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Race to Witch Mountain

Kudos to The Rock for reaching the mountain

© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Dwayne Johnson, Alexander Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb must outwit the federal government, mob tough guys and an alien killing machine in Race to Witch Mountain.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson stars as a Las Vegas cabdriver who helps a couple of alien kids get back to their spaceship in the fun-filled family action comedy Race to Witch Mountain. This update of the 1975 Disney Escape to Witch Mountain doesn’t have a lot of original ideas, but director Andy Fickman (The Game Plan; She’s the Man) keeps the movie cruising along with the right blend of action, humor and adventure.

Jack Bruno (Johnson) is a down-on-his-luck taxi driver, who, after doing prison time and some muscle-work for the mob, is trying to go the straight and narrow. One day what should he find in the back of his moving cab but two blond teenagers on the run — who we all come to find out are aliens (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig). It seems these aliens need to recover some science gadgets from our planet and return home with them. It’s very important that these kids get to their spaceship and get home. Standing in their way and in hot pursuit are the federal government, mob tough guys and, worst of all, an alien killing machine.

This movie scores points in two ways: One, by keeping the chase — and subsequently the movie — going full throttle with hardly a pause. Two, by managing to keep its far-fetched premises and plot points working just fine along the way.

Wouldn’t these alien kids stick out like sore thumbs? Not if there was a UFO convention in town, bringing a whole host of wackos to Sin City. Shouldn’t the kids be able to use their alien powers to get what they want? Not if they’re being chased by an alien even stronger then they.We are provided with just the right amount of explanation for most every little twist and turn. Sure, at the end, it makes no sense that they could penetrate the government-guarded Witch Mountain. But by that time, we’ve already given the movie an A for effort and are enjoying the ride.

Johnson is fast becoming one of the best action heroes in Hollywood. He’s that sort that never thinks about even sniffing an Oscar but gives action-ready moviegoers precisely what they want from an action hero: muscle, toughness, good-looks and humor — without overdoing it.

Despite Fickman’s nimble direction, this ultimately lightweight movie would fall on its face if it weren’t for the powers of the leading man. Kudos to The Rock for reaching the mountain.

Good family action comedy • PG • 99 mins.

The Reader

The romance is painfully slow and obvious — and not especially erotic.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A teenage boy has an affair with an older woman in post-World War II Germany with unusual consequences later in life in the intriguing but mostly flat romantic drama The Reader. Working from the best-selling 1995 novel, director Stephen Daldry (The Hours; Billy Elliot) paints a meticulous picture unfortunately filled with too many clichés. That is until we get to the dramatic twist more than halfway through the movie.

Set as flashback, awkward but handsome schoolboy Michael Berg (David Kross) meets a kind and mysterious 30-something woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), who aids him on a rainy day. When he returns to thank her, something clicks, and a romance emerges. For the next few months, his days are spent ditching his school chums, making love to Hanna and reading books to her in bed. As summer ends, Hanna moves away, leaving only a lifelong impression. (This is made evident in the film’s opening as the adult Michael — Ralph Fiennes — flashes back.) Yet Michael and Hanna will meet again.

I must confess that this is not my kind of movie. Just because this romance is set in a period 50 years ago and directed with a delicate hand doesn’t mean it is any less clichéd than your pick of any bad teen dramas currently on TV. On their first romantic meeting, she leaves her door ajar; he peers through; he sees her adjusting her stocking; she sees him seeing her adjusting her stocking: Give me a break. I found the whole romance painfully slow and obvious, and not especially erotic. Even if the plot points are not predictable, the emotional content is.

The movie takes a change for the better when we fast forward to Michael’s life in law school. It’s here that events catch us off balance and intrigue us. To tell much more than the fact that Hanna reenters Michael’s life in a surprising way would be telling too much.

Fair romance drama • R • 123 mins.

Role Models

In a Hollywood gone mad with guy comedies that bring the smut with half a brain, Role Models is a better example than most.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Two down-on-their-luck single guys are forced into a Big Brother-like mentor program and draw a couple of uniquely challenged boys in the smart, quick and funny Role Models. Director/co-writer David Wain (The Ten; Wet Hot American Summer) delivers a punchy and fairly original comedy that is bawdy without letting the vulgarity overwhelm the proceedings.

Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) work for the power-drink company Minotaur. They go from school to school, with Danny lecturing students to stay off drugs but drink Minotaur, while Wheeler dresses in a Minotaur costume. Danny is sick of this dead-end job and is dumped by his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks); Wheeler thinks it’s the greatest job in the world. Such is the id and ego of these two buddies.

After causing a peculiar traffic incident, Danny and Wheeler choose community service instead of jail time. Their service matches them up with kids with a special need for mentors. Danny gets Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a teenager wrapped up in live-action fantasy game. Wheeler gets Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a 10-year old foul-mouthed troublemaker. 

Not surprisingly, what follows is a plot where the kids and the adults learn from each other. Equally not surprising is a litany of f-bombs and sex jokes — f-bombs and sex jokes wrapped in a semi-literate script seem to be all the rage in Hollywood comedies right now (read Judd Apatow). But that is where the predictability ends.

Sure, the adults and kids learn from each other, but not in the obvious ways. Case in point, we begin the movie laughing at the crazy dorkiness of Augie’s fantasy world and his like-minded colleagues: an easy target. By the end, we join the film’s main characters in embracing the craziness and the dorkiness — and find ourselves laughing with them.

Meanwhile, the Wheeler-Ronnie partnership hits us with the curse words and sex jokes. Despite a barrage of filth, much of which misses its targets, the dialogue works because of its rapid execution and refusal to pause for stupid laughs. Even the gratuitous topless shots seem earned. Rudd is his usual quirky, clever, good self, while Scott is rather restrained and has never been better. In a Hollywood gone mad with guy comedies that bring the smut and give it a brain (or at least half a brain), Role Models is a better example than most — and a winner.

Good comedy • R • 99 mins.

Run Fat Boy Run

This one’s a marathon of mediocrity.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A down-on-his-luck security guard decides to run a marathon to prove his worth to his ex-fiancée in the run-of-the-mill comedy Run Fat Boy Run. Brit star and co-screenwriter Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is likeable enough, but the material is tired and unfunny.

Pegg plays Dennis, who we first meet as he was about to wed beautiful and pregnant bride Libby (Thandie Newton). Dennis got cold feet and ran, leaving his bride blushing at the altar. Flash forward to today: Not surprisingly, Dennis has made little of his life toiling away in ignominy as a security guard at a London lingerie shop and barely able to pay the rent on his basement apartment. Meanwhile, Libby is successful and being courted by handsome financial wiz Whit (Hank Azaria). Dennis sees Whit’s courtship as stealing his wife and school-aged son. Whit goads Dennis into doing something he has never done in his life: exercise. Next thing Dennis knows, he has decided to run a marathon to prove himself.

As the movie harmlessly begins, it’s hard not to give it the benefit of the doubt. Pegg seems clever, and Dylan Moran is especially enjoyable as Dennis’s reprobate best friend Gordon. Between the two of them, we want to like this movie; so we sit hopefully along. But nothing interesting — or for the most part funny — ever happens. Our sad sack protagonist is likeable (if not unoriginal), so we cheer for him. Our too-perfect antagonist is a cad, so we boo him. Our female lead is a cardboard cutout with nothing to say or do, so we do nothing in regards to her.

Unlike Pegg’s other efforts, where he has turned the familiar onto its head, this is just familiar after familiar after familiar. Director David Schwimmer (he of Friends cast fame) has to take a lot of the blame. Yes, the material is weak, but it’s the director’s job to recognize that everything going on is flat and not funny. Plus, Schwimmer has this unusual talent of framing his shots so that the tops of people’s heads are cut off.

Still, all is not lost thanks to Pegg and Moran. When they are on the screen together, things seem to work — though they are not on the screen together enough. As for the rest of it, you can assume what happens. Probably better to stay at home assuming than to sit though this marathon of mediocrity.

Fair comedy • PG-13 • 95 mins.

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