Reviews of Films in Theatrical Release
© By John Arkelian
On July 13.10
“Predators” (C+): The 1987 film “Predator” launched this franchise about a species of extraterrestrial aliens whose be-all and end-all seems to be ferociously hunting prey (including Man) and taking gruesome trophies of their kills. With super-human strength and technological advantages like the ability to render themselves invisible, it’s a lop-sided contest. The first time out, one of these creatures made mincemeat out of a squad of ultra-tough American special forces soldiers in the midst of a Central American jungle, with only Arnold Schwarzenegger narrowly surviving. A sequel moved the action to Los Angeles, before the franchise intersected with the separate (and much better) “Aliens” series to pit these two varieties of cold-blooded killers against each other. One plot point has always been left hanging: Why does a life-form that is intelligent enough for interstellar travel behave like savage, snarling monsters? Anyway, this time out, a man (Adrien Brody) awakens in free fall, plummeting to the ground on a planet he soon discovers is not Earth. Turns out he and seven others have have scooped up from diverse corners of our war-torn world and deposited on this alien jungle world to serve as prey: “We’re being hunted. This planet is the game preserve, and we’re the game.” It seems their abductors have scoured planet Earth for the worst of the worst: Not only are all of these captives killers (military or freelance), for most of them it’s an avocation as much as it is a profession. The standout here is the sole female, played by Brazilian actress Sonia Braga (of 2002’s “City of God,” 2008’s “Blindness,” and 2009’s “Repo Men”). She’s easily the story’s most sympathetic and fully realized character – a proficient soldier, but not the violent brute or criminal that many of her involuntary fellow abductees are. She’s already got a conscience. Will any of the others cultivate one in the midst of their life and death struggle; or will it come down to ‘every man for himself?’ There’s not a great deal of character development here, but one does get at least a sense of most of these characters before they meet their doom. Although it offers nothing really new, the film does deliver moderately entertaining action and suspense. The result is strictly for genre fans.
“Despicable Me” (B-/B): An animated story about a self-styled super-villain’s plot to first shrink, then steal, the moon. Thanks to an emotionally-starved childhood, Gru likes to think of himself as the very model of a modern major malefactor (he looks and sounds, courtesy of Steve Carell, rather like Boris Karloff); but, when he adopts three adorable orphaned girls in aid of a scheme, he soon finds himself mellowing under their benign influence. That character arc is easily the best thing about this entertaining fare. It has humorous touches that only grown-ups will appreciate (when Gru goes to the “Bank of Evil” to finance his next big scheme, the small print under the bank’s name says ‘formerly known as Lehman Brothers’), it has the amusing antics of Gru’s army of cheerful yellow “minions” of unknown species, and it actually wrings a tear from the eye with its depiction of the redemptive power of love. The result is well worth seeing.
On July 6.10
“The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” (C+): The film adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s popular romantic teen vampire novels are appearing at ever shorter intervals. The first, “Twilight,” was released in late 2008, and “New Moon” followed in fall 2009. The latest, “Eclipse,” is easily the best of the series to date (at least two more are on the way) – with some genuine drama, somewhat improved acting, and a bit more of a story. The leads are a little less like pouting teenage poseurs this time out, though Kristen Stewart’s Bella still hasn’t completely shed her annoying proclivity for sulking — which you’d think would disqualify her from being the object of anyone’s romantic obsession. Doesn’t the girl ever laugh or smile? Talk of Bella’s impending nuptials seems a tad silly for someone so manifestly immature. Anyway, this time round, an army of vampires is being created to attack the benevolent Cullens (a surrogate “family” of vampires who have eschewed drinking human blood). That necessitates an uneasy alliance between the vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who is a native American, werewolf, and wardrobe-challenged rival for Bella’s affections. There’s a nice quiet scene between the two rivals that’s actually somewhat touching. And we finally get to know other members of the Cullen clan — especially Ashley Greene’s feisty Alice, Niki Reed’s embittered Rosalie, and Jackson Rathbone’s hitherto simply gratuitously intense Jasper. Continuing cast member (and recent Academy Award nominee for “Up in the Air”) Anna Kendrick has next to nothing to do this time. That also goes for a new face, Canadian Jodelle Ferland, who nevertheless makes an impression in her very brief role. Xavier Samuel shows some charisma as the villainess’s right-hand man, though an encounter with a wolf deprives him first of a hand and then of any prospect of returning in the next film. The filmmakers’ loyalty to the continuing cast did not extend to Canadian Rachel Lefevre, however. After her appearances in the first two films, she was unceremoniously given the heave-ho in this installment for no discernible reason. Her replacement (Bryce Dallas Howard, who was outstanding in “The Village”) may have more marquee value, but she brought nothing to the role of vengeful Victoria that Lefevre could not have matched. One plot element that doesn’t work well is the presence of the supposedly powerful and menacing vampire overlords, the “Voltari.” One wishes the Cullen clan would stop cowering before these petty despots with fangs. This outing has some good gags, one of which makes a caustic self-referential comment on wolf-boy Jacob’s ridiculous habit of running around bare-chested: “Doesn’t he own a shirt?.” asks Edward. But Jacob gets his own back by asking Edward, “I really get under that ice cold skin of yours, don’t I?” Incidentally, British Columbia masquerades as Oregon as the juncture of mountains, forests, and seaside location.
“The Last Airbender” (D-): What has become of M. Night Shyamalan? A one-man triple threat as writer, director, and producer, Shyamalan has made some excellent films, like “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Unbreakable” (2000), and “The Village” (2004), some pretty good films, like “Signs” (2002) and “Lady in the Water” (2006), and one unpleasant dud, to wit “The Happening” (2008). But, he falls off a very steep cliff here, with a dreadful crash and burn failure of an attempt at effects-driven fantasy. Apparently based on some animated television series, it posits a world divided into four nations, based on the elements of air, water, earth, and fire. Each nation has adepts who can manipulate the one element personified by their nation. The Fire nation is at war with the others. But, a long missing “avatar” (no relation to the recent film of that name) – in the form of a Dalai Lama-like child – is sought after as the one person who can master all four elements… But, good grief, who cares? This amateurish waste of time is so poorly written, acted (with a couple of exceptions), and directed, it’s a sheer elemental ordeal to sit through. Its “to be continued” ending adds insult to injury: It’ll take a miracle for this woefully misbegotten franchise to see the inside of cinemas again.
On June 28.10
“Knight and Day” (C+/B-): A better than expected blend of action/spy movie and romantic comedy that pairs Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Roy is either a wrongly accused CIA-type on the lam, or a rogue agent, depending on who you ask; and June is a perky gal-mechanic en route to her sister’s wedding (and amusingly attired for a time in bridesmaid dress and tall boots). Confronted with crashing airplanes, gunfights, and high-speed car chases, June’s initial reaction is to frantically exclaim, “I want to get off the carousel!” But she’s soon drawn to Roy’s charms, and she comes to find the unaccustomed high-excitement intoxicating. The exotic settings — Saltzburg, Austria, Seville, Spain, and Jamaica masquerading as a tiny island in the Azores — certainly are agreeable. But so too is the banter between these opposites in the midst of involuntary attraction. They’re a fairly charming pair, and lines like, “I’m so sorry, but you were going to kill me,” innocently uttered to a still-standing assassin who has a large knife protruding from his chest, are likewise amusing.
On June 22.10
“Toy Story 3” (B): Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of the gang are reunited in a sequel that sees the animated toys on the verge of being separated from their human, Andy, who is about to leave for college. Destined for storage in the attic, they land, instead, through misadventure, in a day-care center. The prospect of again being played-with initially takes some of the sting out of being out-grown by their erstwhile owner. But the day-care center is ruled by a bitter, dictatorial toy who runs the place with an iron (well, furry) paw. Can they stage a revolution and/or escape? It’s very nice to see the old gang reunited again, and the filmmakers have a wonderful knack (displayed to good effect in an early scene) of understanding and depicting the imaginative play that we all engage in as children. And there’s real poignancy about parting from the things (and people) whom we once held dear. Some of the stuff at the day care-center and at a city waste disposal plant moves a bit too far away from the sweetness at the heart of the “Toy Story” films, in a bid, perhaps, to ratchet-up the action and danger quotient. Some of the rather sour villainy (and the action scenes it precipitates) feels like a distraction from what really counts here – a tender look at childhood, friendship, and “being there” for others.
“Jonah Hex” (C-/C): The latest comic book hero to make the leap (well, it’s a short hop, anyway) to the big screen is badly disfigured (like “Darkman”) and left with some supernatural connections to “the other side” (like “Spawn,” “Constantine,” “Hellboy,” or, the best of the bunch, “Blade”). Like the superior 1994 film “The Crow,” it’s a revenge story, with an implacable antihero on the trail of the 19th century terrorist who maimed him and slaughtered his family. This very short (81-minute) film garners a little originality from its post-Civil War setting. But its only real strength is the charismatic presence of Josh Brolin (of 2007’s “No Country for Old Men” and 2008’s “W”). He buoys what is otherwise not a very good film. His love interest is played by the sexy Megan Fox, who has done better work elsewhere (especially in 2009’s “Jennifer’s Body”). And, the villain is played by John Malkovich (“Disgrace,” 2008), who doesn’t seem to belong here. A few moments of dark humor are amusing: (A) “Let me talk to him.” (B) “He’s dead.” (A) “Well, I’ll have a word with him all the same.” Worth seeing for genre fans; everyone else should avoid it.
On June 15.10
“The A-Team” (C-/C): Based on a 1983-87 television series about a quartet of ex-military types who specialize in missions impossible, the big screen version has Liam Neeson as the team’s planning-obsessed leader: “I love it when a plan comes together.” It’s what’s known as a popcorn movie – and it proudly offers nothing but mindless action. Someone in the screenplay says, “Overkill is underrated,” and that just about sums up the film’s be-all and end-all. On that limited measure, it is mildly diverting and a bit better than its close kin of a few weeks back, “The Losers.” Not as bad as we feared, it nevertheless has little to add to its trailer.
“The Karate Kid” (C-/C): Why anyone thought it necessary to remake the already perfectly satisfying 1984 original is hard to say. But we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that producers (and proud parents) Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith financed this weaker variation on the original theme as a vanity project for their son Jaden Smith. Trouble is the lad’s not ready for prime time. He’s too young and his acting skills are (for now, at least) too weak to support a dramatic leading role of this kind. And given the preteen age of the protagonist and his enemies (the school bully and his gang), the sight of such young kids on the receiving end of such brutal beatings is rather off-putting. There are problems with the premise, too. In this version, the kid’s mother (played by the charismatic Taraji P. Henson of 2007’s superlative “Talk to Me”) loses her job with Detroit’s Big Three and somehow, improbably, wrangles a job with China’s automotive industry. That quaint notion rather misses the whole point of jobs moving offshore to Third World destinations: The industries doing the moving don’t need us (North Americans) anymore! The film also glosses over the fact that the martial art on display here is Chinese kung fu (rather than Japanese karate), which renders the film’s title a whopping misnomer. Worst of all, the film, which is partially financed from China, offers lots of context-free eye-catching visuals of town-and-country locations in that country. It makes for a pretty travelogue, but it conveniently forgets to mention – ever! – that the prevailing form of government in that seemingly picturesque place is a bloody tyranny – and it has been, in one form or another, for several thousand years. On the plus side, Jackie Chan does nicely understated work as the impromptu martial arts coach, friend, and surrogate father-figure for the young stranger in a strange land: “You think only with your eyes, so you are easy to fool.” But repeatedly hanging-up and taking down a jacket lacks the charm of the original’s “wax on, wax off.”
On June 8.10
“Splice” (Canada, 2010) (C+): A husband and wife team of scientists work at combining DNA from different species to produce new hybrid lifeforms designed to serve as living donors for animal protein and pharmaceutical products. But they soon tire of their creations (which resemble yard-long slugs) and embark on the perilous attempt to add human DNA to the mix. It’s utterly illegal – not to mention so immoral that it borders on the blasphemous, but Clyde (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Canadian Sarah Polley) aren’t about to allow such constraints to get in the way of their over-sized scientific egos. In their minds, they’re ‘pushing boundaries,’ but their recklessness puts a strain on the viewer’s credibility. Their secret experiment hatches a being that initially threatens to run amok in the lab like something out of “Alien.” But, it’s a false alarm, as young “Dren,” as she is soon dubbed, takes on more human attributes. Before you know it, the rapidly aging hybrid is being dressed, taught, and cared for by Elsa like a surrogate daughter. That part is plausible enough in context, but when secrecy obliges these modern-day Doctors Frankenstein to move their offspring from a contained lab to an insecure office space to a basement storage room to an old barn in the country, their cascade of monumental irresponsibility is hard to swallow. Common sense goes out the window right after scientific professionalism, it seems. Sure, the pair are meant to be driven, obsessive, and full to the brim with hubris, but none of those things really explain their seeming disdain for responsible behavior – or Elsa’s abrupt transition from doting mother to Mommy Dearest late in the film. In an extremely disturbing scene, in which she coldly turns on her terrified ward, stripping, humiliating, and mutilating her, it’s really hard to tell which one of them is the monster. That’s clearly the point the filmmakers are trying to make, but it feels contrived and way too heavy-handed. What works really well here is the astonishing performance of French actress Delphine Chenéac as the adult version of Dren. She’s at once alien, potentially dangerous, childlike, pitiable, playful, and attractive! It’s a performance that elevates the entire film and even merits a second viewing. The attractiveness is deliberate, as illicit encounters of the up-close-and-personal kind ensue – first between Dren and Clyde, then, far more disturbingly, between a suddenly cross-gendered Dren and an unwilling Elsa. With the exception of a gratuitous gross-out scene involving the two previously peaceful slug-like creatures, the film admirably eschews monster-movie cliches and gore — until its final minutes. Then, the character-driven, somewhat cerebral story about longings, and about what it is to be human, give way to conventional monster trappings of violence, blood-letting, sudden metamorphosis, and the ugly, aforementioned cross-species rape scene all substituting for the earlier efforts at more serious storytelling. Hampered by those flaws and by a lamentable collapse of originality near the end, the film nevertheless gets strong credit for trying (until close to the end) to be different and for delivering a strong, disturbing performance by Chenéac as the film’s ambivalent alien. Warning: For ages 18+: Sexual content, violence, and sexual violence.
