Carell, Gosling a fine, funny pairing in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

Cal (Steve Carell) gets his groove back in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

“Bad Santa” fans, prepare to meet a kinder, gentler Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Indeed, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is far removed from the booze-soaked, potty-mouthed desperation of “Bad Santa” (Ficarra and Requa penned the script) or the all-out insanity of “I Love You Phillip Morris.” Maybe one too many ass jokes prompted the duo to venture into calmer waters with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” a romantic comedy with strong performances and several tongue-in-cheek jabs at rom-com gimmicks.

Casting Steve Carell as Cal Weaver, a nice-but-oft-befuddled 40ish father and husband, was the first smart move (if not a stroke of genius, because who could play Joe Husband better than Carell?). He’s got the best face in the business for communicating bemusement and heartbreak, and rare is the actor who can locate humor in a moment of complete emotional devastation. For Cal, that moment is the dinner where his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) announces she’s cheated on Cal and wants a divorce. It’s one of those inherently human situations where the shock is too great to predict the emotional fallout. Cal’s so dumbfounded he can’t speak, leading him to roll out of a moving car to avoid any more of Emily’s confessions. Within a few days he’s moved into a grim little apartment and parked himself at a chi-chi local bar, yammering drunkenly about his troubles (Carell’s “I’m a cuckold” speech is hysterical) to anyone within earshot. Suave ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling, who proves adept at comedy) takes pity on this unfortunately dressed soul and offers him lessons on how to rediscover his masculinity (step one: ditch the sneaks-and-khakis getup).

 
Jacob and Cal’s unlikely friendship is a high point of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” because it gives Carell and Gosling, both choice character actors, ample opportunities to play off each other’s quite different comedic styles. Carell is never better than when he’s playing a character who’s miles outside of his comfort zone (see “Date Night” or “Dan in Real Life”), and Cal Weaver is never less comfortable than when he’s trying to pick up women (Marisa Tomei has a fun cameo as Cal’s first post-breakup “score”). On the other end of the spectrum is Gosling, who tends to pick dramatic roles and do amazing things with them. His comedy comes from a place of self-confidence and trends toward random observational humor, such as his sheepish admission to new love Hannah (Emma Stone, delightful) that he stole his big “close-the-deal” move straight from “Dirty Dancing” (he uses the Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes song and everything). That, really, is the appeal of Carell and Gosling as pals: They’re so dissimilar you’d never match them up as a funny guy pair, but together they’re terrific.
 
Not all the pairings in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” work quite so well, though. The subplot involving Cal’s son Robbie (Jonah Bob) and his infatuation with babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) is sweet but not particularly interesting, especially considering that Jessica has a raging crush on Cal. (The whole bit with her snapping nude photos to prove to him she’s not a kid is just awkward.) Kevin Bacon doesn’t generate much heat with Moore as David Lindhagen, the man who effectively broke up Emily and Cal’s marriage. Moore and Carell do have the sometimes weary chemistry of a long-married couple (their scene outside Robbie’s parent-teacher conference is wrenching). Still, even they can’t quite hold a candle to Stone and Gosling, whose budding relationship essentially runs away with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” These two are dynamite together, and they develop a believable, tentative first-love kind of intimacy that’s a nice juxtaposition to Emily and Cal’s well-worn but deep affection for one another. Even when Dan Fogelman’s script takes a few missteps (like the Big Speech Ending), it’s these two relationships — one winding down, the other gearing up — that make “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” a cut above most romantic comedies. 
 
Grade: B+

Lackluster writing, acting trash promising premise of “Bad Teacher”

Cameron Diaz shows students some tough love (or just pointless violence) in "Bad Teacher."

Alexander Pope warned that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) has a little learning. Very, very little. She has less ambition. So the fact that she’s a middle school teacher makes her dangerous enough to be considered a WMD, incinerating the egos and minds of the fragile, hyper-hormonal pre-teens in her classroom. God forbid these kids get too close — high as she is, she might try to eat them for breakfast. 

In theory, “Bad Teacher” should be a slam-dunk. With movie history littered with homages to dedicated, selfless teachers, who wouldn’t welcome a movie about an educator who hates teaching and sticks it to the education system every chance she gets? To a degree, that’s what director Jake Kasdan’s movie is, and it has the added bonus (for those who are, like, into that sort of thing) of a star who looks hot in platforms, jean cutoffs and a soaked plaid shirt. But while “Bad Teacher” has plenty of naughty lines, they’re all self-consciously naughty. They read like lines, and with Diaz’s delivery they feel completely artificial, hardly a natural extension of the character. It’s tough to buy into Elizabeth Halsey as anything other than a caricature — Jessica Rabbit, only blonde and with a pottymouth — because Diaz offers no nuance. She just looks bored.

