Review: ''Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work''

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The makers of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work spent a year shadowing the iconic performer everywhere:

• On trips to England and Scotland, where she previewed the one-woman show she hoped to bring to Broadway (audiences loved it, but the British critics dashed her dream).

• To the stage of Comedy Central's Joan Rivers Roast, where she dutifully endured the merciless barbs of other comedians (practically every other joke went after her multiple plastic surgeries).

• To Washington, D.C., where she nervously holds her own alongside the likes of Jon Stewart and Garry Shandling in a tribute to the late George Carlin.

• To the set of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, the first time she had appeared on the network since Johnny Carson had blacklisted her for agreeing to host her own late-night talk show on rival Fox in the 1980s.

• To a casino in snowy Wisconsin, where she shouts down a heckler with a how-dare-you fury, yet still manages to keep the audience on her side.

Rivers was 76 when the movie was shot, and, aside from the opening credits in which we see her in extreme close-up without makeup, she never appears without her camera-ready game face - one of the tell-tale signs that co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg had to abide by their subject's rules while filming.

But although Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is unmistakably a fawning love letter to an amazing performer, Rivers proves to be her sharpest, bluntest critic. The movie uses vintage footage to recount her career, including appearances on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show, during which she habitually pushed the envelope of what you could joke about on TV (in one clip from the 1970s, she does a bit about abortion but uses the word appendectomy instead).

The movie also covers her marriage to Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide in 1987 after her talk show was canceled, and the birth of her daughter Melissa, who would so often work alongside her mother that they even played themselves in a TV movie about their lives. (When Melissa complains in the documentary about having an "image problem," the assumption is that she is inseparable from her mother in the public eye.)

But the most fascinating stuff in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work comes when the filmmakers capture the simple day-to-day details: Rivers' telephone conversations with her agent, pleading for a gig - any gig - because she needs the money; the way she brags about the grandness of her luxurious Manhattan apartment (the work may have slowed down, but she refuses to give up the lifestyle); her surprise appearances at small comedy clubs in New York, where she tests out new material (she remains, all these years later, an explosively funny stand-up comedienne), or a tender and amusing exchange with her grandson during a limo ride. In such moments, Rivers comes across as someone much more complex and vulnerable than her abrasive "Can we talk?" persona. There's a real woman under there, and she's pretty great.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (*** out of ****) opens Friday June 25 in Miami-Dade at South Beach and in Broward at Gateway and Sunrise.

Review: ''Exit Through the Gift Shop''

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In the enthralling Exit Through the Gift Shop, a curious, talkative Frenchman with pork-chop sideburns runs around videotaping everything - his wife, his children, his friends, the customers at his Los Angeles clothing store. Thierry Guetta isn't a filmmaker; he's just a compulsive shooter, and he doesn't go anywhere without his camera. When Thierry discovers that his cousin has a secret identity, Space Invader, and that he pastes small, tiled re-creations of the aliens from the classic video game in public spaces, he begins filming the man's nightly escapades.

Their antics lead Guetta to meet another street artist - Shepard Fairey, now famous for the iconic Obama "Hope'' poster - and then another and another. After almost a year of filming, Guetta decides he is going to make a movie about street artists, who create their often illegal work in the middle of the night or in bursts of daring in broad daylight. Guetta feeds on the danger, the adrenaline; he loves the ride, the excitement. But he just shoots and shoots, never going over his footage, and crates of tapes pile up.

And then Guetta hears about Banksy, a British graffitti artist who has pulled off some of the bravest and most clever street art of all, including paintings on the Palestinian segregation wall (the film contains footage of Banksy on the day he pulled the stunt). Guetta uses every connection he has, but the highly secretive and reclusive Banksy remains out of reach. Everyone tells Guetta he'll never get him.

But in 2006, when Banksy visits L.A. and needs an assistant, Guetta gets a huge break. Until this point, Exit Through the Gift Shop has been a rollicking, informative look at the world of graffiti art and the people who make it, risking high fines and even arrest to fulfill their creative needs. Once Banksy enters the picture, though, the movie begins to change. Guetta becomes an increasingly active participant in the street-art world, not just a documentarian. (There's some riveting footage of Guetta and Banksy at Disneyland where they hang an effigy of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner on the Big Thunder Railroad ride, a prank that leads to big trouble. Do not mess with the Mouse.)

