitor Col. Hans Landa (Cristoph Waltz), whose sinister canniness threatens to unravel all.

The film is a thump to the head. Director Quentin Tarantino, auteur of such delicate pieces as Kill Bill and Death Proof, orchestrates a bit of the old ultra-violence: scalping, machine gunning and forehead etching as expressions of Jewish rage. The brutality shocks reliably and often appalls; scenes of scalping will make you cringe. Violence is more realistic than stylized and carries more impact.

However violence does not consume all. Character figures huge. Pitt thrives in the skin of Raine, darkly comic in his single-minded pursuit of Nazi scalps. German actor Waltz portrays a svelte, silver-tongued villain as Landa, stalking his targets with cold and casual calculation. French actress Laurent is a sympathetic and believable Shosanna through persecution, fear and wrath.

Tarantino’s trademark loquaciousness gives players room to breathe. Conversational confrontation tightens the thumbscrews of suspense while other well-timed exposition turns in comic relief and deep character development.

While the tale is over the top, there is balance in the mayhem. Subterfuge, drama, insanity, and comedy whirl around each other as the movie thrusts onward. A surprisingly ample story — neatly pieced into chapters as it explores converging arcs centered on Shosanna and the Basterds —breaks up the violence.

Compared to Landa and Shosanna, the Basterds are two-dimensional creatures. They are the abstract of rage; she is the study. Their main purpose seems to shatter the movie’s quiet and step in swinging with dark-dark comic retribution, adding swagger to the caper. The layering of these planes actually works with the tone of this violent tragi-comic rollick.

The deepest criticism is the severity of violence. Graphic scalping? Come on. I’m still checking to make sure I have mine. But then, that’s Tarantino. His devotees will surely adore this. Others — maybe not so much.

Good war film • R • 153 mins.

In the Land of Women

This isn’t the dumbest film ever made about young people dealing with problems; it’s just so interminably slow.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A 20-something writer recently dumped by his Hollywood girlfriend finds psychological support in the quiet land of suburban Michigan in the painfully slow and misery-inducing In the Land of Women. Not straight romance nor straight comedy nor straight drama, this film needs a deft hand to deliver emotional punch — and laughs — while avoiding schmaltz or insensitivity. It fails.

Protagonist Carter (Adam Brody) is dumped by his gorgeous European girlfriend (Elena Anaya) in a Southern California diner as the movie opens. Not sure what to do, Carter decides to skip town on his Hollywood lifestyle — he writes scripts for soft-porn flicks — and head to his grandmother’s place in Michigan. On day one, he meets the across-the-street neighbors, the Hardwickes, who are going through their own behind-closed-doors melodramas, from cancer to marital affairs to teen angst (and I’m not giving anything away). Carter bonds first with mother Sarah (Meg Ryan) and next with daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart), both in nearly romantic ways. Ultimately and not surprisingly, Carter sorts out his life while helping the Hardwickes sort out theirs.

From the ads and previews of this movie, you might think you’re in for a romantic comedy. This is the Bataan Death March of romantic comedies. Amidst woeful circumstance stacked upon woeful circumstance, we are asked to laugh at semi-clever asides delivered by attractive young people or chuckle at vulgar comic relief provided by an inane crank of a grandmother (Olympia Dukakis). (Side note: I found this grandma not only unfunny but quite insulting to older people, if not offensive.)

This isn’t the dumbest film ever made about young people dealing with problems; it’s just so interminably slow. Early on, writer-director Jon Kasdan (son of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan) slips into that favorite TV drama trick of the day: the video montage set to hip rock music. It’s the first 15 minutes, and the movie is already using filler.

Maybe we are just supposed to feel good that Meg Ryan has work again. She’s fine as the cancer-ridden mother, but her Joker-like mouth still looks a little odd, especially when the soft filter camera catches her the wrong way. Meanwhile, star Brody is better than fine as our geeky cool protagonist. Indeed, it makes sense that he is getting his own vehicle; this just isn’t the right one.

Poor drama-comedy • PG-13 • 98 mins.

In the Valley of Elah

The plot sometimes grinds, but Tommy Lee Jones has never been better.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Tommy Lee Jones plays a father searching for the truth behind his soldier-son’s death upon returning from Iraq in the slow but involving suspense drama In the Valley of Elah. In a film that is more detective yarn than war drama, writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) explores fresh and rich territory digging into the lives and conflicts of American soldiers back from Iraq.