The secondary characters in “Bad Teacher,” though, make things slightly more interesting. The best of the actors shine despite the lame gags (Justin Timberlake’s repulsive “wet jeans” scene comes to mind) and forced script. Phyllis Smith (“The Office”) supplies her trademark gawky humor and stellar comic timing as shy Lynn Davies, a fellow teacher and Elizabeth’s only friend. She warns Elizabeth about Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch, highly entertaining), the comically malicious busybody who romances the rich new sub, Scott Delacorte (Timberlake), before Elizabeth can get her money-grubbing hooks into him. Punch, who demonstrates a lovely lack of vanity, goes all-out to earn every laugh, and Amy’s unbridled desperation to win at everything only adds to the comedy. Jason Segel’s Russell, the average-guy gym teacher Elizabeth spurns repeatedly, has a few genuinely amusing moments, addressing one of his pale, artfully scruffy-haired students as “Twilight” and vehemently arguing with another that LeBron James is no Michael Jordan. The misfire (and it’s a sad one) is John Michael Higgins, comedian extraordinaire whose role as dolphin-crazy Principal Wally Snur is far too small. Given room to run, Higgins could have lived up to his character’s odd and inexplicably funny last name. 

Least interesting of all these is Elizabeth, who’s despicable up one side and down the other: rude, self-absorbed, petty, obsessed with money, possessed of a nasty sense of entitlement. She thinks the world owes her a living. These kinds of parts can be dynamite comedy with the right actors (free shots to Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. Soke). Kasdan, however, seems to think audiences will find nastiness endearing because it’s Cameron Diaz in sky-high heels who’s being naughty. How misguided he is. Bad behavior is fun, occasionally even affecting, when it serves a purpose.  In James Mottern’s “Trucker,” for example, Michelle Monaghan’s rough-at-the-edges charm made for an unpredictable mother/son story. Here, Diaz succeeds in the broad physical comedy (think “The Sweetest Thing”) but lacks the nuance to pull of the Elizabeth. She can’t manage to give depth to the character. And the appeal of a hot, bored woman smoking a bowl in her car in the school parking lot, slamming her students in the face with kickballs and dry-humping a coworker’s boyfriend is decidedly limited. Diaz has made a profitable career of coasting on her hotness. That doesn’t mean Kasdan should too. It’s a lazy choice, and it derails “Bad Teacher” way before it can rumble and squeak its way to a pitiful, completely illogical ending.

Grade: C-

Ix-nay on the ush-may: “Bridesmaids” has bite and heart

Kristen Wiig exercises her “civil rights” in “Bridesmaids.”

Socrates dubbed envy “the ulcer of the soul.” In that case, Annie (Kristen Wiig) is in for some serious, long-term indigestion. With her life in shambles, Annie can’t help but yearn for her oldest friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) good fortune: a steady job, a wealthy fiancée, Dougie (Tim Heidecker), a lavish wedding pending. That’s not the only reason Annie has to be envious: There’s the sleek, impeccably coiffed problem of Helen (Rose Byrne), queen bee wife of the Dougie’s boss who intends to muscle in on Annie’s maid of honor duties. She’s living proof that the politics of high school don’t stop after graduation.

What is so amazing about “Bridesmaids,” co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, is the many ways the film explores the rivalries, disappointments and nuances of female friendship yet still manages to be wall-to-wall funny. Even in its most awkward and earnest moments, “Bridesmaids” uses laughter — albeit with a serrated edge — to offset the very real emotional turmoil of its heroine. The edge, the rawness make “Bridesmaids” more than a splendid, side-splitting answer to the likes of “The Hangover” or “Wedding Crashers”; they transform Wiig’s movie into a treatise on what it’s like to be a woman crashing headlong into adulthood.  “Bridesmaids” comes off as uncomfortable reality. It’s refreshing to see a comedy that understands, on a deep and often painful level, what it means to be a 30-something woman who doesn’t have everything under control.

Actually, Annie’s life — from the nonsensical rom-com perspective — is a mess. To the rest of us, it’s just … life. Wiig plays Annie as a woman who’s about as close to the bottom as she can get. Her Milwaukee bakery collapsed during the recession; her business partner/boyfriend ditched her; she shares a house with two intrusive British roommates (Matt Lucas, Rebel Wilson); and her sex-only arrangement with sleazy Ted (Jon Hamm) is decidedly unfulfilling. Wiig’s reaction to news of her best friend’s engagement says it all; her artificial smile and nervous giggle show she’s inches away from hysteria. Even more difficult than keeping her cool is wrangling all the bridesmaids, a queer bunch: Dougie’s sex-crazed sister Megan (Melissa McCarthy, sensational); the prim Becca (Ellie Kemper); Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), harried mom of three sons; and Helen, the 2011 version of Heather Chandler. From the start, the broke maid of honor’s plans go spectacularly wrong, starting with a ghastly food poisoning fiasco and ending with Annie, wasted on Scotch and benzos, getting kicked off a flight to Vegas (“there’s a Colonial woman on the wing of the plane!”). Annie’s fall from grace is epic, and Wiig spins humiliation into comedy gold.

