Like all Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Snow White is a story that has been repackaged over and over again. So, you ask, what could first-time film director Rupert Sanders possibly bring to the table that we haven't seen before in Snow White and the Huntsman? The easy answer is: Visual effects. It seems as though no scene in the film is complete without an elaborate team of VFX artists and the studied cinematography of Greig Fraser (most noted for working on Bright Star). However, eye candy aside, Snow White and the Huntsman doesn't seem to serve any real purpose other than to cleanse us of this year's other Snow White offering, Mirror Mirror.

Co-written by Evan Daugherty (a fresh off the boat writer), John Lee Hancock (of The Blind Side fame), and Hossein Amini (whose voice seems the strongest based on how close to the tone of Drive this film is), the story tries its best to keep a balance between Snow White's (Kristen Stewart) and Queen Ravenna a.k.a. the Evil Queen's (Charlize Theron) respective plights, plus throw in the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, who has had a particularly momentous year with The Cabin in the Woods and Thor). With these three characters taking up equal amounts of face time, and the inclusion of every major plot point from the original fairy tale (Dark Forest, dwarves, poison apple, being awakened by true love's kiss), it is no small wonder that the film tops out at a slightly unbearable two hours and seven minutes.

Although the direction of the plot can come across as roundabout and protracted, one thing that can be said for Snow White and the Huntsman is the stance it lends to the notion of age and beauty, and how the two affect one another. From the very beginning, it is evident that Queen Ravenna holds nothing but contempt for the men and kings she has allured, seething, "Men use women and then throw them to the dogs for scrap." Hence, she feels no remorse over stabbing Snow White's father in the heart. Allowing Snow White her version of mercy by leaving her locked in a remote tower of the castle, Ravenna's reign leaves the kingdom desiccated and barren.

When Ravenna's looking glass reveals to her that, in order to remain the fairest in the land, she must cut out Snow White's beating heart and consume it, Ravenna immediately demands that her brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), to carry out her murder. Unfortunately for Finn, Snow White escapes from the castle and flees into the Dark Forest, a place that not even the bravest of souls dare venture. Furious, the queen enlists the services of the Huntsman, the only man who has ever come out of the forest with his mind and body still intact. In exchange, the queen assures him that she will bring his wife back from the dead.

Upon retrieving Snow White with Finn watching his every move, the Huntsman realizes that the queen will renege on her promise regardless of whether he brings Snow White to her or not. This tips the scales in favor of him aiding Snow White to get out of the forest in one piece. Along the way, the two naturally form a bond, what with running from enormous trees that come alive to chase after them and encountering seven dwarves: Beith (Ian McShane), Muir (Bob Hoskins), Quert (Johnny Harris), Coll (Toby Jones), Duir (Eddie Marsan), Gort (Ray Winstone), and Nion (Nick Frost). I suppose changing the names from Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, and Sneezy is intended to lend a more sophisticated air to the story.

As Queen Ravenna continues to age more rapidly, her desperation for Snow White's heart intensifies, prompting her to disguise herself as Snow White's childhood friend, William (Sam Claflin, whose other major film role was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). Though it may not be true to the original version, wherein an old crone hands Snow White a poison apple, this method is just as effective. More effective, in fact, since I always thought Snow White was kind of a dumb bitch for taking an apple from a stranger. Once she bites into it, the poison takes immediate effect, leading the queen to shift back into her normal form and scream, "You have no idea how lucky you are never to realize what it is to be old." Before she can stab Snow White in the heart, William and the Huntsman come to her rescue.

Devastated, William perches over her and gives her a kiss (which is a little bit necromantic if you ask me). Even though William is in love with her, this is not the kiss that ultimately reawakens Snow White. Not quite ready to admit his feelings for her, the Huntsman can only express himself as Snow White lays on her deathbed (yet another exhibition of necromancy). Revitalized by the power of love, Snow White rises to lead the remaining members of her father's army to fight the queen.

It is at this juncture that you especially wish the film would just end already. But alas, it doesn't and Snow White makes her way slowly to the castle where Queen Ravenna calmly awaits her. During their final showdown, Theron proves once again that she has chosen the most meaningful character to play as Queen Ravenna declares, "I will give this wretched world the queen it deserves." In other words, the world is shit, so why shouldn't I be? Naturally, Snow White defeats her and is inaugurated as queen, yet, in an almost maddening, Bollywood-like choice, she does not kiss the Huntsman at her coronation, but rather, just stares at him knowingly. This is the only subtle moment of the film and perhaps the most irksome. I demand another remake with Madonna as the queen and Lady Gaga as Snow White (with all costumes designed by Alexander McQueen).

 

You already know going in that the third installment of Men in Black 3 is going to be spectacularly B rate. It's the only answer the late 90s (apart from Mars Attacks!) and early 00s have really had to the low-budget aesthetic of 1950s sci-fi films. There is perhaps no better director for the job of bringing the high camp factor of such a genre than Barry Sonnenfeld (best known for the first two Men in Black films and, hopefully, Pushing Daisies). Loyal to the concept of franchise films (he also directed The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, Sonnenfeld focuses this time on the early years of MiB, specifically 1969, the year of the moon launch and an overall hotbed of alien activity.

When K (Tommy Lee Jones) disappears after an especially callous conversation with J (Will Smith), J is immediately aware of K's absence the next morning when a random agent by the code name AA (Will Arnett) makes incessant references to an exchange J has no recollection of. J demands to know who the stranger is from a fellow agent, who informs J that AA is his partner. Panicked, J confronts the new director of MiB, O (Emma Thompson), who casually relays that K has been dead for over forty years (it smacks vaguely of a daytime soap opera plot).

As J insists on having another glass of chocolate milk (his second of the day), O realizes he is suffering from the main symptom of a gap in the space-time continuum. As the two further deliberate, it becomes clear that the last member of a race of aliens called the Boglodytes, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, a long way from Flight of the Conchords in this role), has gone back in time to exact vengeance on K for shooting off his arm and preventing his race from taking over Earth.

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Jeffrey Price (Michael Chernus), the owner of an electronics store called Always Going Out of Business, is sought out by Boris the Animal (who actually loathes being called "the Animal") as he knew Jeffrey's father, the inventor of time travel, from prison. Unable to deny Boris the time travel apparatus, Jeffrey agrees to help. Soon after, the Boglodytes descend upon Earth and Jeffrey finds himself assisting J in his quest to go back to July 1969 as well--though he warns, "It wasn't really the best time for your people."

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Specifics aside of J going back in time, Men in Black 3 does not become purposefully humorous until K's 29-year-old self (Josh Brolin) accompanies J to Andy Warhol's (Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader) Factory. Knowing that this alien hub is where Boris will strike next, J and K find the Arcadian alien Boris is planning to kill. Called Griffin (Michael Stuhlberg), he is able to see not just into the future, but into all possible outcomes of the future. He is also the one who possesses the resource to create ArcNet, a protective force field that will keep Boglodytes away from Earth.

