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By Michael Calleri

With four new openings and the 3D release of a mega-hit, it's one of the busiest weeks at the movies in quite a while.

Director Oren Moverman sees something in quirky actor Woody Harrelson that excites him. Harrelson is usually associated with offbeat comic roles, especially his bartender character in the television series "Cheers" and the star bowler in "Kingpin."

Granted, some other moviemakers who specialize in drama have tapped Harrelson, including Oliver Stone in "Natural Born Killers" and Milos Forman in "The People Vs. Larry Flynt." A case can be made that in both films Harrelson played a character rich in inspired lunacy and comic mania.

It's been up to Moverman to appreciate Harrelson as a dramatic actor with depth and unlimited possibilities. He directed him in the superb "The Messenger" from 2009. And now Moverman is showcasing Harrelson's talents in "Rampart," a rough-and-tumble, emotionally painful examination of systemic police corruption in Los Angeles in 1999. Rampart is the name of a police precinct in L.A.

The very strong movie stars an excellent Harrelson as David Douglas Brown, a cop gone bad. He's a Vietnam veteran with anger in his heart and venom in his soul. He's also a family man, but his family life is a mess.

His two ex-wives are played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche. They are sisters, and they and Brown all live together in the same house with the two daughters Brown has, one with each of the women.

Harrelson could have received a Best Actor nomination for this year's Oscars as the renegade police officer, but he didn't, although he certainly deserved it.

Brown is determined to do "the people's dirty work," but he's also determined to do it his way. His idea of justice differs from the rules in the law enforcement handbook. He exists in a violent world of mean streets and meaner people. Brown has no problem blurring the lines between right and wrong. He sees himself as a hero, and the action he takes is the action he believes is required to keep Los Angeles safe.

In 1999, the use of videotape was one growing way for citizens to keep an eye on the police. Brown is caught on tape brutally beating a suspect. This begins a slide into the abyss.

Bureaucrats love to analyze behavior, and Brown is examined as if he were an experiment for rehabilitation. He is made aware that his past misbehavior has led to the crisis in which he finds himself. Will he change his ways? Can he?

The entire Los Angeles Police Department is caught up in a corruption scandal that rips apart the city. A fine Sigourney Weaver is a department official.

"Rampart" is a very good drama on many different levels. It's especially worthwhile because of Harrelson's performance, but the entire cast -- which also includes, in roles large and small, Robin Wright, Steve Buscemi, Ned Beatty, Audra McDonald, Ice Cube and Ben Foster -- is on top of its game.

Moverman, who co-wrote the solid and gritty screenplay with crime novelist James Ellroy, has a knack for finding the right talent for the right part. Bobby Bukowski's cinematography gives Los Angeles a bright, sometimes neon, sometimes hallucinatory look.

"Rampart" takes the bad-cop story and gives it human dimensions. Brown is desperate to survive in a twisted world that seems alien to him, because he believes to the bone that how he carries out his job and how he lives his life are key to his success and well-being. He's not a likable character, but Harrelson's powerful empathy compels the audience to care.

"W./E" is directed and co-written by singer-dancer-actress-producer Madonna, who some criticize for constantly reinventing her career. My feeling about this is the same as my feeling regarding any creative person. Do what you want to do, just be sure that the art or music or movie you make is worth showing to the public. In doing my job as a movie critic, I take great care to know as little about a film as possible before I see it. I do have the advantage of seeing movies weeks, sometimes months, before they open and before the hype machine has done its job. Every new film has the potential to excite, entertain, or enlighten -- sometimes all three. I want to be as surprised as I can be, which is why I avoid most of the pre-publicity.

Just through the media cosmos, I already know too much about certain pictures. That's why some folks find it odd that when they ask me about an upcoming film, I usually say, "Oh, really? Don't know much about it." "Is he in it?" "Really? Her?"

Sometimes they get irritated when I say I only think about movies I've seen and will write or talk about. I politely state that I can't get bogged down in what's coming four months or a year own the line. There are times when I don't even know who's going to be in the film I'm about to see as the lights at the press screenings are dimmed.

And honestly, I know how movies are made, so I almost never watch all those extras on DVDs. Alternate endings? What's the point?

Yes, of course I know some things about upcoming releases -- for example, the fact that Woody Allen's new film is called "To Rome With Love" and will open in June. It had two working titles, "Nero Fiddled" and "The Bop Decameron." I know who's in the main cast (Judy Davis, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz and Allen). In fact, I've watched the trailer. But that's it. No more news or publicity until I see the movie.

I bring up the hype surrounding films because I saw Madonna's "W./E." aware that many American reviewers of  the work had savaged it. I don't read any reviews until after I've seen something.

The buzz on the picture was deadly. After seeing it at a press screening, I started looking at published comments from professional critics. My impression was immediate: The movie was being knocked around by most reviewers in a disgraceful act of piling on.

The movie may not be great, but it's certainly good -- even, at times, very good. Some liked it, including Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post and a handful from Great Britain and Australia.

The well-made dramatic feature is about the love affair between American socialite and divorcee Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII of Great Britain, who left the throne in 1936 "to marry the woman he loved." It may be hard to be shocked these days, but in those times, this was a true and stunning scandal.

Upheaval among the royals? Absolutely. A firestorm of newspaper, radio, magazine and newsreel coverage? Thunderous. As he abdicated the throne, King Edward spoke in a live radio broadcast that was heard around the world.

While reading the negative reviews, I took note of the fact that too many critics seemed obsessed that Madonna chose a Sex Pistols song ("Pretty Vacant") as music to underscore a madcap scene of zany, over-the-top behavior. It was almost as if these reviewers had never seen this device used on screen. Rock and roll in a period setting? How shocking! I'm only guessing here, but I think these folks must really hate Ken Russell's delirious movies.

They went after Madonna as an ego-ridden pop star and not as a director. The movie is not ragged or silly, and it is certainly not cheaply made. It has a lustrous look, thanks to the photography of Hagen Bogdanski and the lush production, costume, art and set designs.

Madonna and her co-screenwriter, Alek Keshishian (director of her "Truth Or Dare" documentary), have created a nonlinear film with two engaging stories that run on parallel but separate tracks.

In England, Wallis and Edward (not yet the king) are having a passionate affair, much to the chagrin of the current king and queen and the prime minister. The old king dies and Edward ascends to the throne. He and Wallis are now deeply in love. The second story line involves a young American woman whose mother named her for Mrs. Simpson. She's Wally Winthrop and we're in 1990s New York City.

Wally lives in a world of money and privilege and art galleries and auction houses. Her elite marriage, however, is an unhappy illusion. It isn't pleasant and includes domestic abuse.

Wally of Manhattan is obsessed with Wallis Simpson. Does this fact contribute to the disintegration of her marriage? Certainly.

Hers is a marriage with one abiding rule: She must not have a job. She must be available for her husband's needs. She would like to have a child. And yes, he's having an affair.

Did critics find the happiness of Wallis and Edward too silly a contrast to the unhappiness of Wally and her spouse? Perhaps. But I didn't.

One gets the impression that these reviewers were comparing Madonna's marriage to director Guy Ritchie to what they were seeing in the film. There was the illusion of her happy marriage with Ritchie, when in reality it was crumbling. I wasn't judging Madonna's life, I was watching a movie.

While suffering through her own sad marriage, Wally attends an auction of Edward and Mrs. Simpson's memorabilia, the belongings of their lives as private citizens, including furniture, clothing and jewelry.

At the auction house, she becomes friendly with a handsome young security guard, a Russian named Evgeni. The auction scenes in the film are fun to watch. The relationship between Wally and Evgeni, whom you could call her prince, propels the movie to its conclusion.

I won't reveal the answer to the mystery of their friendship or to whether or not Wally is allowed to see the private love letters written by Wallis to Edward. These letters are not part of the auction.

"W./E." is worth seeing. Madonna's talent behind the camera is not something at which to sneer. Her film tells us interesting things about Wallis and Edward and about how the world worked in the 1930s. The screenplay has depth, as do the characters.

As director, Madonna has gotten very good performances from a very fine cast that includes Abby Cornish as Wally, Andrea Riseborough as Wallis, James D'Arcy as Edward, and Oscar Isaac as Evgeni. A special note of praise to David Redden as the auctioneer.

One of the negative threads that runs through the critical drubbing is that many of the negative critics seemed to be demanding that Madonna explain the love affair between Wallis and Edward. They want to know why these two fell in love. They want to know more about the passion. To a person, they are victims of today's penchant for wanting gossip at all costs. They don't want any secrets. They want to peep through the keyhole. They want answers, which they can't have. Why can't they?

Because you can't explain the affair between Wallis and Edward. You can't explain why one person loves another. Only the lovers know the truth. Madonna was dealing with history. She wasn't about to invent falsehoods to satisfy the curious. Good for her.

"The Kid With A Bike" is a wonderful study of a child caught up in events over which he has no control, although he is determined to exercise some. In this uncluttered and endearing film, Cyril (Thomas Doret), a troubled young boy, searches for two things: a bicycle and his father (Jeremie Renier) who has abandoned him. His mother is long gone from his life.

The affecting and emotional work is from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne of Belgium. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. The Dardenne brothers write and direct beautiful stories about human behavior in almost documentary fashion. This movie, which is in French, is no exception. Placed into a home for children, the 11-year-old will attach himself to Samantha (Cecile De France), a hairdresser, who finds him sweet. She wants to do something nice for him, so she agrees to let him live with her, but only on weekends. Cyril's search for the bicycle becomes obsessive. It is a symbol of his shattered relationship with his father, whom he adores. The hairdresser surprises herself with her desire to help the boy. However, his childish tantrums and often unacceptable and demanding behavior jeopardize not only his search for his father, but also the care that Samantha has for him. She believes that if there is hope for Cyril, it lies not with the wild search for a father figure, but with her understanding of what the child is experiencing. "The Kid With A Bike" is about resiliency and survival. The well-acted film is filled with small and simple truths. The Dardenne brothers appreciate the word "hope." It's up to the characters in their movie to understand what that word means.

"American Reunion" is the eighth effort in the "American Pie" series. In case you need a refresher course, you've got three previous theatrical films: "American Pie" (1999), "American Pie 2" (2001), and "American Wedding" (2003). 

There are also four straight-to-video spin-off releases, all under the banner of "American Pie Presents." There's "Band Camp" (2005), "The Naked Mile" (2006), "Beta House" (2007), and "The Book Of Love" (2009).

The "American Pie Presents" efforts mostly involve relatives or friends of the horny character of Steve Stifler. The main cast of characters are absent, although there is one exception.

Just in case you're keeping score, only actor Eugene Levy, as Jim's dad Noah Levenstein, has appeared in all eight of the features, including the new and worthless "American Reunion." And if you still need details, the series is famous for one thing, and one thing only: In the first picture, Jim is caught humping an apple pie.

In "American Reunion," everyone from that sex-starved high school in East Great Falls, Mich., returns in an attempt to celebrate their 13th high school reunion. Why the 13th? Because they couldn't get their act together to have a 10th reunion. That's the funniest thing about the film.

The returnees include Jim, Stifler, Kevin, Paul, Oz, John, Chuck, Justin, Michelle, Heather, Vicky, Jessica, Nadia and many others. The cast members are exactly the same and too numerous too mention. However, because the adults outshine the younger cast, I'll mention that along with Levy, Jennifer Coolidge is also back as Stifler's mother.

Jim is still married to Michelle. They have one child, but stopped having sexual relations. That's the real hook here, not the reunion. The endless and repetitive sex jokes drown in vulgarity. The movie looks cheaply made. Once you've humped a pie, you have to go one better, so Jim goes full-frontal. Stifler hasn't matured at all. It's embarrassing and creepy to watch guys in their early 30s droll over high school cheerleaders. The entire cast of characters is stuck in the same gotta-have-sex rut.

The people credited for this misfire, all adult men, are directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also helped write this drivel, along with Adam Herz. As for the actors and actresses who earned money for appearing in "American Reunion," well, for many of them it's their first decent paycheck in a while. That's what the "American Pie" series has become, a pension plan for the marginally employable.

Director James Cameron spent more than a year and $18 million doing a frame-by-frame conversion of his mega-hit "Titanic" from 2D to 3D. If you've never seen the movie in a theater, here's your chance, but you can only see it in 3D. The film is the same as released in 1997, except for the added new dimension.

I will write that once the iceberg hits, the 3D is spectacular and increases the excitement. In fact, even during the first half's love story, the multiple layers are expertly done. Cameron is nothing if not a brilliant technician. His "Avatar" is a testament to his keen understanding of what makes an entertaining and intelligent use of 3D. Martin Scorsese was also able to use 3D properly in his "Hugo."

There's no denying that the acting in "Titanic" is one of its highlights. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Gloria Stuart, Frances Fisher, Billy Zane, David Warner, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill and Jonathan Hyde are still engaging to watch as they service Cameron's hugely underwritten screenplay. If you've ever wondered why believable acting is necessary for bad writing to seem good, here's the cast that did it.

There are elements of earlier movies about the ocean liner in Cameron's "Titanic," especially from the excellent 1958 British feature "A Night To Remember," which is extraordinary for its realism. And Cameron also seemed comfortable in slyly borrowing some things from the 1953 American-made "Titanic," which was directed by Jean Negulesco and stars Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Thelma Ritter, Richard Basehart and Audrey Dalton.

In choosing to frame his story around the rich upper crust, a young affianced woman traveling with them, and a young man living by the seat of his pants, Cameron got trapped into concocting a melodrama. He was saved once Titanic met its doom, and he's saved again and even further with his expert conversion to 3D.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 10 2012