Gross as it is, the now-infamous bridal shop fiasco, which runs a bit long, is not the best “Bridesmaids” has to offer. Wiig’s meltdown on plane is screamingly funny, as is her wedding shower toasting duel of one-upmanship with Helen. Later, Wiig truly outdoes herself trying to catch the attention of good-hearted Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), the would-be suitor she rejected. The sequence of Wiig driving past his cop car repeatedly, breaking different laws — going topless; texting; swigging a 40 of malt liquor — is a work of loony genius. Wiig’s go-for-broke approach sells this madness brilliantly. She also supplies an undercurrent of anguish that tempers but never dilutes the hilarity.

But “Bridesmaids” as a whole isn’t perfect. Annie’s bizarre roommates don’t serve much of a purpose, and the late Jill Clayburgh, who plays Annie’s mother, isn’t given much to do. Plus, with a running length of more than two hours, the film could benefit from much tighter editing, not to mention a less hurried third act. With grade-A material and acting like this, though, who cares? The butched-up McCarthy runs away with every scene she’s in (just wait for her “sex tape” bit during the credits). Byrne taps a core of loneliness in the vicious Helen, and O’Dowd (of “IT Crowd” fame) has an understated nice guy appeal. But it doesn’t get better than Wiig. Since her stellar cameo in “Knocked Up,” she’s blossomed into a fully formed actress. She could be just the one to give “chick flicks” the makeover they so desperately need.    

Grade: A-

“Something Borrowed”: Return to owner, and fast

Ginnifer Goodwin and Colin Egglesfield put a pretty face on wimpiness in "Something Borrowed."

Never, not once, has it failed: Every time I resolve to soften my heart to romantic comedies, to give this fluffy genre one more chance, a lemon like “Something Borrowed” comes down the line and reinforces the distaste anew. “Something Borrowed” is bland. It’s derivative. It’s wimpy. And Ginnifer Goodwin’s wig rivals Kate Bosworth’s “Superman Returns” rug in sheer obviousness.
 
Right from the start, though, the problem is not the wig, or even the plot (uninspired at best); it is the lack of sympathetic or halfway interesting characters. In all of the film’s running time, there emerges exactly one person worth rooting for, and he’s left hanging, written out solely to suit the purposes of the maddeningly unsatisfying conclusion. Here’s the setup: Sensible Rachel (Goodwin) and flighty Darcy (Kate Hudson) have been best friends since childhood. Their old pal Ethan (John Krasinski) has stuck close too, though he long ago wrote off Darcy as a selfish, high-maintenance shrew (yahtzee!). Darcy’s engagement to Dex (a “meh” Colin Egglesfield) presents a rather large problem for Rachel, who’s been in love with him since law school. Neither ever mustered to courage to make a move back then; naturally, now that the timing is lousy, they start a boring affair — boring because both Rachel and Dex are spineless. Rachel won’t force him to choose between her or Darcy, and Dex won’t call off the wedding because — here’s the cherry on the sundae — he thinks it is the only antidote to his mother’s depression. Right. That’s one for the books.
 
Three other characters get sucked into this stupid, pointless love triangle: the affable Ethan, Ethan’s oddball stalker Claire (Ashley Williams) and Marcus (Steve Howey), Dex’s loutish best friend. Claire, who wears rainbow-print dresses and has that Margot-Kidder-in-the-bush look about her, is almost too giddy and clueless to seem human. She’s a caricature. While Marcus is a caveman, at least he’s not a poser: he says what he thinks, even when what he thinks is really, really dumb and offensive. Ethan, thanks to Krasinki’s rumpled regular guy appeal and comic timing, emerges as a likable chap — perceptive, easygoing, funny. He advises Rachel to make Dex to show some backbone. But even Ethan proves himself to be something of a weenie: Instead of taking his own advice, he lies to Claire about being gay and runs away from her every chance he gets. Like all the other characters (except Marcus) in “Something Borrowed,” Ethan wallows and avoids; he can’t muster the gumption to go after what he wants or dismiss what he doesn’t. In actual life, that’s mildly annoying; in a romantic comedy, it’s totally insufferable.
 
