This week at the movies, we’ve got a spy on the run (Salt, starring Angelina Jolie and Liev Schreiber) and some feuding sisters (Ramona and Beezus, starring Selena Gomez and John Corbett). What do the critics have to say?


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Salt

Now that the Cold War is long over, they don’t make thrillers like they used to. Oh, wait, maybe they do. The critics say Salt is a solid, meat-and-potatoes spy flick with a standout performance from Angelina Jolie — and, unfortunately, a completely preposterous plot. Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who goes on the run after being accused of spying for the Russians. Will she be able to prove her innocence? The pundits say Salt is an effective popcorn movie that firmly establishes Jolie in the upper echelon of action stars, bar gender. However, many also note that even popcorn movies need cohesiveness and believability, and that Salt is often tripped up by its gaping plot holes.(Check out this week’s Total Recall, in which we run down Jolie’s best-reviewed movies.)


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Ramona and Beezus

Filled with true-to-life vignettes and mischievous humor, the works of Beverly Cleary have long been staples of the pre-teen reading diet. Now, Ramona and Beezus is finally getting the big screen treatment, and the result, say critics, is pleasant but generic. Newcomer Joey King stars as Ramona, the irrepressible scamp that drives her big sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) up a wall with her wild imagination and penchant for making a mess. Will sisterhood ultimately win the day? The pundits say this is sweet, innocuous fare that’s well-acted and mildly amusing, but also ultimately kind of dull and sitcommy.


Also opening this week in limited release:

This week on DVD and Blu-ray, American provocateur Todd Solondz returns with a sequel to his infamous indie hit Happiness, we have the (most likely) unrelated return of Nanny McPhee, this year’s hit Swedish thriller soon to become a David Fincher movie… and a UWE BOLL DIRECTOR’S CUT. Wait, who asked for that one?



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Life During Wartime

It’s been more than a decade since American director Todd Solondz delivered what may be his high-water mark in 1998’s uneasy-brilliant Happiness, a comedy-drama centred around the lives of three sisters that found unlikely humour in sexual deviancy, depression and abnormal psyches. Life During Wartime is the director’s sequel, though not as you’d expect: following the same characters’ lives a decade on, Solondz has replaced the original cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, et al) with an entirely new troupe of actors (including Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Alison Janney and Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman.) The effect is both disorientating and oddly familiar — as the opening scene, which replicates the beginning of Happiness, demonstrates — imbuing the film with a strong sense of deja vu. (The casting trick also recalls Solondz’s Palindromes, which used different actors to portray the one character.) Wartime is perhaps less sensational than its predecessor, with the characters now existing in a kind of peculiar purgatory as they attempt to move on with their lives, yet it’s no less original in tone or humour. In this way it almost feels like the middle chapter of a trilogy for Solondz — you can see him picking up the thread in another decade, again with a new set of players. Thus far, critical reaction has been positive. “Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is a genuine, all-enveloping bad-dream movie,” says the New York magazine’s David Edelstein, who calls the movie a masterpiece, “and I’m still wrestling with its squirmy mix of grotesquerie and humanism, stylized camp and acid realism.”



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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson was a Swedish journalist and writer who died in 2004 of a heart attack, but three novels he wrote were posthumously published, beginning with 2005’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The first part of a trilogy, Dragon Tattoo became an instant bestseller, and based on the popularity of the book, a film adaptation was made and released in 2009. The film was also a great success, and proved a sleeper hit internationally this year. The story revolves around a forty-year-old unsolved murder, and the uncle of its victim who is convinced the murder was perpetrated by someone within the family. In order to help research his hunch, he joins forces with a disgraced journalist and a tattooed computer hacker to discover the truth behind the crime. Though the film’s length and brutal violence might turn some viewers off, critics felt that actress Noomi Rapace’s performance as the titular character was gripping enough to make the film worth checking out, and at 87% on the Tomatometer, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Certified Fresh. David Fincher seems to agree — he’s picked up the rights to the film for a remake, his possible next directing project.



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Chloe

Amanda Seyfried first caught the public’s eye as the naive and dim-witted member of Rachel McAdams’s Mean Girls posse, continuing on to play similarly sweet roles in films like Mamma Mia! and Letters to Juliet. Even in the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, Seyfried played the innocent foil to Megan Fox’s evil seductress. But earlier this year, Seyfried shed her good-girl image — and her clothes — to play the title role in the erotic thriller Chloe. Co-starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore, Chloe centers around a woman named Catherine (Moore) who suspects her husband David (Neeson) of cheating on her; in a dangerous and ill-advised ploy to test his faithfulness, she hires a prostitute (Seyfried) to make advances on David. As Chloe offers Catherine the sordid details of her encounters with David in regular meetings, something else begins to awaken within Catherine, and soon all three are embroiled in a complex web of deceit. Unfortunately, critics were lukewarm on Chloe, criticizing the film for failing to capitalize on its strong cast and titillating premise; somehow the film falls flat. However, if you’re looking for a psychological thriller with a star playing against her type, then this might work for you.



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Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

From adulterous thrillers to family-friendly entertainment — that’s just the way we mix things up around here — next we have the ever-so charming return of Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, a sequel to the surprise hit kids film from 2005. In this installment, the knobbly-nosed one arrives to help a young mother who’s working on a farm while her husband is away at war. Magic, naturally, ensues, as do appearances by Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Quite the cast. Like the original, this was another hit with the critics. “With acrobatic pigs, homespun wisdom and cross-generation humour,” wrote Little White Lies, “Nanny McPhee is a hugely entertaining family film to melt the stoniest of hearts and tickle the most callous toes.”



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In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

Now, in case you were fearing you’d woken up in a parallel dimension again, rest assured we’re still living in a world where Uwe Boll films get… director’s cuts?! Hurgh? Either fans demanded it or this is the definitive edition that reveals the cinematic masterpiece buried within the theatrical cut — whichever the case, here comes the Director’s Cut of Boll’s 2007 flop In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, based on the video game and looking like a not-too-subtle attempt to riff on The Lord of the Rings. Still, with a cast that includes Jason Statham, Matthew Lillard and Burt Reynolds (!), this will have fans of so-bad-it’s-good, or just plain old bad, moviemaking in heaven.



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Jason and the Argonauts

Now here’s something for those of you into old school special effects. For those unfamiliar with Ray Harryhausen, he’s the special effects guru who put the “clash” in the original Clash of the Titans, the one who animated the swordfight between Kali and Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the one who brought the dinosaurs to life that would chase Raquel Welch throughout One Million Years B.C.. Harryhausen isn’t the father of stop-motion animation, but he certainly made sure the technique was utilized for several decades in some of the most memorable epics on film. One such film was 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, a retelling of the story of the mythical Greek hero and his quest for the Golden Fleece. Of particular note here are the sequences that Harryhausen oversaw, which include a battle with a six-headed Hydra and a swordfight with seven animated skeletons. This was before the era of CGI, but there is a definite charm to effects seen here, and Argonauts is a bona fide cult classic because of them. This week, it arrives for the first time on Blu-Ray, and you can pick it up and enjoy those effects in high definition, even it sort of takes away from the atmosphere a little bit.

Written by Ryan Fujitani and Luke Goodsell