As K listens to Warhol's (Agent W) woes, such as "I can't listen to sitar music anymore" and "I can't tell the women from the men, K!", J listens to Griffin ramble neurotically about all the possible moments Boris could burst into the Factory. And so, as the trio escapes to their next destination, Cape Canaveral, for the launching of Apollo 11, it becomes clearer that one of K's greatest secrets is about to be unearthed. Though, in the end, said secret really isn't all that shocking.

Just as in the first and second movies, the usual detailed nuances of Men in Black are present (e.g. Lady Gaga, Tim Burton, and Justin Bieber being alluded to as aliens), but, in general, it yields nothing that audiences couldn't live without--except maybe the Galaxy Donut from Dunkin' Donuts. Even so, the cast and director are already talking about the possibility of a fourth film. If this does pan out, to Sonnenfeld I say: I'd rather see a third Addams Family called The Rise of Wednesday. P.S. Will Smith allowing Pitbull to take the reins on the main song for Men in Black 3 is quite possibly another sign of the apocalypse.

The success of Suzanne Collins' series, The Hunger Games, was invariably going to translate into a film adaptation. Plus, the concept of a post-apocalyptic world is all too appropriate at this juncture in time. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if we were all fighting for a chance to live on a televised competition in ten years from now (the Olympics and Survivor obviously being the precursor). But, what separates The Hunger Games from other novel series that the American reader has become obsessed with (Twilight, Harry Potter, et. al.) is its ability to poignantly address the basic concept of human existence: Survival. For those who live outside of New York City, it can be a difficult meme to recognize.

As the heroine of the story, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), struggles to comfort her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), about the upcoming selection from their district for the 74th annual Hunger Games, she realizes that there is a very good chance that Prim could be chosen. Not wanting to face that fact until the announcement is made by the escort of the District 12 tributes, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss dares to daydream of a world beyond District 12, that world being the elusive Capitol of Panem (formerly North America). For this is the place that controls all of the other districts, the place where wealth is possible (it actually sounds a lot like that Justin Timberlake/Amanda Seyfried movie, In Time). Ultimately, Katniss must offer herself as a tribute in place of her sister. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the other tribute selected and, unbeknownst to Katniss, has harbored a longstanding crush on her.

Gary Ross, who directed the film and adapted the screenplay with Suzanne Collins, proves his wide range in directorial scope, considering that his resume up to this point has generally consisted of feel-good movies like Big, Dave, and Pleasantville (and I'm not referring to the bathtub scene in this movie as the feel-good part). The Hunger Games tackles far darker issues than Ross is accustomed to dealing with, particularly the necessity of doing any despicable thing necessary to live. This skill is crucial even before the games start as the tributes chat with TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, in his best dressed role to date) in order to gain the favor and sympathy of the viewers.

Coached by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) on how to act and what to wear, Katniss draws attention from the get-go as she rides through the streets of the Capitol with Peeta in matching suits that are designed to be set on fire. When Peeta announces to everyone on TV that he has had feelings for Katniss since he first saw her, Katniss interprets his action as a play for empathy. Katniss and Peeta's mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), feels that this new twist can be used to their advantage if the audience sees them as a pair of "star-crossed lovers" (yeah, the term's been used, but Shakespeare or whoever coined an irreplaceable term).

Once Cinna sends Katniss out on her own, it's an all-out bloodbath, with the weakest tributes being eliminated immediately. Katniss' only prayer is getting a hold of a bow and arrow, as hunting via archery is one of her most useful skills. In the meantime, the remaining tributes have formed alliances, one of them specifically out to take down Katniss, who they view as the biggest threat. Katniss, on the other hand, only relies on one other tribute named Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a girl she feels she can trust because she reminds Katniss of her sister. The others eventually get to Rue before Katniss can save her, leaving solely Peeta as the last cohort she can turn to for assistance. It is at this point that the rules of the game are changed so that there can be two winners if they are from the same district.

A blatant play-up of the "star-crossed lovers" angle, Katniss goes with it so that she can get the fuck out of the woods and back to her sister. Sadly, Peeta mistakes her feelings for being real, though in the book this element is conveyed much more succinctly. When the judges try to change the rules back to simply having one survivor, Katniss resorts to using a handful of poisonous berries she had saved so that both she and Peeta can commit suicide. Knowing full well that the political leaders of the Capitol would never stand for such a result, they submit to Katniss and allow her to return to District 12 with Peeta.

What it all boils down to is this: Lying, cheating, and generally being an asshole have become an unfortunate formula in the essential equation of getting ahead in the modern age. And it will only get worse if we permit it to. But, if you want to view a more humorous side to The Hunger Games, refer to a recent sketch on Stevie TV called "The Hunger Games Die-t Plan."

Will Ferrell speaking Spanish. Yes, it is indeed comedy gold. In Casa De Mi Padre, there is a no holds barred approach to making fun of every single aspect of Spanish--specifically Mexican--culture. To further legitimize that over the top ribbing, Latino staples Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna appear as warring drug lords fighting over the same territory--and the same woman. If that sounds somewhat serious to you for a Will Ferrell movie, just know that Christina Aguilera's "Casa de mi Padre" plays over the opening credits. That should allay any concerns you might have over this not being a comedy.

Armando Alvarez (Ferrell) has just one interest in life: His father's, Miguel Ernesto (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.), ranch. The idea of any other form of existence simply does not compute with him. In spite of his admiration for the land, Miguel Ernesto openly favors Raul (Luna), who returns home after being away for an indiscriminate period of time with a new girlfriend named Sonia (newcomer Genesis Rodriguez).

An immediate attraction forms between Sonia and Armando, even though both of them know their romance can never be. Regardless, they find themselves riding horses together (one of the best scenes of the movie in that it is blatant that the backdrop and the horses are fake), an intimate bonding experience that prompts Sonia to tell him that her uncle 1) Sexually assaulted her and 2) Will not rest until he makes her his again. Armando's only reply to her outlandish story is: "Interesting."

With the DEA on La Onza's (Bernal) tracks, the trail soon leads to Raul as well. Agent Parker (played by Nick Offerman, who also dabbles in speaking Spanish. I repeat: Nick Offerman speaking Spanish. See this movie now for this very fact alone.) hones in on Armando, sizing him up as a coward who will ultimately rat out his brother. But Armando is used to being underestimated, and ends up taking what he wants: Sonia. In one of the most ridiculous sex scenes since Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Armando and Sonia wage a war of inappropriate ass grabbing--only to be discovered the next morning by La Onza.

After La Onza condemns Sonia for sleeping with a filthy rancher, he has his henchman, Officer Blancardo (Manuel Urrego), shoot Armando repeatedly in the chest--right after he admits to being responsible for his mother's death. But what would the comedic prowess of director Matt Piedmont and writer Andrew Steele (both of whom worked with Ferrell as writers during his Saturday Night Live tenure) be without a plot device to get Armando out of his "death"?

The stylized nature of Casa De Mi Padre will either sink or soar with moviegoers, depending on the audience that watches it. As of now, the statistics have indicated that the primary viewers of the film are male and/or Latino. So, I don't know...I guess white women just don't get it. But I sure as fuck thought it was hilarious. Maybe it's like Raul says: "Mexico is not for cowards." And neither is a spoof about it.

