Film Listings

Pub date July 5, 2011
SectionFilm Reviews

Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Peter Galvin, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide. Due to the Fourth of July holiday, theater information was incomplete at presstime.


A Better Life Demian Bichir (Weeds) stars in this drama about an immigrant family struggling to realize the American dream. (1:38)

Horrible Bosses Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston star in this workplace comedy. (1:33)

How to Live Forever After his mother died, documentarian Mark S. Wexler began to seriously contemplate aging and, inevitably, his own death. A certain amount of baby boomer naval-gazing is the inevitable result, but Wexler is curious enough to expand his quest into realms beyond his own graying hair and expanding midsection. The film’s (mostly) tongue-in-cheek title comes into play as he visits scientists, inventors, new age types, cryonics-facility workers, and doctors with various anti-aging philosophies and agendas. But probably the most compelling long-life widsom comes from the elderly folks he visits for practical advice. While the Guinness record-holding 114-year-olds aren’t much for coherent communication, quite a few of the 80-, 90- and 100-somethings Wexler talks to suggest that simply being a spitfire is a key to longevity. Highlights include the late fitness guru Jack LaLanne, enviably energetic in his mid-90s; a 104-year-old Brit who’s a smoker, drinker, and aspiring marathoner; and an 80-year-old tap dancer who decides to compete in a beauty pageant for senior citizens. “I’m older than he is,” she giggles of her boyfriend. “But he can drive at night!” (1:34) (Eddy)

Vincent Wants to Sea An anorexic, an obsessive-compulsive, and someone with Tourette syndrome go on a roadtrip: it’s not the setup to a bad joke, it’s the gist of Vincent Wants to Sea, a mostly fun, sometimes touching, but often improbable film. When Vincent’s mother dies, his father (Heino Ferch) decides it’s time for Vincent (Florian David Fitz — who also wrote the screenplay) to once and for all eradicate his tics and spasms and sequesters him at a summer camp-esque institution in the German countryside. The subsequent escape and journey to the Italian coast (where Vincent hopes to scatter his mother’s ashes) with two fellow patients, the anorexic Marie (Karoline Herfuth) and the Bach-loving compulsive Alex (Johannes Allmayer), is rife with self-discovery and uplifting music, so much so that it sometimes resembles a Levi’s ad more than a feature film. There’s real heart and humor beneath the cheese, but there’s a lot of cheese. (1:36) (Cooper Berkmoyer)

Zookeeper Kevin James graduates from policing mall rats to hanging with talking zoo animals. (1:42)


The Art of Getting By The Art of Getting By is all about those confusing, mixed-up and apparently sexually frustrating months before high school graduation. George (Freddie Highmore) is a trench coat-wearing misanthrope — an old soul, as they say — whose parents and teachers are always trying to put him inside a box and tell him how to think. He finds a kindred sprit in Sally (Emma Roberts) who smokes and watches Louis Malle films. Hot. Heavily scored by the now-ancient songs of early ’00s blog bands, it may all sound like indie bullshit but this one has charm and wit despite its post-trend package. Like a sad little crayon, Highmore is a competent Michael Cera surrogate du jour. Writer-director Gavin Wiesen embraces hell of clichés, but he suitably sums up a generational angst along the way. The film may not always feel real, but it does have real feeling. Look out for great performances from Blair Underwood and Alicia Silverstone. (1:24) (Ryan Lattanzio)

Bad Teacher Jake Kasdan, the once-talented director of a few Freaks and Geeks episodes and 2002’s underrated Orange County, seems hell-bent on humiliating everyone in the cast of Bad Teacher. Cameron Diaz is Elizabeth, the title’s criminally bad pedagogue who prefers the Jack Daniels method to the Socratic. Her impetus for pounding Harper Lee into her middle school students’ bug-eyed little heads is to cash in on a bonus check to fund her breast-y ambitions and woo Justin Timberlake and his baby voice. The only likable onscreen presence is Jason Segal as a sad sack gym teacher in love with Elizabeth. But he could do so much better. There’s no shortage of racist jokes and potty humor in this R-rated comedy pandering to those 17 and below. When asked if she wants to go out with her coworkers, Elizabeth ripostes, “I’d rather get shot in the face!” That scenario is likely a better alternative than suffering this steaming pile of cash cow carcass. (1:29) (Lattanzio)

