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Say it ain’t so, Johnny!

Cry, cry, cry.

That’s exactly what this blogger — and, I imagine, legions of like-minded fans — will be doing after “Two Lovers” leaves theaters. Why? Well, it appears that Joaquin Phoenix (one of the best actors in Hollywood, in my opinion) will, in his own words, “quit the business” of acting after the romantic drama is released.

Phoenix, who’s played memorable roles such as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” a tortured priest in “Quills,” a wily, apathetic soldier in “Buffalo Soldiers,” and a wimpy Roman ruler in “Gladiator,” made the announcement yesterday, claiming he’s retiring to pursue music. (See http://movies.yahoo.com/feature/joaquinphoenix_blog.html for the full story.)

Great. That’s EXACTLY what the world was missing: another actor who fancies himself a musician. Joaquin, I’ve got two words for you: Bruce Willis. I’m sure your CD collection overfloweth with Bruno albums.

Ploddingly paced “Appaloosa” disappointing

appaloosa

Ed Harris, Renee Zellwegger, Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons star in slow-moving "Appaloosa."

A gruff, gun-toting lawman, a dependable, wise-cracking sidekick, a bustier-sporting temptress, a sinister villain, a bloody third-act showdown — indeed, it appears that Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa” has all the elements of a solid (if unimaginative) Western.

The problem? None of these things matter if you’re not awake to appreciate them.

Alas, such is the case with “Appaloosa,” a Western front-loaded with A-list talent (where else can you find Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen AND Jeremy Irons in one reel?) that suffers from poor editing and even worse pacing. There’s gunfights aplenty, for sure, but they’re buried underneath piles and piles (and piles) of dialogue that’s a little too “witty” (many lines, taken straight from Robert B. Parker’s book, don’t survive the book-to-film translation) and characters that seem a little too flat to create any sort of emotional impact.

The storyline, which remains fairly faithful to Parker’s book, unfolds as many typical Westerns do: Tightlipped patrol-man-of-sorts Virgil Cole (Harris) and his more articulate partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) travel the West working as “justice slingers,” offering to clear out any riff-raff in exchange for money. The pair stumbles upon Appaloosa, a town held firmly in the fearful grasp of Randall Bragg (Irons), a trigger-happy rancher with no livestock but a nefarious posse of outlaws. The entrance of Allison French (a horribly, dreadfully miscast Renee Zellwegger), an impeccably wardrobed organist with flexible morals and unusually hued hair, complicates Cole and Hitch’s plan to kill Bragg and restore order to Appaloosa and its beleaguered residents.

Here is a plot that’s rife with possibilities. (Consider: “Unforgiven” did much more with much less.) Yet somehow Harris — who, perhaps, should stick to acting, not directing — never manages to make these elements flow or achieve any sort of balance. For starters, the choppy editing makes for jarring, staccato, unpleasant transitions that make “Appaloosa” seem like a series of scenes strung together, not a finished movie. Then there’s the pacing. It’s slow, so slow at times that it’s almost like the film nearly flatlines … only to be paddle-shocked back to life with a gunfight or a beating or some nudity. Editing and pacing may be small parts of a movie, but here they’re bad enough to affect the quality of the movie.

Lucky for viewers, a few performances do keep “Appaloosa” from sinking too far. Harris can glower and squint and mutter with the best of them, and he delivers too-self-consciously-pithy one-liners with aplomb. (It’s fair to say, though, he’s got nothing on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.) But he shrinks too small, retreats too far inward; we learn too little about Cole to understand his choices, root for him, or care much about him at all. Mortensen, who steals scenes from Harris at every turn, registers rather impressively as Hitch, a would-be philosopher who happens to wield a mean eight-gauge shotgun. He quietly supports Cole, defending his choices and spurning the unwanted advances of Allison — a woman who, as poorly played by Zellwegger, is equal parts simpering wet rag and raging nymphomaniac. (Did I mention that Zellwegger is terrible? It bears repeating.) Irons clocks in at a close second to Mortensen with his wily, slick turn as Bragg, who outwits Cole but can’t teach his men to outshoot him.

Yet great performances cannot a movie save. How so? One word: editing. Anyone who needs a class in it should look to “Appaloosa” as a “don’t do this” example.

Grade: C

Quick Picks: “Body of Lies,” “Sex Drive”

“Body of Lies” (Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong, Alon Abutbul)

The world is “much simpler … to put to an end than you might think,” explains desk-bound CIA operative Ed Hoffman (Crowe) in “Body of Lies,” and coming from a man who begins and ends wars with a single keystroke, it’s as much a chilling threat as an observation about post-9/11 America. And it’s the glue that holds all the pieces — and there are many, many pieces, too many to count — of this Labrynthine espionage thriller together.