“Get Him to the Greek” (C+): A plump and innocent junior record company executive (Jonah Hill) is dispatched by his fire-breathing boss (Sean Combs) to to retrieve a wild-man rock star (Russell Brand) and get him Stateside for a heavily promoted concert. Trouble is: The rock star is far more interested in drugs, sex, and general mayhem than he is in cooperating with his would-be escort. What ensues is unremittingly vulgar, crude, and occasionally downright gross. The extremely coarse language starts at a torrent and never lets up. But despite its vulgarity, and occasionally even because of it, the film is actually quite funny. And, you’ll find yourself liking its two leads. Hill projects an appealing innocence; while Brand delights in playing corrupter and Svengali to his unworldly-wise, straight-arrow new companion. It’s a variation on a odd-couple tale, combined with road-story. Entertaining, in spite of the barrage of profanity.
“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (C-/C): Although basing a feature film on a video game is never a promising cinematic pedigree, this story of “a boy whose blood was not noble but whose spirit was” can also claim kinship to a genre – let’s dub it ‘the Arabian Nights sword-and-sorcery branch of the fantasy adventure tree’ – that has yielded such entertaining fare as “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940), “Sinbad the Sailor” (1947), and “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1974). (All of those films seem to be set in the general vicinity of what is now called Iraq and Iran, and in the even more general vicinity of the time-period 750 to 1250 AD.) Why then, are all of those earlier adventures so much more engaging and memorable? This one’s full of derring-do and hand-to-hand conflict, but it’s short on real excitement. Are we just too jaded to care? Maybe. But it’s just as likely that “Prince of Persia” lacks visceral excitement because it fails to engage its viewers emotionally. The bulked-up, but still quirky and soulful-looking Jake Gyllenhaal is not an entirely satisfying choice as an action hero; his foil and love interest, Gemma Aterton, was better in this year’s “Clash of the Titans;” and the story about a magic dagger never amounts to much. Like most action and effects-driven movies of recent vintage, this one squanders any sense of wonder in exchange for the emptiness of visual over-kill. Among the cast, Alfred Molina is the standout as a gambler who stages ostrich races and has a strong disdain for the taxman. And there is a nominal nod to a theme about the tension between sibling rivalry and sibling loyalty. Over-all, though, superficiality and lack of originality are the only genies on offer here.
“Sex and the City 2” (C-/C): It starts with a “gay wedding” that’s painfully inane; it inexplicably panders to crude, extremely tacky attempts at sexual humor (for example,we get a close-up of a sexually aroused man’s clothed private parts with, shall we say, pointed evidence of his arousal plainly visible beneath his slacks); it’s awash in silly cultural stereotypes during its long excursion to an Arab country (Morocco masquerading as the further-off statelet of Abu Dhabi); and it never amounts to more than two-dimensional sitcom blather. While it’s not as bad as this reviewer expected, it’s clearly intended for (mostly female) viewers who come pre-equipped with an appreciation for the quartet of female friends from their 1998-2004 television series. The foursome’s fascination for fashion is dull, and Sarah Jessica Parker’s (is it just this reviewer, or does she look anorexic?) habit of wearing voluminous party dresses as casual attire seems mighty unlikely. Far more importantly, we never get more than a superficial sense of these characters as people. Surely, the filmmakers could fashion a more involving story about friendship? Alice Eve makes an impression in a very small part as a well-endowed Irish nanny who sports a lilting accent but no bra, and it’s not just her so-called “lucky charms” that appeal!
“Kites” (India, 2010) (C+/B-): Ill-fated lovers flee for their lives from their spurned ex-partners, who both happen to be members of a vengeful crime family. Who’d have guessed that so many expatriates from India call Las Vegas home? The film itself – made by Indians but shot in America (Nevada and New Mexico) presumably for a mostly North American audience – is an unusual mix of eclectic ingredients. For one thing, it divides its dialogue between Hindi, Spanish, and English. In an innovative bit of cross-cultural storytelling, it matches a Hindi-speaking man (played by Indian actor Hrithik Roshan) with a Spanish-speaking woman (the character is an illegal immigrant from Mexico, but the actress is Uruguayan beauty Barbara Mori). They’re an attractive pair, as is the third player from one of two unhappy triangles, played by the equally lovely Kangana Ranaut; and all three deliver the acting goods. It’s a new spin on the Bollywood style, save that the cast (thankfully) refrains from bursting into song. What’s most appealing here is the film’s unabashed romanticism. Sure, close scrutiny might yield a conclusion that this account of love at first sight (and the ensuing action-movie mayhem that results) is not exactly realistic. Nor is it for all tastes. It’s a kind of fantasy – the kind of fantasy that will appeal to devotees of true, passionate, till-death-do-we-part love. It doesn’t really need all the car chases and gun fights. They’re too often just a distraction from the pleasures of gazing deep into the eyes of these cinematic lovers.
On May 25.10
“Shrek Forever After” (C+): The fourth animated film about an ogre (Canada’s Mike Meyers) who finds true love with a princess is by no means the best entry in the series. This time round the story suffers from a dull villain (a scheming, diminutive Rumpelstiltskin) and other signs of creative fatigue. Shrek is happily married to the gal of his dreams, with a trio of children, good friends, and the respect of (nearly) all in the land. His only complaint? “I used to be a real ogre; now I’m a jolly green joke.” He longs for the carefree days of unrespectable ogre bachelorhood. But, as they say, you should be careful what you wish for. He finds out, in “It’s A Wonderful Life” fashion, what the world would be like if he had never been born; and, in the process, he learns to value what he’s got. The screenplay has enough moments of whimsy – and its characters enough residual charm – to make the result mildly entertaining.
“Just Wright” (F): When Leslie Wright (Queen Latifah), a goodhearted, personable, but heavy-set woman, accidentally makes the acquaintance of a studly basketball star, some understated mutual attraction seems to be in the offing. But our heroine’s got a much thinner (and more conventionally beautiful) childhood friend (Paula Patton), who soon bags (and beds) the athlete, at least until his prospects for future fame and fortune are suddenly sidelined by an injury. That brings Leslie back into the picture – in her professional capacity as a physiotherapist… but, why go on? This film is so dull, so predictable, so utterly unengaging, it was an ordeal to sit through – from the moment it began. In fact, this reviewer quit the theater after 45 minutes, unable to bear any more. Queen Latifah has brought a warm presence and genuine acting ability to other work, especially the fine “The Secret Life of Bees,” but she can’t save this dud. It’s dreck – and mighty dumb, superficial, and boring dreck at that.
On May 17.10
“Robin Hood” (B-): Ridley Scott’s take on the oft-retold tale of the outlaw of Sherwood Forest is a serviceable action film with solid performances from Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Max von Sydow, and company. It’s a gritty, violent variation on the theme, one that starts with Robin Longstride and friends returning from the Crusades. He travels north to Nottingham to honor the request of a dying knight, one Sir Robin of Locksley (the very person whom some other accounts give as being Robin Hood). There he gets involved in the building conflict between barons and king, an impending invasion by the French, and a murderous rampage by the marauders led by the treacherous Mark Strong (typecast yet again as the villain of the piece), an incipient romance with the widowed Lady Marion (here reimagined as a kind of warrior-princess, reminiscent of the first Queen Elizabeth, complete with armor). The film is top-heavy with plot. That’s a problem not because it is too hard to follow (it isn’t); but because the over-abundance of plots, betrayals, secrets revealed, and characters going hither and yon clutters the stage. At one point, for example, most of the cast, with armies in tow, make the jaunt from Nottingham in the north of England to Dover in the south, as though it were just down the road a-ways. Such glossing over of distances and details needlessly strains the viewer’s credulity and dilutes our investment in the characters. The plot is far too full of incident to adequately focus on the key players. As a consequence, we never develop an emotional attachment to any of them. This Robin is a warrior with a gentle side and an anachronistic love for democracy inherited from his long-lost father. What’s even more improbable is that the barons would, as some here do, share that love of liberty for the common man. Lest we forget, the Magna Carta that King John was eventually obliged to sign, mainly guaranteed rights to the barons, not to everyday folk. It’s strange to see this Robin leading armies in pitched battles. There’s very little of the hit-and-run tactics that we normally associate with the man who became a champion of the oppressed and a bane to oppressors. This Robin barely ventures into the Greenwood. The story would have it that all of that comes later, and that the purpose of this tale is to tell us about the man before he became the familiar outlaw/avenger of the other tales. But, that being so, Crowe and Blanchett both seem a tad old for these characters – at this stage of their lives. Alas, too, “merry men” are in short evidence here, as is the sheer inimitable exuberance of 1938’s classic “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Things are grimmer here, with a tone and proclivity for spectacle (in the form of pitched battles) that is more reminiscent of director Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe’s pairing in “Gladiator.” Worth seeing, this variation on the Robin Hood theme is by no means a definitive telling of the story of the ageless hero.
“Letters to Juliet” (D+/C-): The pairing of romance with comedy is frequently fatal to the charms of the former. That’s certainly true here. An absurdly mismatched couple (Amanda Seyfried and Gael Garcia Bernal) travel to Verona, Italy for a pre-wedding honeymoon. When his work leaves her alone, she sees the sights, starting with a house purporting to be that of Shakespeare’s fictional Juliet (balcony and all). There, in a silly tradition cribbed from Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, young women who’ve been unlucky in love affix the title’s eponymous ‘letters to Juliet’ to a courtyard wall. Turns out those missives are collected daily and replies are drafted by a cadre of self-appointed spokeswomen for the non-existent Juliet. That’s dumb enough. What’s worse is the contrived way that our heroine joins the letter-writing team, finds a letter that’s been overlooked for 50 years, answers it, and gets instantaneous results – in the form of a visitation by Englishwoman Vanessa Redgrave and her truly obnoxious adult grandson (Christopher Egan, an Australian actor, whose plummy English accent sounds painfully fake). The first half of this film is an unmitigated ordeal. Almost everything about the premise is profoundly stupid, the writing is woeful, and the acting is often equally bad. This is a career low for Bernal. What anyone would see in this self-absorbed, inattentive, and oddly effeminate scatterbrain defies reason. Trouble is, the other competitor for our heroine’s affections is just as bad – he’s a churlish prig, initially without redeeming qualities. Seyfried looks fetching, as always, but she’s got nothing to do but look pretty. For her part, Vanessa Redgrave adds a much-needed touch of class to the proceedings (though why she talks in a seemingly age-enfeebled way is a mystery); and, truth be told, the film does improve a tad at the halfway point. There the search for Redgrave’s long-lost love gathers steam, and the script reforms Egan’s initially obnoxious character. The best bit is the screen reunion between Redgrave and Franco Nero, who played Guinevere and Lancelot, respectively, in the screen adaptation of “Camelot.” (Star-crossed lovers, indeed!)
On May 11.10
“Iron Man 2” (C-): The man with the high-tech suit of (flying) armor who made his first flight from comic books to the big screen in 2008’s “Iron Man” is back in a bloated, rambling, and unfocused sequel. Robert Downey Jr. makes much less of an impression this time round as the narcissistic, shamelessly hedonistic arms manufacturing tycoon turned self-promoting ‘superhero’ — perhaps because the story is so devoid of real human feeling. One never cares very much about its many disparate pieces: Stark is slowly being poisoned by the technology that makes him a hero; he indulges in mind-numbing spectacles – grandstanding in front of a Congress intent on taking away his personal plaything, speechifying at at arms expo while sharing a stage with a chorus line, and drunkenly blowing things up at a party; a bitter Russian (an outlandish-looking Mickey Rourke), who is having an endless succession of very bad hair days, is plotting revenge; a business competitor (played for dark laughs by Sam Rockwell) wants to displace his rival; and two lovelies (Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson) are vying for the post of Stark’s Girl-Friday). Ho hum! None of it really engages, except, at the most superficial level of raw ‘action,’ and then only sporadically.
“Gunless” (Canada) (C-): One wants to like this spoof of westerns, and, truth be told, it does grow on you, but it never attains the “Support Your Local Gunfighter” level of effectiveness to which it clearly aspires. Having barely escaped a lynching, an American gunfighter known as ‘the Montana Kid’ inadvertently finds himself on the northern side of the border: (A) “Where am I?” (B) “Barclay’s Bush. In the Dominion of Canada.” (A) “Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse!” He’s brash, easily offended by perceived breaches of the gunfighter’s “code,” prone to brandishing his hand-gun at the slightest provocation, and both irritated and bemused by the peaceable townfolk he encounters in this not so wild corner of the old west. It’s not a bad premise, but it’s hampered by overly-broad and frequently unfunny humor, a lead character who lacks the charm and inherent likability of, say, a James Garner, and a succession of stereotypes and cliches. Paul Gross seems like a good fit for the role, as he has shown signs of charisma elsewhere, but he comes across as sourly off-putting for much of this story, and the mop of inexplicably long hair doesn’t help. Along for the ride are Sienna Guillory as a feisty single Englishwoman (who makes the strongest impression on the viewer), Dustin Mallory as a flesh-and-blood incarnation of Dudley Do-Right, the comely Laura Bertram (once of television’s “Ready or Not”), and an under-used Graham Green. If they’d toned down the silliness, substituted wryness for slapstick, and put more emphasis on developing well-rounded characters, the result might have satisfied our hopes for this foray into the too-little seen genre of the western.