*Beginners There is nothing conventional about Beginners, a film that starts off with the funeral arrangements for one of its central characters. That man is Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) at the ripe age of 75. Through flashbacks, we see the relationship play out — Oliver’s inability to commit tempered by his father’s tremendous late-stage passion for life. Hal himself is a rare character: an elderly gay man, secure in his sexuality and, by his own admission, horny. He even has a much younger boyfriend, played by the handsome Goran Visnjic. While the father-son bond is the heart of Beginners, we also see the charming development of a relationship between Oliver and French actor Anna (Mélanie Laurent). It all comes together beautifully in a film that is bittersweet but ultimately satisfying. Beginners deserves praise not only for telling a story too often left untold, but for doing so with grace and a refreshing sense of whimsy. (1:44) (Peitzman)

*Bill Cunningham New York To say that Bill Cunningham, the 82-year old New York Times photographer, has made documenting how New Yorkers dress his life’s work would be an understatement. To be sure, Cunningham’s two decades-old Sunday Times columns — “On the Street,” which tracks street-fashion, and “Evening Hours,” which covers the charity gala circuit — are about the clothes. And, my, what clothes they are. But Cunningham is a sartorial anthropologist, and his pictures always tell the bigger story behind the changing hemlines, which socialite wore what designer, or the latest trend in footwear. Whether tracking the near-infinite variations of a particular hue, a sudden bumper-crop of cropped blazers, or the fanciful leaps of well-heeled pedestrians dodging February slush puddles, Cunningham’s talent lies in his ability to recognize fleeting moments of beauty, creativity, humor, and joy. That last quality courses through Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’ captivating and moving portrait of a man whose reticence and personal asceticism are proportional to his total devotion to documenting what Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in the film as “ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways.” (1:24) (Sussman)

Bride Flight Who doesn’t love a sweeping Dutch period piece? Ben Sombogaart’s Bride Flight is pure melodrama soup, enough to give even the most devout arthouse-goer the bloats. Emigrating from post-World War II Holland to New Zealand with two gal pals, the sweetly staid Ada (Karina Smulders) falls for smarm-ball Frank (Waldemar Torenstra, the Dutchman’s James Franco) and kind of joins the mile high club to the behest of her conscience. The women arrive with emotional baggage and carry-ons of the uterine kind. As the harem adjusts to the country mores of the Highlands, Frank tries a poke at all of them in a series of sex scenes more moldy than smoldery. This Flight, set to a plodding score and stuffy mise-en-scene, never quite leaves the runway. Not to mention the whole picture, pale as a corpse, resembles one of those old-timey photographs of your great grandma’s wedding. These kinds of pastoral romances ought to be put out to, well, pasture. (2:10) (Lattanzio)

*Bridesmaids For anyone burned out on bad romantic comedies, Bridesmaids can teach you how to love again. This film is an answer to those who have lamented the lack of strong female roles in comedy, of good vehicles for Saturday Night Live cast members, of an appropriate showcase for Melissa McCarthy. The hilarious but grounded Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, whose best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting hitched. Financially and romantically unstable, Annie tries to throw herself into her maid of honor duties — all while competing with the far more refined Helen (Rose Byrne). Bridesmaids is one of the best comedies in recent memory, treating its relatable female characters with sympathy. It’s also damn funny from start to finish, which is more than can be said for most of the comedies Hollywood continues to churn out. Here’s your choice: let Bridesmaids work its charm on you, or never allow yourself to complain about an Adam Sandler flick again. (2:04) (Peitzman)