Donning Regular Joe khakis, a too-snug windbreaker jacket and oversized glasses, Crowe is creepy, hyper-informed Big Brother personified: He directs CIA operations in Iraq, Jordan and Syria from his air-conditioned Langley office, missions that quick-thinking field agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) carries out. Attempting to smoke out terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (Abutbul), the harried Ferris partners with the Jordan Intelligence Agency’s shrewd chief, Hani (a cold, calculating Strong). The rest unfolds at a breathless, whiplash-inducing pace, and there’s too much to digest in one sitting. (Here’s a film that both demands and rewards multiple viewings.)

Still, this is much more than a blow ’em up cat-and-mouse game — the focus on character development forces us to care about what happens to these agents as much as WHY it happens. (Just try not to squirm and wince during a brutal torture scene.) Solid but never showy performances make this possible. DiCaprio grows more subtle and effective with each role; long gone are the “Teen Beat” days when his flawless bone structure overshadowed his considerable acting chops. Here, his Ferris is no too-cool James Bond wannabe (sorry, Mr. Ebert) flashing a gun and a grin to charm the enemy. He’s a real agent in real danger, caught between two power players out to one-up each other — regardless of the collateral damage.

Which is where Crowe and Strong come in … not with a bang, but with a quiet determination that’s twice as unnerving. Ordinarily a bit-part actor, Strong, cast in the similarly complex “Syriana,” is freeze-your-blood good as Hani, who’s learned enough about America’s CIA operatives to manipulate them, turn them against one another. Crowe, too, turns in a fine, nuanced performance as Hoffman, who fires off world-changing orders — assassinations, bombings, you name it — in-between slow bites of breakfast cereal. Absolute power, it seems, hasn’t corrupted him; it’s just made him eerily complacent. In fact, it’s Hoffman’s total lack of remorse and conscience, his cold detachment and never-ruffled mannerisms that make him as sinister as Hani or the powerful anti-American terrorist ringleader Al-Saleem.

Yet it’s a testament to William Monahan’s smart script that neither Hoffman nor Strong are pigeonholed as villains. In Hoffman’s words, “no one’s innocent” in this war — words that burrow under your skin and stay there long after the credits have rolled.

Grade: B-

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“Sex Drive” (Josh Zuckerman, Clark Duke, Amanda Crew, Katrina Bowden)

If “Sex Drive” feels oddly familiar, there’s a good reason: This uninspired teen sex/road trip comedy contains traces of everything from “American Pie” (note: Zuckerman bears a striking resemblance to “Pie” alumnus Thomas Ian Nicholas) to John Cusack’s whip-smart “The Sure Thing” to last summer’s gleefully foul-mouthed romp “Superbad.” What it lacks? Oh, say, one-tenth of the originality and heart of any of these better movies. The been-there, seen-that plot centers on shy virgin Ian (Zuckerman doing a half-hearted Michael Cera impression), who steals the tricked-out 1969 GTO owned by his musclehead brother (James Marsden as you’ve never seen him – with a pulse) and drives to Tennessee to meet Ms. Tasty (Bowden), his “Playboy” centerfold-hot online girlfriend. Along for the ride are womanizing BFF Lance (Duke), who nails anything in a skirt, and Goth gal pal Felicia (Crew), the object of Ian’s affection who, of course, has the hots for Lance. Various sex- and alcohol-related pratfalls take place (most of them in what can only be described as a Reform Amish community) and lead up to a soppy, unsatisfying close. There are flashes of originality — Seth Green is snarky brilliance as a sarcastic Amish mechanic; the phrase “visiting grandma” gets a cringe-inducing makeover — but ultimately “Sex Drive” is too derivative and sloppy to leave much of an impression (excluding, of course, the double-entendre title).

Grade: C-

It’s all coming up Carell

In terms of “big weeks,” the size of Steve Carell’s has been, in a word, “incalculacable.”

E! Online reported today that The “Daily Show” alumnus-turned-bumbling “Office” boss Michael Scott has signed on to star in a Napoleonic Wars spoof — “The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard” — penned by the writers of “Blades of Glory” (one of the better stupid Will Ferrell sports comedies released in recent years, IMHO). Maybe this can help everyone forget — and, Carell fans, we must all agree to forget — the horrendous mess that was “Evan Almighty.” Plus, it’s high time a Napoleonic Wars spoof featuring the superb comedic stylings of Dunder-Mifflin’s finest came along.