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And when Banksy tells Guetta that he's filmed enough and should start editing the footage he's amassed, Exit Through the Gift Shop becomes another movie entirely - a provocative and absorbing exploration of what constitutes art, the creative process and the power of hype to triumph over talent. The movie offers a tantalizing peek into Banksy's studio and his methods - the artist, who has never been photographed, appears only in shadows and with his voice digitally garbled - but viewers expecting a film devoted to his career will be disappointed, since Banksy's work takes a second seat to Guetta's unexpected (and scarily prolific) art.

Is Exit Through the Gift Shop the big hoax some have claimed? Is Guetta, now a successful artist known as Mister Brainwash who has had exhibitions in New York and L.A., simply a construct - the latest prank by an artist known for his mischievous streak? In this case, whether the movie is genuine doesn't matter (although I'm highly suspicious of the professional sheen of "madness" displayed by the edited footage Guetta shows Banksy). What makes Exit Through the Gift Shop so fascinating - and it is riveting, regardless of your interest in the art world - is the eloquent and exciting way in which it illustrates how beauty and meaning really are in the eye of the beholder and how that eternal phrase still holds true: There's a sucker born every minute.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (***1/2 out of ****) opens Friday June 25 in Miami-Dade at Sunset and in Broward at Gateway.

Review: ''Knight and Day''

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Tom Cruise spends much of Knight and Day looking as if he's waiting for someone to pour casting mold over his head to make an action figure. When he's not flashing a blindingly fake grin, he's sporting a variation on the "Blue Steel'' look Ben Stiller perfected in Zoolander. Cruise's co-star, Cameron Diaz, fares better, because the movie requires her to shriek and wave her arms around a lot, which she's good at, and to walk around in a bikini or a yellow bridesmaid dress and black cowboy boots, a combo she really sells.

Too bad, though, that whenever characters stand still to talk, Knight and Day induces a fetal-curl stupor in the viewer. And the action scenes, which are intentionally preposterous and over the top and meant to be borderline comical, are just ridiculous. A motorcycle chase through the streets of Spain during the running of the bulls is a great idea. A motorcycle chase through the streets of Spain during the running of computer-generated bulls is not a great idea.

There is a sequence early on involving speeding trucks, vans, motorcycles and a tunnel that had the potential to be a mini-classic. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) stages the action so things happen unexpectedly at the edge of the frame, startling you - except that most of it looks like a video game. When Diaz verbally references Grand Theft Auto, she's not kidding.

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There are so many CG and green-screen effects in Knight and Day, the movie could almost pass for Sin City II. In one scene, Cruise and Diaz are driving in a car having a conversation, and the exteriors through the windows look so fake you wonder if Mangold wasn't paying homage to Hitchcock's love for rear projection. He's not, though.

The only thing Knight and Day pays homage to is Cruise's enormous ego, who apparently believes audiences would want to watch him in roles like this one. Cruise is playing a character who is essentially unplayable: Roy Miller, a super-super secret agent who makes 007 look like a playground sissy. Roy can outrun computer-generated jets. He can fly computer-generated planes, He can magically transport unconscious people from the middle of remote wheat fields into the safety of their bedrooms, and he can anticipate every move his opponents make, as if he had ESP. Roy, who may or may not be crazy, even appears to be immortal: In one scene, we see him riddled by bullets and falling into a river, and then he shows up a few scenes later, unscratched and unhurt, with no explanation as to how he survived.

I know Knight and Day is not intended to be the sort of movie in which logic plays much of a role. But the chemistry between Cruise and Diaz is nonexistent (there's a reason why Cameron Crowe cast them as bitter exes in Vanilla Sky). Cruise's considerable magnetism has utterly abandoned him - anybody could be playing Roy - and without any character to engage the viewer, the film becomes a long slog through slick, noisy emptiness.

And I mean noisy. In one scene, Diaz, who plays a gearhead who specializes in restoring old cars, is handed a machine-gun by Cruise so she can defend herself against baddies. Suddenly, without explanation, she starts shrieking, holding the trigger down and waving the weapon around like a marching baton, spraying bullets everywhere. Diaz can play a lot of roles, but screaming ninnies don't suit her. Neither does this movie.

Knight and Day (* out of ****) opens in South Florida on Wednesday June 23.

Review: ''Toy Story 3''

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In Toy Story 3, the wizards at Pixar Animation Studios dust off their most iconic characters for a spirited, playful rumpus. The movie has a noticeably irreverent energy, as if the filmmakers had decided to indulge themselves after cranking out so many masterpieces (Ratatouille, Wall*E, Up) and make something purely for sheer fun.