“The Losers” (C-): Meant to be an action flick with attitude, this film has nothing to add to its trailer. In this poor-man’s “A-Team,” a handful of U.S. Special Forces soldiers are set up by a superior who divides his time between supervising clandestine operations for the United States and undermining that same nation by running his own organized mayhem-for-hire outfit. Narrowly escaping with their lives, the protagonists, led by a gruff Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and joined by mystery woman Zoe Saldana (of “Avatar” fame) are out for payback — and this time, it’s personal. Lots of fisticuffs, gunfire, and explosions ensue – but none of it amounts to much. The villain here (Jason Patric) is as preposterous as the uber-weapon he covets – namely, “sonic dematerializers,” also known as “snukes!” – and the over-the-top pyrotechnics aren’t far behind.
On May 2.10
“Oceans” (B): Disney’s follow-up to its nature documentary “Earth” opens with the thrilling sight of mighty waves crashing against rugged cliffs. The sheer elemental power of that opening scene is glorious! What follows runs the cinematic gamut from beauty to drama to whimsy and on to mind-boggling variety. When narrator Pierce Brosnan comments that, “Down here, it’s like Nature has given everything a try – every color, every way of life, every shape,” he’s not exaggerating. Witness the “blanket octopus,” whose back-half looks exactly like a scarlet silk scarf fluttering behind it; or the cyclone of fish swirling in an underwater funnel cloud of their own making; or the aptly named ‘cloud of shad,’ comprised of thousands of small fish moving as one – as if to some unwritten choreography. Flightless penguins soar through the water, countless baby turtles scramble for the sea, braving a gauntlet of airborne predators that only one in a thousand will evade to reach safety. It’s an impressive virtual tour of the oceans – and the almost infinite variety of life that calls the ocean home – some of them creatures so wildly extravagant in appearance that science fiction writers would be hard pressed to come up with something more outlandish. The only chink in the armor of this sort of film is that it essentially consists of a series of beautiful moving pictures: They may be astonishing to see, but the lack of a story – or even a narrative that goes beyond the merely descriptive – may cause your attention to wander, despite yourself.
“The Back-up Plan” (D): When a movie looks dumb in its trailer, it’s a good bet the full 98 minutes won’t be an improvement. That’s certainly true here, as a single woman played by Jennifer Lopez opts for artificial insemination, only to meet a guy she really likes later that same day. She’s pregnant, courtesy of an anonymous test tube. Will the new guy in her life stick around? That’s the gist of it. The would-be humor here is inane at times (a gynecologist taunts Lopez’s squeamish boyfriend with the v-word) and gratuitously crude at others (some kid, who can barely keep a straight face, snacks on sand – from a sandbox in a public playground (ick!) – then proudly presents his father with the unmentionable souvenir he finds there). Another unwelcome foray into the gross comes during a birth-giving in a wading pool situated in someone’s living room. Let’s just say, we weren’t laughing along. As to Jennifer Lopez, she shouldn’t give up her day job (if she’s got one), as her work here is woefully short on charisma – and acting chops. (Too bad there wasn’t less of her and more of her best friend Mona, played by the considerably more appealing Michaela Watkins.) For his part, Alex O’Loughlin is not bad as the male lead. But the film itself is fit only for your must-miss list.
On April 19.10
“Date Night” (D+): Somebody must have thought it’d be a good idea to pair popular television comedic actors Steve Carrell and Tina Fey on the big screen. And, it’s true, they do have some charisma. Fey, in particular, radiates beauty, warmth, and intelligence. But what they don’t have is a story worth telling. The concept (a suburban couple is mistaken for someone else and pursued by big-city killers) and screenplay are both pretty lame. They smack of slapstick, silliness, and unsophistication, with inanities like “intravenous penis medicine” substituting for substance. There are occasional laughs, but there aren’t enough of them. Taraji P. Henson, who did award caliber work in 2007’s “Talk to Me,” has very little to do here as a police detective. Indeed, too much of the film is lifeless, as if once the filmmakers hit upon the bright idea of teaming Fey and Carrell, they didn’t know what to do with them.
“Kick-Ass” (B): An off-beat blend of comedy, action, and violence that’s mighty hard to categorize. On its face, it’s an oddball spin on superhero movies, only this “superhero” is a teenage nerd (played by Aaron Johnson) whose “only super power was being invisible to girls.” But he’s really into comic books, and he can’t get a crazy question out of his head, namely, “How come nobody ever tried to be a superhero?…You’d think that one eccentric loner would make himself a costume.” So he does just that. Up till then the tone is ironic and self-effacing. But when our eponymous ‘hero’ ventures out to rashly confront bad men who carry knives and guns, the ensuing confrontations are all too realistically violent. But you ain’t seen nothing yet. When a pair of deadly serious father-and-daughter vigilantes played by Nicholas Cage and Chloe Moretz enter the fray, things get ferociously bloody. The pair seem to be perched precariously on the borderlands of psychopathology. The film has attracted considerable controversy for putting an eleven-year-old character (played by an eleven-year-old actress) on the dispensing end of such shockingly extreme violence (and extremely obscene dialogue). The humor is very dark here. In one scene, the diminutive (but deadly) Hit-Girl’s father reassures her with the words, “You’re gonna be fine baby-doll,” before shooting her at point-blank range. Turns out she’s wearing a bullet-proof vest, and it’s part of her father’s tough-love training regimen, but it’s a hint at the no-holds-barred violence to come. It is jarringly disconcerting to witness a young girl doing and saying the harsh things this one does. Still, the film is undeniably effective as a way-off-beat action movie. In tried-and-true vigilante movie tradition, it sets up the bad guys as so irredeemably despicable that you’ll share the protagonists’ urge for some vengeful payback. Mark Strong, who was so good in “Rock’nRolla,” is effective here, too, as an underworld kingpin; but, let’s hope he doesn’t get typecast playing heavies. “Kick-Ass” is original and entertaining but most decidedly not for all tastes. For ages 18+. Warning: brutal violence, gruesome content, disturbing content, and severely coarse language.
On April 11.10
“Clash of the Titans” (C-/C): This disappointing remake of the 1981 fantasy-adventure is likewise loosely lifted from Greek mythology. But, this time round, Perseus, the half-human son of Zeus, is intent on vengeance against the Olympian gods who killed his human family. This “humans versus gods” theme, which infuses the entire plot, feels clunky and artificial. For example, if you are the queen of Argos, it might be wiser not to loudly proclaim to the heavens that you’re more beautiful than the gods – especially when you actually believe they exist. The depiction of the gods (despite such players as Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes) borders on the silly, as do elements like a crazed cultist who looks like a hippy and raves like an anarchist. Some strange beings (the “jinn”) made out of wood are a little too gratuitously odd. Elsewhere, people and creatures come and go. Characters remain one-dimensional, and we never get invested in any of them, including lead Sam Worthington (who was better as the lead in “Avatar”). The biggest impression is made by Gemma Arterton (as the demi-god Io), Mads Mikkelson (as the reluctant, taciturn ally and mentor Draco), and Alexa Davalos (as Andromeda, a role that has been stripped of its traditional romance with the hero). The two women elicit a little emotion in some of their respective scenes, as does Pete Postlethwaite early on as Perseus’ adoptive human father. Otherwise, it’s an emotional wasteland. Without any emotional investment by the viewer in the characters, there’s no real sense of excitement or anticipation in their quest. The visual effects are fine, though, surprisingly enough, they lack the impact of Ray Harryhausen’s “stop-motion” technique in the original. The newer-fangled CGI-way of doing things may be more superficially polished, but it also has a cold, clinical, mass-produced feel that lacks the charm and wonder and hand-crafted affection of the earlier visual effects – at least in this kind of heroes and monsters setting. There’s a cute reference to the earlier film when the hero curiously picks up the mechanical owl that unfortunately appeared in the earlier film, wondering if it might be useful on his quest, until someone admonishes him to “Leave it!”
“The Last Song” (C-): Nicholas Sparks must be one prolific novelist, since two of his books (“Dear John” being the other one) have made it to the big screen in nearly as many months. This one has all the standard ingredients: a disaffected teen (or two), a romance between kids from different sides of a socio-economic divide, and a life-threatening illness. The result is formulaic and predictable. But the real weak link is the lead actress (and minor celebrity) Miley Cyrus. The people at Disney/Touchstone are clearly trying to rework her inexplicable girl-tween appeal for an older demographic in the wake of the popularity of her television series. But all she brings to the mix is weak acting and an utter dearth of charisma. Truth be told, there’s something downright grating about her. Whether it’s just the immaturity of someone who still has baby-fat advancing prematurely into a young adult role, or a more intrinsic lack of demureness is harder to say. But she lacks the charm of, say, Mandy Moore, a pop-singer who played the lead in “A Walk to Remember,” an earlier (2002) film adaptation of another Sparks potboiler. On the other hand, the film’s Georgia beach-side setting is appealing, as, to one degree or another, are Greg Kinnear (as the father), Bobby Coleman (a stand-out as the kid-brother), and even Liam Hemsworth (as the love interest).
On March 30.10
“Chloe” (USA/Canada/France, 2010) (B-): When Julianne Moore comes to suspect that her husband (Liam Neeson) is being unfaithful, she decides to put tempting bait in front of him (in the ever-so-comely person of Amanda Seyfried) as a test. But when the seductive young woman she hires for that task describes the ensuing illicit encounters, Moore reacts less with heartbreak and anger than with an ambiguous combination of arousal, lust, and yearning. Who exactly she’s yearning for – her seemingly faithless husband or the woman she’s hired to lure said husband – is less clear. Seyfried becomes a kind of sexual surrogate or intermediary between husband and wife. And, before you know it, obsessions develop that segue into “Fatal Attraction” territory. The result is nominally a remake of a 2003 French film called “Nathalie,” but, as far as this reviewer can hazily recall, the original didn’t stray so much into the overly-routine conventions of a stalker and prey drama. Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s films always tend to be emotionally remote. This outing may be marginally more accessible; but, while we appreciate the fine performances (and the story’s setting in an elegant, cosmopolitan-looking Toronto, which, for once, is actually meant to be Toronto, instead of masquerading as some other city), those aspects of the film are much better than than the story itself. These characters are strongly acted – but they are never ones in whom we become seriously invested. Warning: Abundant sexual talk and some risque sexual content.
“How to Train Your Dragon” (B): If you’ve ever dreamed of soaring high above the clouds on the back of a black-as-night dragon, this animated film’s exhilarating sense of flight and speed will be utterly irresistible! When it alights, it soars, in more ways than one. And its earthbound scenes of boy bonding with dragon are quite engaging, too. Top it off with a village of Scottish-voiced Vikings (with the ubiquitous Gerard Butler as their chief); nice morals about friendship, individuality, proving oneself in one’s own way, and learning to see things from the perspective of a presumed foe; and a award-caliber emotional score by John Powell; and you’ve got a winner. Canadian Jay Baruchel (soon to be seen in “The Trotsky”) voices the hapless young “Hiccup,” who rises to the occasion despite his status as runt of the Viking litter. Craig Ferguson and America Ferreira voice his gruffly protective mentor (“Gobber”) and highly competitive love-interest (“Astrid”), respectively. The film has been released in 3-D and regular 2-D versions.
On March 23.10
“The Ghost Writer” (France/Germany/U.K., 2010) (B+): Given his status as a longtime fugitive from justice (and the ugly nature of his alleged crime), it is impossible to regard director Roman Polanski with anything but repugnance. The man ought to be serving time, not directing movies. But, having said that, one must concede that his latest film is a nifty, Hitchockian thriller. Ewan McGregor plays a ghost-writer who is hired to help get the memoir of a controversial former British Prime Minister into shape for publication: (a) “Let’s just say it needs some work.” (B) “How much work?” (A) Well, all the words are there. They’re just in the wrong order.” And that’s not all that’s amiss. The former P.M. (seemingly modeled loosely on Tony Blair and temperamentally personified by Pierce Brosnan) is in moody seclusion, fearing imminent indictment by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for alleged war crimes committed under his watch in Iraq and Afghanistan. McGregor’s character must juggle his volatile new client, the man’s equally angry wife (a strong performance by Olivia Williams), and the chief of staff (Kim Cattrall) with whom the besieged ex-politician may be having an affair. The setting is a remote island off the coast of the eastern United States (a European location fills in for America, due to the director’s fugitive status there). It’s a sleek, gorgeous house, but it’s a remote, lonely place, beset by ominous weather, and a troubling history. It seems McGregor’s predecessor was found drowned on the beach, and he’s beginning to wonder if it really was an accident as claimed. There are plenty of ghosts in these closets, and hardly any of them take the form of the eponymous ghost-writer! An almost unrecognizable Eli Wallach and the always fine Tom Wilkinson are two members of the strong supporting cast. The ending’s a tad pat, but the journey that leads us there is engrossing enough for a second look! Adapted by Robert Harris from his novel “The Ghost.” One rather glaring credibility flaw does occur after the fact: Events in the film suggest that thugs and assasins are on stand-by 24/7, a mere telephone call away, and ready to leap into lethal action at a moment’s notice.
