Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Liam Neeson can coast on his deep,
booming voice and imposing manner. When he played Zeus in Clash of the Titans, he sounded cool saying, “Release the Kraken!”
even though you could tell that he had as much contempt for the material as the
viewers eventually would. With that in mind, it’s always refreshing to see the
performer when he’s called up to act.
In Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, Neeson plays a professional hunter named John Ottway who
keeps Alaskan oilrigs safe from wolves. As you can hear in the voiceover, it’s
not much of a life. The isolation and difficulty involved tend to attract some
pretty rough guys. Essentially, Ottway and his rifle keep ex convicts and
drunks safe from lupines that think that the oilrigs look like potential
feeding grounds. Ottway’s odd hours, unsavory workmates and general self-loathing
certainly convinced his long-suffering wife to leave him.
Before self-pity can get the best of
him, Ottway joins a crew flying on a jet liner. Worn out by another grueling
day, he actually manages to sleep through a wicked batch of turbulence. There’s
no sense in trying to figure out where Ottway and the rest are headed because
they’re not going to make it.
He awakens to find out that he and a
small group of others have survived a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness.
Knowing that a rescue plane probably isn’t coming for a bunch of ex-cons with
tenuous relationships with their families, Ottway leads them on a dangerous
Staying put isn’t an option, but they
have to face the cold, lack of food and ferocious winds. Oh, and there’s a pack
of angry grey wolves who attack with little warning. Not only would the wolves
find Ottway and the other survivors delicious but also they sometimes stalk and
kill the men simply to guard their territory. Ottway knows enough about their
behavior to think of ways to avoid them, but it’s tough when the plane
contained shotgun shells but nothing to fire them.
Having made both big budget junk like The A-Team (which starred an indifferent
Neeson) and an intriguing indie Narc,
Carnahan does a great job of making the simulated wolf attacks scary. Normally,
it’s annoying to watch quick cutting and blurry shots during scenes where
there’s a fight to the death, but with The
Grey, it makes the wolves’ assaults seem more random and unpredictable.
Like the survivors we don’t know what the mean critters will do or when they’ll
Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
(working from Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker”) also manage to make the men
stuck in the hostile landscape seem sympathetic and human. These guys cuss like
chimneys and casually utter rude slurs. But like the cops in Narc, they’re fascinating. The observant
Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), the argumentative Diaz (Frank Grillo), the motor
mouthed Flannery (Joe Anderson), the sensitive Talbert (Dermot Mulroney) and
the likable Burke (Nonso Anozie) are fleshed out so well that none deserve to
become wolf bait. Even the most obnoxious of these guys is easy to cheer for
against the seemingly insurmountable danger.
Nonetheless, the primary focus of the
film is Neeson, and he makes great use of the spotlight. Even though Ottway
knows how to survive in hostile places and how to minimize the men’s’ chances
of becoming wolf chow, it’s easy to believe Neeson when he admits he’s
terrified. Neeson also projects a sort of admiration for the wolves and their
ability to make his life miserable. When he kills one, he has a sort of empathy
for the creature. Because he oozes gravitas, Neeson can spout platitudes and
have them sound like scripture instead of banalities.
The ending’s a bit sketchy. Carnahan
makes viewers wait till after the credits to see how he decided to wrap up the
story. Nonetheless, he earns a lot of credit for admitting that the bravest and
toughest guys on the planet had better stay in touch with their feelings. (R)
Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/27/12)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Nobbs is an intriguing movie marred by a seemingly small but insurmountable flaw.
While Glenn Close is a terrific actress, she, despite her best efforts, simply
can’t pass for anything else but Glenn Close in drag. Yes, she received an
Oscar nomination and has producing, songwriting and screenplay credits here,
but it’s hard to believe that the other characters don’t notice that her
character only dresses like a man.
For a movie like Tootsie or Boys Don’t Cry to work, the gender switches have to work in order for the rest of the movie to
follow suit. That simply doesn’t happen here. Dustin Hoffman and Hilary Swank
could pass for the opposite gender; Close can’t.
Close plays Albert Nobbs, a woman who
has spent decades posing as a man. The job prospects for women are appallingly
limited in late 19th century Ireland, and men don’t seem eager to
beat up on what they believe are other men.
The ruse is quickly jeopardized when
Albert is forced to share a bed with a new coworker named Hubert Page. To her
surprise, she discovers that she’s not the only one who figured out that men
land better jobs. Hubert (Janet McTeer, another Oscar nominee) not only pulls
off working tough manual tasks, but she even has a wife.