And what great fun it is! Eleven years after Toy Story 2, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of Andy's beloved toys are fretting about the boy's having grown up. Andy, preparing to leave for college, is cleaning out his room. Will his childhood playthings get stored in the attic to collect dust? Will they be put out on the curb with the rest of the trash?

The story hook of Toy Story 3, co-written by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), is that Woody, Buzz and the rest wind up being donated to a day-care center, where manic toddlers smash them against walls and find out how far they'll stretch and bend. The concept is ingenious - a playground as torture chamber - and the movie essentially becomes a prison-break picture complete with an evil warden, a pink teddy bear (Ned Beatty) who isn't as kind as he seems.

Toy Story 3, which was directed by Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo), introduces several other new characters, including an amusingly vain Ken (Michael Keaton) who seduces Barbie (Jodi Benson) with his extensive wardrobe, and a beat-up baby doll with a droopy eye that the movie occasionally uses to strike a note of fun, cartoonish horror (new territory for Pixar). A surprising darkness lurks beneath the bright colors and vivid 3D animation - this is really a story about aging and death - although the subtexts are subtle, and young viewers won't be disturbed.

This is also the most hyperactive of all of Pixar's films: The entire second half is essentially one long action setpiece that keeps raising the cliffhanger stakes, like an Indiana Jones picture. And the movie also has a taste for absurdist humor, such as a long, funny scene in which Buzz's inner machinery is reset to Spanish. That sequence, like so much of Toy Story 3, is self-indulgent but irresistible - a loving tribute to characters who have become engrained in the popular culture as deeply as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny once did.

And the movie saves its biggest wallop for the last scene, a surprisingly moving depiction of the transition from childhood to young adulthood that will put a lump in the throat of many grown-up viewers. Even at their most playful, the folks at Pixar know how to give any story emotional gravity and weight. Toy Story 3 is a worthy and delirious final chapter to this hallowed animation franchise.

Toy Story 3 (***1/2 out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday June 18.

Review: ''The A-Team''

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"Overkill is underrated," says a member of The A-Team, befitting a movie in which an armored tank parachutes through the air, a helicopter flies upside-down and Jessica Biel convincingly portrays a no-nonsense Army investigator. All of these things are, on a theoretical level, possible. But The A-Team sells them with such bombast and flair that you know the filmmakers are in on the joke. This is the movie G.I. Joe should have been.

The genius of a feature film based on the 1980s TV series is that it can't help but exceed expectations, because they're going to be so low to begin with. I never watched the series, and know nothing about it except that it co-starred Mr. T, who sported his iconic mohawk and was the team's toughest member. In the new incarnation, Mr. T's character is played by Quinton "Rampage'' Jackson, a mixed-martial-arts and UFC fighting champion. Jackson also sports a finely groomed mohawk, and, though he never actually says the phrase, he has the words "pity" and "fool" tattooed on his knuckles.

A lot of director Joe Carnahan's humor is of the wink-nudge variety - an elbow to the ribs and then, to prove he's not completely kidding, a spectacular action sequence that must set a new record for onscreen explosions. The rest of the A-Team is comprised of Liam Neeson (loyal, brave leader), Bradley Cooper (irrepressible playboy) and District 9's Sharlto Cooper (a talented pilot and also completely insane). The plot, which involves the heroes' being framed and sent to prison and some stolen counterfeiting money-pressing plates, practically defies conprehension. When one character says "What is happening? What is going on?" you know the filmmakers are having a good-natured laugh at your expense.

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The A-Team is a gigantic pile of ear-deafening nonsense, but it is brisk and goofy and well shot by Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) and a lot livelier than Robin Hood or Iron Man 2. Did this mostly forgotten series really deserve to be dusted off and turned into a film franchise? Probably not. But logic and common sense have no business in a movie in which even the characters can't keep track of what's going on.

The A-Team (**1/2 out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday June 11.

Review: ''Mother and Child''

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The first half of Mother and Child, a drama about adopted children and the mothers who gave them up as infants, has a steely, engaging fire - the flames of anger and life-long disappointment. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her) uses quick, deft strokes to establish the emotional constitution of his three main characters. Karen (Annette Bening) is a brittle, acerbic woman who lives with her ailing mother (Eileen Ryan), who clucks her disapproval constantly and prefers the company of their housekeeper (Elpidia Carrillo).

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a supremely confident lawyer who impresses her new boss (Samuel L. Jackson) so much, they're soon embroiled in a sexual affair. Elizabeth has no trouble separating her personal life from her work: She separates herself from the world entirely, her calculating, sometimes condescending manner hinting at a great, unspoken resentment that will never be satisfied.

