11 February 2011

The Roommate/The Rite/No Strings Attached/The Green Hornet

Natalie Portman, left, and Ashton Kutcher are shown in a scene from "No Strings Attached."
January and February of this year are living up to their hard-won reputation as a cinematic wasteland. With Oscar bait still going strong in theaters and bad weather frequently keeping many moviegoers at home, the studios use these two months almost exclusively to unload pictures they know will have little to no chance of succeeding at any other time of year.

That's how we get drivel like "The Roommate" finishing atop the box office over its opening weekend.

Directed by Christian E. Christiansen without a hint of subtlety or any mind toward building suspense, "The Roommate" features Leighton Meester (of TV's "Gossip Girl") as Rebecca, an off-her-meds college freshman who obsesses, "Single White Female"-style, over her new roommate, Sara (Minka Kelly of TV's "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood"). Don't waste your time about what has made Rebecca this way; no one who made the movie gave it a second thought either.

Sara and Rebecca attend a school where, evidently, Sara has only one class (a course that has something to do with fashion, presided over by an unsettling Billy Zane) and Rebecca passes the time doodling in her sketch pad. The only other people they have contact with on campus are party girl Tracy (Aly Michalka) and Sara's fratboy love interest (Cam Gigandet).

"The Rite" at least succeeds in creating a mood. Its plot concerns Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donaghue), who runs away to the seminary to escape the family funeral home business and then is forced to confront his skepticism by studying in the Vatican at the foot of a church-sanctioned exorcist (Anthony Hopkins).

Directed by Mikael Hafstrom ("1408"), "The Rite" is suitably creepy and, until the third act spins out of control, features a nicely understated performance by Hopkins, his best in years.

In a world in which "The Exorcist" (1973) never existed, "The Rite" might approach something special. But in the really real world, it brings nothing new to a small category of films that has been stagnant for nearly 40 years.

Natalie Portman is piling up the awards for her horror/dance movie "Black Swan" and trying to show her range in the comedy "No Strings Attached." In the latter, she is Emma, a doctor who embarks on a strictly sexual relationship with Adam (Ashton Kutcher), an aspiring TV writer.

There are multiple problems plaguing "No Strings Attached," but here's the biggest: Emma is mean through and through. She's not a nice person and doesn't deserve a happy ending. I doubt director Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters") intended to turn the audience completely against one of his leads, but he's limited by the inability of Portman and the rest of his cast (except for Kevin Kline as Adam's father, a fading TV star who steals his son's girlfriend) to do anything more than go through the motions of the script.

This kind of material cries out for actors capable of giving the kind of performance we see from Seth Rogen in "The Green Hornet."

Rogen is Britt Reid, the slacker playboy son of the late publisher (Tom Wilkinson) of the L.A. newspaper The Daily Sentinel. Britt isn't a nice person either, but Rogen's affable comic persona gives us a rooting interest when Britt teams with his dad's former assistant, Kato (Jay Chou), to become a masked crime-fighter.

"The Green Hornet" dates back to the 1930s and has appeared in radio programs, movies, TV shows and comic books, and this film had been in various stages of development for years. Longtime fans waiting for a serious take on the character a la other recent big-screen superhero adaptations are sure to be disappointed. Written by Rogen and Evan Goldberg ("Superbad," "The Pineapple Express"), and directed by Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), this "Green Hornet" works better as a comedy than an action movie.

"The Green Hornet," B-
"No Strings Attached," C-
"The Rite," C+
"The Roommate," D

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