And speaking of Dunder-Mifflin: Carell has renewed his contract to play the Good Boss (one, of course, who gruntles the disgruntled) for another three years.

How do I feel about all this? Well, you might say it’s left me satisfied and smiling.

A few good chick flicks (from a chick who, uh, hates them)

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey make great bedfellows in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey make great bedfellows in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

Apparently, I’m an insult to my gender … when it comes to my intense aversion to chick flicks, that is.

That information, you see, comes from the mouth of a friend (I won’t divulge the name even though I’m tempted to because he once had the audacity to say that Johnny Depp made a BETTER Willy Wonka than Gene Wilder). A conversation about movies turned ugly when I began — as I am wont to do — bashing chick flicks in general for their mushy dialogue, mawkish sentimentality and generally horribly inaccurate depictions of what relationships are really like.

Shock, awe and general disbelief ensued. “What? You hated ‘Pretty Woman’? You can’t sing every line to every song in ‘Grease’? You didn’t cry when Kate bid farewell to a frozen-solid Leo in ‘Titanic’? You vomited popcorn into your own mouth when Renee discovered she “completed” Tom in ‘Jerry Maguire’? What kind of girl are you?” 

OK, OK, fine, so I took some liberties with the dialogue (what’s a little exaggeration between friends, right?). But the central thesis remains: A girl isn’t really a girl unless she weeps uncontrollably when Patrick crosses over in “Ghost,” or swoons when Brad flashes his pearly whites at Julia in “Legends of the Fall” (reminder: if the chick commits suicide in the end, it’s not romantic).

What kind of touchy-feely, Hallmark-card Nicholas Sparks horse manure is that? Every crappy chick flick — “Pretty Woman” and “Grease” included — is built upon the same ridiculous premise: That all women are sittin’ around twiddlin’ our thumbs waiting (sigh) for some gallant dude to rescue us from, oh, take your pick. It’s insulting, and every half-baked chick flick that uses this idea as its backbone is, well, crap.

So I propose a revolution of sorts, a redefining of what chick flicks SHOULD be. And what better way to do that than (suppress your groans) looking at the few (very few) chick flicks that get it right? So here it is, readers: my list of chick flicks for people who, you know, hate chick flicks:

5) “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) — I may be flogged for choosing this latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s most beloved book, but I care not; bring on the beating. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen were perfectly matched as the spirited Elizabeth Bennett and a dour, sulking Mark Darcy. For two-thirds of the movie, they fight, they find fault, they ignore their true feelings (how’s that for realistic?), and when they finally give in there’s a sense they will be happy because they accept each other, warts and all, good and bad. I can’t think of anything more romantic than that.

4) “Kissing Jessica Stein” (2001) — Best friends Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen adapted this sweet but not sappy story from a stage show they created. Westfeldt is neurotic brilliance as Jessica, a closed-minded pessimist who answers a personals ad written by Helen (Juergensen). The problem? Jessica’s a decidedly linear-thinking heterosexual. Watching her open her heart and mind to new possibilities in a most unexpected relationship is funny, strangely touching and extremely rewarding. Talk about a happy ending.

3) “Muriel’s Wedding” (1995) — Toni Collette is a force to be reckoned with as Muriel, a fat, schleppy slacker who spends her miserable existence listening to ABBA tunes and believing that marriage — to anyone, really — is her ticket to a life of happiness. (Yes, someone saw “Cinderella” a few too many times.) This little seen gem of a rom-com digs beyond the shiny-happy “Gimme Gimme Gimme” surface and reveals something shocking: Love means jack if you hate yourself. Imagine that.

2) “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) — Call this one the Thinking Viewer’s Chick Flick. As deep and complex as it is rich and touching, “Sunshine” features one of the most memorable (and realistic) romances ever seen on the silver screen. Dumped by Clementine (Kate Winslet), Joel (Jim Carrey) elects to have his memories of Clem erased … only to discover too late he’s not ready to let go. The characters, the quietly mesmerizing dialogue — if it doesn’t break your heart right in half, I suspect you don’t have one.

1) “Harold and Maude” (1971) — There never has been (and never will be) a rom-com that can come close to surpassing this cult classic about a life-changing romance between Harold (Bud Cort), a death-obsessed, life-hating teen, and Maude (Ruth Gordon), a free-spirited eternal optimist fast approaching her 80th birthday. This well-written, gleefully dark and tender comedy reminds us what Bertrand Russell so wisely said: “To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.” This movie will change your life — I guarantee it.

