Marital Trouble in Paradise

Couples Retreat (2009)

John Johnson/Universal Studios

The cast and crew of “Couples Retreat” would most likely defend their lackluster production with a simple, collective “You had to be there.” And who could blame them? Set amidst the bright, postcard-come-to-life scenery of Bora Bora, the comedy about marital errors must have been all-inclusive for those involved. There’s fancy cocktails and spas employed with attractive masseuses, snorkeling in crystal-clear waters and private cabanas. What’s missing, though, is anything resembling sharp wit. Passable at best, “Couples Retreat” — directed by actor and now first-time director, Peter Billingsley — coasts on the likability of its agreeable cast, an enormous advantage to have when your script is content with pushing comedy to its bare minimum. Seemingly fine with (at least) amusing themselves, the folks behind this just-there effort have essentially turned their own group vacation into a feature film. Too bad there’s no free drinks for the ticket buyers.

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Love Is a Many-Spoiled Thing

An Education (2009)

Kerry Brown/Sony Pictures Classics

The tenderness of Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” is positively overpowering, to a degree that even underage-cavorting is easy to forgive — thematically, of course. For her 17th birthday, wise-beyond-her-years schoolgirl Jenny (played magnificently by newcomer Carey Mulligan) is taken to Paris by the much older David (Peter Saarsgard at his best). Full of worldly charm and sophistication, David represents all that Jenny strives for. Thus, resisting his persistent courtship is all the more difficult. In Paris, she succumbs to his gentleman's flirtation, and the scene — set in a small yet plush hotel room — is sublime. So sweet, that when the narrative butterflies cease to fly and reality sets in, the sight of what’s essentially uncomfortable cradle-rocking achieves the desirability of an enviable romance. By this point into the film, the simplistic beauty of “An Education” has reached the point of no return. An irresistible one-way ticket, it is.

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Spooking Door to Door

Trick ’r Treat (2009)

Joe Lederer/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Loyal to a genre constantly attacked for its dependency on remakes and generally uninspired fare, horror fans won’t hesitate to rally behind a good film when one is mistreated. The outcry process unfolds in three stages. The first takes places at film festivals, where too-hardcore foreign films and executive-worrying studio projects enthrall critics before beginning their flights under the commercial radar. Then, a waiting period (average duration: one year at least) leaves fans hungry and agitated, placing question marks on when they’ll see those festival darlings. The third and final stage can go two ways, either with an unceremonious dumping into a minor number of theaters or the straight-to-DVD dispatching of said films. Drivel such as “The Unborn” earn 2,000-plus-screen releases.

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Whimpers in the Dark

Paranormal Activity (2009)

Fantastic Fest

The escalating phenomenon that is “Paranormal Activity” carries with it a double-edged sword that sharpens with each additional sold-out show. Made three years ago, writer-director Oren Peli’s debut — a cinema verité take on the old haunted-house motif — has been bubbling into a lava-pool full of hot and bothered horror critics since its initial 2007 film-festival rounds. After a year’s worth of grassroots buzz-building, the film was picked up by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks this past January. Lame-brained plans to remake Mr. Peli’s product were wisely ditched, leading to an underground wave of midnight screenings that kicked off late September. Its extremely limited run of midnight-or-later screenings has already brought in upwards of $535,000 for the $15,000-costing film, prompting Paramount Pictures to formally open the the company’s scrappy little cash calf in more markets — and at all hours — this weekend.

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Making Light of the Living Dead

Zombieland (2009)

Glen Wilson/Columbia Pictures

In order to survive the undead-infested America depicted in “Zombieland,” the film’s highly-phobic and anal young protagonist Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) adheres to his own set of rules. Scribbled into a pocket-sized notepad, his guidelines range from the obvious (“Rule No. 31: check the back seat”) to the darkly humorous (“Rule No. 3: beware of bathrooms”). The rule that will best prepare viewers of “Zombieland” for maximum satisfaction comes not from Columbus, but his newfound travel partner, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an eccentric killing machine who’s the Chris Farley to Columbus’s David Spade. It’s simple, really — “Rule No. 32: enjoy the little things.”

Unwavering in its off-center humor, “Zombieland” packs so many sight gags and droll one-liners into its rapid-fire 85 minutes that it’d be easy to under-appreciate the small details. If Rule No. 32 is embraced, though, “Zombieland” equates to brainless enjoyment of the most well-executed caliber. The horror-comedy wheel isn’t reinvented, but that’s measly potatoes when a main character’s biggest concern isn’t becoming corpse food, but finding the nearest Twinkie. And the payoff of his Hostess mission? A crowd-pleasing “D'oh!” moment right out of Homer Simpson’s playbook. “Zombieland” overcomes its ailments by simply going for comedic broke.