Buck This documentary paints a portrait of horse trainer Buck Brannaman as a sort of modern-day sage, a sentimental cowboy who helps “horses with people problems.” Brannaman has transcended a background of hardship and abuse to become a happy family man who makes a difference for horses and their owners all over the country with his unconventional, humane colt-starting clinics. Though he doesn’t actually whisper to horses, he served as an advisor and inspiration for Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer (1998). Director Cindy Meehl focuses generously on her saintly subject’s bits of wisdom in and out of a horse-training setting — e.g. “Everything you do with a horse is a dance” — as well as heartfelt commentary from friends and colleagues. In the harrowing final act of the film, Brannaman deals with a particularly unruly horse and his troubled owner, highlighting the dire and disturbing consequences of improper horse rearing. (1:28) Smith Rafael. (Sam Stander)

Cars 2 You pretty much can’t say a bad thing about a Pixar film. Cars 2 is by no means Ratatouille (2007) or Wall-E (2008), but the sequel to the 2006 hit Cars offers plenty of sleek visuals and one-note gags under its hollow hood. If nothing else, Pixar seems to have overcome the dingy, dark glaze that plagues 3-D films. Directors John Lasseter and Joe Ranft return to beloved autos Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the “extremely American” Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). This time around, secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) come along for the ride while working to expose sabotage in the alternative fuel industry. Compelling chase sequences, explosions and more than a few jabs at cultural stereotypes follow suit. This is the lightest, silliest Pixar film to date, but you probably don’t have any business seeing it unless you’ve got a kid in tow. (1:52) Balboa. (Lattanzio)

*Cave of Forgotten Dreams The latest documentary from Werner Herzog once again goes where no filmmaker — or many human beings, for that matter — has gone before: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a heavily-guarded cavern in Southern France containing the oldest prehistoric artwork on record. Access is highly restricted, but Herzog’s 3D study is surely the next best thing to an in-person visit. The eerie beauty of the works leads to a typically Herzog-ian quest to learn more about the primitive culture that produced the paintings; as usual, Herzog’s experts have their own quirks (like a circus performer-turned-scientist), and the director’s own wry narration is peppered with random pop culture references and existential ponderings. It’s all interwoven with footage of crude yet beautiful renderings of horses and rhinos, calcified cave-bear skulls, and other time-capsule peeks at life tens of thousands of years ago. The end result is awe-inspiring. (1:35) (Eddy)

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop seems less of a movie title and more like a hushed comment shared between one of the many hangers-on during the filming of the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour.” Throughout 23 cities’ worth of footage, O’Brien seethes, paces, sweats, yells and beats dead jokes so hard that they spring back to life, as he is wont to do. At this point, the Leno/Coco drama is a bit stale — at least in internet time — but the documentary is a fascinating comedian character study nonetheless. It may be hard to sympathize with a man nursing a bruised ego as he cashes a $45 million dollar check, but it’s easy to see that he’s one of the best late night hosts (temporarily off) the air. Split primarily between clips of O’Brien performing songs on stage with a myriad of celebrity guests and bemoaning how exhausted and frustrated he is, Can’t Stop derives most of its hilarity from the off-the-cuff comments that pepper Conan’s everyday conversations. (1:29) (David Getman)

*The Double Hour Slovenian hotel maid Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport) and security guard Guido (Filippo Timi) are two lonely people in the Italian city of Turin. They find one another (via a speed-dating service) and things are seriously looking up for the fledgling couple when calamity strikes. This first feature by music video director Giuseppe Capotondi takes a spare, somber approach to a screenplay (by Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi, and Stefano Sardo) that strikingly keeps raising, then resisting genre categorization. Suffice it to say their story goes from lonely-hearts romance to violent thriller, ghost story, criminal intrigue, and yet more. It doesn’t all work seamlessly, but such narrative unpredictability is so rare at the movies these days that The Double Hour is worth seeing simply for the satisfying feeling of never being sure where it’s headed. (1:35) (Harvey)