Jennie Snyder’s meandering script and the lackluster acting make the absence of agreeable characters even less tolerable. Snyder seems determined to make sure the characters spend as much time floundering as possible. Whining and pining must be used sparingly to create romantic tension; Rachel and Dex flounder so long in “Something Borrowed” that by the conclusion we’ve all but lost interest. How can two people this indecisive possibly generate any heat, much less build a lasting relationship? Darcy and Rachel’s supposed “sisterhood” is just as baffling because Darcy is a self-serving flake, and Rachel is blind to her narcissism. Goodwin and Hudson don’t have much chemistry, either. (Note to Kate Hudson: Please stop taking these vapid parts.) Egglesfield isn’t given much of a role to work with, but he’s vanilla — a leading man in looks only. Howey gets some laughs with his neanderthal behavior, though he’s not given enough to do. Goodwin, who’s far too talented an actress to keep doing derivative drivel like this, tries hard and occasionally tugs at our hearts (barely).
 
It’s Krasinski whose wisecracks and amusing facial expressions brighten the film. Whatever part he takes, Krasinski can’t put a lid on his laidback charm and sincerity; it breaks up the dullness in “Something Borrowed.” And any film that makes the choice between the lively, funny, attractive guy and the model-hot but gutless one look like a hard choice is an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Worse, it’s a waste of time. 
 
Grade: D-

“Thor” a welcome addition to character-driven Marvel canon

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns the pain and value in being humbled in Kenneth Branagh's "Thor."

Natalie Portman was so astonished that Kenneth Branagh signed on to direct “Thor” she decided she had to be involved with the production. How many people, I wonder, saw the movie for that very same reason? Because let’s call a spade a spade and say that idea of a “serious actor” like Branagh directing a Marvel film is wacky and weird (or just weird). But in taking that unexpected leap, he’s joined other directors (Jon Favreau, Sam Raimi) who made Marvel adaptations about more than special effects and fight scenes. “Thor” takes a strutting peacock (Chris Hemsworth) and strips off his feathers to see what he’s really made of.

“Thor” doesn’t match the emotional depth of “Spider-Man 2″ or possess the crackling wit of “Iron Man,” but the film has enough heart and dazzling visuals (a bit of advice: see them in 2D) to make it feel right at home alongside its Marvel predecessors. Branagh, just as fans might suspect, has more in mind for Thor than a blonde beefcake who wields a big hammer. While the director never skimps on the scenery (particularly the Bifröst Bridge, the stunning, resplendent gateway between Asgard and the other eight realms, including Earth), he makes sure Thor emerges from his trial a changed man. It’s the muscle-bound Hemsworth who makes the transition believable, even poignant. He may look like Australia’s answer to Fabio, but Hemsworth is not light on talent. He demonstrates a level of vulnerability that wouldn’t seem possible in a man with such meticulously sculpted abdominal muscles. 

Hemsworth, of course, is Thor — son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgar, and Queen Frigga (Rene Russo). Arrogant and short-tempered, he seems less suited to take the throne than his quieter adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Odin’s doubts about his eldest son’s leadership capability are confirmed when Thor ends a long-standing truce between Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, led by the malevolent Laufey (Colm Feore). Stripped of his hammer, Mjolnir, Thor is exiled to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert and in the lives of scientist Jane (Portman), her bumbling assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and fellow researcher Erik (Stellan Skarsgård). With his bizarre manners and formal speech, Thor seems like a certifiable kook; however, Jane wonders if he knows something about the interdimensional wormholes she’s researching. When Thor tries to reclaim Mjolnir, he catches the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, droll as ever). Back in Asgar, Thor’s band of Warriors Three — Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) — and longtime friend Sif (Jaime Alexander) begin to suspect that Loki isn’t as harmless as he appears. 

As origin stories go, Thor’s fall from grace is more interesting than most purely because of the costumes (kudos to costume designer Alexandra Byrne) and stellar design and effects. “Thor” rivals “TRON: Legacy” in terms of scenes that inspire awe and wonder — it’s marked by a terrific use of fluorescent colors and lighting that render Asgar the kind of mythical kingdom told of in Norse mythology books. The sinister Frost Giants and Heimdall (Idris Elba, for once correctly cast), the gruff gatekeeper of Bifröst Bridge, are striking as well. There’s something emblematic about the image of Heimdall, with his piercing yellow eyes, horned helmet and formidable staff, presiding over a bridge that connects the worlds. Heimdall, even more than Odin, seems possessed of a calm certainty in his purpose that Thor is unable or unwilling to seek out.