Knowing that she doesn’t have to remain
lonely, Albert saves up her meager wages in the hope that she can go from
cleaning and serving at hotels to owning her own tobacco shop. She even tries
wooing a much younger maid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska).
Having lived most of her life in
disguise, Albert has trouble realistically reading the intentions of others and
is clueless on how one might court another woman. It doesn’t help that Helen is
already enamored with a more age appropriate lad named Joe (Aaron Johnson). On second
thought, Albert might make a better spouse because, for all of her flaws, she
has better judgment and doesn’t have a violent streak.
All of this makes for a potentially
fascinating tale (it’s already been a short story and a play). But it’s an odd
situation when the leading character is just not convincing. The supporting
cast, particularly McTeer, is just fine. With her added height and blunt
manner, McTeer has an easier time passing for male. Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) is a delight as a doctor who
treats himself with a little too much alcohol.
In order to expand the story, Close and
her co-writers throw in subplots that are a little confusing and don’t have all
that much bearing on the primary tale. To her credit, it’s refreshing that
Close has made a personal project where she doesn’t hog the attention. She
clearly has a story to share and is thankfully willing to outsource the “Oscar
Columbian director Rodrigo Garcia (the
much more accomplished Nine Lives,
which also starred Close) has a good feel for the era and casts a sympathetic
eye on the somewhat odd characters. Nonetheless, it is disconcerting that
neither he nor Close can make the protagonist feel real, even in the artificial
confine of the movie screen. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 01/27/12)
by Beck Ireland
Cronenberg's body of work — The Fly, Dead Ringers, Eastern Promises — is fraught with the horror that comes with an
obsessive and often unnatural pursuit of the flesh. So it seems only natural
the director would take on the turbulent love triangle involving the
sex-obsessed originators of psychoanalysis. Yet, for the most part, A Dangerous Method glosses over
corporeal matters to focus on shallow expositions of psychoanalytic theory and
trifling jabs at class differences.
1904, rabid 18-year-old Jewish Russian Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is
violently committed to the Burghölzli Clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, where she
is put under the care of Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Diagnosed as
"hysteric," Spielrein suffers from compulsions, tics and what seem to
be spontaneous orgasms brought on by strict discipline or humiliation. For her
treatment, Jung experiments with the controversial psychoanalysis, or “talking
cure," invented by Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).
the year, Spielrein is released from the clinic to continue studying medicine
and psychology at the university in Zurich. Eventually, she and Jung begin an
affair that contains sadomasochistic elements, despite his being extremely
repressed and also married to wealthy Emma (Sarah Gadon). Meanwhile, Jung
shares the success he has reached with Spielrein with Freud, who, after an
initial visit from Jung in which the two men talk for 13 hours straight,
considers Jung the natural heir to psychoanalysis. However, once Spielrein
begins writing to Freud, who has begun to realize Jung has other interests such
as mysticism and resents the good life Jung's wife's money allows him to lead,
Freud disinherits Jung.
by screenwriter Christopher Hampton from his 2003 play, which in turn was based
on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous
Method, the film is surprisingly boring overall. As the mad Spielrein,
Knightley initially pushes a bit too far, writhing her long limbs and gasping
for air with her piranha's underbite. But once the cure sets in, she becomes
almost overly reasonable, and as such is reduced to only a minor player in the
film from the mid-point to end. In fact, even the major characters, Jung and
Freud, are often absent from the film by remaining too staid throughout. Even
while giving into his passion, Fassbender's Jung remains figuratively
lack of dynamic characters in the film is a big problem. But it could have been
overcome had not the majority of the action been withheld from the screen.
Jung, Freud and Spielrein carried on prolific epistolary relationships, and A Dangerous Method showcases these
letters. As a result; however, the film lingers too long and too often on
actors narrating as they write or read a letter. This does not make for heady
moviemaking. In addition, a built-up scene in which Jung and Freud board a ship
bound for a conference in America is quickly and incoherently abandoned after a
one-liner delivered by Freud. It's as if the movie consists largely of B-roll
Otto Gross, the coke-addled psychoanalyst who sleeps with all his patients,
Vincent Cassel provides an interesting diversion, although the character is a
too-obvious counterpoint to Jung. While defending his philosophy, Gross paces
and tweaks and literally climbs the walls. He's mind and flesh combined. By
comparison, Freud and Jung spend 13 consecutive hours together, and because
they're constrained and eternally well groomed, it's neither claustrophobic nor
edifying to the viewer. What should have been a meeting of genius minds and
deep philosophical speech comes off as polite small talk — even if it's mostly
about sex. The two are merely polite, dapper ghosts in their own film. (R)
Rating: 2 (Posted 01/27/12)
on a Ledge
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
With a title like Man on a Ledge, it would be reasonable to expect a movie to be edgy
or tense. Neither adjective applies in this case. The emotions this film
generates would be more accurately encapsulated by calling it “Man on a Whoopee
Despite being shot at the familiar
Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, Man on
a Ledge is as outrageous and silly as typical Adam Sandler movie and
possibly funnier. Sam Worthington stars as a mysterious fellow named Joe Walker,
who checks into the Roosevelt Hotel. After treating himself to an expensive
meal, Joe decides to stroll on the ledge of the high-rise hotel.
