Friday, July 25, 2008

Stepping in it with Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly play 40-year-olds who refuse to grow up in "Step Brothers," a foul-mouthed comedy in which a couple of laughs may offer compensation for the movie's inability to get much beyond a single joke. No "Talledga Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby," "Step Brothers" revolves around two slothful men whose lives are sent into turmoil. Ferrell's Brennan and Reilly's Dale are forced to share a room when Brennan's mom (Mary Steenburgen) marries Reilly's dad (Richard Jenkins). The new stepbrothers fight, become friends and then battle some more in a movie that has one truly inspired moment, Ferrell singing Andrea Bocelli's "Por Ti Volaré." It's almost worth the price of admission, providing you have a high tolerance for the constant stream of dumb-and-dumber jokes, forced off-color humor and a distasteful display that results from watching two grown men acting like perpetual teen-agers. Oh well, "Step Brothers" could be the only summer movie to build a joke around an exposed testicle. And you thought movie culture was crumbling.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson revisit the characters of Dana Scully and Fox Moulder in a sometimes involving but generally unnecessary big-screen reprise, which arrives six years after the popular and widely acclaimed TV series went bye-bye. There are many holes in a story about a psychic pedophile priest (Billy Connolly) who's trying to get right with God and the world. When he's not praying, Father Joe devotes his time to helping the FBI locate a kidnap victim. Scully, now working as a full-time physician at Our Lady of Sorrows hospital, tires to save a kid with a rare and supposedly incurable disease; she also helps persuade Moulder to heed an FBI request to abandon his isolation and help with the investigation. The movie eventually unveils a bizarre plot involving organ transplants and whacko biological experiments. "I Want to Believe" seems interested in exploring intelligent themes (the relationship between science and faith, for example) but tin-eared dialogue and too many abrupt leaps in the plot stand in the way. I'd say you probably need to be an "X Files" fan to get much out of this; if you're not, "I Want to Believe" may look like one more hopelessly muddled thriller.

"The Wackness" tries hard to be original

If you're into adolescence in a big way, "The Wackness" might be just what the shrink ordered. In fact, the movie features a massively irresponsible shrink who buys pot from one of his high-school age patients. With Ben Kingsley diving headlong into the role of an aging hippie and Josh Peck playing the young man who deals him marijuana, the movie manages to climb out of the ordinary. Whether its portrayals tell us anything instructive is another matter, but maybe that's asking too much.

The best thing about "The Wackness" might be the oddball friendship between Kingsley's Dr. Squires and his mostly reluctant patient, a kid who trades marijuana for Squires' half-baked brand of therapy. Luke feels like a misfit; his psychiatrist tells him it's nothing that a little sex wouldn't cure. Despite Dr. Squires' apparent lack of insight, he and Peck's Luke get along reasonably well. But when Luke falls for Squire's stepdaughter (Oliva Thirlby), the good doctor objects. He tries to warn Luke off. Is he attempting to help Luke or is he unwilling to make his stepdaughter the answer to Luke's sexual prayers?

Whatever the case, the young lovers get along famously for a summer, but Thirby's Stephanie eventually decides to teach Luke -- who claims to be Manhattan's biggest teen-age outcast -- a lesson in the perils of young love.

Director Jonathan Levine ("All the Boys Love Mandy Lane'') attempts to find fresh ways to stir overly familiar coming-of-age ingredients, Thanks to Kingsley and Peck, he occasionally succeeds. That doesn't mean that the movie -- a Sundance darling -- isn't eager to leaf through a catalog of indie-pic dysfunction. Squires' life is falling apart. His wife (Famke Jansen) has had enough of him, and he's ogling every bit of young flesh he can find. Luke's parents (Talia Balsam and David Wohl) constantly fight over money. At one point, Squires accompanies Luke on his drug deliveries. Just a couple of fun-loving kids in the city.