Herein lies the rub, where Branagh aligns “Thor” with other comics-based movies that don’t skimp on development. That extends to secondary characters. Portman gets to step away from her tortured “Black Swan” persona, and Skarsgård brings his trademark low-key humor (though it’s Dennings and Hemsworth’s stranger-in-a-strange-land antics that provide most of the comic relief). Hiddleston is subtle but effective as the diabolical and tortured Loki, chameleon-like in his ability to assess his circumstances and change accordingly. His devolution makes him a fitting foil for Hemsworth. Hiddleston is the stronger actor; Hemsworth, though, provides more perceptiveness than he has to. He lets us see the flaws behind the beauty.

Grade: B+

“Your Highness” marks new low for David Gordon Green

Portman, McBride, Franco and Deschanel marvel at just how bad "Your Highness" really is.

It’s a simple question not of weight ratios, but of the law of averages. After a string of successes, director David Gordon Green was due for a miss. “Your Highness,” Danny McBride and Ben Best’s surprisingly unoriginal and unfunny attempt at a medieval spoof, is certainly a miss. In fact, considering that Green directed the wonderful indie gem “All the Real Girls” and the hysterical pot comedy “Pineapple Express,” this film is a Trojan Rabbit of a miss. A miss so large that an African swallow and a European swallow working in tandem could not carry it. Not even Ahchoo’s Air Jordans could help Gordon run away from it.

These “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” allusions are unfair. No film has topped “Holy Grail” in its madcap send-up of medieval culture. And McBride and Best do not try to model “Your Highness” after this comedy classic, so comparison is unwanted. But I don’t care. Given the creativity of Best and McBride’s “The Foot Fist Way” and McBride’s genius line delivery, there’s no excuse for this kind of aimlessness. Even aimlessness could be excused if “Your Highness” had a little satire or more than, say, three scenes that induced more than a polite chuckle. But the film is curiously stale, flat, unfunny and uninspired — a lethal combination. A greater crime than any of these is the general listlessness of the performances. Only Natalie Portman, as a fierce, vengeance-obsessed female warrior, and Justin Theroux, as an articulate sorcerer with outrageous hair, register a pulse. Franco’s acting is on par with his recent performance (or non-performance) at the Academy Awards. McBride, who made magic (and a lot of roaches) with Franco and Seth Rogen in “Pineapple Express,” couldn’t look more disinterested. He sleepwalks through the entire movie, which is cause for concern. If the prospect of making out with Natalie Portman dressed as Xena: Warrior Princess can’t put some pep in a guy’s step, he’s beyond help. Or dead.

The plot of “Your Highness,” however, is not totally beyond help, though it isn’t particularly earth-shattering. McBride and Franco play Thadeous and Fabious, respectively, the very different sons of King Tallious (Charles Dance). It’s a dichotomy as old as time: Little brother Thadeous is a scoundrel and a layabout, while Fabious is a handsome, dashing warrior beloved by all. During his latest quest, Fabious rescued a winsome virgin named Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel, who, as usual, appears really, really bored) that he plans to marry and promptly deflower. But malevolent sorcerer Leezar (Theroux) has plans for a grand “fuckening” of his own and kidnaps Belladonna, forcing Thadeous, his effeminate squire (oh! a girly squire! how original!) Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) and Fabious on a hasty quest to rescue Belladonna. Along the way, they encounter Isabel (Portman), a tough-talking fighter out to kill Leezar for murdering her family. Portman is intense enough that she seems somewhat out of place in “Your Highness,” though every zany romp — even bad ones — needs a good straight man. It helps if the straight man has dainty cleavage.

There’s also a smattering of sorta-amusing secondary characters, like Julie (Toby Jones), a devious little person hiding absolutely nothing in his trousers, and Boremount (Damian Lewis), Fabious’ right-hand man who is furious that he’s been replaced by the cowardly Thadeous. (It would not be considered a spoiler to reveal that Boremount is, like, so gay for Fabious, because who didn’t see that coming? Anyone?) Not to be outdone is Timotay Dungeon Master (Tobias Winter), who presides over a Roman-esque legion of forest warriors and commands an atrociously rendered CGI dragon creature — all while sporting a Flock of Seagulls ‘do and an adult diaper. He’s bizarre enough to draw a few laughs, but most of the film’s genuine humor belongs to Theroux. He milks his role as Leezar for all it’s worth, spouting off lines like “magic, motherfucker” and leering impressively. Without Theroux, aside from the odd sight gag (take note of Thadeous’ unorthodox quest trophy), there wouldn’t be many reasons to laugh in “Your Highness.” If anything, when we consider “Your Highness” as a waste of Gordon Green’s talent, suicidal depression is far more likely.