“Brooklyn’s Finest” (B-): Three separate stories about New York policemen intersect only briefly and incidentally. Eddie (Richard Gere) is burnt-out, apathetic, and only days away from retirement. He leads a bleak existence full of quiet desperation: His police work means nothing to him, and one gets the impression he wasn’t a high-achiever even in his prime. Sal (Ethan Hawke) is a plainclothes detective who’s not above killing a bad-guy in cold blood in order to take his money. At first glance, his murderous proclivities and gaunt visage (he looks a heroin addict, for no particular reason) put him well outside the range of our sympathies. But there’s more here than meets the eye. He’s intent on stealing drug-money not out of greed but out of sheer desperation to get his family out of their mold-infested house and into more habitable accommodations. Meanwhile, Tango (the always watchable Don Cheadle) is desperate for reasons of his own. He has spent too long deep undercover, and he’s intent on donning a suit, manning a desk, and returning to normalcy – before he’s called upon to betray the crime boss (nicely performed by Wesley Snipes) he’s come to regard as family. Among the supporting players, Brian F. O’Byrne makes an impression as Hawkes’ straight-arrow friend, Lili Taylor (who is rarely seen in movies anymore) is along as Hawkes’ ailing wife, and Ellen Barkin overacts as a tough as nails bitch. Each of the core trio face crises and moral choices. What’s good about the film is is its depiction of multi-dimensional characters. None of them is quite what they seem on first impression.
“The Runaways” (C+/B-): In 1975, several girls came together in Los Angeles to form an all-girl rock band known as ‘The Runaways.’ Their leading lights are Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), who are described by their profane and wildly indelicate manager (Michael Shannon) as “Brigitte Bardot in a trailer park” and a “street-tough brunette,” respectively. He’s also fond of pointing out that “This isn’t about women’s lib; it’s about women’s libido. I want to see the scratch marks down their backs.” The story of the girls’ partnership, on and off the stage (they experiment with some same-sex sex), was adapted by director Floria Sigismondi from Currie’s true-life memoir, “Neon Angel.” Leads and supporting cast alike (especially Riley Keough as Cheries’s sister and whomever it is [possibly Stella Maeve?] who plays one of the other prominent band members) deliver very strong performances. It’s a revelation to see Fanning shed her childhood roles for this gritty take on a troubled teen; for her part, Stewart does much more interesting work here than in her best known role as the morose, sulking female lead in the Twilight series. The performances are strong, but the story – involving under-age sex (Currie is just 15), alcohol, drugs, raucous music, and general dissipation – is too unpleasant (and predictable) to engage us. It’s a coarse, crude, profanity-laden world, and, as such, it is mighty unattractive.
“Repo Men” (C+/B-): In the near future, a private corporation (known as “the Union”) is happy to provide customers with lifesaving organs of all shapes and sizes. But watch out if you fall behind in your payments! Someone will come to repossess the artificial organs by means of a little impromptu surgery (usually performed on the floor after they’ve knocked you out with a stun gun) that always leaves its victims dead! Who in their right mind would ever agree to a transplant under these terminally-harsh payment terms? The Union’s repo-men may be little better than professional serial killers, but it’s all perfectly legal. The two top-earners – Remy and Jake, played by Jude Law and Forest Whittaker, respectively – happen to be bosom buddies. They’ve grown-up together, gone to war together, and now pursue the lucrative profession of Jack-the-ripper-for hire with cheery enthusiasm, reassuring themselves at frequent intervals that “a job’s a job.” Things abruptly (and somewhat inexplicably) change when an accident lands Law with an artificial heart of his own. As the reluctant new owner of a mechanical heart, he seems to have suddenly grown a conscience. No longer willing to harvest the organs of others, he finds himself on the run from his ruthless employer. And having been earlier dumped by his wife (played by “Black Book’s” Carice van Houten), who had her own longer-standing qualms about his chosen profession, Jake finds solace in the arms of a fellow fugitive, very nicely played by Alice Braga (“City of God” and “I Am Legend”). They’re literally running for their lives. It remains a mystery why Remy’s close friend Jake ignores a couple of obvious chances to save his pal — by, for example, simply harvesting other peoples’ organs on Remy’s behalf, to pay the bills. There’s something extremely distasteful about the film’s premise, and it’s not shy about showing the gruesome bits. Indeed, it becomes an all-out gore-fest, replete with brutal violence, late in the film. Squeamish viewers need to check their stomachs at the door, or be ready to stare at the floor whenever the scalpels get busy. The film didn’t need that abundant bloodletting; but, if you can put up with the gore, the mix of sci-fi, action flick, and horror conventions is competently executed (no pun intended) and reasonably diverting.
On March 16.10
“Green Zone” (B-): An action drama set amidst the internecine machinations swirling around competing factions within the U.S. forces occupying Iraq. Set in the early days of said occupation, it focuses on a team of soldiers led by Matt Damon whose fruitless search for “WMDs” (weapons of mass destruction, of which none are to be found) has left them smelling a proverbial rat. Directed by Paul Greengrass, this wartime outing has a lot in common with his Bourne films. The emphasis is on action, frenetic camera work, and double-dealing villains in the political and clandestine security apparatus of the supposedly free world. Its underlying thesis is that the powers that be deliberately lied about WMDs in order to dupe an unsuspecting (and way too uncritical) public into supporting the invasion of Iraq. But the focus here is on one indignant soldier’s refusal to go along (“This is the reason we went to war!”). It’s an action film, with a light coating of ideas. It may be a tad far-fetched to suppose that a mere Chief Warrant Officer would go so far out on a limb. And, speaking of strains to our credibility, the clean-cut sincerity of Greg Kinnear is an odd choice for a scheming villain. Finally, who’d have expected that the local CIA agent (played by Brendan Gleeson) would be one of the good guys! But, the film holds the viewer’s attention and interest, and a couple of crane-shots that have the camera rise up to show Baghdad in flames make an impression – as do brief sequences involving the brutal mistreatment of prisoners.
“Remember Me” (C/C+): A rebel without much of a cause (Robert Pattison) has double-trouble when he finds himself at odds not only with own neglectful Wall Street mogul of a father (Pierce Brosnan, in the film’s most interesting performance) but also with the never-far-from-enraged father (Chris Cooper) of his new girlfriend (Emily de Ravin). Pattison is less insipid here than in the Twilight series, but he’s still a James Dean wannabe, both stilted and mannered. For his part, Cooper overplays the hot-head. Past trauma notwithstanding, there’s no excuse for this cop’s constant road-rage. He’s a menace to everyone who crosses his path, and that’s an implausible distraction. And Tate Ellington lays it on a little thick at times as the comic relief. Still, the film has its moments, including an ending that comes both as a surprise and as surprisingly touching. The moral of the story, expressed variously in Gandhi’s contention that, “Whatever you do in life is insignificant, but it is very important that you do it,” and in the observation that, “Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch,” may not be subtle, but they are mildly affecting.
On March 9.10
“Crazy Heart” (B): Jeff Bridges just won Best Actor at the Academy Awards for his portrayal of a broken-down country music singer named “Bad” Blake – and he deserved the award. His immersion in this sweaty, beefy, boozy role makes the film. Here’s a man who’s all used-up. His creative juices (as a songwriter) have run dry, while he’s in a permanent state of drunkenness, reduced to performing in hick-town bowling alleys. Never without a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he’s an unattractive character – very reminiscent of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. And like Rourke’s burnt-out man on the express down-slide, he’s bereft of any life outside his craft. A chance meeting with a small town reporter (played by the luminously fetching Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her young son suddenly hold out hope for the domesticity “Bad” has never known (despite his trail of four failed marriages). Is redemption possible? That’s the crux of the story. There are impressive performances from Bridges, Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell (as Bridges’ one-time protege, turned superstar), and the always impressive Robert Duvall. But it loses points for lacking (as so many movies do, alas) any real emotional heft.
“Alice in Wonderland” (C): This may be the perfect marriage of filmmaker and material – given the gratuitous oddness of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice novellas and his poem Jabberwocky, upon which the movie is lossely based, and director Tim Burton’s trademark penchant for the bizarre and his over–the-top, over-wrought disdain for realism. One shudders to think what havoc he’ll wreck with the new adaptation of the romantic Gothic drama cum supernatural suspense franchise known as Dark Shadows that is now in early planning. At least the Alice material suits his grotesquely cartoonish style. He’s spun the story a bit to present a heroine (in the comely, spirited person of Australian actress Mia Wasikowska) who’s a young woman, rather than a child. She makes a impression on the viewer, and there’s a veritable who’s who of British actors on hand to voice the strange denizens of Wonderland (here called ‘Underland’), including a dry turn by the always delightful Alan Rickman as the caterpillar. And the story is visually interesting – the legitimate excuse to indulge in wild set decoration and CGI-excess that Burton has apparently always been looking for – judging by his past outings. But, when all is said and done, the most interesting thing to look at here is the unrecognizable face of Johnny Depp – all flaming red hair and huge (computer-enhanced) emerald green eyes. The result doesn’t amount to much more than empty spectacle – and it’s too scary for young children.
On March 3.10
“The Crazies” (B): The title and provenance of this film (it’s a remake of a low-budget 1973 horror film of the same name by George A. Romero) suggest something instantly forgettable. But, it’s actually surprisingly good! People in a small town start acting strangely. It starts with one case, then it starts to spread, as the town sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his wife, the town doctor (played by Radha Mitchell, the Australian actress who was so good in “Pitch Black”) struggle to learn what is happening. Find out they do – but this is one case in which knowing doesn’t help. Turns out a military plane laden with biological weapons scheduled for destruction crashes near the town and the virus gets into the water supply. The result might be likened to ‘zombification’ – it turns the infected into homicidal maniacs. And the government is eager to contain the situation – at all costs. The film is well-acted, and that makes all the difference. We care about these characters (Joe Anderson and Danielle Brubaker also make an impression as a deputy and young medical assistant, respectively), and we are immediately invested in their desperate struggle to survive. This is definitely edge of your seat stuff, even if too many of the chills consist of the ‘something jumping out the dark at you’ variety. It is gruesome at times, but it need not have been, as it generates real tension elsewhere without its occasional recourse to gore. The build-up is nicely ominous: Things go wrong gradually, one after the other, creating a real sense of unease, before unease turns to panic. Add to that a big dose of paranoia (who’s infected, who’s not) and the shadowy conspiratorial hand of Big Brother, and you’ve got a winner!
“To Save a Life” (D+/C-): The story opens with a funeral – that of a 17 year old high school student who killed himself at school. Turns out he was all but invisible at school – fitting in nowhere and only noticed when it came time to be harassed. But the real subject of the film is his erstwhile childhood friend, a boy who ditched his close friend when they got to high school in the quest for popularity. The surviving teen achieved that popularity, as the golden boy of the school basketball team, complete with a trophy girlfriend on his arm; but, the suicide of his abandoned friend awakens his conscience and leaves him searching for answers. In the process, he comes to question his appointed role as one of the popular kids. He finds a new direction with the help of a hip young Christian preacher. Yes, the film is a religious message film. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, except that it too often tends, as here, to result in a movie that’s cliched, clumsy, and, at times, heavy-handedly preachy. Worst of all, the script and performances are mostly mediocre (though Kim Hidalgo makes an impression as a ‘good girl’). It’s well-intentioned and marginally watchable, but it needed to make its morality a bit subtler and its storytelling a bit stronger. (And they ought to have jettisoned a oddly gross scene involving the “chugging” of cola.)
On February 23.10
“Shutter Island” (C+/B-): An unlikely island that’s supposedly off the coast of Massachusetts (it actually looks more like it’s off the rugged northern coast of Scotland!) is home to a sinister looking mental hospital for the criminally insane. But the doctors and guards who run the place actually seem more threatening than most of the patients. Or, so it seems to the pair of U.S. marshals (nicely played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) who come to this remote and forbidding place to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient. But DiCaprio’s character is haunted by a surfeit of past tragedies – including not just being among the first on the scene with the American troops liberating the Nazi death camp at Dachau but also the more recent tragic loss of his wife (Michelle Williams, who makes the film’s strongest impression in her recurring flashbacks). He may also have a hidden agenda: “While you were looking into them, they were looking into you!”: But hidden truths, a sense of paranoia, and an ever-shifting border between what is real and what is not is at the very core of this story. The trailer and some reviews left us expecting a disaster of well-nigh cinematic proportions. But, director Martin Scorsese’s film is actually better than expected – if you don’t mind deliberate melodrama! It’s very hard to say if the story is taking itself completely seriously. It’s not meant to be campy, one assumes, but could it be intended, at least in part, to be an exercise in style? The tone is decidedly Hitchcockian, but it is also decidedly over-the-top. Is that sense of being over-blown and over-wrought deliberate? It would seem so. One doesn’t include a musical score that booms with the ominous intensity of a fog horn by accident. There are a great number of plot twists and turns, with colorful, oft-threatening characters (played by the likes of Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, and Patricia Clarkson) around every one of those corners (and lurking in every dank cell and cave). The cliffs that surround the island are larger than life (unless, maybe, you’re perched at the edge of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher), and so is everything else about the film. But, somehow, it engages us amidst its almost hallucinatory fever-dream, drawing us into the maze it has set for its characters.
