4-star film capsules -- Week of March 21

Associated Press Published:

"The Call" -- Long a bit player in movies, the 911 dispatcher finally gets a starring role. It would seem long overdue, since Halle Berry is apparently among their ranks. She's an emergency operator in Los Angeles, where the trauma of a first kidnapping case has forced her to hang up the headset. But, having shifted to a trainer position, she's lured back for a second kidnapping call when a rookie dispatcher can't handle the frightening pleas from a taken teenager (Abigail Breslin) trapped in a car's trunk. Director Brad Anderson ("Transsiberian") working from the simple, high concept screenplay by Richard D'Ovidio, ably cuts between the fraught strategizing at the call center and the frantic police pursuit of the kidnapper (Michael Eklund). The film dials up a shallow thrill ride, but one efficiently peppered with your typical "don't go in there!" moments. But what once was usual for Hollywood -- reliable, popcorn-eating genre frights -- isn't so much anymore. A rudimentary, almost old-fashioned 90-minute escape, the film achieves its low ambitions. R for violence, disturbing content and some language. Running time: 95 minutes.

HH-stars.

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" -- The only incredible thing here is the way this comedy makes Steve Carell so thoroughly and irreparably unlikable. In a film about magic tricks, this is the most difficult feat of all. Even when Carell is playing characters who are nerdy ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") or needy ("Crazy, Stupid, Love") or clueless (TV's "The Office") or just plain odd ("Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"), there's usually an inherent decency that shines through and makes him seem relatable, vulnerable, human. None of those qualities exists within Burt Wonderstone, a selfish and flashy Las Vegas magician who once ruled the Strip alongside his longtime friend and partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), but now finds his act has grown outdated and unpopular. Even within the confines of a comedy sketch, where he probably belongs, Burt would seem one-dimensional and underdeveloped with his hacky jokes and tacky clothes. Stretched out to feature length, the shtick becomes nearly unbearable -- until, of course, the movie doles out its obligatory comeuppance, followed by redemption, and goes all soft and nice. By then it's too little, too late. Jim Carrey gives it his all, as always, as the up-and-coming gonzo street magician who threatens Burt's career, but Olivia Wilde gets little more to do than serve as the supportive "girl" as Burt's assistant. PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language. 101 minutes.

H-1/2 stars.

"Spring Breakers" -- Harmony Korine seems to want it both ways, all day, in this superstylized descent into a sunbaked hell where bikini-clad, gun-toting college babes serve as our guides. As writer and director, Korine wants us to be appalled and aroused, hypnotized and titillated. He wants to satirize the debauchery of girls gone wild while simultaneously reveling in it. And damned if he doesn't pull it off. This is the rare movie that I actually found myself liking the more time I spent away from it. In the moment, I found it numbingly repetitive, even boring at times: an obvious juxtaposition of sex and violence, of dreamlike aesthetics within a nightmare scenario. And it is all those things. But it stuck with me, and it made me realize the genius of his approach. There is a great deal of genuine artistry in this film, which is the most polished and mainstream to date from the maker of indies like "Trash Humpers," but "Spring Breakers" is also provocative in various ways, depending on the viewer. The corruption of formerly squeaky-clean Disney superstars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens may be Korine's cleverest trick of all: They get to show some range, we get to gawk. R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout. 92 minutes.

HH-1/2 stars.

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

H-star.

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

HH-stars.

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