Empire of Silver Love, not money, is at the core of Empire of Silver — that’s the M.O. of a Shanxi banking family’s libertine third son, or “Third Master” (Aaron Kwok) in this epic tug-of-war between Confucian duty and free will. The Third Master pines for his true love, his stepmother (Hao Lei), yet change is going off all around the star-crossed couple in China at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, and the youthful scion ends up pouring his passion into the family business, attempting to tread his own path, apart from his Machiavellian father (Tielin Zhang). Much like her protagonist, however, director (and Stanford alum) Christina Yao seems more besotted with romance than finance, bathing those scenes with the love light and sensual hues reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s early movies. Though Yao handles the widescreen crowd scenes with aplomb, her chosen focus on money, rather than honey, leaches the action of its emotional charge. It doesn’t help that, on the heels of the Great Recession, it’s unlikely that anyone buys the idea of a financial industry with ironclad integrity — or gives a flying yuan about the lives of bankers. (1:52) (Chun)

Green Lantern This latest DC Comics-to-film adaptation fails to recognize the line between awesome fantasy-action and cheeseball absurdity, often resembling the worst excesses of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. A surprisingly palatable Ryan Reynolds stars as Hal Jordan, the cocky test pilot who is chosen to wield a power ring as a member of an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps. He must face down Parallax, an alien embodiment of fear, who appears here as a chuckle-inducing floating head surrounded by tentacles. Peter Sarsgaard is effectively nauseating as Hector Hammond, who becomes Parallax’s crony after he is transformed by a transfusion of fear energy. The acting is all over the map, with Blake Lively’s blank-faced love interest caricature as the weakest link, and the effects are hit-or-miss, but scenes featuring alien Green Lanterns should please fans, and you could probably do worse if you’re looking for an entertaining popcorn flick. (1:45) (Stander)

The Hangover Part II What do you do with a problematic mess like Hangover Part II? I was a fan of The Hangover (2009), as well as director-cowriter Todd Phillips’ 1994 GG Allin doc, Hated, so I was rooting for II, this time set in the East’s Sin City of Bangkok, while simultaneously dreading the inevitable Asian/”ching-chang-chong” jokes. Would this would-be hit sequel be funnier if they packed in more of those? Doubtful. The problem is that most of II‘s so-called humor, Asian or no, falls completely flat — and any gross-out yuks regarding wicked, wicked Bangkok are fairly old hat at this point, long after Shocking Asia (1976) and innumerable episodes of No Reservations and other extreme travel offerings. This Hangover around, mild-ish dentist Stu (Ed Helms) is heading to the altar with Lauren (The Real World: San Diego‘s Jamie Chung), with buds Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) in tow. Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has completely broken with reality — he’s the pity invite who somehow ropes in the gangster wild-card Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). Blackouts, natch, and not-very-funny high jinks ensue, with Jeong, surprisingly, pulling small sections of II out of the crapper. Phillips obviously specializes in men-behaving-badly, but II‘s most recent character tweaks, turning Phil into an arrogant, delusional creep and Alan into an arrogant, delusional kook, seem beside the point. Because almost none of the jokes work, and that includes the tired jabs at tranny strippers because we all know how supposedly straight white guys get hella grossed out by brown chicks with dicks. Lame. (1:42) (Chun)

Happy Happy, a documentary by Roko Belic (1999’s Genghis Blues), traces the contented lifestyles of men and women around the globe. Manoj Singh is a Kolkata rickshaw driver sustained by his son’s smile. Anne Bechsgaard’s life is enriched by her co-housing community in Denmark. These soothingly sentimental profiles are intercut with commentary from leading neuroscientists and psychologists. They provide a cursory guide to the rare balancing act that is happiness in the 21st century. A brisk 75 minutes, the film is saturated with thought-provoking tidbits (the Bhutan government aims for gross national happiness instead of GDP) and an ambient backing track that’s heavy on the chimes. However, sometimes there’s the sense that these mechanics of happiness aren’t cinematically compelling enough, and that rifling through a couple Wikipedia pages might offer just as much insight. At its best, Happy sparks a reflection on how many of the unofficial criteria for joy one has fulfilled, and suggests ideas for simple happiness boosters. (1:15) Roxie. (Getman)