“How to Lose Friends”? Make a wimpy satire

Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst have "a shared moment" in the wimpy "How to Lose Friends."

Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst have a "shared moment" in the wimpy "How to Lose Friends."

If I were to be kind, I’d say “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” based on Toby Young’s razor-sharp 2003 memoir on his failed writing stint at Vanity Fair, is a passable, uninspired romantic comedy masquerading as a satire. But I don’t want to be kind, mostly because screenwriter Peter Straughan wastes boatloads of promise on mindless slapstick. No, “How to Lose Friends” is, in fact, a toothless satire that devolves into an insipid, grating rom-com with a paint-by-numbers ending. Simon Pegg (so great in “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead”) figures prominently in said ending, starring as Sidney Young, a British tabloid journalist who takes a job at NYC’s Sharps Magazine, owned by tycoon Clayton Harding (a ho-hum Jeff Bridges). A rebellious, “principled” writer, he ignores the magazine’s caste system and clashes with everyone, including snarky but kind coworker Alison (Kirsten Dunst), a slimy editor (Danny Huston) and a sexpot young actress (Megan Fox). Director Robert B. Weide ruins good performances — Pegg is droll and delightful; Dunst is sweet, not cloying; Fox is, well, a fox who understands comic timing  — with far-too-long gags involving pig urine, a dead Chihuahua, half-masticated sandwiches and more. Ugh. Go see “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” instead; expect twice the bite and half the crushing disappointment.

Grade: D-

It’s hard out there … for a sidekick

“I’m here trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dime, and I ain’t even got a cent, man.”

Oh, how I do love a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems that actor Terrence Howard, who rapped this very line in his Oscar-nominated performance as DJay in “Hustle & Flow,” has been scrapped as Jim Rhodes in the sequel to this summer’s wildly “Iron Man.” The reason? According to Marvel Studios, it’s all about a disagreement over — you guessed it — the Benjamins. Or lack thereof.

But there is a slight glimmer of hope. (Just how slight depends on whether you can appreciate so-understated-they-get-stuck-in-tiny-secondary-parts actors.) Marvel has tapped Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” star Don Cheadle (a.k.a. Basher Tarr in all, oh, 17 “Ocean’s” films) as Howard’s replacement.

Wait. Stop. Rewind. Don CHEADLE? As an ACTION HERO? Have we slipped into a parallel universe? Will Lindsay Lohan portray Madeline Albright in a future biopic?

I thinketh not. I am jumping on the Don Cheadle-as-Jim Rhodes bandwagon. Why? For starters, Cheadle’s an actor who gives performances that are layered, where the meaning is there but viewers have to work to find it. He’s understated, subtle even; he never chews up the scenery. Howard did much the same thing in “Iron Man”; he was yin to Robert Downey Jr.’s yang. The role calls for someone capable of delivering one-liners without stealing the entire spotlight. That’s something Cheadle can do in his sleep. Plus, Cheadle’s done everything from political dramas (“Hotel Rwanda”) to indie flicks (“Manic”) to spy thrillers (the recent “Traitor”). The guy’s got range that’s ridiculous, and he’s got talent to burn.

So here’s to hoping Cheadle lights it up in the sequel. If I’m wrong? Well, everybody’s gotta have a dream, right?

Quick Picks: “Nick and Norah,” “Nights in Rodanthe”

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Ari Graynor, Alexis Dziena)

“I will not be a goody bag at your pity party,” Norah (a quirk-perfect Dennings) curtly informs heartsick Nick (the awkwardly hilarious Cera) in the self-consciously hip but pithy “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” and so begins one of the most smart, sweet and satisfying big-screen teen couplings to date. The meet cute unfolds thusly: Newly dumped by his sexpot ex Tris (Dziena), Nick and his queercore band The Jerk-Offs set out for a gig at a dive Big Apple bar. He meets Norah, who’s babysitting her perpetually smashed pal (Graynor), and various hijinks – some funny, a few contrived, one disgusting – ensue. But the disconnected plot matters little: the dialogue is snappy yet believable (take that, “Juno”), the soundtrack is indie perfection and the chemistry crackles between Cera, Jedi master of the bashful zinger, and a sarcastic, smokin’ Dennings. Here’s a pity party worth crashing.

