Capsule reviews of 'Brave' and other new films

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"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" — Those four words, strung together in that order, sound like a lot of fun, don't they? It's a totally ridiculous premise, this notion that our 16th president lived a secret life, seeking out bloodsuckers at night. But it's a creative one, and it should have provided the basis for a free-wheeling, campy good time. Unfortunately, director Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith, adapting his own best-selling novel, take this concept entirely too seriously. What ideally might have been playful and knowing is instead uptight and dreary, with a visual scheme that's so fake and cartoony, it depletes the film of any sense of danger. Bekmambetov, the Russian director whose 2008 action hit "Wanted" was such a stylish, sexy thrill, weirdly stages set pieces that are muddled and hard to follow, and the murky 3-D conversion doesn't help matters. He also keeps going back to some of the same gimmicky uses of 3-D, including slo-mo slashings and beheadings that send black vampire blood spurting from the screen; the repetition of this trick produces the same numbing effect that it had in Tarsem Singh's "Immortals" last year. The tall, lanky Benjamin Walker certainly looks the part as the title character but there's no oomph to his performance. He doesn't exude any confidence or charisma, either as he becomes increasingly skilled in vanquishing his foes or as he succeeds in wooing the sophisticated (and engaged) Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And once he becomes the Lincoln we actually know — with the beard and the hat and that big, famous speech — it feels like he's playing dress-up rather than embodying the spirit of a towering historical figure. R for violence throughout and brief sexuality. 105 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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"Brave" — Pixar is long overdue for a feature with a strong female character at its center. Now that she's arrived, it's clear that she deserves better. "Brave" is beautiful to look at, as you would expect given the technical and artistic standard the animation behemoth has set. Set in the wilds of Scotland, this 13th Pixar feature is full of lush, green forests and dramatic, rolling hills, all of which look even more idyllic bathed in a delicate, mystical sunlight. Our heroine, the feisty and free-spirited Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), has a finely detailed mane of long, red curls that look so bouncy and soft, they'll make you want to roll around in them, then maybe take a little nap. And the story begins promisingly enough, with our heroine — an avid archer — leaping on her valiant steed and taking a thunderous ride through the countryside, expertly hitting her targets without missing a beat. She's obviously a character with a mind of her own, one who has no apprehension about breaking the rules — which is why it's such a shame that the film itself feels so old-fashioned and safe. The script, credited to co-directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman as well as Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi, revisits some familiar Disney character types and themes: a princess in a long-ago kingdom who pays an ill-fated visit to a witch, a spell that changes everything and needs to be broken, and the misunderstandings and danger that ensue. "Brave" begins thrillingly but turns rather silly and slapsticky, as if it were aimed mainly at the little kids in the audience rather than the whole family. But the voice cast is strong, including Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson as Merida's parents, the king and queen. PG for some scary action and rude humor. 93 minutes. Two stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

___

"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" — Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, together as a couple who've fallen suddenly and madly in love? Surely the apocalypse is nigh. It's coming in three weeks, to be exact, in the feature directing debut from screenwriter Lorene Scafaria ("Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist"). An asteroid 70 miles (213 kilometers) wide is hurtling toward Earth, ensuring destruction and doom for the entire planet. Scafaria explores how people behave when the rules of polite society are stripped away, a premise that isn't exactly novel — the world ended just last year, much more artfully, in Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" — but one that's brimming with potential for absurdist, satirical comedy. Within that setting, Carell and Knightley get thrown together. The pairing doesn't make a whole lot of sense on paper — in the real world or on the big screen — but for the most part they have enough unexpected, opposites-attract likability and find themselves in enough strangely amusing situations to make the movie work. The mawkish third act, however, nearly destroys all that appeal. Carell's character is very much in the vein of the detached and depressed but wryly observant figures he's played before: He's an insurance agent whose wife takes off when news of the asteroid breaks. Knightley is his downstairs neighbor in the apartment building, a free-spirited, pot-smoking Brit with a penchant for classic vinyl records. Naturally, these two people need to go on a road trip. R for language including some sexual references, some drug use and brief violence. 101 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

___

"To Rome With Love" — Woody Allen had better working titles for this one, first, "Bop Decameron," then, "Nero Fiddled." Despite the exquisite locations of the filmmaker's first story of love, Italian style, this bland ensemble romance lives up — or rather, lives down — to the generic postcard sentiment of its final title. Weaving four stories of Italians and American visitors, the writer-director creates a lot of clever moments with his ensemble comedy that features Allen's first on-screen appearance since 2006's "Scoop." In between the good times, the story and characters just drift about awkwardly, stuck on a walking tour of Rome that continually bumps up against dead ends, or worse, circles back so we wind up seeing the same things a few times too many. Allen's co-stars include past collaborators Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis and Alison Pill, plus Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page, Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig. Most of the performances are tentative and jittery, and the four scenarios are generally uninvolving. Throughout the film, it's not Nero who's fiddling, but Allen, bopping and dithering around Rome like a tourist so desperate to cram in all the sights that he comes away only with a few crisp highlights and a lot of out-of-focus snapshots. R for some sexual references. 112 minutes. Two stars out of four.

— David Germain, AP Movie Writer

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