Lucy (Kerry Washington) cannot bear children, but she is eager to adopt with her husband, and they meet a potential donor in pregnant Ray (Shareeka Epps), who demands to interview her baby's would-be parents before consenting to the adoption. To say that the interview process is grueling does not properly describe it.

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Mother and Child is at its best when Garcia observes cruelty and kindness with the same detached, impassioned eye: These characters are all wounded in one way or another and are wont to commit small acts of emotional brutality as a way of giving their inner pain some escape. The movie might have been a bruising little masterpiece if Garcia had maintained that tone all the way through, but he lets the picture start to go soft in the middle, and teary melodrama floods in like water from a broken dam.

Suddenly, we've got scenes involving necklaces with sentimental value, a little blind girl who is wise beyond her years and an unexpected pregnancy that goes wrong in all the worst ways. The none-too-subtle mystery running throughout Mother and Child is the connection among the protagonists. The link betwen Karen and Elizabeth is obvious from the get-go, but Lucy's role in the puzzle isn't made clear until the closing scene, which is easily the film's worst.

Mother and Child is good when it takes a harsh, unsparing look at lament and the burdens we carry throughout our lives. Then it goes for your tear ducts,and we're suddenly stranded in Lifetime TV territory - as if another filmmaker had taken over and decided to soften the hard edges that previously made Mother and Child so compelling.

Mother and Child (** out of ****) opens at the Regal South Beach in Miami-Dade and Sunrise and Gateway in Fort Lauderdale on Friday June 4.

Review: ''Splice''

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In the monster romp Splice, biochemists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) use DNA splicing to hatch a half-human, half-animal creature in their lab, then take a parental shine. Big mistake. Scientists, whether sane or mad, should never treat their lab subjects like offspring. Disaster is inevitable.

But Clive and Elsa have obviously never watched Frankenstein (or any of David Cronenberg's films) , and the movie none-too-subtly lets us know they're thinking about starting a family. Why not try things out with this deformed, mewling slug? The horrible-yet-strangely-cute mutant grows up quickly (she ages days within minutes) and becomes Dren (Delphine Cheneac), a humanoid with peculiar characteristics, such as vaguely supermodel looks, wings that sprout when she becomes angry or aroused and a tail with a phallic stinger that pumps poison. Dren is usually gentle - she likes kittens, sugary foods and playing with toys - except when she throws a tantrum, in which case tranquilizer darts and a titanium steel cage might come in handy.

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But Clive and Elsa, who have squirreled Dren out of their laboratory and to a remote farmhouse where they can raise her away from their meddling bosses, haven't really prepared for the worst-case scenario. Splice was directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made the fiendishly creepy, low-budget shocker Cube, and he fares well in the scenes depicting a pre-grown Dren and her brethren - fleshy, formless slugs you don't know whether to pet or euthanize. But although Brody and Polley do their best to sell the increasingly illogical behavior of their characters, Splice grows progressively sillier the older Dren gets, finally resorting to chases in dark woods and sudden gotcha! appearances by a pissed-off mutant, who is none too happy about the corrective behavior her parents have planned for her.

The creature effects are terrific, but the human protagonists aren't nearly so interesting, and the don't-mess-with-nature message is too hoary to be made interesting with this feeble setup. By the time the film's climactic 15 minutes rolled around, viewers at a preview were laughing as if they were watching The Hangover. For a horror picture, such a reaction is the equivalent of a stake through the heart.

Splice (** out of ****) opens Friday June 4 in South Florida.

Review: ''Casino Jack and the United States of Money''

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In Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) tackles his most complicated subject yet: The corruption and abuse of power by lobbyists with access to the highest echelons in Washington, D.C.

The film's main protagonist is Jack Abramoff, the former high roller now serving four years after pleading guilty to tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials. But the movie cuts a much broader swath than just Abramoff's tale - already fiendishly complicated - reaching all the way back to the Nixon 1970s to lay out in scrupulous detail how the former champion weightlifter, College Republican National Committee chairman and occasional film producer (the Dolph Lundgren stinker Red Scorpion) was able to pull off his elaborate schemes in the public eye.

A critical flaw is the absence of Abramoff, who appears in copious C-SPAN and other vintage news clips but never before Gibney's camera to tell his side of the tale. (The filmmaker had access to him in prison, but the sit-downs were not filmed.) The movie places Abramoff's crimes - primarily his misappropriation of millions of dollars contributed by casinos owned by Native Americans - against a dauntingly complex backdrop involving the Conversative Christian Right, Chinese sweatshops, Karl Rove, former House majority leader Tom DeLay and various Democratic and Republican state representatives.