Kung Fu Panda 2 The affable affirmations of 2008’s Kung Fu Panda take a back seat to relentlessly elaborate, gag-filled action sequences in this DreamWorks Animation sequel, which ought to satisfy kids but not entertain their parents as much as its predecessor. Po (voiced by Jack Black), the overeating panda and ordained Dragon Warrior of the title, joins forces with a cavalcade of other sparring wildlife to battle Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a petulant peacock whose arsenal of cannons threatens to overwhelm kung fu. But Shen is also part of Po’s hazy past, so the panda’s quest to save China is also a quest for self-fulfillment and “inner peace.” There’s less character development in this installment, though the growing friendship between Po and the “hardcore” Tigress (Angelina Jolie) is occasionally touching. The 3-D visuals are rarely more than a gimmick, save for a series of eye-catching flashbacks in the style of cel-shaded animation. (1:30) (Stander)

Larry Crowne While Transformers: Dark of the Moon may be getting all the attention for being the most terrible summer movie, I’d like to propose Larry Crowne as the bigger offender. No, it doesn’t have the abrasive effects of a Michael Bay blockbuster, but it’s surely just as incompetent. And coming from an actor as talented as Tom Hanks — who co-wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the film —Larry Crowne is insulting. The plot, insofar as there is one, centers around the titular Larry (Hanks), a man who goes to community college, joins a scooter gang led by Wilmer Valderrama, and ends up falling for his cranky, alcoholic teacher Mercedes (Julia Roberts). The scenes are thrown together hapharzadly, with no real sense of character development or continuity. Larry Crowne doesn’t even feel like a romantic comedy until a drunk Mercedes begins kissing and dry humping her student. But hey, who can resist a shot of Larry’s middle-aged bottom as he tries to wriggle into jeans that are just too small? (1:39) (Peitzman)

Midnight in Paris Owen Wilson plays Gil, a self-confessed “Hollywood hack” visiting the City of Light with his conservative future in-laws and crassly materialistic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). A romantic obviously at odds with their selfish pragmatism (somehow he hasn’t realized that yet), he’s in love with Paris and particularly its fabled artistic past. Walking back to his hotel alone one night, he’s beckoned into an antique vehicle and finds himself transported to the 1920s, at every turn meeting the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Dali (Adrien Brody), etc. He also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a woman alluring enough to be fought over by Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo) — though she fancies aspiring literary novelist Gil. Woody Allen’s latest is a pleasant trifle, no more, no less. Its toying with a form of magical escapism from the dreary present recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), albeit without that film’s greater structural ingeniousness and considerable heart. None of the actors are at their best, though Cotillard is indeed beguiling and Wilson dithers charmingly as usual. Still — it’s pleasant. (1:34) Balboa. (Harvey)

Monte Carlo (1:48)

Mr. Nice By the second hour of Mr. Nice, star Rhys Ifans and company have exhausted every possible pot smoking flourish. There’s the seductive French inhale by the pool, the suggestive mouth to mouth, the euphoric dragon release in the deserts of Pakistan: all rendered in extreme close-up with improbably thick plumes of white smoke. Mr. Nice is mostly sexy drug use tutorial, though it’s also part biography of real-life drug smuggler Howard Marks. His claim to fame — at least according to the movie’s tagline — is the sheer number of aliases, phone lines, and children he had (43, 89, and 4, respectively). Unexpectedly, it’s the period costuming, cinematography, and the enchanting listlessness of Chloe Sevigny that redeem the film. Mr. Nice is captivatingly interlaced with vintage news and scenery clips from the period and it’s shot in a way that is both hyper-stylized and erratic. Those twists and turns of Marks’s life turn out to be not nearly as suspenseful onscreen as they should be, making the movie less of a traditional drug thriller and more of a mildly interesting reflection on the culture of the period. (2:01) (Getman)

Mr. Popper’s Penguins (1:35)

