4-star film capsules -- Week of March 14

Associated press Published:

"Dead Man Down" -- Danish director Niels Arden Oplev makes his Hollywood debut, re-teaming with his "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" star Noomi Rapace in this lifeless thriller about two lost souls bent on vengeance. Colin Farrell plays a brooding gangster, Victor, who's infiltrated the brutal gang of Alphonse (a typically velvety Terrence Howard) to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter. He's joined in revenge by Rapace's Beatrice, who spies him from across a neighboring high-rise and blackmails him into killing the drunk driver that crashed into her. Her left eye is surrounded by scars from the accident, and though her beauty is hardly marred, children throw rocks and shout "Monster!" at her. The film either can't stomach having its star actress appear actually maimed, or it's simply too lazy to make Beatrice's motivations plausible. But such things are common in the preposterous dialogue and haphazard plotting in the screenplay by J.H. Wyman ("Fringe"). There's some solid noir atmosphere, courtesy of cinematographer Paul Cameron, but the tension finally bursts as inelegantly as it was manufactured. With, oddly, Isabelle Huppert as Beatrice's ditzy mom. R for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality. 118 minutes.

H-star.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" -- This prequel aims for nostalgia in older viewers who grew up on "The Wizard of Oz" and still hold the classic dear while simultaneously enchanting a newer, younger audience. It never really accomplishes either successfully. An origin story to the groundbreaking 1939 picture, "Oz" can be very pretty but also overlong and repetitive, with a plot that's more plodding than dazzling. Director Sam Raimi also is trying to find his own balance here between creating a big-budget, 3-D blockbuster and placing his signature stamp of kitschy, darkly humorous horror. He's done the lavish CGI thing before, with diminishing results, in the "Spider-Man" trilogy, but here he has the daunting task of doing so while mining an even more treasured pop culture phenomenon. The results are understandably inconsistent. "Oz" features a couple of fun performances, a handful of witty lines, some clever details and spectacular costumes. And it's all punctuated by a Danny Elfman score that serves as a reminder of how similar this effects-laden extravaganza is to the latter-day (and mediocre) work of Elfman's frequent collaborator, Tim Burton -- specifically, 2010's "Alice in Wonderland," also from Disney. At its center is a miscast James Franco, co-star of Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies, as the circus huckster who becomes the reluctant Wizard of Oz. Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams play the three witches he meets. PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. 130 minutes.

HH-stars.

"Jack the Giant Slayer" -- A big-budget, 3-D retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk legend may seem like the unlikeliest pairing yet of director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie, but this ends up being smart, thrilling and a whole lot of fun. Singer and McQuarrie's collaborations include, most famously, the twisty crime mystery "The Usual Suspects" and the Hitler assassination drama "Valkyrie," featuring an eye patch-wearing Tom Cruise. They've sort of been all over the place together over the past couple decades -- why not reinterpret a classic fairy tale? "Jack the Giant Slayer" is cheeky without being cutesy. While the look is medieval, the vibe seems more current, but it's not so anachronistic as to be subversive along the lines of a "Shrek," for example. It actually ends up being pleasingly old-fashioned. Shot in 3-D -- rather than one of those muddled 2-D re-dos -- the film looks crisp and clean, much more so than the trailers and ads might suggest. The action sequences are cut in an unobtrusive way as to allow the intricacy of what's happening on screen to shine through. And once it bursts forth from the ground, the beanstalk itself is magnificent. There aren't many surprises here, though; if you know the story, you know what happens. Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci and Bill Nighy star. PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language. 117 minutes.

HHH-stars.

"Stoker" -- A spider crawls up the leg of 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) early in Park Chan-wook's English-language debut, and she regards it passively, intrigued. There's a creepy intruder in the Stokers' handsome, isolated estate, but it's India's Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who arrives following the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a mysterious car accident. An homage to Joseph Cotton's Uncle Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt," he's dashing, cultured and oozing melodramatic evil. He settles in at the house and a lurid triangle forms between him, India and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). A heavy Gothic atmosphere with bloody eruptions takes hold, and Park pushes the film to intoxicating macabre outlandishness. India's transition into womanhood comes via incestuous desires and buried corpses. In the first Hollywood movie from the celebrated South Korean filmmaker of stylistic, hyper-violent revenge tales like "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance," there isn't even a slight dip in his brilliant, colorful compositions (with his usual cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung), his flesh tearing, or his extreme warping of genre. The film, from the screenplay by actor Wentworth Miller, adds up to something largely because of Wasikowska's deft, coming-of-age performance. The movie is an exquisitely made grotesque that crawls up your leg. R for disturbing violent and sexual content. Running time: 98 minutes.

HH-1/2 stars.

"Bless Me, Ultima" -- The book is a widely read and critically acclaimed piece of Chicano literature that also has been quite divisive since its publication in 1972. Some critics and parents have decried Rudolfo Anaya's novel as anti-Catholic or too profane and pushed to have it banned from school districts across the country. The movie is a mostly gentle and tastefully photographed depiction of a young boy's coming of age in rural 1940s New Mexico. His maturation includes a questioning of the Catholic faith of his parents and a curiosity about the Native American mysticism of his elders. But such musings feel more like an inherent part of the progression into adolescence, a fine-tuning of identity, rather than an intentionally subversive force. Besides, Luke Ganalon, who plays the boy at the center of the story, couldn't be a more adorably precocious and optimistic little scamp. What sort of damage could he possibly do? Writer-director Carl Franklin presents the journey of Ganalon's character, the wide-eyed Antonio Marez, in ways that are restrained and sometimes even stiff, despite the magic and violence that co-exist alongside each other. But there is an earnestness and genuine sense of affection here that are appealing. An elderly curandera, or folk healer (the formidable Miriam Colon), has come to spend her final days with Antonio's family in their modest home. Whispers in town that Ultima is a witch add to her mystery, but her inner kindness becomes obvious. PG-13 for some violence and sexual references. 100 minutes.

HH-1/2 stars.

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