Grade: D

“Red Riding Hood” is moony PG-13 porn for teens

Seyfried and Fernandez prepare to go "Twilight" on each other in "Red Riding Hood."

Oh, to be a teen-age girl in a Catherine Hardwicke film these days. What a pip it must be to be lovely, hormonal and saucer-eyed and feverishly desired by not one but two handsome lads! And at the mere tilt of your pretty head they’ll squabble over you like starving hyenas over a rotting zebra carcass! One guy to dash in and defend your honor, and one to bat his bedroom eyes, unbutton your blouse and round second base … this must be the stuff dreams are made of.

Actually, “Red Riding Hood” is more like the stuff the “Twilight” films are made of — and considering Hardwicke directed the first of that franchise, anyone who’s surprised by these similarities likely has spent the past five years living under a rock. “Red Riding Hood,” sadly, is exactly the kind of film Edward/Bella fans wanted Hardwicke to produce: sexually charged but tame enough to garner a PG-13 rating; overflowing with Longing Glances of Forbidden Feelings all set to an unapologetically pheremonal score; rife with strained performances (mostly by the men, who aim for “sexy” but actually hit “constipated”); and a truly, unforgivably horrendous CGI werewolf.  Fans of Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown” hoping for a return to that form are in for a letdown. Whatever promise there seemed to be in the concept of updating/reimagining a well-known fairy tale has left the building. “Red Riding Hood” is just more porn for the tween-something serial texting and forever-14-at-heart sets.

The major problem with Hardwicke’s update has little to do with the plot and everything to do with the execution. Gone is the naïve red hood-wearing child of bedtime story fame. She has been replaced by Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), an alluring young woman besotted with poor/oh-so-dreamy woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez, who affects a bewildering wannabe Elvis lip snarl). Her parents — Suzette (the forever-rigid Virginia Madsen) and Cesaire (Billy Burke) — have different plans. They have arranged for Valerie to marry Henry (Max Irons, who should wear a sign that reads “Nice Guy Without a Prayer”), the son of the village’s wealthiest blacksmith. This burgeoning love triangle is interrupted by tragedy — the dreaded werewolf that plagues Daggerhorn kills Valerie’s sister and stalks the townspeople. Attempts to capture the beast end badly, so Father Auguste (a twitchy Lukas Haas) calls in famed witch hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), who brings his own torture chamber. He intends to catch the werewolf, alright, but only if he can persecute a few witches in the process. Father Auguste, as Oldman plays him, is a megalomaniac who delights in shoving his mythology down people’s throats.

This isn’t a totally inaccurate description of “Red Riding Hood” as a whole. Because there’s little nuance to be unearthed anywhere in David Johnson’s script, in Hardwicke’s direction or in the actors’ performances. Visually “Red Riding Hood” is attractive, even magical, with its wood cabins made shadowy and sensual by roaring fires and swirling snowflakes. The mystique begins and ends here, though (excluding the reveal of the werewolf’s identity, which is genuinely surprising). The acting sinks the whole production. Fernandez, saddled with the sexy bad boy role, snarls and squints his way through the film while exhibiting almost no personality. He never feels like the right choice. What’s worse, neither does Irons, who thinks looking surprised is the antidote to Fernandez’s slitty glances. Henry’s just as wooden and uninteresting as Peter, and neither seems worthy of empathy. Burke and Oldman, who gets perhaps the juiciest parts, does too little and too much with the characters, respectively. Oldman treats “Red Riding Hood” like an all-you-can-eat buffet, devouring whatever scenery appears in his way. Only Julie Christie, as Valerie’s mysterious grandmother, and Seyfried make much of an impression. Seyfried, at least, offers some ingenuity and simmering sexual energy. As far as damsels go, Valerie is a far cry from the foolish, simpering Bella Swan, yet the story forces Valerie to make senseless choices.

Yes, this is the mortal sin of “Red Riding Hood”: It takes a cunning heroine and turns her into a lovelorn fool. For shame.    

Grade: D

Chemistry, romance propel sometimes-spotty “The Adjustment Bureau”

Damon and Blunt try to outfox the world's snazziest event planners in "The Adjustment Bureau."

“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” ~~Toni Morrison, “Beloved”

Brooklyn-born Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), with his Budweiser-fed frat boy looks, may or may not have read much Toni Morrison. At some point in his life, though, he undoubtedly latched on to the idea that true love, whenever and wherever it appears, is worth fighting like hell to keep. Because for all its ramblings on fate and destiny and free will, “The Adjustment Bureau” is at its center a poignant, exhilarating love story — poignant because it is deeply human, and exhilarating because it suggests that love, when it’s real, can be a gamechanger.