*My Perestroika Robin Hessman’s very engaging documentary takes one very relatable look at how changes since glasnost have affected some average Russians. The subjects here are five thirtysomethings who, growing up in Moscow in the 70s and 80s, were the last generation to experience full-on Communist Party indoctrination. But just as they reached adulthood, the whole system dissolved, confusing long-held beliefs and variably impacting their futures. Andrei has ridden the capitalist choo-choo to considerable enrichment as the proprietor of luxury Western menswear shops. But single mother Olga, unlucky in love, just scrapes by, while married schoolteachers Lyuba and Boris are lucky to have inherited an apartment (cramped as it is) they could otherwise ill afford. Meanwhile Ruslan, once member of a famous punk band (which he abandoned on principal because it was getting “too commercial”), both disdains and resents the new order just as he did the old one. Home movies and old footage of pageantry celebrating Soviet socialist glory make a whole ‘nother era come to life in this intimate, unexpectedly charming portrait of its long-term aftermath. (1:27) Balboa. (Harvey)

*Page One: Inside the New York Times When Andrew Rossi’s documentary premiered at Sundance this January, word of mouth on it was respectable but qualified, with nearly everyone opining that it was good … just not what they’d been led to expect. What they expected was (in line with the original subtitle A Year Inside the New York Times) a top-to-bottom overview of how the nation’s most respected — and in some circles resented — arbiter of news, “style,” and culture is created on a day-to-day as well as longer term basis. That’s something that would doubtless fascinate anyone still interested in print media, or even that realm of web media not catering to the ADD nation. But that big picture and the wealth of minute cogs within isn’t Page One‘s subject. Instead, Rossi focuses on the Gray Lady’s wrestling with admittedly fast-changing times in which newspapers and any other information source on paper seem to constitute an endangered species. This particular Times, however, is such a special case that that crisis might better have been explored by training a camera on a less fabled publication, perhaps one of the many that have succumbed to a once unthinkable, market-shrunk mortality in recent years. The film finds its colorful protagonist in David Carr, an ex-crack addict turned media columnist who retains his cranky, nonconformist edge even as he defends the Times itself from the same out-with-the-old cheerleaders who 15 years ago were inflating the dot-com boom till it burst. Facing one particularly smug champion of the blogosphere at a forum, Carr notes that without a few remaining outlets — like the Times — doing the hard work of serious research and reportage, the web would have nothing to purloin or offer but its own unending trivia and gossip. Page One does what it does entertainingly well, but if you’re looking for insight toward this not-dead-yet U.S. institution as a whole, you’d be better off simply picking up this week’s Sunday edition and reading every last word. (1:28) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

*Super 8 The latest from J.J. Abrams is very conspicuously produced by Steven Spielberg; it evokes 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as well as 1985’s The Goonies and 1982’s Poltergeist (so Spielbergian in nature you’d be forgiven for assuming he directed, rather than simply produced, the pair). But having Grandpa Stevie blessing your flick is surely a good thing, especially when you’re already as capable as Abrams. Super 8 is set in 1979, high time for its titular medium, used by a group of horror movie-loving kids to film their backyard zombie epic; later in the film, old-school celluloid reveals the mystery behind exactly what escaped following a spectacular train wreck on the edge of their small Ohio town. The PG-13 Super 8 aims to frighten, albeit gently; there’s a lot of nostalgia afoot, and things do veer into sappiness at the end (that, plus the band of kids at its center, evoke the trademarks of another Grandpa Stevie: Stephen King). But the kid actors (especially the much-vaunted Elle Fanning) are great, and there’s palpable imagination and atmosphere afoot, rare qualities in blockbusters today. Super 8 tries, and mostly succeeds, in progressing the fears and themes addressed by E.T. (divorce, loneliness, growing up) into century 21, making the unknowns darker and the consequences more dire. (1:52) (Eddy)