Hank Deerfield (Jones) is army retired, living in a small town in Tennessee with his dedicated wife (Susan Sarandon). Their older boy died in the military, and the younger one, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), has just returned from serving in Iraq. Hank gets a call from Mike’s base that his son is AWOL. Soon after Hank arrives at the base to investigate, Mike turns up dead. A military policeman during his army career, Hank knows his way around a crime scene and around Army bureaucracy. As the murder investigation unfurls, he seeks the help of local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to discover what really happened. Ultimately, Hank seeks the truth not only about how his son was killed but also about his son’s experience in Iraq.

Haggis’ subject matter is certainly the stuff of recent headlines. However, he smartly sets his movie a couple years ago: November, 2004, to be exact. This timing gives Haggis some time-lapse cover (maybe things have changed since then?) to deliver plenty of sharp jabs at the military establishment while never losing its au current topic. Nor does he ever get too preachy (except for maybe the final scene).

However, this movie is less exposé and more murder mystery. Its best moments come during the investigation, as Hank digs deeper and thinks smarter than any of the on-duty police. But he is no Dick Tracy; he is driven by emotion, too, as you’d expect in a father who’s just lost his son. At the same time, his quest is more than Hollywood-style vengeance.

Ultimately, In the Valley of Elah (a metaphorical reference to David and Goliath) succeeds thanks to Jones’ powerful performance and Haggis’ grinding plot that mirrors Hank’s determination. Even if that plot sometimes grinds, Jones has never been better: at different times angry, smug, clever, exhausted, and bewildered, while never losing the posture of grief. Sadly impressive.

Great suspense drama • R • 119 mins.

The Invention of Lying

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais star in The Invention of Lying.

I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Ricky Gervais writes, directs and stars as a man who invents the idea of lying in the intensely clever romantic comedy The Invention of Lying. This seemingly one-joke idea of a movie shows us layer upon layer of comedic ideas, almost all of which are smart and funny.

Our movie begins by explaining the basic rules of the story we are about to watch. It is modern-day society in a mid-sized American city where everything basically looks and operates the same. There is just one critical difference: There is no lying. Indeed, not only does everyone tell the truth, but they also have a hard time holding in what they are thinking, thus blurting out whatever honest thoughts (and they are all honest) come into their heads.

The curtain rises on our chubby and average-looking hero Mark (Gervais) on a blind date with stunning Anna (Jennifer Garner). The comedy begins like a one-joke Saturday Night Live skit. Mark comments on how pretty she is. Anna says that she is disappointed at how he looks and is sure that this date will not lead anywhere. We can’t help but sag in our seats, wondering how on earth this can go on in an enjoyable fashion for more than 90 minutes. However, we soon learn there is much more at play here, and we can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next.

Mark falls on hard times, and while at a bank emptying his account, he suddenly realizes he can tell the clerk whatever he wants and she will believe him. From then on, the world is Mark’s oyster, as he utilizes his new talents while no one else has any idea what is going on. Most importantly, Mark sets his sights on winning Anna, only to realize that he doesn’t want to do it by lying.

Aha! There is the rub: A real romantic comedy lies underneath the joke world of no lying, and it’s an ingenious and interesting one with heart. It’s as if Gervais (creator of Britain’s The Office) has decided that if Hollywood can’t create good original comedies set in the real world, he’ll create a fake world. Along with his take on romance, we get humorous insights into work, movies and even the big man in the sky, God. (And lots of surprising cameos to boot.) Here’s hoping Gervais keeps making it up as he goes along.

Great romantic comedy • PG-13 • 100 mins. 

Iron Man

Downey is fun to watch, and his smart-alecky lines hit hard in this superhero movie with dramatic heft.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A super-wealthy weapons magnate develops a metal suit that turns him into a superhero in the solid action thriller Iron Man. Director Jon Favreau (Elf; Made) gives us a superhero movie with more dramatic heft than your average lightweight comic-book movie, thanks in no small part to a charismatic Robert Downey Jr. as our hero.

Tony Stark (Downey) is the heir to Stark Enterprises, an enormously lucrative high-tech military weapons company serving the allied world. Stark is both genius and playboy, and his life gets thrown for a loop when he is captured by terrorists while in Afghanistan on a weapons demonstration junket. It’s there, as a terrorist prisoner, that Stark develops the ideas and the technology that will turn him into he of the eponymously named suit. When Stark returns to America, he discovers there is more to his business partner (Jeff Bridges) and his corporate stock than he ever knew. With the aid of Colonel Jim Rhodes (Terrance Howard) and his faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark must stop the ruthless greed that could destroy the world.

As typical of the comic-book-hero genre, this movie joyously walks us through the creation of a superhero. The difficult trick with these superhero movies is the sequel. What’s intriguing here is the fact that Favreau’s film is almost entirely dedicated to the creation of the superhero, with little left at the end for full-on climactic fighting and world saving. Indeed, the name iron man is not evoked until the end. Favreau leans more to drama than action, when given the choice; but there’s plenty of the latter, with the usual blend of explosions on top of explosions.