There are laughs en route to the movie's off-kilter resolution, but I can't see "The Wackness" becoming an indelible part of adolescent lore, perhaps because it tries a little too hard. I did, however, like the idea of watching two men (separated by nearly 40 years) prove that they weren't all that far apart. As we know, maturity is not exactly the hallmark of American movie culture. (Don't believe me; try "Step Brothers." )

While Levine heads back to 1994, singer Neil Young attempts to catapult himself into the present with "CSNY: Deja Vu," a documentary about a concert tour devoted to opposition to the Iraq War. In order to achieve something approaching balance, Young -- who reunited with Crosby, Stills, Nash for the tour -- asked journalist Mike Cerre to provide a patina of objectivity. Cerre's supposed to be covering the tour, which generates a lot of enthusiasm, but also some contempt. Not all of CSNY's followers welcome the political message that the band dispensed during the summer of '06. Some fussy Atlanta residents, for example, objected to a song calling for president Bush's impeachment. CSNY was active during the Vietnam years and the band's at it again. The music's good, the political slant is just what you'd expect and the whole thing comes off as a mixture of heartfelt protest, solid music and occasional digression. The average age of the band's members: 62, to which the only appropriate response is: Rock 'til you drop, boys!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Batman in a world gone batty

Had director Christopher Nolan wanted to be totally accurate, he would have renamed his Batman movie, "The Really Dark Knight."

For me, "The Dark Knight" title just doesn't do justice to how grim Nolan's movie can be. Yes, it's based on characters from DC Comics, but "The Dark Knight" has the kind of tension and bloodshed we expect to find in realistic thrillers. That seems to be what Nolan is striving for, and he certainly achieves it. The opening scene -- a bank robbery staged by The Joker and many accomplices in Joker masks -- rivets attention like few recent heist movies. And the movie seldom lightens up. Its pedal to the metal gloom is so prevalent that the few attempts at humorous one-liners seem misplaced. This is Batman with a severe case of depression -- and you know what -- Nolan may be onto something. It's as if he's decided to deny us the pleasures associated with comic-book movies and once-and-for-all propel Batman into graphic novel turf.

Ethical questions -- unusual for a mass entertainment -- echo through "Dark Knight." What does morality mean in an age of terrorism? Should anyone be expected to behave rationally when confronting an irrational foe? Can anarchy be fought by non-anarchic men who accept moral limits? You'll find no reference to places as such as Quantanamo, but today's headlines resonate through "Dark Knight" just the same, lending a topical edge that Nolan surely intended.

You've probably read that the centerpiece of this Batman isn't Batman; it's The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger with a level of intensity that shakes the movie to its core. Batman -- a.k.a. Bruce Wayne -- is not especially appealing or intriguing. Maybe that was unavoidable. I'm not sure how Christian Bale could have competed with Ledger, who pushes himself toward some unseen edge. He disappears behind the Joker's psycho-clown make-up.

The rest of the cast is in fine form -- notably Aaron Eckhart as a crusading district attorney, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his girlfriend and fellow prosecutor; and Gary Oldman as a plodding detective. Any one of those actors could have -- and has -- carried his or her own movies, and I haven't even mentioned old pros Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

If you see "Batman'' in an IMAX venue (which I did) you'll have a difficult time not being wowed by the overhead shots of skyscrapers, by Batman's vertiginous leaps through night air and by the sheer scale of the destruction wrought by the Joker, a fiend who kills without compunction. He's not afraid to put children at risk. He's the devil's own master of ceremonies at a party devoted to chaos. He even blows up a hospital.

If there's fault to find here, it's with the script. An overloaded plot sometimes tramples minute-to-minute logic. Still, it wouldn't hurt if audiences actually listen to what Nolan, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, has to say: It's as if he's rubbing our noses in our taste for superhero blockbusters. You want violence? OK, I'll give you violence, only I'm going to take it further than you expect. You want evil? I'll give you evil, but I'm going to turn it into a message from hell. You want some meaning in your mass entertainment? I'll give you that, as well.

You get the idea; Nolan refuses to wink at the audience. If he wanted to his dark beauty of a movie to leave us feeling chastened, he has succeeded, which means "Dark Knight" may not be the summer movie audiences expect. "The Dark Knight" is a superhero who engenders both admiration and scorn. He's Batman for a time in which the world's moral compass has spun as wildly out of control as the movie's frantic chases. Simply put: This Batman plays for keeps.

Meryl sings and dances. Wow!

There's nothing wrong with "Mamma Mia!," the big-screen adaptation of the ABBA-inspired musical, that a healthy dose of cynicism wouldn't fix. I leave that to someone else. Meanwhile, Universal Pictures deserves credit for pitting "Mamma Mia!'' against the foreboding presence of "The Dark Knight." If Batman has gone pitch-black thematically (and it has), "Mamma Mia!" races headlong in the opposite direction, bathing itself in the spectacular light of a Greek island and in the unrelentingly upbeat rhythms of ABBA tunes. Devotes can compare the screen version to the stage show; I'll just say that I've now had my "giddy" quotient for the year. Maybe the next two.