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Amanda Seyfried isn't one for shying away from portraying a semi-psychotic (see: Jennifer's Body), which is why her latest role as Jill Conway, a victim of abduction, is rather ideal for honing the actress' skill. After escaping an unidentified man who kept her captive in a hole in the recesses of Forest Park (and yes, I realize how sexual that sounds), Jill begs the police to find him before any other women are subjected to his insanity. Insisting that there were already victims of his crime because she saw human remains buried next to her while she was trapped, the police search the park for a week before assuming the man was a figment of Jill's imagination (she has a history of mental illness, like so many people living in Portland).

Now that Jill lives with her sister, Molly (Emily Wickersham), she feels slightly less afraid/paranoid, but still makes it a point to go to Forest Park on a frequent basis so that she can figure out where her abductor took her. Molly chastises her for being so obsessed and uses the analogy that if Molly started drinking again Jill would "lose her shit." The closeness between Jill and Molly is exhibited in the dialogue created by Allison Burnett (also responsible for the Diane Lane psychological drama Untraceable), who displays a natural talent for the thriller genre.

When Molly tells Jill to wake her up early so that she can study before her final, Jill promises to be back home at 6:30 after her graveyard shift at The Lucky Star Diner. When she mentions to one of her co-workers, Sharon (Jennifer Carpenter, who has very little range beyond Dexter), that a customer that usually sits in a different section left her an insulting tip, Sharon insists that he's usually more generous. Suspicion begins to arise within Jill as she heads back home to find Molly missing. Frantic, she immediately goes to report it to Lieutenant Powers (Daniel Sunjata), who takes it in stride, considering that Jill often comes to the police station to tell them that her abductor has returned.

With no one on her side except a creepy new edition to the unit named Peter Hood (Wes Bentley), Jill takes matters into her own hands by pounding the pavement with her gun in tow. Being that someone involuntarily committed to a mental institution isn't allowed to carry a gun, the Portland Police begin an extensive manhunt for Jill as she tries to clandestinely question anyone who might be able to lead her to her sister's captor. Because she tells a different scenario to everyone she meets (to a hardware store clerk it's that her grandfather has gone missing, to a skateboarding slacker it's that she's looking for the man who dinged the side of her car), it's difficult to gauge if maybe Jill is a little bit off the rails.

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How it all plays out in the end is nearly perfect, as Jill is finally able to throw the police's adamancy about her mental instability back in their face by telling them, "It was all in my head." Had this been the final scene of the movie, it might have been one of the best female vengeance stories of the year. Unfortunately, the cap to close out the film is more of a cautionary tale about how one can never get away with anything.

 

What do you get when you try to mash up an action movie with a romantic comedy? An atrocious bowel movement in the from of McG's This Means War. While Reese Witherspoon, who plays the (what a surprise) type-A lead character of Lauren, is generally known for making sound decisions when it comes to selecting a film to be in, This Means War tries much too hard to be all things to all audiences. It suddenly makes you yearn for the day when McG was directing Charlie's Angels.

While in Hong Kong on a covert mission, FDR and Tuck, longtime friends and partners in the CIA, end up botching the mission when they only kill one of the intended targets, the brother of an international criminal named Heinrich (Til Schweiger, who is a bit too gifted at playing a creepy assassin, as evidenced by his role as Sergeant Stiglitz in Inglourious Basterds). In upsetting Heinrich, they not only invoke the wrath of his vengeance, but are also grounded by their boss, Collins (Angela Bassett, who may actually be the best part of this movie despite her infrequent appearances), at the CIA field office in Los Angeles.

With nothing to occupy their time, Tuck is the first to acknowledge that he feels something is lacking in his life--and that something is a monogamous relationship with someone other than FDR. Meanwhile, Lauren's best friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler, who basically plays herself in this role), signs her up for a dating website, which is, of course, how Tuck and Lauren find themselves going on a date together. What Lauren doesn't know is that FDR has offered to hang out at the video store near the restaurant (which looks suspiciously like Virgin Records on Sunset before it closed down) in case Tuck needs an excuse to get out of the date. This is how Lauren just happens to run into FDR after her date with Tuck.

Once FDR and Tuck find out that they are dating the same woman, they mercilessly employ every gift they have for reconnaissance to win over her heart. Even though I guess it's supposed to be funny, I found it slightly disturbing when both of them sneak into her house as she dances around to Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" (a fact that would be a dealbreaker for me if I was a dude). And, whenever things in the realm of observation get too extreme during the movie, FDR simply blames it on the Patriot Act, always a good scapegoat, if nothing else.

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The only aspect of the story that might have been redeeming is if Lauren chose to be with Tuck. But I suppose opposites attract, blah blah blah. Then again, who the fuck takes Chris Pine over Tom Hardy, opposite or not?

Steven Soderbergh is the undeniable master of intrigue, espionage, and emotional buildup. With Haywire, Soderbergh reveals this gift through the elegantly crafted script of Lem Dobbs (who also collaborated with Soderbergh on 1999's The Limey). Opening calmly enough with Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) going to a coffee shop and sitting down to meet Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), she is surprised to see one of her fellow operatives, Aaron (Channing Tatum), come in his place instead. When she refuses to leave with him, he throws a cup of coffee in her face and tries to physically overpower her. Mallory wins out and takes an unwitting hostage, Scott (Michael Angarano), so that she can use his car to escape. The pace of the movie waxes and wanes between this sort of extreme action, occasionally tempered with a more subdued method of storytelling.

As Mallory drives frantically through the back roads of upstate New York with Scott in tow, she recounts the story of how she went from working for a private company contracted by the government to a rogue on the run. Everything went wrong when she and Aaron took a job in Barcelona to rescue a hostage named Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong). Although they were able to reclaim Jiang and it all seemed to go according to plan, Kenneth managed to convince Mallory to take another job after she had already quit the agency (not to mention broken up with him several months prior). To persuade her, he goes to her apartment in San Diego and practically begs her to do him this one favor. Regretfully, she agrees.

Her cohort for the job is a freelance agent named Paul (Michael Fassbender), who she rendezvous with in Dublin. Since they have never met before, Mallory is instructed to wear a diamond brooch so that Paul will be able to recognize her. Mallory's only task is to pose as Paul's wife as they attend the Russborough House to meet with Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz, who you may recognize as Nino Quincampoix from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie) in order to further Kenneth's liaison with British intelligence agency MI6. Mallory does not begin to suspect that something is amiss until she sees Paul and Studer clandestinely talking outside near a barn. After she watches them separate, she ventures into the barn to discover Jiang's dead body--with the brooch Mallory was wearing at the airport in his hand so that she will be held responsible for the murder.

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Now all too aware that she is about to be stabbed in the back (in a sense that is, in all probability, literal as well), Mallory tries to act as though everything is normal when she goes back to the hotel room with Paul. Before she gets a chance to continue her charade, Paul knocks her in the back of the head, initiating one of the many beautifully choreographed fights that pepper the majority of the film.