Even in a preoccupied city like New
York, this gets attention. Strangely, Joe, while determined to stay where he
is, doesn’t seem suicidal. His note indicates that he’s innocent of some crime.
But “Joe Walker” isn’t his name, and the cops on the scene don’t recognize him
as anybody in their mug books.
Trying to keep him from jumping are a
cranky cop (Ed Burns) and a burned out police psychiatrist named Lydia Mercer
(Elizabeth Banks). Lydia is an amazing physical specimen. She can down gallons
of alcohol and wolf down junk food, and still maintain a toned, pert body.
Suspension of disbelief is part of
cinema. In Man on a Ledge, just about
every frame begs for it. It seems the title character has another agenda (who
would have guessed?) than suicide. His brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey’s
girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) are trying to steal something from the
skyscraper next door. Joey’s high tech equipment probably costs as much as the
loot he and Angie are trying to steal.
Danish director Asger Leth loads the
film with gritty atmosphere, but instantly loses any credibility by including a
James Bond-style heist. Leth has worked in documentaries but escapist fare like
this is obviously not his strong suit. The script by veteran TV writer Pablo F.
Fenjves is loaded with amusing implausibilities, but then again it’s hard to
tell if he, Leth or just some moron in the crew is responsible.
Several in the audience who watched Man on a Ledge with me were giggling as
Rodriguez changed from her street clothes into a tight cat suit while revealing
her lacy undies. While her trainer must be proud, it’s hard to imagine how this
aids the robbery.
At least the filmmakers found a villain
who probably deserves to lose something valuable. Ed Harris is stuck in a
one-note role, but it’s hard to feel any sympathy for a guy who has made his
fortune ripping off others. His David Englander is the sort of One Percenter
whose greed and sense of entitlement beg for wealth redistribution, even if it
comes from an illegal solution that wouldn’t be endorsed by any government.
If Leth and Fenjves had created a more
nuanced bad guy, they could have maximized the “serves you right” factor
against Englander. If he were more than mean and covetous, the story would have
produced more than chuckles. A couple of hints of goodness might have put a
little more suspense and surprises into the story when they’re most needed.
With an actor of Harris’ caliber, you don’t have to work hard to make Englander
Like Harris, Kyra Sedgwick (as an
opportunistic reporter) and Anthony Mackie (as a crooked cop) aren’t asked to
do more than take the material seriously. On second thought, because audiences
certainly can’t, maybe they should give out awards for performers who can get
through this material. Actually, they did get an award.
It’s called a paycheck and it was
certainly more rewarding for the performers than the film is for the viewers.
(PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 01/27/12)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
If there’s a message to British
director Steve McQueen’s new movie Shame, it’s that just because an act is forbidden doesn’t mean it’s fulfilling or even
Watching a New York ad man act on his
hyperactive sex drive is about like watching someone eating to death. If the
wayward 30-something Brandon Sullivan were played by just about any performer
but German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender (Inglourious
Basterds, and McQueen’s Hunger), Shame would seem even longer than its
101-minute running time.
From the title and the shot of a
crumpled bed sheet, it’s obvious that McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) think that Brandon is
miserable guy. Oh, he’s good looking, has a nice Manhattan apartment and a
lucrative occupation. He also has a suave, easy way with women that makes
coupling seem shockingly easy.
It’s easy to begin wondering if his
motor mouthed boss David (James Badge Dale) keeps Brandon around simply because
Brandon can woo women simply from a glance or a casual remark whereas the
married David strains to find ways to imitate Brandon’s effortlessness.
While one might envy Brandon’s appeal,
it’s impossible to envy his life. He can’t get through the day without
masturbating or getting into a regrettable sexual encounter. It difficult to
keep track of all of his debauchery, and McQueen and Morgan only gradually
reveal how far gone Brandon really is. Brandon doesn’t even let the fact that
he’s on company time or the fact that he might get caught get in the way of
feeding his erotic fix.
