Shooter kicks off with a scene in which a young man flashes a picture of his fiancee to his partner, and we all know that when an unfamiliar, expendable cast member shows off a shot of his sweetie, he won’t be around for many more scenes. Shooter also includes a sequence in which our protagonist, already pissed at the sour turn his life has taken, reaches his boiling point upon learning the worst news a movie hero can hear: The villains went and shot his faithful dog. It’s a testament to all concerned that Shooter can include such hoary clichés and not only survive them but also make them fun to watch one more time. Crisply directed by Antoine Fuqua and adapted from Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter’s bestseller Point of Impact, this casts Mark Wahlberg as Bob Lee Swagger, a former Marine sniper who’s duped into taking part in a political assassination and then served up as the lone gunman. Refusing to go down easy, Swagger instead uses all his training to get back at the slimy suits who framed him, along the way enlisting the aid of an earnest FBI rookie (Michael Pena) and, yes, his late partner’s fiancee (Kate Mara). Comparisons to Sylvester Stallone’s equally ill-treated combat vet from two decades ago are paper-thin, since this film is anything but a Rambore; instead, it benefits from some taut action sequences, a well-chosen supporting cast (66-year-old Levon Helm, not looking a day over 99, steals the film as a gun enthusiast), and a smoldering Wahlberg in a commanding central performance.
I Think I Love My Wife **
It’s inconceivable that the names Eric Rohmer and Pootie Tang would ever appear in the same sentence, yet that’s the result of cowriter-director-star Chris Rock making I Think I Love My Wife. The film is an American bastardization of 1972’s Chloe In the Afternoon, the sixth and final movie in philosophical French director Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” series (Criterion released a glorious box set last year that includes all six titles). Now, Rock and his Pootie Tang cohort Louis C.K. have teamed up to rework Rohmer’s story into a moderately amusing but ultimately scattershot comedy about Richard Cooper, a New York businessman whose marriage to a schoolteacher (Gina Torres) has become so stagnant that he constantly daydreams about being with other women. Into his office walks Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington), a high-maintenance friend from his long-ago clubbing days. Bringing to mind the “Darling Nikki” from Prince’s Purple Rain soundtrack, she immediately tempts Richard by injecting some much-needed fun back into his life, thereby requiring him to decide whether or not he should cheat on his sexually frigid spouse. The level of humor is all over the map, ranging from funny (Richard works at the investment firm of Pupkin & Langford, a nod to the characters played by Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy) to rancid (“I have an appointment,” states a beautiful woman in a fantasy sequence, to which a sex-crazed Richard replies, “Yeah, a pussy appointment!”) to somewhere in between (I don’t think I’ve ever heard a large pair of breasts referred to as “village feeders”).
Positioned as the Ultimate Fanboy Movie, this adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel is indeed ferocious enough to satisfy basement-dwellers with its gore, violence and chest-pounding machismo while savvy enough to downplay the homoeroticism that will ever-so-subtly cause heretofore unexplained stirrings in the loins of these same armchair warriors. Yet for all its brutality, 300 has as great a chance of satisfying a sizable female contingent, since it’s ultimately a beefcake calendar posing as a motion picture (ironic, then, that the lockstep online trolls attack anyone who doesn’t rave about the film as being like “a girl”). Beyond its demographic-targeting, however, its greatest claim to fame is that it’s positioning itself as the next step on the evolutionary CGI ladder, offering (in the words of director and co-writer Zack Snyder) “a true experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.” Snyder was responsible for the surprisingly accomplished Dawn of the Dead remake three years ago, but here he seems to have been swallowed up by the enormity of the project, which depersonalizes the major players in the battle between the Spartans and the Persians to such a degree that one ends up feeling more sympathy for the shields that end up receiving the brunt of the sword blows and arrow piercings. 300 contains a handful of staggering images — and, for once, the color-deprived shooting style fits the tale being spun — but Sin City, a previous adaptation of a Miller work, offered more variety in its characterizations and, more tellingly, in its cutting-edge visual landscape.
Last King of Scotland ***
You won’t see too many performances more impressive than the Oscar-winning turn by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. Whitaker stars as the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, who during his bloody reign in the 1970s was responsible for the murders of over 300,000 of his countrymen. Whitaker doesn’t especially look like the real Amin, but his superb portrayal immediately convinces us that we’re in the presence of a towering figure who shapes the world to match his whims. It’s a galvanizing performance. The Last King of Scotland is based on Giles Foden’s novel, which employs a fictional character to take us inside the Amin regime: Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who, impressed by the newly self-appointed leader (Amin seized power in a 1971 coup), agrees to serve as his personal physician and regrets his decision once Amin’s true nature comes to light.
Refusing to wear out its welcome even at 160 minutes, Zodiac is a satisfying hybrid of a police procedural (think L.A. Confidential), a journalism yarn (think All the President’s Men) and a serial killer flick (think The Silence of the Lambs). That it doesn’t come close to breathing the rarefied air of the three aforementioned classics isn’t necessarily meant as a putdown, but it’s clear that David Fincher’s new movie doesn’t provide the same level of either visceral thrills or sublime plotting as its predecessors. Working from a book by Robert Graysmith, the film casts Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith, a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the series of grisly slayings plaguing the Bay Area. Yet Graysmith isn’t alone in his fanatical devotion to the case: The mystery also haunts the dreams of Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and as the years march on, the trio’s pursuit of justice (or is it merely ego gratification?) begins to take its toll on health, marriage and career.