The film is less traditional in the casting of its leading man. Downey’s cocky realism is so much more than the familiar cardboard cutout that dominates the genre. As a result, he is more fun to watch and his smart-alecky lines hit hard.

Favreau leaves us with a teaser at the end, clearly indicating there is more Iron Man to come — a future last weekend’s box office figures ensures. After seeing this film, everybody will want him.

Good action thriller • PG-13 • 126 mins.

I Think I Love My Wife

Rock fans will find his comedy dull enough to make them leer at other movie posters and fantasize.

reviewed by Mark Burns

A bored husband struggles to reconcile morals and lust in this wishy-washy personal-crisis comedy.

Richard (Chris Rock) is in a funk, and his libido is screaming to be heard. He and wife Brenda (Gina Torres, Serenity) seem to have lost their spark, and he finds himself leering at other ladies and fantasizing in lieu. Daydreaming turns to waking struggle, though, when former crush Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington, The Last King of Scotland) saunters back into his life.

So the film becomes a story of one man’s internal conflict, moved along by his narrated internal monologue. It’s a new tack for Chris Rock, who also wrote and directed the film, as he tones down his racially charged rhetoric a few notches. He’s ditched the angry black man character of movies past and takes aim at something deeper and more introspective.

Rock’s art is the rant. At best, his confrontational stand-up pumps equal parts laughter and shock. Flashes of his source comedy pop up in successful riffs on racial identity. But such comedy is never at its most biting here, as Rock mutes his style with a fair amount of heart.

Much of the humor in I Think I Love My Wife seems to bobble in grey monotone. Gags that should have been successful often lack the snap to drive a punchlines home. Attempts at artful strangeness, such as a random lingerie walk-on, lack the stylization and pop to succeed. Even comic/dramatic departures meant to surprise or shock, such as potentially challenging confrontations with stereotype, are executed with such waning enthusiasm that the point is dulled.

Perhaps the brightest spark comes late, in a creative husband/wife take on classic R&B duets.

All in all, it’s no terrible flick. There are some good laughs to be had. And it’s got sensitivity. But it’s an awfully tentative effort. Chris Rock fans will likely find his comedy neutered, at times dull enough to make them leer at other movie posters and fantasize.

Fair comedy • R • 90 mins.

It’s Complicated

© Universal Pictures

Divorced for 10 years, Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) set off sparks as they look to rekindle the flame.

Middle-aged exes try rekindling subterfuge in this lightweight

reviewed by Mark Burns, January 7, 2010

Jane (Meryl Streep: Julie & Julia) and Jake (Alec Baldwin: 30 Rock; My Sisters Keeper) are 10 years divorced. She’s still single; he married the other woman. They’ve just reached amicable ground when Jake lures Jane into behaving badly in an effort to reclaim their former mojo. So the former couple embark on an adulterous fling even as Jane starts to fall for her architect, Adam (Steve Martin: The Pink Panther 2).

Awards season has already been kind to this movie. Among its kudos can be counted three nominations from the Golden Globes: best comedy; best screenplay; best actress in a comedy. True to the hype, there’s generous amusement to be found in this novel premise.

Writer/director Nancy Meyers (The Holiday) capitalizes fairly well on said amusement, opting more toward the cute than the incisive. Gently scandalous zingers stand in for cutting banter. Middleage complications are comically overlaid with adolescent mischief in mostly situational comedy. Embarrassment of the young figures prominent as accidental discoverer Harley (John Krasinski: The Office; Away We Go) is used to goad laughs with reactionary fluster.

There also lies the disconnect. Meyers seems aloof from the reaches of her vague midlife fantasy: Jane’s charmed Santa Barbara lifestyle is alien in its idyll; the sharp corners and edges of her romantic tangle blunted with simplistic consideration and resolution. Neutered under-40s are but precious, overpretty babies that have yet to develop any traits beyond adoration of alright oldsters. Except the trophy wife and her mouthy son.

Story is soft, lacking for cool wit to slice through cloying goofiness. But it’s smart and well paced. Meyer takes time to develop the relationships among her leads and is generally successful in exploring complications and consequences. The evolution of their little experiment holds interest well, and the actors make their roles fun and sympathetic.

All said, this one’s good for light escapism and more a matter of taste. The movie’s deepest fault is the marketing machine behind it, having dulled many of the biggest moments in previews, thus stealing the punch.

Consider this one a friendly scandal. Amusing, though maybe more of a knee-slapper for the Levitra crowd.

Fair midlife comedy • R • 118 mins.

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