*13 Assassins 13 Assassins is clearly destined to be prolific director Takashi Miike’s greatest success outside Japan yet. It’s another departure for the multi-genre-conquering Miike, doubtless one of the most conventional movies he’s made in theme and execution. That’s key to its appeal — rigorously traditional, taking its sweet time getting to samurai action that is pointedly not heightened by wire work or CGI, it arrives at the kind of slam-dunk prolonged battle climax that only a measured buildup can let you properly appreciate. In the 1840s, samurai are in decline but feudalism is still hale. It’s a time of peace, though not for the unfortunates who live under regional tyrant Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), a li’l Nippon Caligula who taxes and oppresses his people to the point of starvation. Alas, the current Shogun is his sibling, and plans to make little bro his chief adviser — so a concerned Shogun official secretly hires veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate the Lord. Fully an hour is spent on our hero doing “assembling the team” stuff, recruiting other unemployed, retired, or wannabe samurai. When the protagonists finally commence their mission, their target is already aware he’s being pursued, and he’s surrounded by some 200 soldiers by the time Miike arrives at the film’s sustained, spectacular climax: a small village which Shinzaemon and co. have turned into a giant boobytrap so that 13 men can divide and destroy an ogre-guarding army. A major reason why mainstream Hollywood fantasy and straight action movies have gotten so depressingly interchangeable is that digital FX and stunt work can (and does) visualize any stupid idea — heroes who get thrown 200 feet into walls by monsters then getting up to fight some more, etc. 13 Assassins is thrilling because its action, while sporting against-the-odds ingeniousness and sheer luck by our heroes as in any trad genre film, is still vividly, bloodily, credibly physical. (2:06) (Harvey)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon I’ll never understand the wisdom behind epic-length children’s movies. What child — or adult, for that matter — wants to sit through 154 minutes of assaultive popcorn entertainment? It’s an especially confounding decision for this third installment in the Transformers franchise because there’s a fantastic 90-minute movie in there, undone at every turn by some of the worst jokes, most pointless characters, and most hateful cultural politics you’re likely to see this summer. But when I say a fantastic movie, I mean a fantastic movie. It took two very expensive earlier attempts before director Michael Bay figured out that big things require a big canvas. Every shot of Dark of the Moon‘s predecessors seemed designed to hide their effects by crowding the screen. Finally we get the full view — the scale is now rightly calibrated to operatic and ridiculous. The marquee set pieces are inspired and terrifying, eliciting a sense of vertigo that’s earned for once, not imposed by the editing. The human hijinks are less consistent but ingratiatingly batshit, and without resorting to preening self-awareness and elaborately contrived mea culpas. But unfortunately Bay is too unapologetic even to walk back the ethnic buffoonery that not only upsets hippies like me but also seems defiantly disharmonious with the movie he’s trying to make. Bay is like that guy at the party who thinks amping up the racism will prove he’s not a racist. It’s that kind of garbage (plus, I guess, some universal primal hatred of Shia LaBeouf that I don’t really get) that makes people dismiss these movies wholesale. This time it’s just not deserved. I wouldn’t want to meet the asshole who made this thing, but credit where credit is due. It’s a visual marvel with perfectly integrated, utterly tactile, brilliantly choreographed CG robotics — a point that’ll no doubt be conceded in passing as if it’s not the very reason the movie exists. As if it’s not a feat of mastery to make a megaton changeling truck look graceful. (2:34) (Jason Shamai)

The Tree of Life Mainstream American films are so rarely adventuresome that overreactive gratitude frequently greets those rare, self-conscious, usually Oscar-baiting stabs at profundity. Terrence Malick has made those gestures so sparingly over four decades that his scarcity is widely taken for genius. Now there’s The Tree of Life, at once astonishingly ambitious — insofar as general addressing the origin/meaning of life goes — and a small domestic narrative artificially inflated to a maximally pretentious pressure-point. The thesis here is a conflict between “nature” (the way of striving, dissatisfied, angry humanity) and “grace” (the way of love, femininity, and God). After a while Tree settles into a fairly conventional narrative groove, dissecting — albeit in meandering fashion — the travails of a middle-class Texas household whose patriarch (a solid Brad Pitt) is sternly demanding of his three young sons. As a modern-day survivor of that household, Malick’s career-reviving ally Sean Penn has little to do but look angst-ridden while wandering about various alien landscapes. Set in Waco but also shot in Rome, at Versailles, and in Saturn’s orbit (trust me), The Tree of Life is so astonishingly self-important while so undernourished on some basic levels that it would be easy to dismiss as lofty bullshit. Its Cannes premiere audience booed and cheered — both factions right, to an extent. (2:18) (Harvey)