A couple of things did occur to me as I listened to the teen-agers in the audience giggle at the way director Phillidia Lloyd framed the movie's jokes. For one, I couldn't shake the illusion-shattering knowledge that I was watching Meryl Streep sing and dance. I kept thinking something along the lines of, "Yes, it's Meryl playing air guitar, doing girl-group riffs and falling into the spirit of the whole frivolous enterprise." Pierce Brosnan, on the other, can't really sing, and I had a kind of reverse realization watching him. "Yes, there's Pierce not singing particularly well," I thought.

For those who don't know, a recap: The story involves a wedding. Streep's Donna prepares for her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) to head for the altar. Donna raised Sophie as a single mom. Eager to learn the identity of her biological father, Sophie invites three men (Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard (yes, he of angst-riddled Dogma cinema) to the nuptials. They all were involved with Donna around the time Sophie was conceived.

Also in attendance are two of Donna's gal pals (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski). Call Baranski the clear winner as far as performance is concerned. She's the group's seen-it-all, done-it-all woman.

The whole production is so pumped up that it virtually screams, "Isn't this fun?" Some of it is, but after a while, it's tiresome watching a movie that seems to be telling us how much fun we're supposed to be having. I suppose I eventually was beaten into submission. Meryl, you convinced me. You had a great time making the movie. You are the dancing queen. You go, girl.

Now, onto more important business and more appropriate exclamation points: Let's fire up the Batmobile!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Grandma goes to a war zone

Alexandr Sokurov, the much-admired Russian director, returns to the screen with "Alexandra," a movie about a grandmother (opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya) who visits her grandson (Vasily Shevtsov) at a military outpost on the Chechen front. The idea that a soldier's grandmother could visit a battle zone seems startling and preposterous, but it sets the stage for a quietly determined drama in which Vishnevskaya's character becomes both commentator and witness.

The young soldiers serving in Chechnya take a liking to her, perhaps because she represents a touch of familial warmth that they've nearly forgotten. But Vishnevskaya's character isn't exactly warm and cuddly. She's a tough old bird.

Sokurov, who directed "Russian Ark," a true masterpiece, has made another film that's bound to tax the patience of multiplex addicts who seem to control summer's moviegoing. We don't know exactly why Alexandra made this visit to her grandson Denis; we're taken aback by a late-picture scene in which Denis braids his grandmother's hair with a tenderness that's nearly erotic; we're not entirely sure how Sokurov feels about war, although an aura of futility overhangs everything that the soldiers do and say. This feeling of fatigue seems as real as the ravages of age that work on Alexandra. She frequently comments on how dirty everything is. The soldiers hardly notice. The dirt has become part of them.

The film's meaning seems to live in Vishnevskaya's every gesture. She's 81, and her character is presented as a woman whose aches and pains have real weight. She moves in slow, labored fashion, as if she's walking against the long tide of history. Sokurov leaves plenty of room for us to interpret just what the character of Alexandra represents -- all grandmothers, the Russian soul?

If you know Sokurov's work, you know that not much will happen, that much will be suggested and that you'll be able to talk for a long time about what the film is trying to say. I think Sokurov poses a haunting, awful question: When all the illusions are gone, what's left? It's a question that Sokurov rightly suggests we answer for ourselves.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The imaginative bloat of "Hellboy II"

Can there be-- as cliche insists -- too much of a good thing? I'm not sure, but I began to wonder during "Hellboy II: The Golden Army,'' a movie that seems afraid to let a minute pass without introducing one more impressive creature. In this edition, director Guillermo Del Toro's like a generous kid who wants to share every toy in his toy chest. I appreciated the cinematic largess, but wondered whether I was watching inspired creativity or B-movie bloat? Maybe "Hellboy II" offers a bit of both.

When "Pan's Labyrinth" played the Toronto International Film Festival, del Toro told me in an interview that he couldn't have made his eerie, brilliant anti-Fascist fantasy had he not done "Hellboy" first. Del Toro said he learned much from "Hellboy" that became useful to him as he worked on "Pan's Labyrinth."