Gibney is a canny filmmaker who knows how to put together a flashy, entertaining picture. Casino Jack and the United States of Money opens with a re-creation of the assassination of Fort Lauderdale casino-boat owner Gus Boulis, which immediately seizes your attention. The picture is briskly edited, and the energy never lags. But the amount of information the viewer is asked to process is voluminous - and never stops coming. By the time Casino Jack has laid out its case, you'll understand a lot better how people like Abramoff can take flagrant advantage of the system for personal gain. But most viewers except hardcore political wonks will feel a little exhausted.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money (**1/2 out of ****) opens Friday, May 21 at the Regal South Beach in Miami-Dade.

Review: ''No One Knows About Persian Cats''

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There's a terrific, crowd-pleasing musical nestled within the Iranian import No One Knows About Persian Cats. The movie won the Audience Award at this year's Miami International Film Festival and has accrued similar honors on the international-festival circuit. But it opens with an ominous title card informing us that it was "based on real events, locations and people," a notice immediately followed by a brief, blurry shot of a bleeding man being wheeled into a hospital. That image quickly evaporates from memory when the film begins, but it will make an unfortunate and misplaced return by its end.

For much of No One Knows About Persian Cats, which was shot on the fly in a scant 17 days without the official sanction of the Iranian government, director Bahman Ghodabi presents an energetic, at times exuberantly comical tale of two indie rock musicians (Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad) trying to find guitarists and drummers to round out their band and then secure the illegal visas and passports they need to perform outside Iran, where their brand of music is illegal.

Their quest hinges on the help of Nadar (Hamed Behdad), a fast-talking promoter and bootlegger of American movies on DVD. Nadar, who has connections to the underworld, listens to the rockers' music and decides to help, introducing them to various musicians from all genres - thrash metal, Persian rap, nightclub crooning - and to a pair of shady businessmen who specialize in forging passports and visas at steep prices.

No One Knows About Persian Cats has a droll sense of humor about the realities of modern-day life in Iran and its endless restrictions (there's a terrific scene in which Nadar talks himself out of a bootlegging charge in front of a stern judge). At times the film is explosively funny: the passport forger rants about the lovey-dovey movies Nadar has been using to bribe bringing him (he only wants to watch action movies with "100 killings and no romance.") The movie has no shortage of memorable characters, such as the heavy-metal guitarist who practices with his band on a remote farm so as not to annoy his neighbors but whose ear-splitting music so upsets the cows that they go on a hunger strike and moo vociferously with displeasure.

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The film also turns its plentiful musical numbers (all diverse and insanely catchy) into videos depicting the vibrancy of Iran's youth, respectful of their cultural tradition but eager to break free of the restrictions it imposed. The similarities between these young people and American teens are striking and surprising. Unfortunately, Ghodabi doesn't trust his film to convey the message that has already been clearly and entertainingly spelled out, and No One Knows About Persian Cats ends on a sudden note of tragedy that almost ruins the exuberant spirit of everything that has preceded it.

The movie falls into the trap of underlining the obvious, and the heavy-handed finale is so completely at odds with the rest of the film that you're baffled why it wasn't left on the cutting-room floor. The best way to enjoy No One Knows About Persian Cats is to leave five minutes before it's over and conjure your own ending: Whatever you dream up is better than the one the movie gives you.

No One Knows About Persian Cats (**1/2 out of ****) opens at the Cosford Cinema and Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday May 21.

Review: ''Shrek Forever After''

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Shrek Forever After, the fourth (and, by all accounts, final) installment in the hugely popular series about the personable green ogre, dispenses with many of the hallmarks of the franchise. Considerably toned down are the endless pop-culture references and in-jokes to other movies. There are no Ricky Martin musical numbers this time; there is no re-creation of the bullet-time camera work from The Matrix. For this last chapter, the filmmakers play things relatively straight, resulting in the best Shrek movie to date (or at least the first one I've enjoyed).

Using It's a Wonderful Life as an obvious inspiration, screenwriters Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke pick up where Shrek the Third left off, with the eponymous hero (voiced by Mike Myers) living happily ever after in the company of his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), their three precocious children and his trusty sidekick Donkey (Eddie Murphy). Shrek's life is idyllic - so blissful that he's become a tourist attraction for humans in the land of Far Far Away.