To put the pieces of the puzzle together, Mallory gets in touch with a government agent named Coblenz (Michael Douglas, after all, what would a Steven Soderbergh movie be without him?) to demand why the Barcelona job backfired. Unable to answer her questions fully, Coblenz promises to help her if she can make it back to the United States undetected. To achieve this, Mallory contacts her father (Bill Paxton, who doesn't really seem like an age appropriate choice for the role) in New Mexico and tells him to expect her there in two days.

From there, the action and intensity of Haywire escalates as Mallory unravels the truth (usually through an ass beating) about who betrayed her and why. Kenneth admits to his partial culpability by saying, "The motive is always money." It's a vaguely refreshing sentiment over the motive of most film characters always being love.

Miss Bala is not your typical beauty pageant movie. Granted, there are often drugs and clandestine violence involved in U.S. beauty pageants, the nature of how a pageant is run in Baja, California deviates somewhat from the norm. While, obviously, Miss Bala was intended to address a serious subject matter (drug trafficking in Mexico), I can't help but wonder what a more satirical version of the film might have entailed--specifically in the vein of Michael Patrick Jann's 1999 masterpiece, Drop Dead Gorgeous.

The heroine of Miss Bala, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), starts out as a naive and unwitting sort of contender, much like Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) in Drop Dead Gorgeous. Her friend, Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo), tries out for the competition with her, and when both are accepted, Laura believes she really has a chance to positively represent Baja. What she doesn't realize is that being at the wrong place at the wrong time will change her life forever. Kind of like Tammy (Brooke Elise Bushman) after Becky (Denise Richards) blows up her tractor.

http://youtu.be/g357MHuj8WE

Writer-director Gerardo Neranjo's action-packed script, paired with his equally fast-paced directorial style, leaves little room for dialogue. Had it reflected the tongue in cheek mockumentary created by screenwriter Lona Williams in Drop Dead Gorgeous, there might have been more room to poke fun at the absurdity of Mexican drug/gang lords. And in any case, the out and out violence method can never be surpassed by Fernando Meirelles' 2002 epic, City of God.

http://youtu.be/Y3bSHaLxaxU

The other problem with Miss Bala is how much it strays away from the beauty pageant angle until the third act. The very title of the film suggests that this would be the crux of the story. Naturally, it would be difficult--but not impossible--to convey the intent of the movie without focusing on the drug/gang lord in question, Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), who develops an overt obsession with Laura, making awkward sexual advances toward her and forcing her to cross the border with a fuck ton of money strapped to her stomach so that she can give it to Lino's cohort in the DEA, Jimmy (James Russo). In many ways, Lino's sort of like the Kirstie Alley figure in this movie: Out to destroy whoever gets in the way of his reign.

The tragic conclusion of Miss Bala is designed to awaken its audience to the horrors of the Mexican drug trafficking industry (which, according to the epilogue, nets 25 billion dollars a year). With both Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal attached as producers of the film, the subject was obviously a personal one to all parties involved with it. I just think a little suffusion of beauty pageant mockery meets the innovative ways that drug traffickers come up with to smuggle their contraband could have been a nice touch.

Regardless of unquestionably donating funds to scientology in seeing the fourth installment of Mission: Impossible, if you've come this far in the series of films that began in 1996, you might as well see it through. Plus, Simon Pegg is in it, which is always a selling point in my book (in spite of Run, Fat Boy, Run and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs). And then there's the fact that it was shot in Moscow and Dubai, two milieus that so rarely appear in American films.

After Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux, whose career thus far has been founded on being hot/being the granddaughter of Jérôme Seydoux, the chairman of French film empire Pathé) assassinates an IMF agent named Trevor Hanaway (Josh Holloway of Lost fame--yet another Abrams connection in this movie), Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Pegg) set out to extract Ethan (Cruise) from a Russian prison. This mission leads them to the Kremlin, where Ethan first encounters an extremist nuclear weapons proponent named Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist).

Writers André Nemec and Josh Applebaum (no strangers to working with Ghost Protocol producer J.J. Abrams, as both are veterans of Alias) accomplish a surprising amount of breadth for each of the main characters, including Jane Carter, Benji Dunn, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and, of course, Ethan Hunt. The four are forced together in the wake of IMF's disavowal after Ethan is unwittingly framed for bombing the Kremlin by Hendricks. Without the support of the president or the secretary of the IMF (Tom Wilkinson), Ethan is left no alternative but to stop this Russian madman on his own.

With minimal provisions to accomplish their task, Ethan's ragtag gang of IMF refuse manages to save the day, albeit after numerous drawn out fighting scenes that leave you thinking, "Will you just fucking kick his ass already?" But, to answer whether Ghost Protocol galls or enthralls, if nothing else, there is Tom Cruise scaling the tallest building in the world without a stunt double.

David Fincher's sensibilities as a director have always been piercing and intuitive, but with this remake of the 2009 Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher pours every ounce of his modus operandi into Stieg Larsson's story of a troubled and brilliant girl named Lisbeth (Rooney Mara). As an unwilling ward of the state, Lisbeth's path intertwines with investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) after she performs an elaborate background check on him for a wealthy  Swedish magnate named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer).

Vanger's wish for Mikael to figure out which member of his family killed his niece, Harriet (Moa Garpendal), comes at an ideal time for Mikael, who has recently been sued and publicly embarrassed for what the media perceives as libelous statements about a billionaire businessman named Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg). With this new opportunity, Mikael is allowed the chance to hide from the disgrace surrounding him in Stockholm, leaving his co-editor (and adulterous paramour), Erika Berger (Robin Wright, who will never be as good as she was in The Princess Bride), in charge of damage control. Although Mikael doesn't realize it until he arrives on the island where Henrik lives, he may have been safer from scrutiny in Stockholm.

In spite of Fincher constantly being associated with his days as a music video director, he has come a long way from the style of such a brief medium. Plus, his music videos always had an air of the cinematic (specifically his collaborations with Madonna on "Express Yourself," "Vogue," "Oh Father," and "Bad Girl"). But the only trace of the music video director within him is the opening sequence of the film as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' (who also worked with Fincher on The Social Network) musical partnership sets the tone for the sinister air of the film.

The length of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo echoes the thoroughness that David Fincher's 2007 film, Zodiac, possessed. Of course, screenwriter Steven Zaillian--no stranger to the action genre, as evidenced by a resume that consists of Mission: Impossible, Gangs of New York, and The Interpreter--is also a key ingredient to the final product, as he adapted the novel with a fair amount of faithfulness and precision. What is more, Fincher's familiarity with directing adaptations (e.g. Fight Club and The Social Network) is an important element of his repertoire in that it has enabled him to conscientiously recreate a story with such a vast and loyal following.