On February 16.10
“The Wolfman” (C-/C): Remember how we remarked recently (about another film) that the villains had the unpleasant habit of taking nasty bites out of their victims? Well, that goes double here, in a story that revisits the plight of Lawrence Talbot (played in 1941 by Lon Chaney Jr. and now by Benicio Del Toro), the scion of landed gentry who becomes a reluctant lycanthrope. Savagely bitten by a man-eating beast, his wounds miraculously heal; but, when the moon is full, he transforms into a savage amalgam of man and wolf. For those who share this reviewer’s fondness for Gothic motifs (lonely moors, damsels in distress, dark, mysterious manor houses, and even darker family secrets), the film’s unabashed Gothicism offers visual and tonal appeal. At least, it would, if it hadn’t gone overboard. What we get here is a virtual fogfest; day or night, it doesn’t matter – it’s always gloomy in these parts (1891’s Blackmoor and London), and the result is just too undifferentiated. Gloom isn’t very mysterious or menacing if it is never contrasted with bright sunlight! What clearly is menacing are the woods that surround the old family pile; yet a variety of characters indulge in casual strolls through self-same woods, apparently indifferent to the fact that a mounting toll of others have been torn to pieces (quite literally) under those same boughs by a ferocious monster. So much for credibility. The tale of the curse’s origins, the latent father/son conflict (as Talbot-pere, Anthony Hopkins chews the scenery, among other, far ickier, things), and the awkward assembling of love interest (Emily Blunt of “The Young Victoria” fame), a Scotland Yard detective (played by Hugo Weaving, who did such great work in the outstanding “V for Vendetta”), and assorted Gypsies, townsfolk (sans pitchforks), and Indian manservant, all stumble from contrivance and plain-old clumsiness. In a nod to its 1940’s antecedents, this werewolf is still recognizably man, in contrast to his wholly monstrous-looking cousins of more recent cinematic vintage. But that doesn’t make him any less savage and bloodthirsty: Indeed, there’s a surfeit of brutal violence and gruesome grossness on display here. At times, a certain dark humor takes stage: The head of a London asylum runs the place like a house of horrors – complete with full immersion in icy water, electric shocks, and injections from foot-long needles. When his hapless victim is exposed in mid-lecture to the rays of the full moon, there’s a panicked stampede to the door, and let’s just say not everybody makes it! (That’s one scene where you’ll be rooting for the monster!) Sad to say, the performances – starting with a hulking, emotionally flat, and seemingly anaesthetized Del Toro – are a deadly weak link, delivering a silver bullet to the heart of an already sorely troubled half-beast of a film. We never connect emotionally with anyone here – be they man, woman, or beast. For a far better werewolf tale, seek out 1985’s “Silver Bullet,” with Canada’s own (recently deceased) Corey Haim & Megan Follows.
“Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” (C-/C): A fatherless teen discovers that he is actually a demi-god – that is, the offspring of a human mother (what is Catherine Keener doing in this film?) and Neptune, the ancient Greek god of the sea. Turns out his crippled best friend is a satyr in disguise [(A) “You’re half donkey?!” (B) “I’m half goat!”], who’s along to protect our young hero, and, coincidentally, provide some comic relief. Percy goes off to train with fellow “half-bloods,” though it is never clear why familiarity with obsolete weapons like swords is a useful survival skill in the 21st century. Secreted away in the middle of a forest, the school is a mythological variation on the Hogwarts of the Harry Potter series, and one senses that the source material here (a novel by Rick Riordan) aims for the same sort of appeal. In this case, the headmaster is a wise, kindly centaur, played by Pierce Brosnan, late of the James Bond films; while foes run the panoply from Medusa (we thought she had already been dispatched, a very long time ago, by one Perseus) played by Uma Thurman; a hydra; lotus eaters, who hang out in a Las Vegas casino (where else?); Zeus (poor Sean Bean seems to be eternally typecast as a heavy); and assorted inhabitants of Hades – the most interesting of which is Rosario Dawson’s sexually seductive Persephone. Children might find this mildly entertaining; for the rest of us, the best bet is to spent the time spotting various cameo players in the cast.
On Februrary 10.10
“Dear John” (C): Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom has made some very good films, to wit: “Once Around” (1991), “The Cider House Rules” (1999), and “Chocolat” (2000). But, he falters here, with a romance, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, that never really engages. A young woman has a chance meeting with an Army Special Forces sergeant on a South Carolina beach while he’s home on leave. Sparks fly and they fall in love. But he’s soon off to rejoin his unit abroad, a stint of military service that is extended after the dire events of 9/11. They keep in touch by frequent letters (hence, at least part of the meaning of the film’s title), and that could have made for a poignant story. But, it falls flat. Part of the problem is the male lead. Channing Tatum is simply not very compelling in the role, though he does have a touching scene with his father (the always strong Richard Jenkins of “The Visitors”) late in the film. For her part, Amanda Seyfried (“Mamma Mia!”) is a blue-eyed, golden-haired vision of beauty, but the sheer pleasure of looking at her cannot on its own make up for a meandering, insufficiently passionate storyline. The film takes a long time in explaining the identity and/or significance of a single-parent friend (nicely played by Henry Thomas) who keeps cropping up in the story; and, it remains a mystery why this university-aged young woman has all but invisible parents. She spends an entire summer at their beach home, for instance, but they are, oddly, nowhere in evidence. Worse still, a lot of time and attention is devoted to recurring subplots about a pair of autistic supporting characters; and those subplots are an inexplicable distraction from the romance. The over-all result never rises above the bland.
“From Paris with Love” (D+): This darkly jokey action picture from France gets off to a disastrously inept start. The first 20 minutes introduce us to a wannabe secret agent (the atrociously miscast Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who works at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, where he does odd jobs of skulduggery, like switching license plates and secreting listening devices into conference rooms. That opening section is the stuff of walk-outs (i.e. of our walking, nay, running, out of the film) and F-ratings. It’s stilted, phony, and downright dumb. It’s not funny, sexy, exciting, interesting, or the least bit involving. But it is corny and amateurish. Things change when John Travolta rolls in – chewing scenery and spitting obscenities. The ensuing gun-fights distract us from the vacuum that preceded them. It’s mindless action, of course, but it grows on you (slightly) as it unfolds. Kasia Smutniak makes an impression as the female lead.
“Legion” (C-): “After what we’ve been though, you’re lucky we don’t shoot you first and greet you later.” So says a character at a besieged diner in the middle of the desert. The handful of people who find themselves there are cut off from the outside world and in a life and death struggle with supernaturally-possessed humans who are intent on their violent extermination. And guess who’s doing the possessing? Why, none other than a legion of God’s finest angelic shock-troops. They’re acting on orders from on high to annihilate mankind – one person at a time, it seems. What the film has going for it is a surprisingly good cast (among them, Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton, Tyrese Gibson, and Lucas Black). The core premise of a group of ordinary people under siege is also rather compelling. But, and it’s a big but, all of that promise is squandered on brutal violence, gore, and a torrent of foul language – most of it emanating from the mouths of these so-called angels. Okay, so they’re exterminating angels, but do they have to eat their steak raw, cuss like sailors, and dispatch their prey by taking nasty bites out of them? It seems the filmmakers have mixed angels up with demons — clouds of flies and all!
On February 2.10
“Edge of Darkness” (C/C+): When a Boston cop’s (Mel Gibson) 24-year old daughter (Bojana Novakovic) comes home to visit, she’s gunned down on on the doorstep, propelling her father into a relentless quest for the truth behind her death. The blood-soaked trail leads to a secretive corporation that’s involved in defense contracting, shadowy thugs on both private and public payrolls, and a mysterious figure (Ray Winstone) in governmental employ who has ambiguous loyalties and whose job it has been for 30 years to ‘make things unintelligible.’ Winstone steals every scene he’s in as the aging fixer cum assassin who’s gained wisdom with age: “We all know what the facts are: We live for awhile, and then we die – sooner than we’d planned.” The result is an okay suspense drama that blends elements of corporate conspiracy with the quest of a parent to avenge the murder of his child. There’s nothing really unexpected here, but it works tolerably well for what it is. Shawn Roberts displays notable intensity in a small role as the boyfriend of Gibson’s late daughter.
On January 25.10
“Extraordinary Measures” (C/C+): In a story inspired by actual events, a father moves heaven and earth to stave off the untimely end that Pompe disease (a form of muscular dystrophy) has in store for two of his kids. That means giving up his job and putting everything his family’s got into the against all odds struggle to get funding for a theoretical new treatment dreamed up by a scientist in a distant part of the country: ‘Who’s going to be more motivated to raise money than a man desperate to save the lives of his children?’ Canadian Brendan Fraser is better known for lighter roles, like the protagonist in “The Mummy” series. He’s credible here, but not compelling. Indeed, the whole thing inhabits the middle of the road – not bad, but not great, and nowhere near as emotionally affecting as it ought to be. The cast (Fraser, Harrison Ford, Courtney Vance, and a rather under-utilized Keri Russell) are okay; with Meredith Droeger making the biggest impression as the ailing but precocious young daughter). But, there is a lot of concentration on pharma-business in-fighting, and it’s an uncompelling distraction from the core story of parents fighting to save their children’s lives. It’s also a tad off-putting to see them move into a grand house on a mountainside (when the corporate stuff pays off), as it undermines the compassion business with the business of commerce.
“Nine” (D): If you like musicals, this might appeal to you; otherwise, give it a wide berth. The life and loves of “maestro” Guido Contini (it rhymes with Fellini for a reason) has a good actor (in the person of Daniel Day-Lewis) as the lead (he plays a filmmaking auteur), and he’s surrounded by a bevy of beauties; but the story – and its characters – are all pose and no substance. Too much of the song and dance stuff follows the cabaret and/or Folly Bergeres styles – with femmes fatales in tights. It’s not a style that strikes this reviewer’s fancy. Worst yet, none of the songs makes an impression. The one that comes closest, “Be Italian,” is repeated for emphasis. The rest are not at all engaging. Neither is the story itself. Who really cares about this man and the women in his life? It’s all pointless and grating. The best thing here, by far, is Marion Cotillard as the frequently betrayed wife; she’s the only person here with a smidgen of warmth and authenticity – along, sometimes (when she’s not singing), with Judi Dench.
“Youth in Revolt” (B/B+): Who’d have thought that a film with two-and-a-half large hurdles to overcome (it’s a comedy; it’s about teens; and it stars
Michael Cera) would actually be so funny and endearing? Cera was the object of fellow Canadian Ellen Page’s affections in “Juno,“ but he struck this reviewer as too whiny (and wimpy) by half in that outing. His persona’s not that much different here; but this time ’round his character (the aptly named Nick Twisp) is fully self-aware of his own nerdishness. And he’s determined – in the name of some combination of lust and love – to overcome it. What’s more amusing than the ways he devises to act out is the character’s dry, self-effacing wit. Gustin Nash’s screenplay (from the novel by C.D. Payne) is witty all around. And the entire cast acquits themselves well. Female lead Portia Doubleday is not only a sheer pleasure to behold; she’s also an engaging character (as Sheeni Saunders, self-assured dream-girl of the trailer park) in her own right. Sexual references and coarse language mean this film is suitable only for ages 18+.
On January 18.10
“The Lovely Bones” (B-): “We weren’t like those people, those unlucky people to whom bad things happen for no reason.” There’s considerable irony in those words. They are spoken by the film’s 14-year old narrator, Suzie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan of “Atonement”) shortly before her murder at the hands of a serial predator who lives just down the street in her suburban neighborhood. Although we are, thankfully, spared seeing the actual crime, the predator’s methodical preparations and eventual luring of a child into the underground lair he has prepared for her destruction is extremely disturbing to witness. Indeed, those scenes are so repellently unpleasant as to make it very difficult to sit through the film. Other problems include the nature of the “in-between place” that the murdered young Suzie inhabits. If it’s a kind of halfway house on the way to Heaven, why is it initially devoid of other souls – and later populated exclusively by souls of people connected in some way to the killer. It’s supposed to be Suzie’s “perfect world,” not the killer’s, and she’d have no way to know that he had a long succession of previous victims – let alone know who they are and how they died. And speaking of the killer (Stanley Tucci), he’s way too obvious. He just has to stand there to look like a serial killer; and he might as well have “creepy” stamped across his forehead. Credibility is severely strained elsewhere, too. How does the killer excavate a large underground room in a cornfield that doesn’t belong to him? It abuts a residential area, and there’s nowhere to put the large amount of earth he (somehow) secretly removes from the ground. It defies belief that no one (including the farmer who owns and works the field) notices his extensive excavations. And why does Suzie’s sister (Rose McIver) break into the killer’s house in search of clues without telling anyone where she is? She may as well paint a target on her back. Even worse, after getting the fright of her life, that same sister incredibly remains mute for a time about what just happened to her when she reaches safety. The rest of Suzie’s family (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, and Susan Sarandon) are drawn in an unconvincing, oddly inconsistent, array of hues – sometimes broadly comic, other times gratingly thick. And there’s inconsistency, too, in the very concept of the post-death world in which Suzie finds herself. She’s dead, yet she still exists. So, clearly, she’s in some kind of afterlife. Is it a supernatural place? If so, why are there no overt trappings of the supernatural – in the form of God, or, initially at least, any other dearly departed souls? It’s not a place which comforts Suzie, so it doesn’t sound much like Heaven. It’s rather more like one of the post-death destinations visualized in Richard Matheson’s novel What Dreams May Come. Mostly, it just provides an excuse for some fanciful CGI visuals. And, it’s unclear how and why Suzie can still perceive what’s going on back in earthly domains and have a sporadic ghostlike ability to be seen or felt by some mere mortals there (like Carolyn Dando’s Ruth)? The film is directed by Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”) from the novel by Alice Sebold. It’s a good try, but not entirely successful.