The fight to hold on to love, combined with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt’s fantastic chemistry, would be enough to make “The Adjustment Bureau” a worthwhile romantic dramedy. But since the film is inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “Adjustment Team,” director George Nolfi adds in touches of sci-fi and fast-and-loose theology, with nods to “The Matrix” sprinkled in for good measure. That’s one way to make this romance stand apart from the crowd. Whether or not the sci-fi and theology and romance mesh depends on how willing viewers are to squelch their their questions because — consider this a fair warning — once the Adjustment Team appears, there’s no end to the questions. 

(For starters: Who are these men really? What does their boss, “The Chairman,” have against hiring women? If the Bureau can meddle in human lives/anticipate human choices, why is chance still a factor? Can chance circumvent The Chairman’s plans? And did the Adjustment Team members adopt their style after one too many viewings of “The Maltese Falcon”?)

“The Adjustment Bureau,” by the end, has the rare problem of seeming too short to reach its lofty ambitions. It also demands acceptance of a storyline contains a fair amount of what aren’t exactly plot holes (more like weighty concepts abandoned?), but something like them. Despite these flaws, Nolfi’s directorial debut succeeds as a romance and a thriller because it never gets too bogged down in rambling explanations. Nolfi lays out the story matter-of-factly: David, an up-and-comer full of youthful idealism, looks a sure bet to become an N.Y. senator. But when the papers make his past — including a college mooning incident — public, he loses his lead. Practicing his concession speech in a hotel men’s room, he meets Elise (Blunt, radiant as ever), a ballerina who’s just crashed a wedding and is hiding from security. Their instant connection and brief kiss inspire Norris to scrap his P.C. speech and give an uncommonly earnest talk that wins him more fans. He reconnects with Elise on the bus and gets her number, but the Adjustment Bureau — led by Richardson (John Slattery) — steps in. There’s a plan for David’s life, and Elise isn’t part of it, Richardson explains. He destroys Elise’s number and threatens to have David “reset” (his memory erased) if he reveals anything about the Bureau. Richardson, however, underestimated coworker Harry (Anthony Mackie, as good here as he was in “Half Nelson”), a particularly compassionate “adjustor” who feels responsible for David and Elise’s second meeting and tells David more. The Bureau adjustors knows everyone’s plan; it’s their business to protect the plan. They use many methods: spilled coffees, missed taxis, dead cellphone batteries, even “reprogramming” people to make different choices. Most people accept their plans without question. But David, Harry discovers, is not a cooperative sheep.

The latter half of “The Adjustment Bureau” is where the action kicks in, including a chase, helmed by agent Thompson (the perenially menacing Terence Stamp) through New York’s maze of underground tunnels and doors that open to places that explode logic. The effects are blessedly minimal compared to, say, “The Matrix” because they are not central to the story. They only serve to outline the film’s most endearing purpose: David and Elise’s love story. Damon and Blunt are perfectly matched, with Blunt ensuring Elise is funny and vital and Damon giving a lot of emotion and energy to his part. For all the lofty philosophical mutterings and theological concepts, it is these two actors who keep the film grounded.

Grade: B-

“King’s Speech” explores human story behind royal scandal

Soon-to-be King George VI (Colin Firth) faces his arch nemesis -- the microphone -- in Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech."

King George VI’s (Colin Firth) most fearsome enemy is the one he cannot seem to shake: his own voice. The accidental king — forced to the throne after his older brother David (Guy Pearce) abdicated to marry a multiply divorced American, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) — looks at every moment petrified of what will not come out of his mouth. His  disastrous speech at the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley validates his worst nightmares. Firth’s mournful eyes say it all: The king believes that that a man who cannot speak well is a man whose voice matters very little, crown or no crown.

The limited focus does wonderful things for Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” an irreverent, whimsical and refreshingly unsappy portrait of a monarch often dwarfed by the scandal preceding his coronation. The story of  David and Wallis’ courtship had all the fireworks, but on the sidelines King George VI fought a tougher and more psychologically damaging battle. Hooper narrows not just the focus but the camera as well. Despite the regal grandeur of the surroundings, “The King’s Speech” is not epic in appearance. The shots — particularly those of the king’s funereal march to the Wembley microphone — are tight and narrow, all staircases at odd angles and boxed-in rooms, while the close-ups of Firth’s face are designed to emphasize his worried mouth and eyes. Fanfare and impersonality is what we expect; intimacy is what we receive. 