 

Guy Ritchie's adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's world-famous literary character most assuredly possesses an edge that no other version of Sherlock Holmes has ever had, but this fact may not be able to make up for certain foibles of the auteur's sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

With a cerebral, intially action-lacking introduction, we are reintroduced to Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the object of Holmes' desire in the first film. As he warns her that she is being followed, Irene counters that she is being followed for her own protection, leaving Holmes to fight her trio of bodyguards--after they've made dinner plans for later. This fight scene establishes the norm for the rest of Sherlock Holmes: Slowed down and speeded up editing techniques that are, at times, too manufactured. It's almost as though Ritchie and his editor, James Herbert (who also collaborated with Ritchie on Revolver, RocknRolla, and the first Sherlock Holmes), recently graduated from a trade school specializing in FinalCut and got overly excited about employing every possible method learned.

That being said, the real enjoyment of the film is not necessarily always in the visual, but in the intricacy and recondite nature of the plot as it unfolds to reveal an unprecedented rivalry between good and evil. Screenwriters Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney (yes, Dermot Mulroney's brother) pit the equally intelligent minds of Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris of Mad Men--he always manages to find a role where he doesn't have to have an American accent) against one another in a succinct manifestation of what happens when one's mental acuity is used for unseemly purposes.

The Mulroneys, who also co-wrote 2009's mixed reviewed Paper Man, show massive progress in the span of just two years as this is only their second major feature. Of course, their rendering of lesser famed characters from the Sherlock Holmes series, such as the gypsy Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), is also a distinguished touch. Rapace, who played Lisbeth in the original versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, makes a more versatile substitute for Rachel McAdams' role as the primary female of the film.

Second only to the incisive writing in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is Stephen Fry's performance as Mycroft Holmes, the witty master of the one-liner. Not to mention the memorable image of his nude ass onscreen. While a perfectly decent film, what is troubling about Sherlock Holmes is how distant Guy Ritchie's usually recognizable voice seems to be. And so, I would say that I'm somewhat disappointed in Ritchie with this particular effort. I now finally know how Madonna feels.

 

It seems as though, with the advent of 2012, the collective world of pop culture has become more obsessed with the concept of time. With films like Melancholia and songs like Britney Spears' "Till The World Ends," so much is centered around an imminent demise. Andrew Niccol, known for writing films with a futuristic edge (Gattaca, The Truman Show, and Simone), plays up this notion of our preoccupation with the temporal in the script for In Time.

Starring pop music's former prince, Justin Timberlake, as Will Salas, In Time illustrates a world divided into time zones numbered from one to twelve. The higher the zone, the less time people have to live. Every human is endowed with a clock from the moment he or she turns 25 years old that gives him or her one year to live. From that point onward, you have to work to earn additional seconds, hours, and minutes in order to stay alive--the tradeoff being that you will remain the way you look at 25 for the rest of your life. Those who live in the higher zones that are dubbed the ghettoes are forced to live from day to day, earning meager amounts of additional time by working menial jobs.

New Greenwich is a time zone that the denizens of poverty-stricken Dayton can only dream about. It is a place where people have decades, even centuries, of time. One night at a bar with his friend, Borel (Johnny Bolecki), Will notices a man with an inordinate amount of time left on his clock--an entire century as a matter of fact--immediately making him stand out among the crowd. The man, who we later learn is named Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), hails from the aforementioned promised land and is zeroed in on by a band of time thieves led by Fortis (Alex Pettyfer). While everyone else flees the scene, Will stays back to lurk in the shadows so that he can come to Henry's rescue.

It is through this happenstance that Henry decides to "clock out," a.k.a. die, giving all of his time to Will as an over the top thank you for his generosity. Plus, he was just over the whole "living forever" scene. Knowing that New Greenwich is the only place that Will's excess of time can go unnoticed, he heads out of zone 12 almost instantly. With no one to say goodbye to except Borel (his 50 year old mother, played by the impossibly youthful looking Olivia Wilde, died in his arms before he could give her more time), Will sets out to "take them for everything they've got." And so the story shifts into an alternate version of Robin Hood, wherein Will vows to steal time from the "rich" who don't need it.

Very much a mirror of our own sociopolitical foibles, Will learns that everything about human existence is rigged. Society is designed specifically for the poor to stay poor and the rich to stay rich, reiterating a much repeated theme, "For a few to be immortal, many must die." Part of maintaining the system as it is, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy, thank fuck he's back), a "timekeeper" (which is really just a cop who prevents people from taking too much time out of one zone and into another), pursues Will vehemently until he finds him at a party thrown by one of the most affluent men in New Greenwich, Philippe Weis (Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser). It is then that Will takes Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), Philippe's daughter, hostage (though, up until that second, they were getting along quite famously).

Soon, the two are off on a Bonnie and Clyde type of rampage, stealing time from banks and doling it out to the people who live in the ghetto. All the while, Raymond and Philippe, are, for different reasons, adamant that the system cannot be changed, asserting that there is not enough resources for everyone to live as long as the wealthy. But that doesn't stop Will and Sylvia from continuing their quest. Because to accept things as they are, in this reality and in In Time's, is to accept corruption and injustice. So yeah, movies set in the future sure have come a long way since Back to the Future. And, all I can say is, this is one dystopic film worth seeing. JT has definitely stepped up his game from Friends With Benefits.

Where to begin when talking about the magnificence of Drive? Director Nicholas Winding Refn (who also wrote the screenplay for the seminal British movie Bronson) and writer Hossein Amini combine their Danish and Iranian sensibilities to bring us a film that 1) Proves that American filmmakers are slacking in creating anything that will blow your fucking face off, 2) Is the first movie in a long time that wields the city of Los Angeles as a meaningful character of its own, and 3) Uses music in a way that makes it impossible to imagine the film without it.

"If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what." So begins Drive, with The Driver (Ryan Gosling) giving his spiel from the darkened confines of his apartment. Introduced to the seedy look of Downtown Los Angeles at night (scenes that, in many ways, echo the look and feel of Repo Man), The Driver heads out on a heist that reveals his efficacy as a getaway driver in the face of any conflict. Once his job is done, we watch him prowl the streets from an aerial perspective of L.A. that reveals its infinite highways, byways, and side streets. All to the sound of Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx's (of CSS fame) sinister and ethereal "Nightcall."

Gosling's stoicism as The Driver cannot be stressed enough. This quality is essential to emphasizing how incredible it is that he is able to fall in love with his next door neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a somewhat stereotypical L.A. woman in that she is a waitress raising her son on her own until her Latino husband, Standard, gets out of prison for committing an armed robbery. The subtlety with which Winding Refn builds on their relationship reaches a zenith after Irene tells him that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is getting out of jail in a week's time. Knowing that their days together will be cut short, he says nothing. At the welcome home party for Standard, one of the best scenes of the film crosscuts between Irene looking disinterested in her husband and The Driver overhearing the song that's blaring from the party, with the insanely appropriate lyrics, "I don't eat, I don't sleep. I do nothing but think of you. You keep me under your spell." It is one of the best visual elucidations of yearning you will ever see rendered on film.