“The Book of Eli” (C+): “The Road Warrior” meets a waterless variation of “Waterworld,” with a dash of “Pale Rider’s” pseudo-religious mysticism, in a post-apocalyptic tale of a man on a mission. The world has been wrecked by war and environmental catastrophe, reduced to barren desert and inhabited only by scattered survivors who’ve mostly reverted to barbarism. A solitary traveler, Eli, (Denzel Washington) is headed west on what he perceives as a divinely-inspired mission – to deliver the world’s last remaining Bible into safe hands. But a nasty warlord (Gary Oldman) wants what ‘the man with practically no name’s’ got, obliging Eli to take on all comers. And he’s (inexplicably) well-equipped to do so; heads roll – quite literally – as he fends off gangs of cutthroats with a very large knife. Washington’s charisma makes him worth watching, Mila Kunis is not bad as the companion he reluctantly accepts on his trek, and Jennifer Beals makes a strong impression (she’s the best thing in the film) as a gentle blind woman. But, in the end, the book and the supposed religiously-inspired nature of Eli’s journey don’t amount to much. It’s really all just an excuse for a action flick. It works okay on that basis, though the unremitting use of a gray-and-white palette is too dreary-looking and cliched by far.
On January 12.10
“Daybreakers” (Australia/USA) (C): Imagine a world (in 2019) in which nearly everyone has been transformed by a plague into vampires. Society continues very much like it does now, with amusing little differences – like shuttered homes in gated communities, daytime hours that are as quiet as a grave, and espresso cafes that add a little blood to the fancy coffees ordered by bustling nocturnal commuters. This vampire society still has all the trappings of ours – with rich and poor, scientists, street-people, and soldiers. But, for the scattered remnants of humanity, things are desperate. Regarded as nothing more than a food-source, they are hunted, then ruthlessly farmed for their blood. Indeed, a poster with America’s iconic “Uncle Sam,” exhorts passers-by to “Capture Humans!” Meanwhile, the vampires have an urgent predicament of their own. Humans are in increasingly short supply, attempts at fabricating a synthetic blood supply aren’t going well, and shortages of the real thing are transforming under-nourished vampires into batlike, ferociously aggressive monsters, who attack fellow vampires. One vampire scientist teams up with some human survivors in an attempt to find a cure to vampirism. All of that makes for a very promising premise; and there’s a solid cast, with Ethan Hake, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe, and Claudia Karvan. But things are derailed by recurring gross-outs of extreme gore! If only they’d skipped the gruesome stuff and concentrated more on wit, like one character’s observation that, “Life’s a bitch, and then you don’t die!” and another’s lament that being both a vampire and a politician makes it hard to make friends. Written and directed by siblings Michael and Peter Spierig, who were born in Germany and raised in Australia.
“Leap Year” (C): A woman (Amy Adams) travels to Ireland intent on proposing marriage to her long-time boyfriend on the extra day in February that’s come courtesy of a leap year, in accordance with an obscure local tradition. A series of minor mishaps (inclement weather, livestock traffic-jams on country lanes, missed trains, and the like) oblige her to take the slow road to Dublin, crossing Ireland in small increments in the company of a pub-owning taxi-driver (Matthew Goode) who has lost his cab en route. Their sparring gradually gives way to love – a development that’s predictable, if not unwelcome. Hitherto, Adams has been capable of doing no wrong, in the eyes of this reviewer; and, indeed, her natural charm helps to buoy this otherwise lackluster romantic comedy. But the whole enterprise needed more surprises, and, perhaps, more poignancy and less mediocre humor. After a weak start (despite the brief, wasted presence of John Lithgow), the film does grow on the viewer (a tad) as it goes; but, it hews far too closely to predictability and mediocrity to make a lasting impression – unlike the gold standard of comedically romantic road-stories, 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Director Anand Tucker may not be Frank Capra, but Tucker did do much better work in his affecting 2005 film “Shopgirl” than is evident here.
“It’s Complicated” (B+): After twenty years of marriage and ten years apart, a divorced couple – winningly portrayed by Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin – fall into an affair. She’s single, but he has remarried, to ‘the other woman,’ with whom he had the illicit relationship that ruined his first marriage. Now the adulterous shoe is on the other foot, with Streep on the verge of winning back her ex from the woman who stole him away. But she’s torn between “an ex with benefits,” her hard-earned independence, and her growing fondness for another man, played by Steve Martin. The result is an engaging blend of humor and romance, written and directed by Nancy Meyers. Streep brings all the energy and youthfulness she displayed she appealingly in “Mamma Mia” to this role; and Baldwin steals every scene he’s in with a combination of sly charm and genuine surprise that he’s falling back in love with his first wife. And the rest of the cast – especially the young women (Caitlin Fitzgerald and Zoe Kazan) who play Streep’s daughters – are also very appealing. It’s an unusually adult story about grown-ups that will win over even confirmed devotees of serious drama.
On January 5.10
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (Canada/U.K., 2009) (B): British director Terry Gillam has made some very good films (“Brazil”) and some very bad ones (“The Brothers Grimm”). This time out, he’s somewhere in the middle – with fantasy sequences, in a variety of stylized alternate worlds, that are visually stunning and imaginative co-existing with a rather mediocre story about a man whose pact with the devil gave him eternal life, but at a ruinous cost. Canadian Christopher Plummer plays the title character with a combination of tattered dignity, desperation, and befuddledness. Newcomer Lily Cole is very pleasing to the eye. And the late Heath Ledger’s (“The Dark Knight’s” memorable Joker) role is ingeniously shared with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Andrew Garfield, Tom Waits, and Verne Troyer round out the cast. It’s too bad, though, that it is frequently so difficult to make out the dialogue — which was inexplicably muffled at the screening attended by this reviewer.
“Sherlock Holmes” (C/C+): Zounds! What could they have been thinking? Turning Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective into an action hero misses the whole point of the character! And Robert Downey, Jr. is far too thoroughly a modern Yank to convincingly portray such a quintessentially English character – faux British accent notwithstanding. He is joined by Jude Law (as Dr. Watson), Canada’s own Rachel McAdams (as Holmes’ foil and love-interest), and Mark Strong (a very good actor who too often gets typecast as the villain). Director Guy Ritchie has done good things elsewhere (like his recent “RocknRolla”), and even this outing will grow on you as it unfolds. But, it’s a far cry from vintage Holmes, with too much gratuitous violence (a surfeit of bare-knuckled fist-fights and gunplay), that ubiquitous bane of good storytelling – an over-reliance on computer-generated special effects – and a ho-hum story about aristocrats dabbling in black magic, when what it really needed was genuine cleverness. Only hints of the original character remain: Q. “Why are so always so suspicious?” A. “Shall I answer chronologically or alphabetically?”
On December 23.09
“Invictus” (B/B+): “How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing else will do?” Those words, spoken by South African’s first black president, Nelson Mandella, were uttered in the particular context of a country that was struggling to emerge from a legacy of racism and fear. But, they are equally apt for the human condition more broadly – whether we are grappling with poverty, injustice, oppression, conflict, or issues like global warming. How many of us truly aspire to greatness, to becoming better than we think we can be? Far too few of us, if the ever-lamentable state of the world is any indication. Yet, here’s a film that dares to challenge us to share its idealism, in its portrayal of a new president who latches onto rugby as a means to the daunting end of unifying a bitterly divided nation. For most South Africans, the very fact that their national team, the Springboks, is predominately white (with only a solitary black player) makes it an emblem of apartheid. But Mandela contends that, “in this instance, the people are wrong, and, as their elected leader, it is my duty to show them that.” For Mandella, the white heritage of the rugby team is a reason for all South Africans to embrace it: “A rainbow nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here. Forgiveness starts here, too. Forgiveness liberates the soul… That is why it is such a powerful weapon.” Morgan Freeman brings admirable warmth, vision, wisdom, and compassion to the role. If only more leaders were like this: men (or women) of principle who see clearly the way things are but have the courage to stand for the ways things should be. He’s a man of strength and gentleness, and it’s an irresistible combination. Matt Damon is fine as the captain of the rugby team, but director Clint Eastwood ought to have spent less time on rugby and more on the compelling leader who emerged from 27 years of imprisonment without rancor and with a conviction that he must serve as a father to all of his 42 million people – black and white. [Invictus, by the way, is a Latin word, meaning ‘unvanquished’ or ‘unconquerable.’]
“Avatar” (B+): Canadian writer/director James Cameron is no stranger to big bold sci-fi spectacles, having helmed such successful films as the great “Aliens” and the memorable first two “Terminator” films. His subsequent, overwrought “Titanic” (1997) may have gone to his head, but he returns here, after a long absence, with an engaging variation on “Dances with Wolves,” a tale of clashing cultures and of a love that transcends that conflict. In the process, Cameron’s film delineates a fully-realized, beautifully-rendered alien world – with all its strange flora (like plants that are aglow with phosphorescence at night), fauna, and cultural norms drawing us into a greater appreciation of the story and its characters. There’s a cautionary ecological message here, too, as well as an harsh indictment of our continuing eagerness to take what we want from others: “When people are sitting on shit you want, you make them your enemy.” Here, mankind has found an extremely valuable mineral on the home-turf of a sentient alien species, the Na’vi, who live in harmony with nature (the similarities to North American aboriginal peoples are hard to miss). In short, they’re in the way, and mankind mobilizes all of its massive technological and military superiority to push the locals aside – lethally, if need be. But a handful of humans come to sympathize with the natives, and one even comes to love them. Good performances from Sam Worthingham, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Lang (as a convincingly gung-ho marine colonel) help create characters who engage the viewer. And, for the most part, the computer-generated effects serve the purpose of creating a compellingly tangible alien world (unlike the effects-for-effects-sake approach of, say, the Star Wars movies). Its long (two hours and forty minutes) running time doesn’t feel overlong, and, while the film’s messages are on the heavy-handed side, the film is far more intelligent than standard-issue science fiction, with a story and characters that are both sympathetic and engaging – and sometimes even quite moving.
“Up in the Air” (B/B+): “To know me is to fly with me. This is where I live.” So says a man who has traveled 350,000 miles in one year (and that’s 100,000 more than the distance between the Earth and its Moon), a man who happily shuns home, family, and other lasting connections for the unfettered freedom of movement he equates with living: “We weigh ourselves dowen so we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living.” Hired to fly into town and dismiss people he doesn’t know for employers who aren’t keen to do the dirty work of downsizing themselves, his job entails ‘taking people at their most fragile and setting them adrift.’ George Clooney brings a certain ruthless charm to the role. He seems perfectly contented with his life, but there are subtle hints of regret for what he’s given up. The hints get louder when he hits it off romantically with a fellow traveler and profile in independence portrayed by Vera Farmiga and as he’s forced to become a reluctant mentor to a young protege played by Anna Kendrick (who made a impression in the “Twilight” series as the heroine’s human friend). Directed by Canadian Jason Reitman, the result is an intelligent, playful blend of humor, romance, and dramatic elements.
“An Education” (B): Carey Mulligan (who had a supporting role in the superb 2006 British series “The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard” and played Kitty Bennet in 2005’s big-screen adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice”) delivers one of the best performances of the year as a 16-year old English girl whose ambition it is to make something of herself, starting with plans to seek admission to Oxford. The time is 1961, and it’s still far too exceptional for women to have such ambitions. And, alas, our heroine’s goals are set to be derailed by a combination of a mildly oppressive life at home and entanglement with an older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Mulligan is smart, willful, and precocious, and her mismatched affair with the older man obliges her to complete her emotional maturation well ahead of schedule. It’s an excellent performance; and the rest of the cast (among them Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, and Rosamund Pike, who made an impression in “Fugitive Pieces,” among others) also do strong work. The performances are top-notch, but there’s something about the premise that rankles. We are to believe not only that a bright 16-year old would get involved with a man who appears to be at least twice her age – on the basis of his charm and the enticements of being treated to a glamorous grown-up life – but also that her parents would succumb to the seducer’s charms so thoroughly that they practically fawn over him. By the end, it’s clear that young Jenny is in fact more mature than her mismatched paramour. That fact makes it all the harder to accept that she’d so recklessly fall under his spell and forswear all of her own ambitions.
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” (B+): “Every day I tell myself that something’s going to happen – I’m gonna break through, or someone’s gonna break through to me.” So says the teenage protagonist (played by Gabourrey Sidibe) who daily inhabits a living hell. She’s grossly obese and has twice been made pregnant as the result of being raped by her own father. Her so-called mother (a no-holds barred performance by Mo’Nique) is even worse – savagely abusive, both physically and emotionally. The world depicted here – situated in 1987 Harlem – is brutish, ugly, and violent. Most of its inhabitants are base, ignorant peasants – grotesque examples of mankind at its deplorable worst. And its pathetic heroine has been ruthlessly victimized all her life. But, there are glimmers of hope, too – in the person of an alternative education teacher (a model of decency appealingly played by the lovely Paula Patton), a social worker played by Mariah Carey, a male nurse played by Lenny Kravitz, and others. The result is a harrowing, disturbing look at the worst human beings can be and do, tempered by the hope for redemption offered by those of nobler natures.
On December 14.09
“The Road” (B+/A-): “The child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” So says a father struggling to keep himself and his son son alive in the aftermath of a global catastrophe that has all but extinguished life – and hope. Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy (the author of “No Country for Old Men”), this relentlessly downbeat story deals with what makes us human – and humane. The setting is a world that is slowly dying: Cities are empty, trees and animals are dead, and there is no food. Survivors are few and far between, and too many of them have slipped into savagery – preying on their fellows without scruple or pity. Even the landscape, sky, and sea have been bleached of color and rendered gray and desolate. But what raises the story from its prevailing tones of bleakness and despair are the defiant integrity that remains alive in father and son. Viggo Mortensen and Codi Smit-McPhee deliver very strong performances, as does Charlize Theron, in a film that’s one of the best of the year, despite its all-too-believable presentation of a world in which civilization is gone, and along with it, the last shreds of human decency – in all but the few who determine to “carry the flame” of what makes us moral beings.