Watching "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," it struck me that the obviously talented Del Toro, who'll be directing the upcoming "Hobbit" movies, had found himself a new laboratory. The sequel to 2004's "Hellboy" can be seen as an elaborate creature feature, a display of unleashed (and sometimes over-indulged) imagination built around a story that's not nearly as interesting as the movie's visual pyrotechnics.

Ron Perlman returns as the big-fisted, cigar-chomping Hellboy, and Selma Blair and Doug Jones reprise their roles as Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien. This time, Hellboy must stop Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), a brooding warrior who wants to awaken an army of golden soldiers so that he can destroy all mankind. The prince's sister (Anna Walton) doesn't share her brother's ambitions. She's sympathetic to humans.

Perlman's amusing gruffness, a few humorous scenes (Hellboy and Abe Sapien getting drunk on Tecate whle listening to Barry Manilow) and an ending that's morbidly loopy keep the movie from derailing. "Hellboy's" fans may not mind that del Toro's script feels scattered, but I was slightly disappointed by a movie that -- for all its amazing monsters -- seems to lack the gripping intensity of some of del Toro's previous work.

If you want to know how the "Hellboy" series has grown, take a loot at this article from Variety.. Writer David S. Cohen, who interviewed del Toro, begins by noting that this edition of the "Hellboy" series features 32 monsters as compared to five in the original.

Herzog in the land of penguins

Anyone familiar with the work of Werner Herzog knows that the German-born director has a taste for extremes. Herzog makes features ("Rescue Dawn") and documentaries ("Grizzly Man"), and his filmography virtually brims with one eccentric dare after another. So if Herzog takes his camera to Antarctica, it's a safe bet that he's not coming home with something conventional. It's an even safer bet that Herzog's movie will reflect his vision, which in this case comes wrapped in a doom-laden, somber package.

"Encounters at the End of the World" is no Al Gorish warning about global warming. It's not an occasion for liberal hand wringing, either. Rather it's an ominous rumble of doom concocted by Herzog from ingredients that should be incompatible, but somehow aren't. Odd bursts of absurdity (an interview with a woman who drove across Africa in a garbage truck) mingle with prophetic pronouncements (interviews with scientists who look ahead to a time when all humanity resides in history's bone yard). To further up the ominous ante, Herzog accompanies his images with music that sounds as if it had been composed in some mysterious cavern where the cosmos retreats to ponder itself.

Could it all be some sort of monumental goof? I wondered. It's difficult not to laugh when Herzog asks a scientist whether penguins have been known to suffer from insanity. It's a purely Herzogian question, and it doesn't necessarily require an answer. Rather it reflects the director's view that all creatures probably suffer terrible deviations from normalcy. He also wants to know about "prostitution" among penguins, activities in which the females engage in deception and award sexual favors for gain. He chooses the word "prostitution," as if he's imagining female penguins of easy virtue standing provocatively on the corner of ice flows, whistling to prospective Johns. It's preposterous, of course, an imposition of a morally charged word on creatures that live beyond such conceptual judgment.

Upon arriving at the grim-looking McMurdo research station at the South Pole -- Herzog rightly compares it to an outpost on an alien planet -- the director unpacks a kit full of bleak lyricism: He interviews scientists and induces many of them to acknowledge that man's life on Earth may be drawing to a close. He also finds many kindred spirits, including a plumber who talks about his Aztec roots. He presents McMurdo as a repository of weirdness, the place at the bottom of the world to which brilliant misfits inevitably tumble, strange filings drawn to a powerful magnet. As attracted as he may be to these eccentrics, Herzog can't wait to get away from McMurdo, which carries what he regards as the taint of civilization, abominations such as an ATM machine and a yoga studio.

None of this is to say that Herzog can't be awestruck. He makes spectacular use of undersea footage, some of it shot by the film's producer Henry Kaiser, who also wrote the music. And his view of Antarctic tends to underscore its beautiful severity: One scientist describes the world under the ice -- i.e., the ocean -- as one of rampant hostility, an environment full of cruel, life-crushing jokes. One creature entraps its victims. The more they struggle, the more ensnared they become. So the movie is about impending doom, but also perhaps about the abundant horrors that go along with survival.

As for insanity among penguins...Herzog discovers that some penguins buck the tide. Instead of walking toward the ocean with his fellows, one penguin insists on waddling toward the mountains, a journey that will bring certain death. Isolated from his companions, he marches dutifully toward his demise. Is he a stand-in for Herzog? For all of humanity? What makes a creature -- any creature -- bring such inexorable will to his own self-destruction?