Knowing that they can no longer pursue anything other than a friendship, The Driver appears content enough to be in Irene and her son's, Benicio (Kaden Leos), life in a platonic manner. Standard's criminal past, however, seems to remain his present as he is forced into robbing a pawn shop by Cook (James Biberi), who pairs him with an unlikely redhead ironically named Blanche (Christina Hendricks, who mainly just screams and gets her brains blown out in this role). The Driver is irrepressibly reeled into helping Standard pull off the heist so that he can keep Irene and Benicio out of harm's way. The job goes horribly awry and shifts the tone of the film to one of surrealistic, violent vengeance (vaguely Quentin Tarantino-inspired in that respect).

Unwittingly caught in a quagmire of deception, The Driver learns that Blanche knew Cook was planning to set them up and take all of the money. Only instead of forty thousand dollars, which is what they were told the amount would be, there turns out to be a million. Curious as to who is the real mastermind behind such a specific robbery, The Driver searches the bowels of L.A. (a.k.a. the strip club circuit) to find Cook and get him to confess to who instigated the job. When he learns the identity of the man who manufactured Standard's death to look like an accident, he realizes it has all come full-circle. Nino (Ron Perlman, the perfect man to play a repugnant gangster) and Bernie (Albert Brooks, who's looking real rough, real rough), a wealthy financier that The Driver's boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), has gotten him involved with are the responsible parties for sending The Driver on a blood-lusting quest for revenge.

Suffice it to say, Drive is ultimately a tragic love story (aren't all love stories though? The memorable ones anyway). There are so many beautiful nuances in this movie, so much attention to detail, and so little dialogue as compared with the usual fare you see in theaters. Truly, not enough positive comments can be said about Drive. And the fact that a Capra was involved in its making doesn't hurt either.

The thing about Evan Glodell's Bellflower is, it is the first movie of this century to truly reflect how fucking lost, stuck, and stagnant people in their twenties are. The film is centered around two friends, Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson, who kind of looks like Matthew Goode), obsessed with creating the ultimate flame-throwing car in preparation for the apocalypse so they can rule over the ruins based on how cool and intimidating they look. And yes, it is Mad Max inspired.

Their plans for finishing their creation are somewhat derailed when Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman) at a bar and challenges her in a cricket eating contest (I know, gross). At first, he is painfully shy, but Milly soon brings out his ribald and ruffian side. Her impetuosity is evident on their first date, when she insists that Woodrow takes her to the most disgusting restaurant he can think of, which is in Texas. Even though they're in Los Angeles (a fact that is never actually stated, maybe because it's obvious from the look and name of the movie), Milly is unfazed by the distance required to get to this "restaurant," a place that is actually more of a stand that serves meat loaf for $1.25.

The two share an instant connection that is only fortified on the road trip, particularly since Woodrow's car is capable of dispensing whiskey from the dashboard area of the passenger side. They return after about a week, just in time for the birthday party of Milly's best friend, Courtney (Rebekah Brandes). It is there that the tension between Milly and her roommate, Mike (Vincent Grashaw), intensifies (Mike has a crush on Milly, who clearly does not reciprocate said crush). The trio of Aiden, Woodrow, and Milly split early from the party, leaving Courtney and Mike bewildered by the relationship that has formed in such a brief amount of time.

Perhaps the best and most deliberate choice about Glodell's debut (and by the way, he trumped the Orson Welles rule of thumb by not only starring, writing, directing, and producing the film, but editing it as well) is that he never addresses the fact that none of the characters in Bellflower seem to have to worry about a job or where they're going to come up with the money for the various parts of "Medusa." This is something that seems to reflect the notion that no one of "our generation" has any sort of career type job. An intimation that is basically accurate. Those who are in their early, mid, and late twenties have been dealt a hand that apparently promotes no other option but slackerdom and alcoholism.

This little detail aside, there is also the issue of what constitutes a "modern love." In Bellflower, loyalty and possession are still the chief concepts touted, even if they veer on the chauvinistic side as the movie draws to a close. Milly is, naturally, the one to falter first in terms of maintaining her sense of fidelity. Ironically, she chooses Mike, her undesirable roommate, to cheat on Woodrow with. Thinking Woodrow is going to be off on a Medusa jaunt with Aiden, Milly does not anticipate it when Woodrow bursts in to find them in an extremely compromising position.

The revelation of Milly's sluttery sends Woodrow into a depressive frenzy that takes the narrative of Bellflower in unexpected directions. In many ways, it starts to remind you of the reckless alacrity of Natural Born Killers. Not every audience member will be amenable to the feckless nature of Bellflower's shift in the course of plot. To those audience members I say: Fuck yourself.

At this point, there may be absolutely nothing left to say about the Harry Potter franchise that hasn't been said already. But, fuck it, I'll wax on about the final installment anyway. First of all, I was shocked that I could even gain entrance into any movie theater, all of which have suddenly become "hallowed" ground in the tri-state area. However, once this less than small feat was accomplished and I sat through a preview for The Change-Up for what was quite possibly the twentieth time, Deathly Hallows Part 2 resumed from the exact moment where it left off, with Voldemort taking possession of the Elder Wand.

After several lengthy scenes involving dialogue with both a goblin and the resident wand specialist, the quest to stop Voldemort from unbridled power and finally, once and for all, killing Harry gets underway. Hermione (Emma Watson, who already seems to be working on having a career after HP with the upcoming film--also based on a book--The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is once again relied upon heavily for saving the day by disguising herself as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) so they can enter a vault guarded by a fuck ton of other goblins and destroy one of the horcruxes that will weaken Voldemort's power.

Voldemort, creepy motherfuck that he is, knows everything that Harry does--they are connected inextricably, after all. The reason for this formerly enigmatic association is revealed during one of the many climaxes of the third act, leading the audience to whimper with despair when they learn that Harry must die in order to destroy his nemesis.

Harry, good little ducky that he is, finds himself more than willing to sacrifice himself to the cause in order to prevent any more innocent lives from being taken at his expense. This is one of the seemingly infinite moments in the film that will get you a bit misty-eyed. The number one example probably being when Harry retrieves the resurrection stone and gets a chance to speak with his mother before facing Voldemort.

Although the film has many satisfying moments, there is nothing extra special about it, apart from the fact that it is the final installment. Deathly Hallows Part 1 was actually more exhilarating in terms of the anticipation that was built up throughout the entire film, as well as the animation of the history behind the Deathly Hallows. However, Deathly Hallows Part 2 definitely has one element going for it that Part 1 does not: The always fierce Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall.

And so, while this may be the end of Harry Potter (though I have a feeling J.K. Rowling will churn something out in the years to come), the massive juggernaut will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of its fans (no resurrection stone required). Plus, it holds the distinction of being one of the few franchises that appeals to both genders. Star Wars and [ insert comic book here ] were always held back by their allure to a single demographic.

 

It is rare for filmmakers to blend both a lush visual style with a concern for actual storytelling. With Sucker Punch, Zack Snyner manages to balance both sides of this delicate coin with stunning adroitness (dare I say more adroitly than in his famed 300?). While some may be reluctant to accept the fantasy world created by Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya, the appeal of Sucker Punch does not lie solely within the vivid depictions, but in the persistent message conveyed by the film's narrator, Sweetpea (Abbie Cornish, yet another Aussie to round out a cast headlined by Emily Browning as Babydoll).