Shrek starts to long for the wild days when he could still scare the townspeople with his roar, and when the mischievous powermonger Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) offers him the chance to spend 24 hours as his old self, he seizes on the opportunity. But there's a big string attached. Shrek Forever After was directed with an emphasis on characterizations by Mike Mitchell (Surviving Christmas, Sky High) and uses 3D to subtle but enveloping effect as Shrek is stranded in an alternate universe in which he once again must win Fiona's hand. He must also make allies of former friends (such as Puss in Boots, voiced with the usual gusto by Antonio Banderas) who no longer recognize him.

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The story is constructed in a way that requires no previous knowledge of the series, and the movie manages to find fresh humor and sight gags in its storybook universe, from the disgusting things ogres eat to the army of witches obviously patterned after The Wizard of Oz's Margaret Hamilton. The movie is big-hearted and peppered with juicy throwaway bits: I liked the way the Gingerbread Man had to turn around one of the Three Blind Mice, who was cheering in the wrong direction, or the line by the ogre cook (Craig Robinson) about the need for a chimichanga stand on the battlefield, because everyone's going to be starving after waging war. Shrek Forever After isn't essential, but it's breezy and likable and doesn't overstay its welcome - the first summer movie thus far to deliver on its promise to put on a good show.

Shrek Forever After (*** out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday May 21.

Review: ''Robin Hood''

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What compelled director Ridley Scott to train his formidable sights on another Robin Hood movie? Scott already tackled the Crusades in the underrated Kingdom of Heaven, and he collaborated with Russell Crowe on the epic Gladiator, with its giant battle scenes in which arrows rained down like thunderstorms. Why go back and repeat yourself? Why bother with Sherwood Forest again, after even Mel Brooks has trampled there?

The answer lies in the script by Brian Helgeland, which differs from all other Robin Hoods. This one is a prequel. This is the story of how Robin Longstride (Crowe) met and fell for Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett) and how he made an enemy out of King John and how he befriended Friar Tuck and Little John and put together his band of Merry Men and why he started stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The movie ends with the title card "And so the legend begins." The film is over just when the story starts to get good.

Scott is a diehard history buff, and he's fond of telling interviewers "I don't make movies. I create worlds." You can see why he would have been lured by the opportunity to place a mythical folk hero into a complex plot about a 13th century French conspiracy to invade England. With Robin Hood, Scott gets to reimagine the past and fixate on the fine details he adores, such as the blob of wax that seals a tiny scroll carried by a messenger pigeon, or the ornate metalwork on the stirrups Marion uses to ride her horse.

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Robin Hood is certainly a grand-looking picture. For a film that's filled with CGI effects, there isn't a single shot that looks artificial, and the production design is tremendous. But it's a hollow, boring spectacle. Crowe usually commits to his roles with a ferocious intensity, but he doesn't really seem to believe in Robin. When you look into his eyes, you see an actor trying to remember his lines. And the performances around him run the gamut. Oscar Isaac amusingly hams up the petulance of King John, who becomes a bratty bully the second the crown of his late brother Richard I touches his head, while William Hurt looks on the verge of REM sleep as a royal advisor whose purpose consists primarily of spouting exposition.

Blanchett's Marion is more flinty and less prone to requiring rescue than previous incarnations, but her romance with Robin isn't given enough screen time to develop, so their relationship, which should form the movie's heart, instead feels like a tacked-on romantic subplot. Robin Hood only comes to life in the climactic sequence, a prolonged battle in which the French army disembarks on the British shore. The carnage is strongly reminiscent of the Omaha Beach invasion that opened Saving Private Ryan, only with swords and arrows instead of rifles and grenades.

The rest of Robin Hood, which runs an excruciating 140 minutes, is as dry as a geology lecture. When Max Von Sydow, as Marion's kindly, blind father-in-law, takes Crowe aside and says "I think I have much to tell you about history," my eyes started darting frantically for the theater exits, because I was pretty certain someone in the audience was going to spontaneously combust from boredom. Scott has directed some dull, long-winded pictures before (1492: The Conquest of Paradise), but he's never made one this pointless. Robin Hood achieves something you never would have thought possible: it makes you nostalgic for Kevin Costner and Bryan Adams.

Robin Hood (*1/2 ouf of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday May 14.

Review: ''Harry Brown''

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Harry Brown opens with a hair-raising sequence: On grainy handheld video, the sort you'd see on YouTube, some boisterous kids get high and rile themselves up, brandishing a gun at the camera and bragging "This is how we roll!" Then two of the punks get on a motorcycle and start circling a mother pushing a baby stroller through a park, the woman cringing as the thugs repeatedly shoot at her - until they finally strike her in the head. As she drops to the ground, mortally wounded, the teens race away and drive straight into the path of an oncoming truck.