Herzog seems less interested in providing answers than in casting a grave spell with this documentary, one of his best, I think. Rather than inundate us with information, he travels across terrain so forbidding, it's clear that humans don't belong there. And he raises an awful question that rumbles through the entire movie: How long will it be before we don't belong anywhere?

China: sailing up a river of contradictions

This week, the Discovery Channel is airing Ted Koppel's "The People's Republic of Capitalism," a four-part look at contemporary China with an emphasis on the contradictions that have resulted from China's heady immersion in capitalism. For another -- and far more lyrical view -- of such contradictions, try Yung Chang's "Up the Yangtze," a documentary about the strange consequences of building the Three Gorges dam. Mao Zedong was keen on the idea of building the dam, which required massive flooding, which -- in turn -- meant relocating the populations of entire cities. Without being preachy, Yung exposes problems and peculiarities that have resulted from the Three Gorges project. He focuses, for example, on a family of subsistence farmers whose 16-year-old daughter, Yu Shui, goes to work on one of the tour boats that carry foreigners up the Yangtze, trips that partly focus on the glories of China's achievements. You won't see many Chinese on such tours. Maybe that's why workers on these ships are given English names -- Yu Shui becomes Cindy -- and are expected to serve the tourists with smiles and an unsullied optimism that doesn't always match the reality of their lives. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Wang Shi Qing, "Up the Yangzte" captures the hopes of those who aspire to prosperity in the new China and those who are being left behind.

Of note: Based on a novel by Monica Ali, "Brick Lane" chronicles the life of a young woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) whose father ships her from Bangladesh to London to marry a supposedly prosperous emigre (Satish Kaushik). Chatterjee's Nazneen lives according to plan -- call it quiet desperation -- until she meets an attractive young man (Christopher Simpson) who opens her eyes to new possibilities. Director Sarah Gavron doesn't plow much fresh ground, but she presents a telling portrait of the lives of those who occupy a kind of limbo, people trying to understand where exactly they can feel at home in the world. Because the main characters are Muslims, Gavron also is able to show the kinds of anger that develops when a population feels that it's being excluded from the mainstream. In brief: Solid, if not inspired, filmmaking about an interesting and increasingly important subject.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The life and career of Hunter S. Thompson

Alex Gibney won an Oscar for his documentary "Taxi To the Dark Side," a probing look at the effects of torture and wrongful imprisonment in the fight against terror. Prior to that, he scored with "The Smartest Guys in the Room," a zesty documentary about the Enron debacle.

Now, comes "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," a big-screen biography of the writer credited with inventing gonzo-style journalism. A renegade capable of monumental and unashamed self-indulgence, Thompson remains a figure who may be more important for his legend than for his work. How you respond to Gibney's documentary may depend on how you respond to Thompson. Fans will devour it the way Thompson claimed to have gobbled pills. Others may find themselves tuning in and out.

Most of the people Gibney interviewed can't recall Thompson without smiling, which says something about the guy, but Gibney's movie -- composed of interviews, archival footage and home movies -- tends to overdo. It goes on about Thompson -- and then goes on some more. Maybe that's unavoidable. The movie is built around Thompson, a writer who became a countercultural star and who watched the passing circus through his own peculiar, drug addled consciousness.

It remains to be seen whether Thompson's most important work -- "Hells Angels,'' "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas," and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" -- will have lasting value. But even after his death, Thompson continues as a figure who makes readers long for the emergence of another rebel with a typewriter. The man had fans. I attended a packed preview screening of "Gonzo." The audience's often-vocal responses made me believe that Gibney -- whose more significant documentary about torture didn't attract much of an audience -- will score bigger this time.

Say this: Thomson had a powerful ego. If that ego drove much of his work, its power seems to have extended beyond death, finding posthumous expression in this overly long movie. Still, "Gonzo" has its virtues -- as a summation of a tumultuous period in our semi-recent history, as a look at someone who tried to live in perpetual extremis and as a document that proves that the vices of the self-indulgent often are excused by devotes who dabble, though far less adventurously, in some of the same behavior.