“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (B/B+): Nicholas Cage plays a police detective whose addiction (to prescription painkillers and to cocaine) prompts him to play both sides of the law. He does some awful things (the worst of which involves menacing two elderly women), but, oddly enough, he isn’t all bad. It’s hard to dislike any character played by the idiosyncratic Cage, and his trademark quirkiness is in full evidence here. He’s gently protective of his high-class prostitute girlfriend (nicely played by Eva Mendez), but he’s not above doing deals with hoodlums and shaking down yuppie party-goers for drugs and illicit public sex! German director Warner Herzog has fashioned a strange, but fascinating, film, in which iguanas sing and the soul of a recently dead gangster indulges in some impromptu break-dancing. Full of coarse language and various forms of unpleasantness, the result is definitely not for all tastes. But for those not put off by its oddness or coarseness, its unique combination of grittiness and sentiment is quite original – and involving. Not to be confused with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film with a similar name, “Bad Lieutenant.”
On December 7.09
“Everything’s Fine” (C-): A widower (Robert DeNiro) sets out on a cross-country trip to pay unannounced visits on his widely-disbursed offspring. DeNiro’s okay in the role, but the story (and other players) fail to engage. The result is lamentably flat and uninvolving, except for a couple of emotional moments very late in the proceedings. For this reviewer’s money, that makes the film’s title a flat-out misnomer, if ever there was one.
“Brothers” (B+/A-): “Grace knows I would do anything to get back to her, anything!” Those are among the first words uttered in this English-language remake of the Danish film with the same name. And the words anticipate what’s to come, as the upright, successful one (Tobey Maguire) of two brothers embarks on a tour of military duty in Afghanistan. When his helicopter is felled, he’s presumed dead, leaving his wife (Natalie Portman) to contend with her grief and with two young daughters (who are precociously portrayed by Taylor Geare and Bailee Madison, the latter of whom made a strong impression as the kid-sister in 2007’s “Bridge to Terabithia”). Unexpected support comes from the lost warrior’s ne’er do well brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is only recently out of jail but who is determined to mend his ways. The audience sees what Maguire’s family (who include Mare Winningham and an angrily volatile Sam Shepard as his parents) do not, namely the horrors he endures as a prisoner of the Taliban/al Qaeda. Directed by Jim Sheridan (“In America’), the result is an intense character-driven drama about conscience, redemption, and the cost of survival. It’s also one of the best films of the year.
On November 30.09
I walked out of “2012” after twenty minutes When John Cusack takes two small children over a high fence marked “Danger! Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here!” as part of a casual stroll in the woods (this happens before any of the film’s multitude of apocalyptic catastrophes get started), any pretense at plausibility instantly vaporized and I lost what marginal interest I had in seeing the rest.
I watched five minutes of “A Christmas Carol” while waiting for something else to start, and it was more than enough. The hyperactive Jim Carrey has long since worn out his welcome with me; and the animation technique with which Zemeckis seems so obsessed (he also employed it in “The Polar Express”) yields results that look like a zombie-flick. And, what on earth possessed them to turn Charles Dickens’ classic story about ghosts and redemption into an action-driven CGI-fest?
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” (B+): “Who am I? And how can a fox be happy without a chicken in its teeth?,” asks the film’s eponymous hero in an existential moment. With clever stop-action animation, engaging voice work by the likes of George Clooney and Meryl Streep, and a witty script, this film will appeal at least as much to adults as it does to younger viewers. Based on a book by Roald Dahl, it’s pleasingly unique! And where else does one character off-handedly say to another, “I don’t know your Latin name. I doubt they even had opossums in ancient Rome.”
“Michael Jackson’s This Is It” (B): In the spring of 2009, at the age of 50, Michael Jackson returned to the stage after a ten-year absence, in preparation for a world tour. His untimely death ended the tour before it began, but these scenes from three or four months worth of rehearsals survive to tell the tale. And guess what? The result is remarkably entertaining – even if you are unfamiliar with Jackson’s music and/or turned-off by his extremely odd off-stage persona. Here, he’s on stage, and all that shows is talent, professionalism, and a meticulous attention to detail (though the unappealing dance move known as ‘the crotch-grab’ does make one brief appearance, alas). The songs, the staging, and the marshaling of graphics, dancers, musicians, and pyrotechnics are actually rather intriguing.
On November 24.09
“The Twilight Saga: New Moon” (C): She’s 18, he’s 108. Talk about spring and winter romances! “Maybe I shouldn’t be dating such an old man,” says the heroine in the second film of the Twilight series that’s so beloved of legions of tween-girls. If you’re not one of those aforementioned tween-girls, you’ll need to qualify as either a vampire genre buff or a hopeless romantic to brave the crowds. This installment is a tad more interesting than the first film. For one thing, it pivots on a romantic triangle: With her beloved Edward absent from the scene, Bella finds herself increasingly drawn to the werewolf she’s previously regarded just as a good friend. Actually, Jacob’s lyncanthropic tendencies first manifest themselves in this film, and he has to remind Bella that, “It’s not a lifestyle choice.” Therein lies another appealing aspect of the film: It (occasionally) has a sense of humor, as when vampire Edward admonishes Bella that, “You can’t trust vampires. Trust me.” There’s even ‘Muzac’ in an elevator at vampire HQ! The trouble is less with the series’ premise than with the dialogue and acting: Too often both are overly portentous and melodramatic. And it’s downright silly to have Jacob and fellow Native American wolf-pack chums roam about shirtless all the time – for no apparent reason but to show off well-developed upper torsos to the film’s tween-girl audience. Lead Kristin Stewart has done better work elsewhere; in this role she’s not nearly vivacious enough to attract so much romantic interest from the supernatural side of the aisle. By contrast, vivaciousness is the hallmark of Ashley Greene, who plays Edward’s spunky vampire-sister Alice. Bella’s human high school friends are well drawn, as in the first film, and it’s a shame we don’t see more of them. Other than his annoying shirtlessness, Taylor Lautner gets the wolf’s share of the emoting in this installment as Jacob (“Don’t get me angry, or things are going to get very ugly”), and he’s not bad. British actor Michael Sheen further diversifies his already eclectic c.v. by appearing as the head of a sinister vampire clan. (Sheen appeared, very charismatically, as the alpha werewolf in all three “Underworld” films, not to mention his better known roles as Tony Blair in “The Queen” and David Frost in“Frost/Nixon.”) There are a few troubling deviations from the prevailing romantic sheen of this series, moments that suggest either something much darker and uglier going on just out of sight and/or an inconsistency of tone. It is implied that several violent deaths of hikers are the work of the werewolves, yet we’re asked to regard the wolf-pack as clean-cut, good-natured aboriginal young men – prone to roughhousing, yes, but otherwise eminently likable, if under-dressed. Inexplicably, the film never holds them accountable for the savage murders they’ve presumably committed when the camera wasn’t watching. Then there’s the unabashedly predatory and ruthless Volturi clan in Italy. The closest thing extant to vampire royalty in the Twilight books, they’re the polar opposite of the gentle-natured Cullen clan in America (a surrogate family of vampires who eschew both killing and the taking of human blood). There’s a scene late in the film when a group of unwitting tourists are led to their doom in a room full of ravenous vampires: We hear their screams off-stage, as it were. That scene is disturbingly redolent of real horror and seems at odds with the romanticized gloss that prevails elsewhere. As such, it sounds a jarringly disharmonious note.
“The Blind Side” (B+/A-): At long last! A film in wide commercial release that deserves a hearty recommendation! It’s the true story of a Southern white family who take a hulking black teenage boy under their wing, out of sheer compassion for a fellow human being. The boy goes on to become a professional football player and athletic star; but the movie deals with his relationship with his surrogate family, especially the maternal power to be reckoned with portrayed by Sandra Bullock: (A) “You’re changing that boy’s life.” (B) “No, he’s changing mine!” After a string of insipid comedies, Bullock proves once and for all that she can act – delivering the thespian goods (and how!) with an award-caliber performance. This heartwarming film will make you laugh and cry by turns. Sure, it’s a “crowd-pleaser,” but it sure pleased – and uplifted – this member of the audience. Go see it!
On November 17.09
“Amelia” (C): This curiously flat and uninvolving look at the life of female flier Amelia Earhart suffers from mannered performances (from Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, and Ewan McGregor) and an episodic storyline that flits here and there. It’s as though we see the acting and hear the screenwriter (“I cannot endure at all the confinements of even a gilded cage”) rather than connect with authentic characters we can truly care about. The result feels disingenuous: “Is it reckless?… What do dreams know of boundaries?”
“The Box” (F): A stranger (Frank Langella) appears at the door of a middle-class couple (Cameron Diaz & James Marsden) one day with an even stranger proposition. He tells them that if they push the button on the box he has presented to them two things will happen: First, someone who is not known to them will die, and, second, he will pay them $1 million in cash. Is he a crackpot, a suave spokesman for the diabolical, or what? More to the point, what sort of couple let a complete and unambiguously sinister stranger, who happens to be hideously disfigured (he is missing half his face), come into their home in the first place? Langella brings far more gravitas to this heavy-handed, melodramatic, and preposterous mess than it deserves. What should have hewed closely to morality tale territory flies asunder as it strives to embrace science fiction, the supernatural, and goodness knows what else within its hopelessly contorted confines. It’s hard to believe that this incomprehensible tangle is based on a story (“Button, Button”) by the great novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson. In 2001, director Richard Kelly pulled an intriguingly imaginative rabbit out of his hat with “Donnie Darko.” This time round, he has assembled a plentitude of moving parts which add up to nothing at all.
“Pirate Radio” (C+): In the 1960’s, purveyors of the then risque musical form known as rock-and-roll went to sea, anchoring just outside Great Britain’s territorial limits in order to broadcast their musical fare without interference by the country’s stuffy officialdom. In this film version of that true story, we get a collection of randy (and mostly middle-aged) rebels without much of a cause launching an all-out attack on the airwaves of a nation while testing the limits of substance abuse, regularly “shagging” boatloads of eager female groupies, and indulging in naughty language for its own sake. Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Rhys Ifans lead this motley crew of modern-day musical pirates. The result is mildly amusing, but also rather self-indulgent. More original than a typical comedy but ultimately no more memorable.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” (B-): Harnessing the power of the mind to fell goats (and hamsters), disperse clouds, and confuse one’s opponent is the objective of would-be “Jedi warriors” played by George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and Kevin Spacey. The result is a goofy romp in the land of the deliberately odd that plays out like a combination of acid-trip, hippie-fantasy, and theater of the absurd. This one’s decidedly not for all tastes!
On November 2.09
“Where the Wild Things Are” (B/B+): Imagination runs wild as a young boy escapes to a world in which his feelings of sadness, loneliness, and attachment are personified, along with his wild, irrepressible cravings for excitement, adventure, and breakneck roughhousing, in the form of monsters who adopt him as their king. Part fantasy, part metaphorical exploration of childhood, the film is based on Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 children’s book of the same name.
“Law Abiding Citizen” (C+): A man out for revenge after the brutal murder of his wife and child casts his net very widely – in what becomes an all-out assault on the system of justice that served him so ill. There’s lots of violence, some of it gruesome, and it grows increasingly far-fetched as things unfold. But, things are elevated – a bit – above the routine by the battle of wills between two strong leads. Indeed, Gerard Butler & Jamie Foxx lend some gravitas to a film in which the cast is much better than the story.
“Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” (C+): Vampires have never been entirely out of vogue in our popular culture since the mid-19th century. Lately, they are experiencing one of their recurring surges in popularity, what with television’s very adult “True Blood” series (based on Charlaine Harris’ highly entertaining series of books about a no-nonsense Louisiana waitress named Sookie Stackhouse), features standout work by sometime Canadian Anna Paquin; the rather incipid teen-vampire television series “The Vampire Diaries;” the only-for-tween-girls’ series of “Twilight” books and movies; and plans for a new version of the Gothic classic, “Dark Shadows,” to star Johnny Depp – to name but a few. “Cirque du Freak” is one of the new undead pack – based on a partly macabre, partly darkly humorous series of books (aimed at a young adult readership) and concerning a teenager coming to grips with newly vampiric attributes like super-spit. Its film incarnation will (mildly) amuse followers of the genre – and probably no one else!
On October 11.09
“Capitalism: A Love Story” (B/B+): Michael Moore’s latest documentary opens with troubling comparisons between ancient Rome and modern America and advances the argument that capitalism has degenerated into a system of “greed, exploitation, and failure,” displacing democracy as the cornerstone of our civilization with plutocracy. For Moore, that means a society controlled by the wealthiest one percent of its population – a society which manages to quell revolt, anger, or even meaningful opposition by the ill-served 99% of its population by tantalizing them with the impossible dream that they, too, may make it into the coveted winner’s circle. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen at breakneck speed even as the middle class, that indispensable guarantor of democracy, continues to decline. Big banks and other Wall Street speculators are bailed out with hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars instead of being treated as the criminals they are for recklessly risking everything on the “complicated betting schemes” known as “derivatives trading.” Prior to 9/11, the FBI warned of an “epidemic of mortgage fraud,” but politicians of both parties failed to act, and the result has been an unprecedented wave of ordinary people being evicted from their homes for an inability to pay their bills. (Moore makes an astute aside about the effectiveness of the threat du jour, lately from terrorism, to conveniently distract us from the dangers lurking closer to home: “Nothing works better in the home of the brave” than some old-fashioned fear.) Along the way, we meet people who specialize in buying condominiums that have been subject to foreclosure and reselling them at a profit. And what can one make of the nefarious practice of many big corporations (like AT&T, Walmart, Hershey, and Nestle, to name but a few) of surreptitiously buying life insurance policy on their employees, payable, in the event said employee dies, to the corporation! The corporations call this method of profiting from the death of their employees, “Dead Peasants” insurance, a descriptive name that speaks volumes! Moore’s film has all the usual strengths and weaknesses of his documentary work: It musters examples with the power to provoke surprise and indignation; its use of irony can be both funny and caustic; and it leaves you with a burning desire to right the manifest wrongs it catalogs. On the other hand, Moore is never shy about being heavy-handed and dogmatic; and he makes no pretense at being even-handed or objective (his films are unabashed advocacy films). Of course, the latter characteristics tend not bother viewers who happen to share Moore’s socio-political perspectives. On a filmmaking level, however, Moore’s work might be even stronger if he intruded a little less in the stories he tells; if he jettisoned the predictable (and rather hollow) stunts (like trying to barge into corporate headquarters when he’s not busily wrapping police tape around their facades); and if he opted for focus over his usual shotgun approach. It would be more useful to seek to inform and persuade others than to simply preach to the already converted.