Harry Brown hasn't even got to its opening titles, and you're already horrified. First-time director Daniel Barber and screenwriter Gary Young want to provoke the audience and immediately put us in a state of fear, so that the unlikely tale that follows feels more plausible. In an environment this violent and unpredictable, a protagonist such as Harry Brown (Michael Caine) doesn't seem that far-fetched - a former marine and widower who decides to take on the neighborhood perps who terrorize and eventually murder his best friend (David Bradley).

Harry is in his late 70s and wheezy from emphysema, but he hasn't forgotten his military training, and he has the element of surprise on his side. In one of the film's best and most unsettling sequences, he visits the den of two creepy drug dealers with the intent of purchasing guns. But when he realizes they are keeping a young woman as a sexual slave, he springs into furious action on the spot and discovers that his combat experience has not abandoned him.

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Harry Brown uses an economic storytelling style that reveals a lot about its characters without spelling out everything (through a quick shot of a photograph and a glimpse of a tombstone we deduce that Harry had lost a daughter decades before). Caine plays the character at an intriguing slow-burn - you can't always anticipate what he's thinking, but you always understand his motivation - and the film gives voice to the frustrations of a police department hampered by bureaucracy and politics via a detective (Emily Mortimer) who starts to suspect Harry is moonlighting as a murderer.

Unlike many other films of its kind, in which the lesson is that violence can only beget violence, Harry Brown argues that vigilante justice is a possible solution to a world in which the bad outnumber the good. That brazenness could have rendered the picture as a broad provocation, but the sadness and despair in Harry's eyes temper the argument: Here is a hero who finds little satisfaction in getting even and whose death wish may really be aimed at himself. Harry Brown is a mean and exceedingly well-made little B-picture, but the questions it raises are far too complex to answer with a gunshot.

Harry Brown (*** out of ****) opens Friday May 14 at South Beach and Intracoastal; in Broward: Gateway.

Blu-ray reviews: ''Bigger Than Life'' and ''Summer Hours''

Bigger-than-Life-DVD-507_box_348x490  Imagine the bracing shock movie audiences, used to the comical and heartwarming depictions of suburban domesticity of Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy, must have felt in 1956 when they encountered Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life - a lush, Cinemascope vision of a seemingly sane man (James Mason) who gradually becomes a monster to his family.

One of Hollywood's first - and darkest - cautionary tales about the spiritual blankness of cookie-cutter suburbia, Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection, $40 DVD and Blu-ray) understandably flopped and has never before been available on home video. Today, the film strongly recalls The Shining, another story about a man driven by his failings to try to murder his wife and son. Instead of ghosts, though, the demons that possess Mason are steroids, used to treat a mysterious illness that racks his body with pain.

The drugs work, but Mason soon starts to abuse them, and the pills give rise to the rage and frustration he suffers while living up to his responsibilities as a father and husband on his measly schoolteacher's salary. Ray, who was coming off the biggest hit of his career (Rebel Without a Cause), and Mason, who had been nominated for an Oscar for 1954's A Star is Born (and also produced Bigger Than Life), proved natural artistic partners, using a deceptively simple tale to explore prescient themes of the implosion of the middle class, the darkness lurking beneath Norman Rockwell's America and the unexpected consequences of our increasing reliance on prescription medications.

Bigger Than Life looks positively striking on Blu-ray, the high-def image showcasing Ray's bold, widescreen compositions and ingenious use of light and shadow. The disc includes several substantial supplements, including a half-hour interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City), whose enthusiastic, intelligent appraisal of the film reveals subtle subtexts (such as the apparent, unspoken homosexuality of the family friend played by a young Walter Matthau). There is also a vintage 1977 episode from the TV series Camera Three in which Ray is interviewed by a visibly nervous, awestruck host about his career.

* * *

Summerhours-a  Leisurely paced but as gripping as a relentless action thriller, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours (Criterion, $40 DVD and Blu-ray) is a moving, compassionate look at three generations of a French family dealing with the death of their art-loving matriarch. Unlike most American pictures about ordinary people, which often anchor their plots around some sort of contrived situation or heightened drama, Assayas refrains from histrionics, allowing instead for the relatable humanity of his characters to carry the show.

The film opens with a long sequence in which the three grown children of Helene (Edith Scob) gather with their families at her sprawling country estate to celebrate her 75th birthday. Helene's kids (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier) clearly adore their mother, but they've also long grown busy with their careers and families - two of them don't even live in France any longer - and the birthday celebration captures the easy rapport and occasional awkwardness of family gatherings among relatives who feel vaguely guilty about not being nearly so close as they once were.

