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Quick Flicks

Capsule reviews of current films.

"The Aristocrats" — It's a 90-minute onslaught of almost unbroken obscenity served up by comedians as they put their own perverse spin on a joke that, until now, has been something of a trade secret among comics going back to the days of vaudeville. To get the ball rolling, old-timer Jay Marshall tells the joke in its sparest possible form. While pretty funny, it isn't much in itself. But in the hands of the master comics who retell it, it's like a simple musical phrase in which a classical composer or jazz musician can discover limitless possibilities. Only the opening and the punch line are set in stone; the middle, in which the act itself is described, can be infinitely varied and endlessly extended. George Carlin, who comes across as the senior theoretician of this phenomenon, offers the closest thing to a justification for this torrent of obscenity when he speaks of "the joy of saying something that violates someone's boundaries." (NR) 90 min. ****1/2 — Thomas Peyser

"The Brothers Grimm" — Terry Gilliam's much anticipated film is a visually impressive but viscerally blank movie thanks to Ehren Kruger's ("The Skeleton Key") irksome script. Without concern for veracity about the celebrated authors of such fairy-tale classics as "Cinderella" and "Rapunzel," Kruger imagines the erudite brothers as fictional 19th-century con men, fooling German villagers about monsters. The gypsy brothers, cynical Will (Matt Damon) and gullible Jacob (Heath Ledger), are found out and captured by French authorities, who assign them to dispel the mystery behind the disappearance of some young maidens. Even fairy tales don't need to be this tediously gimmicky. (PG-13) 118 min. ** — Cole Smithey

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" — Tim Burton's latest film is a more ambitious and much funnier adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's book. It is contemporary, sophisticated satire and spoof, whereas "Willy Wonka," with its melancholy titular character and obsession with spies, was mustier, Cold War Dickens. In the new version, the poverty of Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and his family (Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, David Kelly) is played for laughs rather than tears. Charlie, in fact, though returned to the title, is exiled to the background once he finds his golden ticket. The show is mostly Burton until we get to Wonka's extravagant lair, and after that moment all Burton as channeled through Depp, the zaniness culminating in a homage to "2001." Whether or not kids will think it's funny is hard to say, but their parents will surely wonder what happened to the book's message about honesty being its own reward. (PG) 115 mins. **** — Wayne Melton

"The Constant Gardener" - Kenya is filmed within an inch of its life as we learn of the machinations of pharmaceutical companies using the Kenyans as guinea pigs to test their wares. A fine-looking journalist (Rachel Weisz) is on the case while her husband (Ralph Fiennes) is wrapped up in low-level diplomatic work for the British government. Both are being watched by the conniving powers that be, including nasty big pharma execs and their own colleagues. "City of God" director Fernando Meirelles uses every crazy angle, rapid montage, color saturation and panning technique he was able to squeeze in his first film and then some as he tells this story (based on a novel by John le Carré) in a mix of flashback and present-day action. The tale and its implications are rare and worthy subjects, and the mystery is tightly wound and naturalistic. If only you didn't have to sit through all the masturbatory artistry to take it in. (R) 128 min. **1/2 — W.M.

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" — Audiences seeking the rush of fear so eloquently delivered in the bar-setting 1973 horror classic "The Exorcist" will be disappointed by writer/director Scott Derrickson's imbalanced attempt at stirring similar emotions. Purportedly based on actual events, the story commences just after the death of a teenaged girl (Jennifer Carpenter) during an exorcism performed by a priest (Tom Wilkinson) who suddenly finds himself the target of murder charges based on his assumed negligence. Father Moore (Wilkinson) refuses to cop a plea and instead insists on publicly airing the girl's story in a jury trial with the assistance of his ambitious attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney). The movie unsuccessfully toggles between snappy courtroom testimony and creepy flashback episodes. These build toward an anticlimax that fails to adequately reveal the circumstances of Emily Rose's death. PG-13 114 min. **1/2 — C.S.,/i>

"Four Brothers" — John Singleton directs a clumsy modernist revision of John Wayne's Western "The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965) with a multiracial group of four adopted brothers who bond over a mission to avenge their mom's brutal killing. Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin and Garrett Hedlund do competent jobs of representing a tough brand of macho charisma but never compensate for the script's artificial underpinnings. Chiwetel Ejiofor is positively menacing as a brutal mob boss responsible for killing the boys' mother. Corrupt cops and politicians, blazing gun battles and uncertain stabs at sentimentality accompany this revenge thriller that's more spectacle than content. (R) 108 mins. ** — C.S.

"The Man" — The nebulous title indicates the sloppy nature of this action comedy starring Samuel L. Jackson as an undercover federal agent who mercilessly abuses an amiable but exasperating dental supply salesman (Eugene Levy) in the interest of busting a gang of Detroit gunrunners. This by-committee comedy, boasting three screenwriters, never hits a clear pitch of humor or coalesces above its rambling storyline. The characters come together when Levy visits Detroit from Wisconsin to speak at a dental convention and is innocently swept up in Jackson's frantic attempt to disassociate himself from a recent crime. The movie is primarily an excuse for his character to spew obscenities while Levy tempers the film's crudeness with his arsenal of goofy facial expressions and earthy wit. He saves a few scenes, but the only truly thankful thing here is brevity. PG-13 84 min. *1/2 — C.S.

"March of the Penguins" — At the start of winter, emerging from their ice holes, a long line of emperor penguins proceed in their shuffling walk 70 miles to their breeding ground. Once paired off, mom and pop penguin wait for the coming egg, switching guardianship when it arrives so the female can head back to the ocean to eat. Director Luc Jacquet (aided by a sober and reverential narrative from Morgan Freeman) imbues the harsh test of nature that follows with a touch of human feelings. The documentary has its moments of sentimentality, but it succeeds as an uncomplicated testament to the courage of our fellow animals and the fortitude of a much misrepresented bird. (G ) 80 mins.**** — W.M.

"Red Eye" — Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth's admission that he wrote the movie with inspiration from Joel Schumacher's notoriously hokey "Phone Booth" speaks volumes about the tedious straight-line narrative Ellsworth gives horror master Wes Craven to direct. Rachel McAdams is a hotel manager on an overnight flight to Miami. Her fear of flying is overshadowed by the threat to her father (Brian Cox) by her seatmate Jackson Ripper (Cillian Murphy). Something about switching hotel rooms, the plot is too hokey by half to recount. Craven fails to elevate the lackluster script and does surprisingly little to add scares. (PG-13) 85 mins. *1/2 — C.S.

"Transporter 2" — French film industry heavyweight Luc Besson continues his "Transporter" franchise (producing), with Jason Statham returning as a hair-challenged professional driver with a penchant for Jackie Chan-style stunts. Set in Miami, the picture follows Frank Martin (Statham) as he attempts to rescue the son of a wealthy family from kidnappers intent on spreading a fatal virus. The bare-bones story serves as a skeleton on which to hang stylized car chases, martial arts mayhem and explosions galore. The "Transporter" franchise has picked up the slack left over from the lack of James Bond movies in recent years. Sure, it's a smaller-scale knockoff, but the overall effect is similar. PG-13 88 min. **1/2 — C.S.

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