“Zombieland” (B/B+): A few years hence, civilization has collapsed thanks to a plague that has transformed most of humanity into ravenous zombies. This road-trip across a post-Apocalyptic landscape teams a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who has a host of neuroses, irritable bowels, and a list of rules for survival (like ‘Don’t be a hero’), with a man who has a knack for ‘ass-kicking’ (Woody Harrelson), and two girls (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who have never met a man, woman, or child they can’t out-con. Reluctant traveling companions at first, the wisecracking quartet bond into an appealing surrogate family. The result is a remarkably funny take on horror conventions. There is some gruesome stuff, especially very early in the film, but, happily, there is relatively little here that will oblige you to avert your gaze. Most of it is character-driven and thoroughly engaging and even, unexpectedly, rather endearing.
“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” (C/C+): A hapless young man who “stared at defeat and found hope,” finally makes something that works, in the form of a machine that turns water into food. But he, and the residents of the hard-times small town he calls home, forget that there can be too much of a good thing. The result is a mildly amusing animated film. It’s tolerable viewing for adults, but its main appeal will be for younger viewers.
“Whip It” (C/C+): Actress Drew Barrymore directed this humorous take on a middle class teen who is captivated by roller-derbies and throws over her previous lifestyle for the rough and tumble of the roller rink. Canadian Ellen Page (“Juno”) has the lead roll, but it’s her best friend and co-worker at a small diner (payed by an actress hitherto unknown to this reviewer named Alia Shawkat) who makes the biggest impression. The trouble with the premise is that we never buy Page as a beauty pageant contestant. Even before her experiment with blue hair dye, she’s far too bohemian to suit the straight-laced persona she supposedly occupies before the roller rink sounds its siren call and she reinvents herself as “Babe Ruthless.” Daniel Stern and Marcia Gay Hardin play the disapproving parents, but Barrymore herself makes too few appearances in her film. Her winning smile and personality are lacking in the rather more coolly cerebral and ironic Page. The film is from Fox Searchlight, the ostensibly indie-minded branch of that big studio; but, for the most part this film plays out like a mainstream commercial film; and it is puzzling that it was featured at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“The Invention of Lying” (C+): An unlucky, under-appreciated man (Ricky Gervais) does what no one else in this alternate world has ever done – he tells a lie. And his life changes dramatically (and, initially, at least, for the better). His initial foray into telling untruths are what we’d call “white lies,” designed not for his own benefit but to comfort others. Even when he tells tales that are designed to benefit himself, he draws the line at using his unique ability to gain the affection of the woman (Jennifer Garner) he adores. (He’s snub-nosed and plump, while she’s after a good genetic match – a la the dramatic film “Gattaca.”) There’s a nagging flaw at the heart of the story’s premise. It postulates a world in which everyone tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But not being able to lie is not the same thing as always blurting out whatever’s on your mind, without regard to propriety, tact, or good manners: (Q) “Are you always happy/” (A) “Usually. [But] sometimes I stay in bed eating and crying,.” Nor does it necessarily follow that just because no one can lie everyone else will automatically treat whatever anyone says as utterly unassailable. After all, you could say that your bank account contains “x” dollars instead of “y” and honestly believe it to be so; but, you could be honestly mistaken! Too much of the humor (and critical foundation of story developments) ignores those twin flaws in logic. However, it is a comedy, after all, so we can extend it some leeway. The result is mildly amusing, deriving most of its charm from lead and co-director Gervais. He plays a decent, gentle, and affable guy, and that’s a refreshing sort of lead figure in any kind of film these days.
On September 26.09
“Jennifer’s Body” (B): You’ve gotta love a movie that opens with the phrase: “Hell is a teenage girl. I guess I’m not perfect myself.” So says the hardened and embittered heroine (the lovely Amanda Seyfried, who made such an impression as the daughter, and all-around vision of beauty, in “Mamma Mia!”). Here she’s transformed by events from a small town Jan Brady to a variation on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Except there aren’t any vampires to be slain, just her ‘best friend forever,’ the sexually over-active Megan Fox, who develops a voraciousness of another sort after she takes a moonlit spin with a visiting rock band. Fact is: She’s left with a yen to devour high school boys – quite literally – an unfortunate side-effect, it seems, of her brand of demon possession. Although the gruesomeness that ensues make things hard for the squeamish (your reviewer certainly included) to stomach, there’s much more than gore on display in this witty, fun, suspenseful, and darkly funny tale. It’s penned by hobbyist-stripper turned filmmaker Diablo Cody, and, for our money, Cody’s sly use of language (“Rumor? It’s true! It’s in Wikipedia!”) is far more authentic sounding here than it was in the somewhat artificial-sounding “Juno,” which was her screenwriting debut.
“The Informant!” (C+/B-): Matt Damon stars (and narrates, in a near stream of consciousness style that’s full of amusing ‘non sequiturs’) as a corporate executive turned federal informant on chemical company price fixing. His true calling, however, is as a shameless teller of tall tales, and they certainly grow ever-taller in the telling, as he leads FBI agents, corporate cronies, and everyone else on a merry metaphorical chase in which it becomes impossible to separate truth from fiction, let alone keep up which the spinner of the ever more complex web. Somewhat reminiscent of 2006’s “The Hoax,” about Clifford Irving’s bogus biography of Howard Hughes; or of the 2002 film “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the result is mildly amusing, but ultimately sort of pointless.
“Love Happens” (C/C+): Mildly likable story about a self-help guru (Aaron Eckhart) who gives pep-talks for the bereaved without dealing with his own suppressed anguish over the loss of his wife. Things come to a head when he’s confronted by an inconsolable widower (John Carroll Lynch, in an affecting turn), his own angry father-in-law (Martin Sheen), and the possibility of starting over (in the pert form of Jennifer Aniston). It can best be characterized as light drama, with a hint of romance, and a sprinkling of words (like ‘quidnunc’ and ‘poppysmik’) that you’re unlikely to encounter outside an idiosyncratic spelling bee.
“Pandorum” (USA/Germany) (B): The year is 2174 and two men awake
abruptly from extended hyper-sleep aboard an immense ark-like vessel that’s making a decades-spanning voyage to another world. But the ship is in dire trouble, beset by monsters, madness, or both! The darkness here is both external and internal – as the protagonists have to deal with marauding carnivorous predators of unknown origin and with the equally dark corners of the human psyche. Effectively suspenseful, with good work by Ben Foster (who is convincingly heroic in juxtaposition to his ice-cold killer turn in “3:10 to Yuma”), Dennis Quaid, and Antje Traue. It may try to do a bit too much, but it’s an entertaining blend of psychological thriller, science fiction, and horror conventions.
“Surrogates” (C+): A few years in the future, the world has embraced the routine use of robotic alter egos, as each human “operator” serves as puppet master for his or her very own artificial “surrogate.” It’s an interesting concept, but the filmmakers would have done better to further explore the implications (psychological, emotional, sexual, social, and legal) of living life at one remove, than to opt instead for routine cop-and-terrorist stuff and an emphasis on action and suspense. That choice of plot direction wastes the otherwise promising cast (Bruce Willis, the always watchable Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike [remember the poor abandoned first wife in “Fugitive Pieces?”], and James Cromwell. Unfortunately, the rationale and actions of the chief villain nearly sink the film with the sheer weight of their absurdity.
“Fame” (C+): First it was a movie (1980), then a television series (1982-87), and now it’s back on the big screen. The result’s not bad, but it can’t decide if it’s a (more-or-less) realistic drama or a musical – in which characters suddenly burst into song (and dance). A big set-piece in which every man, woman, and child in a lunchroom cafeteria erupts into a spontaneous and supposedly improvised frenzy of song, music, and dance doesn’t ring true. Why? Well, simply because it is so obviously scripted, choreographed, and staged. That awkward grasp on reality, combined with inoffensive, but thoroughly slight, stories about its all-new cast of characters, keep it from being either involving or memorable.
“9” (B): An original-looking post-apocalyptic dramatic fantasy in which the
protagonists resemble burlap sock puppets sprung to life yet still engage our interest and sympathies Story-wise, it’s a cross between 1982’s “The Dark Crystal” and the Terminator franchise. There’s something engagingly bittersweet and unique about the result.
“Whiteout” (C-): A murder mystery set at the South Pole (with Canada filling in for Antarctica) is elevated above the routine (and occasionally preposterous) only by its wintry setting. Kate Beckinsale (of the Underworld series) and Tom Skerritt do the best they can with the pedestrian material on hand.
On September 8.09
“Taking Woodstock” (C+/B-): A mildly amusing account (seemingly loosely inspired by real events) directed by Ang Lee (“Sense and Sensibility”) about the behind-the-scenes machinations of some small town folk determined to host the mega-music festival in the summer of 1969. The resulting assemblage of would-be wheelers-and-dealers, hippies, and illicit substance devotees is not apt to be to all tastes, but it does yield some light humor. It is not a documentary, but it is rather akin in tone to a mockumentary. Don’t look for any scenes of the actual music, however. This take on the sprawling ‘happening’ is all about its assortment of eccentric, quirky, and sometimes downright odd, characters.
“Inglourious Basterds” [sic] (B): Yes, that’s the way they spell it in Quentin Tarantino’s skewed look at various colliding groups in Occupied France: There’s an unctuous SS officer who relishes his violent task of hunting down Jewish fugitives and others deemed either unwanted or hostile by the Nazi overlords, a dirty dozen or so of American soldiers whose mission is to demoralize the Germans by brutally torturing, killing, and disfiguring them (not necessarily in that order), a beautiful German actress who secretly works for the Allies, an equally fetching Jewish woman who is hiding in plain sight as the proprietress of a Parisian cinema, and (my personal favorite) an English film critic who is tapped to lead a secret mission behind enemy lines. The target of all the non-Nazi players is an assemblage of Nazi bigwigs, including Hitler himself. Think of it as “Operation Valkerie” writ-large. It’s full of violence (at least four scenes are brutal and gruesome enough that you will want to avert your gaze [I sure did!]), and its predominant tone is dark humor. The net result is a bit of a stylistic mishmash, deliberately over-the-top in tone, very violent, but worth seeing if you like that sort of thing.
On August 17.09
“District 9” (B-): Intelligently-done science fiction with a fairly original premise — the million-strong inhabitants of an alien spaceship stranded over Earth are resettled into a slum near Johannesburg, South Africa (shades of that country’s apartheid-era black townships). The director hails from South Africa but now calls Canada home. His film has been attracting critical raves, but it’s way too gruesome for this reviewer.
“Ponyo” (B): The Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated children’s films are a joy to behold, with glorious images and awesome originality of story and character. The director’s films have a special, refreshing kind of innocence about them. They are certainly like nothing you’ll see coming out of Hollywood, though Disney has been distributing Miyazaki’s films in North America. Not for all tastes, but if you favor the exotically imaginative, as I do, go see it!
“The Time Traveler’s Wife” (B): Ah, a satisfying romance, untainted by the intrusion of clumsy low-brow comedy! Based on a popular novel, this story gives new meaning to star-crossed lovers, as Canadian Rachel McAdams must contend with her beloved’s (Eric Bana) habit of dematerializing as he travels involuntarily to and from different moments of his own life. It’s a rather poignant story, anchored in solid performances. If you liked “Benjamin Button,” this one’s for you.
“The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard” (D): Speaking (shudder!) of flat comedies, I managed to sit through a third of this one on the strength of Jeremy Piven’s presence. He is one funny guy (remember “RocknRolla?”), but this film is just plain dumb.
On August 9.09
“The Hurt Locker” (B+/A-): The best film on the big-screen thus far. It’s an up close and personal account of three U.S. soldiers with the nerve-wracking, terribly dangerous job of defusing bombs in Iraq.
“Funny People” (B+): A blend of humor and something actually approaching pathos about the private lives of professional comedians. Cuss-words fly fast and furious, but these characters are surprisingly engaging. And that goes for Adam Sandler, too, though he normally grates. Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, and the rest of the cast also do very good work here.
“(500) Days of Summer” (B): Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a quirky, offbeat look at relationships. What happens if a male disciple of the notion of love at first sight falls for a gal who prefers no-strings? This is a very good film, with that unmistakable “indie” vibe. If you liked “Juno,” go see it! (This reviewer actually liked this better than “Juno.”)
“Julie & Julia” (B/B+): The criss-crossing stories of Julia Child, chef and eccentric writ large, and her latter-day disciple, a young woman in one of NYC’s outer boroughs who embarks on a quest to try every recipe in Child’s esteemed guide to French cooking while recounting the experience on an online journal. Meryl Streep delivers another impressive performance (can this be the same woman who was singing her way across a Greek island a mere year ago?), and contrary to what other critics may say, Amy Adams hold her own with a less flamboyant role.