THE CONSPIRATOR

A country wracked with fear and grief. Conspirators hunted down and jailed in military prisons. Debate over trial in civilian or military courts. A government that has pre-determined the guilt of all those arrested and held in custody. Sound like familiar themes? If you think we're talking about a modern dilemma you'd be wrong. These are just a few of the themes Robert Redford touches upon in an outstanding film, THE CONSPIRATOR. It is the story of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. It focuses on the trial of Mary Surratt, a boarding house owner who's son, John was one of those who plotted the shooting. Who would defend a Southern woman accused of helping to end the life of the beloved President? The answer is no one. But Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy) is thrown into it against his will. The Civil War hero has no interest, but slowly begins to believe in a larger issue than guilt or innocence– the shredding of the Constitution by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (reliably well played by Kevin Kline). McAvoy is a wonderful actor and his frustration is pouring out of the screen as the film builds to its conclusion. Robin Wright has a quiet dignity as Mary Surratt, a mother who sacrifices her own life to save her children. The wonderful performances are everywhere. Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, James Badge Dale, Justin Long, John Cullum, Colm Meaney. I could go on and on about the performances. The audience can feel the dankness of the jail cells and the courtroom thanks to wonderful cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel. And the score by Mark Isham does what a score is supposed to do, move the story along without becoming intrusive. The parallels to Guantanamo Bay and the 9/11 terror suspects are obvious, as Redford wears his politics on his sleeve. But none of that gets in the way of great storytelling. The Conspirator will be forgotten by Oscar time. Hmm, sounds like a conspiracy to me. — Alan Yudman

SCREAM 4

In the wake of all the Paranormal Activities, Saws, and PG-13 “horror” crap, it’s a SCREAM to get back to basics with the fourth installment in this fun franchise. Love seeing Neve, Courtney, and David back in action in a movie that, just like in real life, comes ten years later. That’s enough time to give Scream 4 enough ammunition to entertain movie geeks, and to also propel the story. Facebook, YouTube, horror remakes, reboots, relaunching a horror franchise, and new rules replacing outdated ones ALL worked into this one. It stays true to the original while coming up with fresh twists in what’s become a toothless genre. Not as good as part one (how many sequels are?) but a lot of fun. And BIG thumbs up to the “Arnold” line delivered to the killer at the end…I laughed out loud! Mainstream critics who trash this should be a part of the body count…because most of them LOVED movies like Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism, and Piranha 3-D. If you liked the first three, waste no time and see part 4!
Stormy Curry     

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

This mostly faithful adaptation of the popular novel does nothing
wrong. So if it doesn't quite reach the teary heights of The Notebook,
that's maybe because it takes no great chances, either. Extremely well
made in the Hollywood Prestige Picture manner, the gloss that comes
off the screen is the burnished shine of professionalism — but it's
not quite ragged or raucous or dusty enough to convey the anarchic
life of the circus that is more background here, whereas in the book
it was the very fabric of the story. In that sense, WATER also feels a
bit underpopulated, as though the extras didn't work every day. But
the leads are splendid. Robert Pattison keeps it simple, restraining
his emotion without becoming wooden. Plus, he has the period face of a
vintage Chesterfield model, perfect for the era. Reese Witherspoon
glows with genuine movie star glamour; she and Robert quietly ignite
the screen with their movie-magic first kiss. And of course no one
does simmering psycho better than Christoph Walz (but careful, CW,
don't become the go-to guy for just one kind of role). There are
lovely small touches: Rosie the Elephant's freckled skin, a home movie
montage, James Newton Howard's old-fashioned score. Those who have not
read the book will have the additional advantage of not missing a big
surprise at the end, because the filmmakers have restructured the
story. It still works. — Jeff Schultz

SOURCE CODE

What is the nature of existence? Is there one timeline, or several realities and can someone change or create a reality? These questions are at the core of SOURCE CODE. Jake Gyllenhaal is an Air Force (or Army, it's never really clear) Captain who seems to have dropped into an alternate reality. At first he's confused and so is the audience. He is someone else, traveling on a commuter train into Chicago. But all becomes clear each time he drops in on the train. Each time just 8 minutes before it explodes in a terrorist bombing. His mission seems simple, find the bomber to stop a second more deadly explosion. But nothing is simple (otherwise would you really have the tension necessary for drama?). Gyllenhaal owns the movie as the confused, frustrated and eventually satisfying hero. Vera Farmiga and Michelle Monaghan are solid. Jeffrey Wright is excellent as the boss of the covert military unit running the op. Source Code is great as long as Gyllenhaal is trying to figure out the mystery. It loses its steam a bit as the story is resolved, but that really doesn't take away from the enjoyment. And, the movie moves quickly through its 87 minutes. It reaches its conclusions in an ultimately satisfying ending. This is a Code worth breaking! — Alan Yudman