Grade: B-

“Nights in Rodanthe” (Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Viola Davis)

Nothing ruins a pair of subtle but heart-wrenching performances – here delivered by Lane, faultlessly vulnerable as always, and a surprisingly poignant Gere – like schmaltz. And too many scenes in “Nights in Rodanthe” are littered with big, steaming piles of the stuff. That’s hardly surprising – nobody does gag-me melodrama like Nicholas Sparks – but it’s disheartening to those of us itching for a fresh Lane-Gere romance. (Remember “Unfaithful”? Chemistry doesn’t get hotter.) Still, these big-screen vets manage to develop characters that transcend the so-bad-Hallmark-wouldn’t-print-it dialogue. Lane is Adrienne Willis, a wife and mother with a crumbling marriage who escapes to Outer Banks, N.C., to tend to a friend’s (Davis) seaside inn. She finds a kindred spirit in the visibly damaged Dr. Paul Flanner (Gere), and the two stumble into a tentative, life-changing mid-life romance. The manipulative ending’s over-the-top horrible, but it doesn’t get better than Gere and Lane. Prepare to watch your heart melt into your popcorn.

Grade: C+

Review: “Down to the Bone” (2004)

There are two kinds of alcohol/drug addiction movies: ones that are as loud, sloppy and insistent as a last-call drunk, and those that are as bleak and haunting as a junkie’s pinned-pupil gaze.

Powered by what should have been a star-making performance by Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”), “Down to the Bone” fits squarely into the second category. There are no Oscar-bait “Basketball Diaries” smack sickness enactments, no drunken meltdowns (Meg Ryan, anyone?), no “Buck Up, Little Toaster” speeches (a la Morgan Freeman in his “Clean and Sober” days). No, “Down to the Bone” cuts through all the histrionics — hence the title — and offers a bleak, unsparing and ultimately hopeful look at one woman’s struggle to reclaim sobriety.

A bored grocery store cashier, Irene (Farmiga) is an addict who epitomizes Matt Dillon’s “Drugstore Cowboy” philosophy: She snorts coke to cope with the everyday things, like grumbling managers, squabbling kids and an increasingly distant and clueless husband (Clint Jordan) who thinks his wife’s just a casual user. And Irene believes that, too — until she offers her dealer her son’s birthday check to buy coke. Finding herself smack at the bottom, she checks into rehab and meets an unlikely ally: Bob (Hugh Dillon), a nurse and recovering heroin addict. Both weary of life, both yearning for change, they strike up a friendship that quickly becomes — you guessed it — more amorous than either expected.

But please, I beg you, don’t go thinking this turns “Bone” into a Lifetime movie starring MBB (Meredith Baxter-Birney for those not in the know). In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Director Debra Granik handles Irene and Bob’s tenuous bond with effortless grace. Here is a real relationship, shaky and reassuring and frightening, where two people find each other because they share something that has shaped their lives for years: drug addiction. Their plain, unstilted conversations, their halting, shy touches — it’s all painfully awkward and painfully real, with no “When a Man Loves a Woman” schmaltz to color and muddy the real issues of the day-to-day drudgery of life without dope, without a coping mechanism. The relapse, though expected (relapse, after all, is more common than stone-cold sobriety), is that much more gut-wrenching because it’s real. Addiction is bleak, but so, too, is the constant struggle to overcome it — something that Granik gets absolutely right.

Granik’s no-frills direction (almost) pales in comparison, though, to the first-rate performances of Dillon and Farmiga. Dillon’s Bob is hardly a knight-in-shining-armor figure; he’s as damaged as Irene, but he considers his job — working with addicts in rehab — his penance. He’s guarded but friendly, and he opens up to Irene because he sees a kindred spirit, someone as bored with everyday life as he is. Dillon finds the right mix of world-weariness and hope, but he’s matched, frame for frame, by Farmiga. It’s hard to describe what she does so well in “Bone” because there will be people (ignore them; they’re a nuanceless, pedestrian group) who say she’s too low-key, too emotionless. But it’s that lack of visible emotion that makes Farmiga’s Irene so believable a character: She’s a woman who has maintained a secret life for over a decade. She reveals nothing about her true self to anyone until she meets Bob, and even then she holds back. The beauty of Farmiga’s character emerges in the subtleties: the way her eyes change when she looks at Bob or her children, her tentative friendship with a fellow recovering addict (Caridad de la Luz). It takes work to see it, but it’s worth the effort.

And maybe that’s what makes “Down to the Bone” so compelling: So much of the power is underneath the surface. It’s what you don’t see that kills you.

Grade: A