*The Trip Eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom rebounds from sexually humiliating Jessica Alba in last year’s flop The Killer Inside Me to humiliating Steve Coogan in all number of ways (this time to positive effect) in this largely improvised comic romp through England’s Lake District. Well, romp might be the wrong descriptive — dubbed a “foodie Sideways” but more plaintive and less formulaic than that sun-dappled California affair, this TV-to-film adaptation displays a characteristic English glumness to surprisingly keen emotional effect. Playing himself, Coogan displays all the carefree joie de vivre of a colonoscopy patient with hemorrhoids as he sloshes through the gray northern landscape trying to get cell reception when not dining on haute cuisine or being wracked with self-doubt over his stalled movie career and love life. Throw in a happily married, happy-go-lucky frenemy (comic actor Rob Brydon) and Coogan (TV’s I’m Alan Partridge), can’t help but seem like a pathetic middle-aged prick in a puffy coat. Somehow, though, his confused narcissism is a perverse panacea. Come for the dueling Michael Caine impressions and snot martinis, stay for the scallops and Brydon’s “small man in a box” routine. (1:52) Smith Rafael. (Devereaux)

*Trollhunter Yes, The Troll Hunter riffs off The Blair Witch Project (1999) with both whimsy and, um, rabidity. Yes, you may gawk at its humongoid, anatomically correct, three-headed trolls, never to be mistaken for grotesquely cute rubber dolls, Orcs, or garden gnomes again. Yes, you may not believe, but you will find this lampoon of reality TV-style journalism, and an affectionate jab at Norway’s favorite mythical creature, very entertaining. Told that a series of strange attacks could be chalked up to marauding bears, three college students (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Tomas Alf Larsen, and Johanna Morck) strap on their gumshoes and choose instead to pursue a mysterious poacher Hans (Otto Jespersen) who repeatedly rebuffs their interview attempts. Little did the young folk realize that their late-night excursions following the hunter into the woods would lead at least one of them to rue his or her christening day. Ornamenting his yarn with beauty shots of majestic mountains, fjords, and waterfalls, Norwegian director-writer André Ovredal takes the viewer beyond horror-fantasy — handheld camera at the ready — and into a semi-goofy wilderness of dark comedy, populated by rock-eating, fart-blowing trolls and overshadowed by a Scandinavian government cover-up sorta-worthy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). (1:30) (Chun)

*X-Men: First Class Cynics might see this prequel as pandering to a more tweeny demographic, and certainly there are so many ways it could have gone terribly wrong, in an infantile, way-too-cute X-Babies kinda way. But despite some overly choppy edits that shortchange brief moments of narrative clarity, X-Men: First Class gets high marks for its fairly first-class, compelling acting — specifically from Michael Fassbender as the enraged, angst-ridden Magneto and James McAvoy as the idealistic, humanist Charles Xavier. Of course, the celebrated X-Men tale itself plays a major part: the origin story of Magneto, a.k.a. Erik Lehnsherr, a Holocaust survivor, is given added heft with a few tweaks: here, in an echo of Fassbender’s turn in Inglourious Basterds (2009), his master of metal draws on his bottomless rage to ruthlessly destroy the Nazis who used him as a lab rat in experiments to build a master race. The last on his list is the energy-wrangling Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who’s set up a sweet Bond-like scenario, protected by super-serious bikini-vixen Emma Frost (January Jones). The complications are that Erik doesn’t ultimately differ from his Frankensteins — he pushes mutant power to the detriment of those puny, bigoted humans — and his unexpected collaborator and friend is Xavier, the privileged, highly psychic scion who hopes to broker an understanding between mutants and human and use mutant talent to peaceful ends. Together, they can move mountains—or at least satellite dishes and submarines. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast fill out the cast, voicing those eternal X-Men dualities — preserving difference vs. conformity, intoxicating power vs. reasoned discipline. All core superhero concerns, as well as teen identity issues — given a fresh charge. (2:20) (Chun)