After Babydoll's mother dies, she and her sister are left in the less than capable hands of their abusive stepfather, who takes out his aggression on Babydoll when he discovers that his wife has left all of her assets to her two daughters. Out of self-defense, Babydoll fires a gun at him one night, the bullet of which ends up hitting her sister instead. All of this transpires wordlessly and while Emily Browning sings a creepy version of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" over the soundtrack (then again, this song always sounds creepy when it's not the Eurythmics' version). The only dialogue up until this point is Sweetpea asserting that everyone has a guardian angel, though it might not seem like it when Babydoll's stepfather uses the tragedy of her sister's death to his advantage by committing her to an insane asylum in Vermont (wouldn't just being in Vermont make you go crazy anyway?).

From the instant that Babydoll arrives, it does not take her long to start imagining her own alternate world, one in which she is not in a mental institution, but instead a glorified brothel run by Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), a Polish madam who instructs her girls on the art of sexy dancing. Babydoll's plan for escape must be fully executed within five days when "the high roller" (a random cameo by Jon Hamm of Mad Men) comes to devirginize her, although what is actually going to happen in five days is her lobotomy.

In Babydoll's first mental fabrication, she encounters the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), a mysterious mentor who tells her all the items she will need to gain freedom: A map of the building, fire, a knife, and the master key. Once she accepts her mission, a mutant of some sort attacks Babydoll for no apparent reason (I think it was just an excuse to include a fight scene with Bjork's "Army of Me" playing). She then returns to her alternate alternate reality (does that make sense?) to inform her cohorts, Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, yeah from High School Musical), Rocket (Jena Malone), and Sweetpea, of her intentions to flee. Everyone, save for Sweetpea, is naturally excited by the prospect, agreeing to help Babydoll to secure their own liberation.

It is at this point in Sucker Punch that Snyder starts to get a bit long-winded as every single item must have an accompanying fantasy scene--even something as simple as Amber stealing a lighter from the mayor, one of her best clients. Still, if you stick it out through some of the more protracted stages of the second act, you will be given one of the attenuate experiences of modern day moviegoing: Being left utterly blindsided by act three.

Without ruining the outcome of the story (which is usually my wont in most reviews), I will simply say that very few of Babydoll's booby hatch chums survive the road to emancipation. The only real consolation is the extrication of one member of the formerly fierce cabal, who reminds us of the following: "Who chains us and who holds the key that can set us free? It's you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight."

Liam Neeson is the actor you automatically associate with action movies and general bad assery. Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is merely an addition to Neeson's distinctiveness in the genre of intrigue. On a trip to Berlin with his wife, Liz (the one-trick pony we call January Jones), Dr. Martin Harris has the misfortune of getting into a car accident while taking a cab back to the airport to retrieve a briefcase containing all of his personal documentation.

In one of those life-fucking up events, Harris' cab driver, an illegal immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger), crashes the car and sends the two flying over a bridge before he can make it back to the Berlin Airport. Gina flees the motherfucking scene (because what illegal immigrant wants to deal with talking to the police, let alone a legitimate citizen?) as soon as she busts the window open to let an unconscious Harris float to the surface.

Liam Neeson, composed and dispassionate when it comes to expressing emotion through any of his characters, awakens in a hospital after four days of being in a coma--exhibiting far more equanimity than any normal person would upon learning not only this information, but that he is in the care of German medical professionals. Harris' first order of business is, of course, finding his wife.

When Liz re-encounters her husband at the biotechnology conference he was slated to speak at, she acts as though she has no recollection of their union, chiefly because she claims to be married to "the real" Martin Harris (played by Aidan Quinn, who looks nothing like the version of himself that exists within the frames of Desperately Seeking Susan). This sends Neeson's Harris on a rogue quest to reclaim his identity, searching for Gina first and foremost, being that he knows she will be the only person willing to admit to recalling him.

At the outset, Gina is extremely resilient to the idea of helping him, but eventually comes around when she sees how absolutely desperate he is, even going so far as to hire a former member of the Stasi (what is it with Sebastian Koch being in Stasi-related movies, namely Das Leben Der Anderen?). And, as Gina becomes more invested in learning the true ipseity of Martin Harris, she finds that, reckonably, her feelings for him are becoming more than just platonic.

As the film progresses, the audience will still have difficulty discerning how all of this is possible until the denouement. True to Liam Neeson's form of script selection, the plot twist in Unknown is not quite what one would expect, but don't give screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell too much credit as the book is based on a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert called Out of my Head.

If Angelina Jolie sitting in a Parisian cafe sipping tea, Johnny Depp sitting on a train reading a book, or Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp sitting together on a boat in Venice is Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's idea of an action-packed spectacle--or a fitting homage to the master of suspense thrillers himself, Alfred Hitchcock--then this Academy Award winning director should perhaps return to making films in his mother tongue. Celebrated for Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others), Henckel von Donnersmark's exploration of a Stasi officer's dramatic emotional transformation as he spies on a treasonous couple is far more believable than the events that unfold in The Tourist.

Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) is something of an anachronism, even by European standards. She glides through the streets of Paris wearing elegant dresses and perfectly coiffed hair--a woman of true leisure. The only hurdle standing in the way of genuine bliss is the fact that she is being heavily monitored by a team of police officials assigned by Scotland Yard to follow her. And it is within these first few minutes of beholding an extremely conspicuous slew of men watch her every move that all credibility of the film is lost.

The plausibility of The Tourist continues to take a downward spiral as Elise opens a plain white envelope with the initials "AP" embossed on the back (we later learn the initials stand for Alexander Pearce, Elise's estranged corazón). The contents of the letter instruct her to meet Alexander at the Gare de Lyon for the 8:22 train to Venice. She burns the letter and rushes to the train station to heed his instructions. The burnt letter is collected by someone from Scotland Yard and immediately dissected by Inspector John Acheson (Paul Bettany, who often plays secondary roles in films of the thriller genre, such as The Da Vinci Code). Conveniently, Acheson reassembles the words in the letter just in time to figure out that Elise is headed to the Gare de Lyon.

Elise, per Alexander's behest, selects someone of his height and build to sit next to on the train, a man named Frank Tupelo (a somewhat wizened looking Johnny Depp. I can now see why Ryan Reynolds beat him out this year for People's Sexiest Man Alive issue). Frank is obviously the bashful type, letting Elise do all of the flirting and seducing, though it is wasted on someone as self-effacing as he. While their romantic interlude is being established at a glacial pace, Acheson has contacted and enlisted the help of the Italian branch of Interpol, unbeknownst to his boss, Chief Inspector Jones (played by Timothy Dalton, who I can only ever imagine as Mr. Skinner in Hot Fuzz), who has already ordered him to call off the investigation.