A smaller scope works nicely for Firth’s unlikely king. who grew up belittled by his older brother (who called him “B-B-Bertie,” cruelly mocking his stammer) and singled out by his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), who believed punishment and sternness could conquer Bertie’s impediment. He was wrong, and so have been the many speech therapists who have worked with Bertie. His concerned wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, marvelous) hears of a therapist with unorthodox methods, a failed Australian actor named Lionel Logue (the ever-impish Geoffrey Rush). Logue has techniques that fly in the face of all Bertie finds respectable: He calls the would-be king “Bertie,” refuses to make house calls, wins a shilling from Bertie in a bet that he’s relentless about getting back. Unaccustomed to  informality and extremely uncomfortable talking about his personal life, Bertie lashes out. But it’s not long before Logue’s good humor catches hold, and Bertie and his therapist build an unlikely friendship based on mutual respect. (Though the scene where Logue has Bertie shouting obscenities like a Tourette’s patient may suggest otherwise.) Logue, in fact, turns out to be the one person who refuses to tell the soon-to-be king anything but the truth, regardless how hard it may be. Hooper makes a convincing case that it was Logue who gave Bertie the confidence to rule.

There’s an elegant symmetry between the cinematography and the slow growth of Bertie’s character. The more he opens up and the more confident he becomes, the wider the camera opens up. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one. “The King’s Speech” never achieves the sweeping look of, say, “Elizabeth,” or similar regal period pieces, but visually the camera appears to give Firth more space as he transforms from a frightened man in the wings to a leader. Even though his speech — after the 1939 declaration of war against Germany — takes place in a small box, there’s no longer a sense that the king is trapped inside it. Pearce, Carter, Rush and Firth all play important parts in this metamorphosis. Pearce is at ease with David’s cockiness, and Carter proves she can brilliantly handle parts that don’t require her to look like she’s escaped from a mental ward. She is a loving figure, and fiercely loyal. Watching Rush and Firth go toe-to-toe is every bit as thrilling and funny as fans of both would expect. Rush brings mirth, compassion and stubbornness to Logue. Firth’s portrayal of King George VI will continue to garner nominations galore, no doubt, and they all hinge on what the actor can do with his eyes. What he holds in with his stiff posture he expresses sublimely with those eyes. Windows to the soul indeed.

Grade: A

Coens’ “True Grit” remake finds sharper focus, sharper talent

Steinfeld, Damon and Bridges (from left) are a posse to be reckoned with in "True Grit."

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is very concerned with honor because she believes her family has lost theirs. It died with her father, shot by a murderous scofflaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie means to get that honor back, and a helping of justice with it, and she’ll do that however she can. This 14-year-old is not about to smile and fiddle with her bonnet while the local lawmen sit on their hands. “True grit” may be the descriptor of the bounty hunter Mattie seeks out, but it should be stitched into her saddle. Suffer fools she will not.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen know their way around determined characters like Mattie. They ought to — they’ve written enough of them. These souls, all very different, share a sense of drive (whether it’s to do good, evil or something in-between): Marge Gunderson, Tom Reagan, Loren Visser, Jeff Lebowski, who found a urine-stained rug reason enough to put down the joint and find the hero within. This affinity makes the Coen brothers a crackerjack choice to to remake “True Grit”; obviously anyone who’d remake a classic Western starring John Wayne needs to be familiar with intestinal fortitude. As they are wont to do, the Coens even go one better, swapping Robert Duvall for Matt Damon and The Duke for — loins, gird thyselves — The Dude. Wayne fans may cry heresy; those who open their minds a touch, though, will find these sly directors know precisely what they’re doing. “True Grit” is not a lazy trace of the original, an homage with meatier performances, more inventive casting and a different (and arguably more interesting) focus. 

“True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured — “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.”

The gallows humor is a Coen brothers staple; aside from that, “True Grit” bears little resemblance to the Coens’ body of work. They’re trying someone else’s new tricks instead of getting up to their old ones. The film looks like a vintage Western, with its endless expanses of land and looming skies. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revives his gift for gently coaxing his surroundings to tell their own story. It’s a bit sad that the scenery must play understudy to the essentially faultless performances. Brolin has one note, but he plays it smashingly, while Pepper’s ringleader is a surprisingly reasonable chap. Damon plays LaBoeuf for laughs and adds a welcome undercurrent of personal entitlement. Bridges’ gruff, disheveled ne’er-do-well has critics foaming at the mouth with praise. It’s all deserved. He puts such a Jeff Bridges stamp on the performance that comparisons to John Wayne become irrelevent. Even more impressive is Steinfeld, whose screen presence often rivals Bridges’. Steinfeld makes us believe she is the girl who won’t rest until her father’s killer is barking in hell. And you’d better believe she’ll have his leash in a death grip.  

Grade: A

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers