DIARY OF A WIMPY KID (PG)*** Directed by: THOR FREUDENTHAL Starring: ZACHARY GORDON, CHLOE MORETZ, ROBERT CAPRON, STEVE ZAHN
NO, NOT a film about a memoirist recalling his love of a once prominent British fast-food chain, but a surprisingly sprightly and enjoyable kids film about a 10-year-old boy's attempt to negotiate the hell of American middle school.
Based on the children's books of the same name, Diary of a Wimpy Kid takes the admirably unusual step of making the hero, Greg (Zachary Gordon), a bit of a spineless idiot who is dedicating himself to the meaningless pursuit of popularity as a school survival strategy.
Frequently looking for shortcuts in his quest to become one of the cool kids, his inflated sense of his own destiny is steadily punctured by cliquey indifference, the knowing observations of the school newspaper's junior editor (played by Kick-Ass's Chloe Moretz), and the realisation that his chunky best friend Rowley is actually winning more friends and respect simply by being himself (Rowley is played with hard-to-resist guilelessness by Robert Capron).
Though the film sags a little in places, it imparts its be-true-to-yourself life lessons with sweetness and charm and is certainly an improvement on some of the summer's other films for children.
DOG POUND (18) ***
Directed by: KIM CHAPIRON
Starring: ADAM BUTCHER, SHANE KIPPEL, MATEO MORALES, LAWRENCE BAYNE
Essentially A Prophet for pimple-poppers, teen prison movie Dog Pound is the kind of gritty American indie flick that works better as a showcase for up-and-coming talent than as a searing social tract.
Adam Butcher is the stand-out as Butch, one of three young offenders newly confined to the brutal Enola Vale youth correctional institute, a "gladiator academy" that tends to inspire violence rather than rehabilitation. Quickly targeted for victimisation by the facility's hierarchy of prison guard favourites, Butch's journey from underdog to top dog becomes the film's inevitable focus, with Butcher – thin, wiry, and seething with pent-up aggression – attacking the role with the hunger of a young actor determined to show his dramatic chops.
That focus can't help but unbalance the film somewhat, sidelining as it does the other two characters – 16-year-old Davis (Shane Kippel) and 15-year-old Angel (Mateo Morales) – set up as Dog Pound's co-protagonists. But French director Kim Chapiron – who made the nutty Vincent Cassel-starring horror film Shietan a couple of years back – never lets things gets boring, even if he can't help indulging in a few too many prison movie clichs along the way.
GROWN UPS (12A)*
Directed by: DENNIS DUGAN
Starring: ADAM SANDLER, KEVIN JAMES, CHRIS ROCK, DAVID SPADE, ROB SCHNEIDER
Like The Big Chill with farting grandmothers, bratty kids and a running joke involving breast milk, the new Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups uses the funeral of a loved one – in this case a high school basketball coach – as an excuse for childhood friends Lenny (Sandler), Kurt (Chris Rock), Rob (Rob Schneider), Marcus (David Spade) and Eric (Kevin James) to take stock of their lives at the lakeside retreat where they spent balmy summer days hanging out as kids.
Hastily conceived emotional baggage – emasculation, unemployment, fear of being alone – is duly unpacked as Sandler and crew dish out groin kicks and sexist jokes while their characters reconnect with each other and learn important life lessons about appreciating what they already have. Naturally, that means the tone veers between childish gross-out humour and mawkish sentimentality.
Just as naturally, no actual funny gags or heartfelt moments are forthcoming. Indeed, as the guys take an extended trip to a water park, it's hard to escape the suspicion that this is just a paid vacation/reunion for Sandler and some of his fellow Saturday Night Live alumni.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE (15) **
Directed by: DANIEL ALFREDSON
Starring: NOOMI RAPACE, MICHAEL NYQVIST, PETER ANDERSON
The mini-series vibe of late novelist Stieg Larrson's Millennium trilogy continues with this dramatically inert sequel to the bizarrely over-rated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Where that film at least worked as a stand-alone thriller, The Girl who Played with Fire suffers from being the middle act of a larger story, its flagging pace and protracted plotting setting up threads to be resolved at a later date.
Picking up the plot where the first film left off, the emphasis shifts away from crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to focus more heavily on bisexual goth-punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), whose tortuous back-story is clunkily woven into a human trafficking scandal Blomkvist's Millennium magazine is about expose.
Groaning references to From Russia With Love betray the inspiration for the Bond-style bad guy – a Robert Shaw-esque blond brute who can't feel pain – as well as some of the rote plotting that enables protagonists to repeatedly escape certain death via super-villain incompetence.
THE SWITCH (12A) ***
Directed by: JOSH GORDON, WILL SPEK
Starring: JENNIFER ANISTON, JASON BATEMAN, PATRICK WILSON, THOMAS ROBINSON, JEFF GOLDBLUM
The problem with a lot of Jennifer Aniston films isn't the star, it's the way the films always end up seeming like they've been designed to appeal to some mythical fanbase of Friends obsessives who like cutesy rom-coms with the rough edges smoothed away.
The Switch is the latest to be "Anistoned". Freely adapted from a short story by Virgin Suicides author Jeffrey Eugenides, it transforms a provocative comic premise into a set-up for a fairly run-of-the-mill rom-com about realising your soulmate is right under your nose.
That initial premise revolves around TV producer Kassie (Aniston) whose plan to get pregnant via a sperm donor (played by Patrick Wilson) is thwarted somewhat when a drunken accident at her "conception party" results in her moody, neurotic, jealous best friend Wally (Jason Bateman) substituting the donor's sperm for his own.
Cut to seven years later and the implications of that night gradually dawn on Wally when the unwitting Kassie and her oddball son Sebastian (a nice turn from Thomas Robinson) come back into his life.
The resulting comedy-drama isn't without its moments, but any time Aniston and Bateman push at something more honest and truthful, the film purposefully snaps back into standard rom-com mode.