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Christina (howl like it hurts) Aguilera plays Ali, short for Alice, a cute-as-pie Iowa waitress with aspirations of Sunset Strip stardom. By means of contrived necessity (that is to say, she walks by the place), the hazy-eyed dreamer finds herself part of the act in a Los Angeles nightclub, catering to the tastes of the Moulin Rouge. This is of course until the club’s owner, Cher (Queen of Chic, Queen of Cheeks), hears her sing. The lowly backup dancer is quickly elevated to center-stage spotlight, to the chagrin of her rival and the voyeurism of her love interest (the smug-eyed Cam Gigandet, looking like a chiseled “droog” from A Clockwork Orange). Rounding out the table is Stanley Tucci, plying the last mileage he has from his persona in The Devil Wears Prada, and Eric “McSteamy” Dane, who mimics Leonardo DiCaprio.

It becomes evident from the juvenile performances and static camerawork that this is but a platform for the musical numbers, a formula that works the same in musicals, kung-fu flicks, and porn films: enough talk, get to the money shot. The “showstoppers” are not without entertainment — the choreography is suitably sexy, and the costumes slink and slither — but it’s all about the singing. Aguilera does not so much steal the show as the show is handed over to her. Unwilling to impress beyond her laurels, she floods the speakers with ghastly, gravelly scales — her trademark, her gravy train. The only redemptive note is in Cher’s voice, which is more mature and more nuanced.

Yet nothing can rescue the film from its own insecurity. No shot rests long enough for the viewer to take in the image (unless it’s during a performance) — best illustrated when the camera offers only a blurred pan to satisfy the point of view of characters admiring the L.A. skyline. Burlesque has no trust in itself as a piece of cinema, most evident in the performance of Aguilera herself, an actor so lacking in self-esteem that she is unable to inhabit any part of her character. She’s never photographed in less than a beauty-queen pamper and never seen in less than stylish, perfect clothing — never mind the fact that Ali is supposed to be a strapped-for-cash hick lost for the first time in the big city. Aguilera lacks precisely what Ali is supposed to possess: confidence.

— John Rubio


Tangled is an exercise in recycling: recycled characters, recycled melodies, recycled themes. Disney (the monarch of recycled story lines) is back to the drawing screen after a return to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog.

But even the animation here feels recycled: the Cabbage Patch plasticity of the faces, the unchanging costumes, the glowworm “magic” of the heroine’s hair (of indeterminate and inconsistent length). Everything looks like a toy. With the packaged dolls awaiting holiday sales, maybe it’s meant to. The 3D does nothing to help the overall image, offering the customary sacrifice of foreground clarity for wobbly depth.

The Rapunzel legend itself is lost amidst the Disney checklist: the awkward sidekick (here limited to expressions only); the clichéd characters, unable to express any emotional resonance unless in song; and the songs themselves, which are rehashed tunes of sentimental exposition. For all its effort to be fresh and original with “current” touches on child abduction and passive-aggressive parenting (“Mother knows best!”), the freshness amounts to little more than a sense that we’ve seen it all before. Rapunzel is Jasmine is Ariel.

— John Rubio


Ever hear someone bleed out? I don’t mean the moans of pain or the thumps of helpless thrashing, I mean the sound of individual drops of blood hitting the floor, plink plink plink. No? Well, you can if you check out Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s latest vehicle. (And “vehicle” is the right word here — the camera pays more attention to Johnson’s admittedly gorgeous Chevelle SS than it does to the actor’s scarred and overstuffed physique.) Sonic assault is the order of the day here, with jingling keys and closing doors sounding off almost as loudly as the explosion of gunfire or the roar of a muscle car that seems to peel out every time it starts moving. It’s even more noticeable than the visual assault, though blinding glares abound, as do gimmicky bits such as seeing a police car’s siren reflected in our hero’s eyes.

He’s a hunted man, you see — even though he’s (mostly) innocent, or at least (mostly) justified. The cops (including a ruined Billy Bob Thornton) are after him, as is a bored contract killer out for “something more ultimate.” Meanwhile, Johnson’s after the guys who set him up and killed his brother, and he goes about his work as a nearly silent, nearly impassive revenge machine.

But “nearly” is not “totally.” It turns out the Rock is not a robot, and that’s what makes the exxxtreme filmmaking tactics such a shame. They work to whip the audience into an all-action, shoot-’em-up frenzy, and mayhem is not what Faster is about, not really. The movie wants to be a meditation on violence and the “long, dark road” of vengeance, but when it builds to something approaching human drama — a reformed criminal pleading for his life, praying for and forgiving his would-be killer, and singing a hymn to the God he fears he’s about to meet — the scene feels jarring and weirdly slow. Like slamming a speeding car into first gear.

— Matthew Lickona


Love and Other Drugs

A movie about Anne Hathaway’s breasts, first and foremost. Or, at least, foremost at first. They are increasingly covered up as the film progresses, which is in keeping with the “bang first, ask questions later” mode of modern romance the film portrays. Once she and costar Jake Gyllenhaal have gotten used to being naked together, they can dig into questions of intimacy and — shudder — character.

Why “shudder”? Because the characters are pretty lousy. Hathaway has early-onset Parkinson’s and protects herself against further suffering by diagnosing her potential suitor into oblivion. She’s happy to skip the introductions and move straight on to sex, but not before she’s called Gyllenhaal out on his sorry attempt at courtship. He, meanwhile, is a Pfizer salesman at the dawn of Viagra, a self-identified shitbag willing to screw anybody to get ahead. I can’t remember the last time two such soft and soulful pairs of big brown eyes were called upon to provide a window into two such sad and twisted souls.

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