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He's Gonna Git You Sucka

Black Dynamite (2009)

BlackDynamiteStill2009 Los Angeles Film Festival

It’s a shame that the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez exploitation duet, “Grindhouse,” derailed at the box office, because “Black Dynamite” could have been billed as that double feature’s de facto sequel. Shot with the grainy texture of aged reels, director Scott Sanders’s tongue-way-past-cheek spoof of 1970s blaxploitation cinema plays like an expanded riff on the faux trailers that broke “Grindhouse” in half. Unfortunately for that Tarantino-Rodriguez project, today’s mainstream audience proved to be resistant toward winking big-screen throwbacks, aloof to — not in on — the joke. Which doesn’t bode well for “Black Dynamite.” As a straightforward comedy, the film lays the humor on thicker than Shaft’s mustache with mixed success. There in lies its dilemma: “Black Dynamite” is so married to its high-concept that story is sacrificed for shtick. That’s surely the intention, and “Black Dynamite” ultimately lives and dies by its own agenda.

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Watch Out, Boy, She'll Chew You Up

Jennifer's Body (2009)

JB-163Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox

The moment when "Jennifer's Body" begins to go down in flames isn't tough to pinpoint. Jennifer, the sex-on-two-legs cheerleader played by Megan Fox, has dragged her quiet, socially-awkward B.F.F., Needy (Amanda Seyfried), to a local bar see a new indie rock band. During the band's set, an electrical fire quickly turns the venue into an inferno. The two girls manage to escape through a window; unlike its female leads, though, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody's sophomore effort is left to slowly dissolve. The film's first horror set piece, the sequence wants to evoke "Carrie"-at-the-prom nostalgia, but it's rushed and lifeless. Whereas Brian De Palma used split-screen and a palpable mean stream to his advantage back in 1976, "Jennifer's Body" director Karyn Kusama plays it safe, treating repeated shots of screaming people engulfed in flames as scary enough. It's undercooked barbecue with no dramatic meat, and an unfortunate sign of the dullness to come.

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Greek Tragedy

Sorority Row (2009)

SROW-168 SR-02482
Michael Desmond/Summit Entertainment

Within its first 15 minutes, “Sorority Row” is already batting with a two-strike count. Before the opening credits even begin, the knowledge that the film is yet another tired horror remake is present, although the original in this case is a mostly-unloved piece of 1983 trash, “The House on Sorority Row.” The void of creativity sets in from jump, and once the central set-up — six sorority sisters stage a prank that follies into murder and then an agreed-upon cover up — is established, director Stewart Hendler’s cue seems to come directly from 1997’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Let’s tally the offenses up, now: “Sorority Row” is a remake (first strike) that totally plunders from a horror film that today’s generation knows well (there’s the second). Ask any lawyer worth his graduate-school diploma about what happens to double offenders. And then tell Mr. M.B.A. to behold an exception, because, some how, some way, “Sorority Row” overcomes such obstacles and chalks up one of the year’s most successfully executed horror films.

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Encounters With a Killer at the End of the World

Whiteout (2009)

Warner Bros. Pictures

The spirit of William Castle lives on in “Whiteout,” but for all the wrong reasons. The late horror director, known for promoting his pictures with elaborate gimmicks, was one of a kind when it came to audience interaction. For 1959’s “The Tingler,” Castle rigged buzzers to theater seats that jolted backsides whenever the movie’s titular antagonist would attack; that same year, an inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton zipped above the audience on a wire just as a skeleton terrorized Vincent Price’s fictional wife during the climax of “House on Haunted Hill.” “Whiteout” – the latest release from Joel Silver’s Dark Castle imprint, his salute to the gimmicky legend – unintentionally revives that brand of fourth-wall breaking. Set in Antarctica, it’s a lifeless murder mystery cloaked in C.G.I. snow blizzards. The filmmakers took the coldness too far, though; the frozen skills employed for “Whiteout” could literally numb viewers’ brains.

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An Inconvenient Trudge

No Impact Man (2009)

Colin at Market
Oscilloscope Laboratories

In November 2007, Colin Beavan and his family concluded a yearlong “experiment” in which they used no form of carbon-emitting transportation, watched no television, used no electricity and ultimately made as minute an environmental impact as humanly possible. Zero impact was the initial intention, in fact; but the end result was closer to little than none. The fact that the world is still polluting and wasting energy in excess just as it was in November 2006 proves that Mr. Beavan’s endeavor hasn’t caused a worldwide change. Ironically, it’s precisely that questionable success of Mr. Beavan’s plan that gives “No Impact Man,” a documentary from Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein that chronicles the 365-day mission, its winning edge. The family’s good intentions aren’t used as abrasively guilt-pushing tactics, but as catalysts for a compelling study of the plights of nobility. Light and accessible in tone, “No Impact Man” succeeds as more of a human-interest piece than a green-conscious, save-the-world plea.

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