The rest of Summer Hours follows what happens after Helene dies, and her children must decide whether to respect her wishes and maintain her estate as a family heirloom or sell it off in pieces to museums and divide the money. The differences of opinion and bruised feelings that result are handled in a subtle, empathetic manner by Assayas, who uses his story to explore the ways in which cultural values and traditions among family members are sometimes diluted, if not lost entirely, over succeeding generations. The film's astonishing closing sequence argues that prevailing tastes and attitudes might change with the times, but certain things - including the way we look at the world - are infused into us by the people who raise us, never to be completely lost.

The disc includes a half-hour interview with Assayas, in which he eloquently expounds on the story's themes and the ideas he was trying to express, as well as a 25-minute making-of featurette, comprised of footage shot on the set and including interviews with Berling and Binoche.

Review: ''Iron Man 2''

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The previously infallible rule about comic-book superhero movies assumed that if the first film is good, the second would be even better. With all those pesky introductions out of the way, filmmakers are free to play with the universe they have created, liberating their characters from their original stories and delving more fully into their world. Part I establishes the ground rules. Part II gives permission to play on a broader, more complex canvas.

This formula has applied to every successful comic-book franchise I can think of - Spider-Man, X-Men, Superman, Batman - until the curious case of Iron Man 2. All the main players are back (with the exception of Terrence Howard, who was replaced by Don Cheadle), the budget is bigger, and the somewhat irreverent tone of the first picture remains intact, courtesy of Robert Downey Jr., who remains funny and engaging as Tony Stark, the billionaire with a bad ticker and a super-cool suit of armor.

The main problem with Iron Man 2 lies in the script by actor-turned-screenwriter Justin Theroux (he played the temperamental director in Mulholland Dr.). Instead of amping up the stakes and furthering the relationships among the characters - such as Stark's simmering flirtations with his trusty personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been promoted to CEO of Stark Enterprises - Iron Man 2 recycles most of the elements from the first film, to dwindling returns. You keep waiting for the film to kick into third or even second gear, but it never happens.

Once again, Stark must squirrel away into his lab to build a replacement for his weak ticker (the one he built in the first film turns out to have had toxic side-effects). Once again there is a baddie, Ivan Vanko (a wasted Mickey Rourke) who wants to build a robot evil enough to turn Iron Man into scrap metal. Aside from Vanko, the film's chief villain is a weapons manufacturer (Sam Rockwell) who wants to do what Stark won't: Supply the U.S. military with the technology Stark wants to keep for himself.

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Director Jon Favreau, who continues to get better at big-budget gloss, keeps the film interesting on a visual level, but there's only so much he can do with a screenplay saddled with more dialogue than a Merchant/Ivory picture about repressed British people sipping tea and munching on crumpets. Iron Man 2 is one seriously talky movie: With the exception of an early scene in which Vanko disrupts a car race with his electrical whips, which can slice through anything like light sabers, there is no action whatsover - I mean none - until the climactic 20 minutes (and even that is stolen from the leading man by a fantastic Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, aka The Black Widow to Marvel Comics fans) .

 But unlike Avatar, which rewarded your patience with a stupendous action setpiece, the wait this time simply isn't worth it. I'm all for movies that take their time developing their characters, but this is ridiculous. Iron Man 2 is more of a set-up for the upcoming Avengers picture than a stand-alone adventure - a puzzling and unexpected disappointment, considering how fresh and entertaining the first picture was. The summer movie season gets started with a fat dud.

Iron Man 2 (** out of ****) opens Friday May 7.

Spoiler note: If you sit through the end credits, you'll be rewarded with a brief coda (SPOILERS AHEAD!) in which Thor's hammer makes an appearance. The scene is not worth the wait.

The horror! The horror!

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The only things Hollywood likes as much as sequels are remakes -- and no genre is better suited to constant reincarnation than the horror film. Hey, if it scared them once, it'll scare them again! Right?

Well, yes. And no. I am not one of those hardliners automatically outraged by the news of a horror classic's being rehashed for a new generation. As a concept, remakes have great potential, especially when you're dealing with a movie that has not aged well (and many horror films are products of their times and don't weather the years).

In honor of today's arrival of a new take on A Nightmare on Elm Street, I compared a few recent horror remakes and their originals in today's Weekend cover story. This is only a partial list - a comprehensive one would fill a book - so I tried to include several remakes that improved on the films that inspired them. Check out the story here.

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