RIO

Surely, this is a golden age of animation: so many classics in the 15
years since Toy Story. And here is a splashy, well-acted addition,
which revels in color so rich, it's like the return of Technicolor.
You've never seen reds this vivid, bright chrome yellows, and of
course, “cerulean” blue (they have fun with the word). These tropical
birds are set to life with personalities just as vivid; partnered with
perfectly chosen speakers. Listen to his performance as Blu, the
reluctant macaw, and you'll realize how much of Jesse Eisenberg's
talent resides in his voice. He conveys nervousness with a comic tic
in a cadence you instantly recognize. Plus, the animators have pulled
off the funniest no-dialogue reaction shot since Finding Nemo. The
musical numbers have the catchiness of a samba; too bad they
constantly get cut off by the action. It's a little over-plotted, and
I found myself enjoying the animals rather than the humans (they might
better have done it half-and-half like HOP). But it works all the way
and made me feel good. — Jeff Schultz

SCREAM 4

Not the genius re-imagining of the franchise one hoped for, but still
fun. The original Scream was a post-modern romp that turned into a
bevy of self-referencing post-post-modern follow-ups, not to mention
key parts of the Scary Movie series. 15 years later, what we get is
pretty much the same old with a new cast (plus of course some key
holdovers) that makes us long for the originals who are no longer
around. Rory Culkin, for example — good in everything he does —
can't (along with his partner-in-movie-geekdom Erik Knudsen) dispel
our longing for Jamie Kennedy and Matthew Lillard. The joke within a
joke within a joke opening is entertaining enough, but a bit stale by
now to offer up right out of the gate; it lets you know early on that
you're not going to leave the theatre giddy with having seen something
entirely fresh. Points go to Courtney Cox and David Arquette for jokes
lampooning their real-life marriage — and to Courtney for playing off
her Cougartown persona; she and Neve Campbell, it should be said, look
notably older. It's left to Emma Roberts to give the performance by a
younger cast member that stands out, especially at the end, with
bracing malice. — Jeff Schultz

CEREMONY

It's a romance AND a bro-mance, and it's the sleeper find of the
season. You might describe it as a heterosexual Chuck & Buck, but it's
also in a long tradition of “wrong groom” romantic comedies.
Physically, Uma Thurman towers over Michael Angarano. But Angarano —
his generation's Joseph Gordon-Levitt — is ten feet tall in his
absolute self-assurance and ability to match Uma's star power. Thurman
can seem bloodless at times, but she's fresh and vital here, lit up
like the sun-drenched beachfront where it all takes place. The other
half of the bro-mance is Angarano's best friend, played note-perfect
sweetly by Reece Thompson, who is sort of a grown-up version of the
chubby pal in the Wimpy Kid-s. And the wrong groom is the Russell
Brand-y Lee Pace, nicely balancing insufferably pompous and
surprisingly likeable in the same character. For a first -time feature
writer and director, Max Winkler has done more than master the basics:
this little movie is close to perfect. — Jeff Schultz

YOUR HIGHNESS

Crude can be funny; crude can be crass. Here, it's just dull. An epic
misfire on the order of Year One, the lunatic stoner humor promised by
the title only shows up now and then, with long stretches between now
and then. This is no medieval or Middle-earth Pineapple Express. Nor
should you expect the cross-era kick of a Knight's Tale: here the
effort is basically to tack on a “that's cool” or “no fucking way” or
fist-pump “yesss!” every hundredth or so line, while treating sex with
an Apatowian leer. The joke gets old quickly. But in fact, this is
only half a comedy. The other half is a fairly serious sword and
sorcery battle flick, and it's an uneasy marriage. The adventure parts
have fight scenes aplenty, each one as unexciting as a bathroom break.
And Danny McBride's transition from screwup to hero is clumsy and
unconvincing. No one seems to be enjoying themselves; the leads are
bland, and none of the lesser players makes a splash. Nothing to
recommend here. Your Welcome. — Jeff Schultz

UNKNOWN

What is UNKNOWN to me is how Liam Neeson got involved in this predictable thriller without any thrills. Having figured out what the big “twist” was about ten minutes in, I spent the other 90 minutes waiting for something more. Never happened. Taken started out slow but gained speed as it went along. Unknown stumbles out of the gate and never finds it's footing. Neeson is solid as usual but the stilted script and slow story keep him from doing much. January Jones makes Paris Hilton look like Meryl Streep and Aidan Quinn just looks happy to be in something not direct to video. Call this one the Bourne Identity Theft.

Stormy Curry

SOURCE CODE

The repetitive grip of Jacob's Ladder, the dual-consciousness of
Avatar, the “impossible” romance of Somewhere in Time and The Lake
House — there are a lot of previous movies inside this one. It gets
by, barely, on tight, get-right-to-it storytelling, a quiet, lovely
Jake Gyllenhaal performance, and genuine chemistry between him and
Michelle Monaghan. The plot is sort of Inception for Dummies (and I
freely admit to being lost in Inception almost from the inception).
But the post-finale surprise isn't well-enough explained. Nor, come to
think of it, is the entire mechanism by which Jake enters and returns
from Parallel World. As one of the “villains” — Jake's DOD handlers
— Vera Farmiga has the toughness of a Mimi Rogers, but not the
presence; she's colorless. And Vera's boss, Jeffrey Wright, has a
literal acting crutch. All told, not quite good enough. — Jeff Schultz