Wild Hogs *1/2
This simple-minded comedy has the audacity to reference Deliverance in one scene, yet the only folks who’ll be squealing like a pig are the ones who fork over 10 bucks, only to find themselves royally screwed after enduring its inanities. Four Cincinnati bunglers (John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy), each suffering though some pathetic form of mid-life crisis, decide to embark on a road trip to the West Coast. They mount their motorcycles with the intent of rediscovering life’s little pleasures, but it’s not long before these queasy riders are having to cope with menacing bikers, “bomb”-dropping birds and a homosexual highway patrolman (John C. McGinley).
Ghost Rider *1/2
Is it possible that before making the big-screen version of Ghost Rider, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson had never even read a Ghost Rider comic book? Yes, I know as well as anyone that faithfulness to the source material is a low priority when it comes to Hollywood, whether adapting Stan Lee or Lee Child. But Johnson, whose version of Daredevil wasn’t quite as bad as the press made out, here botches what would have seemed to be a fairly manageable assignment. Nicolas Cage, whose best film in recent years has been the hilarious Wicker Man reedit currently gracing YouTube, falls back on the eye-popping, head-rolling overacting that has turned him into this decade’s Rod Steiger.
Amazing Grace ***
Basically Amistad with only half the serving of self-importance, Amazing Grace examines the efforts of William Wilberforce, a member of British Parliament who fought to end his country’s involvement in the slave trade during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Ioan Gruffudd (the officer who rescues Rose in Titanic), plays Wilberforce, who spent over two decades of his life battling colleagues who saw nothing wrong in keeping the practice of slavery alive. But armed with his deeply held religious convictions and a basic sense of decency, he persevered against all obstacles, including a reputation as a traitor to his country during the war with France (“You’re either with us or with the French terrorists!” has a familiar ring...) and his own failing health. Perhaps more Masterpiece Theatre than motion picture — director Michael Apted (Nell) frequently opts for static shots more suitable for the small screen — Amazing Grace nevertheless tells a story that’s compelling enough to compensate for the occasional stuffiness.
Black Snake Moan ***
After earning positive notices for his breakthrough feature, 2005’s Hustle & Flow, writer-director Craig Brewer returns with another look at Southern discomfort deep-fried in a greasy pool of sex and song. Set in a swampy Tennessee burg, this stars Samuel L. Jackson as Lazarus, a former blues musician who rescues town tart Rae (Christina Ricci) after he discovers her in the ditch next to his house. Working through his own domestic crisis Lazarus decides to redeem himself by simultaneously saving this woman, chaining her to his radiator and attempting to purge her of her sexual demons. What Lazarus doesn’t know is that his own demons will be better tamed by the love of a good woman — in this case, the helpful pharmacist (S. Epatha Merkerson) who works in the nearby town — and that Rae’s soldier-boy steady (Justin Timberlake) has just returned after an aborted Iraqi tour of duty and is looking for his sweetheart.
Bridge to Terabithia
Like the film versions of A Little Princess and The Neverending Story, Bridge to Terabithia wasn’t made for crusty-snot-nosed kids; instead, it’s for bright, inquisitive children (and attendant adults) who subscribe to the theory that imagination is one of the most wonderful tools available. Based on Katherine Paterson’s award-winning book, this explores the relationship between two outcast middle-schoolers (Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb, both highly appealing) and the adventures they share as they create a magical kingdom in the woods that rest behind their respective houses. If the effects involved in the creation of their imaginary world seem on the thrifty side, that’s OK, since the heart of the story rests in the manner in which children are able to cope with loneliness, ostracism and even death.
Music and Lyrics **1/2
Assembly line romantic comedies often rise or fall based on the stars at their center, and Music and Lyrics is lucky to have both Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant (as opposed to, say, Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey) offering their services to the soggy premise. Grant stars as Alex Fletcher, a former 80s pop star who’s commissioned by current music diva Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) to write a new hit song for her. Alex’s forte is in the melody, not the lyrics, so he ends up asking quirky Sophie Fisher (Barrymore), the woman who waters his plants, to help him.
The Queen ***1/2
A wicked — and wickedly good — show that’s one of the year’s best films. Set in the days following the death of Diana in 1997, it focuses on the royal family’s reaction to the tragedy as well as the efforts of a newly elected prime minister to take control of the situation. Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance is a thing of beauty. She initially makes Elizabeth as impenetrable as Fort Knox, yet there are cracks in her demeanor that allow us to see that this woman is finally coming to terms with just how of touch with her subjects she might be.
Night At the Museum **
This film plays with fire by employing the services of three overexposed actors — Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Robin Williams (only Will Ferrell is missing) — and potentially allowing them to run rampant through an overstuffed fantasy yarn. Mercifully, Stiller is muted, Williams is similarly restrained, and Wilson... well, Wilson. Stiller plays Larry Daley, the new night watchman at a museum where the exhibits come to life after the venue closes. The benevolent Teddy Roosevelt (Williams) is helpful, but Larry has his hands full evading Attila the Hun, dealing with a mischievous monkey, and settling squabbles between a miniature cowboy (Wilson) and an equally diminutive Roman commander (Steve Coogan).