At times, I found the movie indulgent, as well. I wish, for example, that "Gonzo'' -- which is narrated by Johnny Depp -- had used less footage from Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." One viewing of that movie was quite enough, thank you. But even someone as dubious as myself found some laughs in Thompson's more outrageous ploys and enjoyed revisiting some of his descriptions of Richard M. Nixon, a man he regarded as a shabby crook who represented the worst part of the American spirit. Or better still, there's Thompson's bizarre assertion that Ed Muskie, at the time a vice presidential candidate, had fried his brain with a drug called Ibogaine. People evidently believed Thompson, who blurred the line between satire and journalism, was onto something.

Still, I couldn't help making a mental comparison: Thompson's career took a major downturn when he was sent to Zaire to cover the famous Ali-Foreman fight. Convinced Ali would get clobbered, Thompson spent the fight bobbing in a hotel pool. At the same time, Norman Mailer -- a better writer and a more courageous thinker -- was writing some of the best boxing prose anyone ever authored.

Thompson, Mailer and Tom Wolfe, who's interviewed by Gibney, helped radicalize journalistic style -- if only for a moment. Of them all, I find Mailer the most interesting. Watching "Gonzo" only reinforced that belief, but it did make me nostalgic for a time when the there seemed to be more virtue in antagonizing the mainstream than in trying to appease it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A super-senseless superhero movie

SUMMARY: Will Smith stars as a foul-tempered, drunken superhero in "Hancock," an action movie whose blockbuster scale is matched by its failure to make even a little bit of sense. Smith, who has made his name synonymous with big-budget, big-ticket entertainment, might well benefit from giving up the burden of having to carry tent-pole movies on his back. A career shift might lead him to more interesting acting choices -- and not just the occasional digression we saw with "The Pursuit of Happyness." Smith is a talented, likable presence and a true movie star, and, yes, I'd like to see him use his stardom for something more than anchoring the latest Hollywood money machine.

This time out, Smith plays John Hancock, a Los Angeles drunk who happens to have superpowers. Hancock often saves the day, but not without alienating those whose lives he reluctantly protects. A Hancock rescue mission is likely to result in as much as $9 million in damages, causing city officials to wish he'd ply his trade elsewhere. When this guy plunges out of the sky, he becomes a human wrecking ball. Tarmac flies.

Early on, Hancock rescues a PR man whose car gets stuck at a railroad crossing. Realizing that Hancock has an image problem, a grateful Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) offers professional help. He wants Hancock to smile more and make sure to thank the cops for whom he previously has shown only contempt. For reasons that eventually become clear, Hancock makes a combustible connection with Embrey's wife (Charlize Theron).

For a while it appears as if the movie is going to be a scattershot series of episodes built around jokes that arise when Hancock (who at one point agrees to a rehabilitative jail sentence) tries to make the transition from renegade to socially acceptable superhero. He even dons a black leather uniform that Embry has designed for him.

So far, so good.

But "Hancock" is very much like a poker game in which one of the players goes all-in too early. A major plot twist pushes the movie into realms where script logic is vanquished. It's always a bad sign when the characters explain the movie's mysteries rather than allowing them to be revealed during the action.

To make matters worse, scenes of Hancock taking flight don't look real, and director Peter Berg's reliance on woozy close-ups proves disorienting. It's as if the actors are being photographed from a rowboat on a choppy lake.

Smith and Theron have a few good comic moments together; Bateman is stuck playing second fiddle. Overall, though, Smith -- who must give the movie its center -- does a one-note dance that relies too heavily on the fact that he is unshaven, unkempt and unrepentant.

The longer it goes on, the more "Hancock" seems to put its worst foot forward. It abandons the comedy that results from Hancock's ragtag dissolution and tires for something more. Dissatisfied with amusing variations on a one-joke theme, the movie turns into one of summer's biggest messes.

The G-rated "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" should hit the spot with its target audience: girls between seven and 12. Derived from a series of dolls and books, the movie centers on Kit (Abigail Breslin), a Cincinnati girl who wants to be a newspaper reporter. The time: The Depression. Amazingly, the movie doesn't soft-pedal the difficulties of economic deprivation. Director Patricia Rozema can't always keep plot seams from showing, but she manages to entertain while also letting kids know about some of the difficulties of living through hard times: Kit's father (Chris O'Donnell) leaves home in search of work, and Mom (Julia Ormond) is forced to take in borders. OK, we're not talking "Grapes of Wrath" here, but "Kit Kittredge" is better and less condescending than you'd expect.

Having said that, I'd caution you not to be entirely swept away by some of the movie's more positive reviews. This is not "Grapes of Wrath" for kids; it's a decent movie inspired by a doll.