When Acheson's assistant learns that Frank is merely a math teacher from Wisconsin, the Interpol agents are forced to cancel their plan to apprehend him once he arrives in Venice. For an instant, it looks as though Frank will remain out of harm's way--until another lower level employee at Scotland Yard who is unaware that Frank is not Alexander Pearce informs the henchman of an intimidating English gangster named Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff) that Pearce is in Venice. Being that Pearce, as Shaw's private banker, stole many millions of dollars from him and then fled into oblivion for two years, Shaw is extremely elated by the tipoff. Still, in yet another bothersome element of plot explanation, why the employee feels compelled to tell Shaw this information is not addressed.

In the meantime, Frank's attraction to Elise is allowed to flourish when she invites him to stay with her at the Hotel Danieli (the owner of which must have creamed himself when asked by the location scout to feature the hotel so prominently). The two have dinner together and Elise alludes to the fact that she cannot seem to shake the habit of loving Pearce, regardless of his many foibles. This admission appears to upset Frank, who has clearly developed some strong feelings for her.

Apart from the drawn out plot and its less than gripping "twists," particularly the conclusion, the entire feel of the script seems completely slapped together by von Donnersmark and his co-writers, Christopher McQuarrie (of The Usual Suspects fame) and Julian Fellowes (writer of Vanity Fair and The Young Victoria). And, although hazily imitating the Hitchcockian formula, there is no maguffin, a sparsity of logic, and a general reliance on the beauty of Angelina Jolie to distract from the global weakness of the movie.

With the last installment in the incredible tale of Jacques Mesrine, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, it is easy and somewhat impossible not to draw comparisons to the style of Quentin Tarantino. To begin with, the story has two volumes, just as Kill Bill does, and the bloodshed can, at times, seem to be displayed just for the sake of display. The entire motif of guns, girls, and gangsterdom kind of falls into the early Tarantino realm as well. But this is a French movie and, as much as the French may respect Tarantino's characteristic approach, they rarely appreciate comparisons to others, least of all Americans. So back to Mesrine.

When we last left him in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, he had just fled from yet another prison after he and his girlfriend were extradited to Quebec for the kidnapping of a millionaire named Georges Deslauriers, who had previously employed him as a chauffeur. Public Enemy #1 finds us in 1979, the year of his death, just before he is about to be essentially executed by the French police. But before this happens, director Jean-Francois Richet flashes back to 1973, in yet another instance of Mesrine being apprehended by French authorities. He was not to stand for being caged for very long though. That's the thing about bona fide criminals: When you cage them they're liable to implode or explode. Mesrine preferred the latter action, affecting everyone around him with his knack for cultivating and severing alliances as new situations arose.

Once Mesrine is contained and put in a maximum security prison called La Santé (which ironically translates to "the health"), he meets one of those strategic alliances, Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric). Besse, too, has miraculously beaten the odds of maximum security prisons and broken out three times, the same amount as Mesrine. The two formulate a plan to escape together, biding their time until the right moment, which comes five years into Mesrine's twenty year sentence.

Never contented with his achievements, Mesrine cannot simply enjoy the success of being prematurely free--he has to engage in some type of crime again. His methods start to wear on Besse, especially after Mesrine meets and romances Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier), a much younger woman who he picks up in a bar one day after following her through the streets for several blocks (and yeah, that is as creepy as it sounds, but French people make unbridled lust seem way more acceptable and just plain natural). Without Besse to harness in Mesrine's antics with the press and his erratic decision-making, the illustrious bank robber's days look as though they will be one-digited.

What differentiates Public Enemy #1 from Killer Instinct is that the former gives far more insight into the nature of Mesrine's persona and what inspires and spurs him to the insane courses of action he takes. In an interview with a French reporter, Mesrine is asked, "Why are you doing this?" The response is shockingly akin to how a large majority of law-abiding, menial job-holding people must feel: "I don't like the laws and I don't want to be a slave of the alarm clock my whole life. I don't want to spend my entire life dreaming. I don't want to always think how I have to work half a year just so I could buy something."

And so Mesrine does not. He does not live a life of ordinariness and silent contempt. But he pays a price for it, just as normal citizens of the world pay a certain price for allowing themselves to be herded like sheep. Yet somehow, Mesrine's price seems slightly lower than ours.

What defines a good person? I'm not sure. In fact, I'm probably the last person you should ask, but I do know that Jacques Mesrine, the notorious French gangster whose specialty was in executing bank robberies (usually peppered with a bit of assault and murder) is not quite the best candidate for humanitarian. But then, that's what makes him such an interesting character to watch come to life onscreen. The first film in the dyad about the life of Mesrine is entitled Mesrine: Killer Instinct or, if you're French (or want to be, like me), Mesrine: L'instinct de Mort. With the artful combination of Abdel Raouf Dafri's writing and Jean-François Richet's stylized directing, Mesrine actually transforms into a character we want to see evade the law, who we can forgive for pointing a gun in his wife's mouth in front of his son.

Rather than addressing Mesrine's brief period of normalcy before joining the French army while the Algerian War was going on, giving him a taste for what it felt like to kill, Dafri chose to commence the film in 1959 when he was just getting out of the army. This leaves out the subject of his first marriage to Lydia De Zouza in 1955, a union that didn't last for more than a year. I suppose I can't blame Dafri for leaving some of Mesrine's women out of the story; there were, after all, a litany of them. But in leaving out this piece of information, it makes less sense why Mesrine would have a predilection for living a life of crime. Had there been a brief scene of him being miserable with the conventional beforehand, it would be more understandable why he would jump at the chance to work for Guido (played by Gerard Depardieu, who will never die and will somehow always crop up in every French movie in existence), a major player in the crime underworld of France.

Once he gets involved, it becomes easy to see why he would find the life of a gangster so alluring: Free money, no specific work schedule, prostitutes who like him so much they don't charge, and access to a gun. But there is a theory--and don't ask me what it's called because I don't know (I might just be fabricating it that's why)--that once you get away with something, you'll only keep escalating until you get caught. This is most definitely the Mesrine's affliction. After marrying a Spanish woman (named Sofia in the movie), Mesrine has two children with her, yet this does not slow him down or make him think twice about returning to the seductiveness of delinquency.

His second wife ultimately leaves him (and why wouldn't she? This is the one who got a gun pointed in her mouth), allowing Mesrine to fully lavish in his depravity. On one particular spree, he meets a woman named Jeanne (Cécile De France) who is just as game as he is to wreak havoc, inspiring them to knock off a casino together. This, unfortunately, does not go unnoticed, and the owner's minions unsuccessfully try to take a hit out on Mesrine, who is merely shot in the shoulder, but otherwise unscathed. In the wake of the attempt on Mesrine's life, Guido encourages him to leave France with Jeanne until the incident is forgotten.

At this point, you might start to comprehend the need for a follow-up to Mesrine: Killer Instinct, called Mesrine: Public Enemy #1. The story is just too epic to conclude in one film. Fuck that Scott Pilgrim shit about an epic of epic epicness. This ribald tale of violence, evasion of authority, and transcontinental mayhem far surpasses any "action" movies of the past year. And even though one of the best lines is already delivered in the first installment, "Nobody kills me until I say so," one is left with the sense that Mesrine (who Vincent Cassel is, let's just say it, way too sexy to play) has quite a few more tricks up his bullet-riddled sleeve.