He also has a difficult relationship
with his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who crashes at Brandon’s
apartment because her latest relationship with a beau has gone toxic. Whereas
he can come off as well adjusted to strangers, her issues are out there for all
the world to see. Keeping an eye on Sissy while sating his relentless carnal
appetite proves taxing.
Thanks to Fassbender’s commanding
presence, following Brandon’s descent is fascinating even if it’s quite glum.
His exploits seem tragic because he draws little pleasure from them and just
mopes his way from bed to bed. McQueen and Morgan thankfully don’t waste
viewers’ times with two-bit psychology or pat explanations. It’s hard to tell
if Brandon regrets his philandering, but it doesn’t take much thinking to
realize he’d prefer to do something other than bed hopping if he could.
McQueen (no, he’s not related the guy
who starred in Bullitt) first came to
prominence as a photographer and visual artist, and he has a gift for making
mundane settings like a subway or an upscale bar seem oddly exotic. This also
enables him to set up enough of a variety in moods so that Shame doesn’t seem tedious or monochromatic.
While Shame has an NC-17 rating, it makes the least appealing porno film
imaginable. McQueen and Fassbender manage to but Brandon through several
pairings, and almost none look arousing. Not only will Shame, by design, make viewers feel as if they need a shower, but
it will certainly make them leap back into their clothes later with the hope of
never having to remove them.
Essentially, watching Shame is to share Brandon’s living
nightmare. McQueen accomplishes no small feat by keeping our attention as we
wait to wake up from it. (NC-17) Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/20/12)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
America owes a lot to The Tuskegee
Airmen. These African American pilots may have already won more than 850 medals
for flying 1,578 missions. They also demonstrated that new fangled jet
technology was useless if German pilot made the mistake of getting was in the
gun sights of one of the 99th Pursuit Squadron’s airmen. By turning
the fearsome Luftwaffe into target practice, the Tuskegee Airmen not only
helped win World War II, but their undeniable skill belied stereotypes and
certainly helped convince Harry Truman that integrating the armed forces was a
No movie celebrating their heroism and accomplishments
could be not worth seeing. In the new George Lucas-financed Red Tails, it’s impossible to frown as
the pilots flying the distinctive red-tailed fighters take out Second Amendment
solutions against the Nazis. The Star
Wars mastermind said that he had to pay for the film because Hollywood was
leery of making a big budget film with a primarily black cast. If what Lucas
says is true, it’s as if our society hasn’t really changed in 70 years.
While Lucas spending a few million of
the billions he’s earned on a film that clearly needed to be made is
commendable, it’s a shame that the movie about the Tuskegee Airmen isn’t quite
as accomplished as the real pilots. As the owner of Industrial Light and Magic,
Lucas can easily guarantee spectacular dogfights and a production that looks
even more costly than it actually was. Veteran TV director Anthony Hemingway
(Tremé) delivers a slick, polished feature debut, and the script by John Ridley
(U-Turn) and “Boondocks” creator
Aaron McGruder has plenty of juicy wisecracks. When one of the Airmen redefines
the term “colored,” it’s pretty damn funny.
What keeps Red Tails from matching the glory of the real airmen is that Lucas’
sensibilities mar the film. He’s made no secret that he’s a fan of movies from
the World War II era, and has been eager to copy their tone and approach. As a
result, there’s a clumsy romance between pilot Joe “Lightning” Little (David
Oyelowo) and an Italian girl (Daniela Ruah). You can guess where it will go,
but the fact that neither speaks each other’s language prevents viewers from
having to endure the kind of clunky dialogue that Anakin Skywalker used to woo
The characters are fairly one note. The
unit’s commanders (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard) are somber and the
pilots (Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley) seem to be built around
single traits. While they are inherently sympathetic characters, the airmen
would be more involving if we knew just a little more about them.
Sixty-six of the airmen died during the
war, so it would have helped if Hemingway could have made viewers feel the
danger of the missions. While Lucas’ technicians can certainly create
convincing dogfights, there’s a video game-like sense that we’re seeing a
simulation instead of actual combat. It might not serve much purpose to overdo
the grisly consequences of areal warfare, but the losses should have been more
clearly stated in the action of the film instead of a title card before the
If Lucas’ attraction to schmaltz
prevents Red Tails from reaching its
potential, at least his admiration for what the Tuskegee Airman is heartfelt
and runs through every frame of the film. Because this is obviously a labor of
love, it’s a little easier to forgive it for falling short of the Real McCoy.
(PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 01/20/12)
Loud & Incredibly Close
by Beck Ireland
In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,
Tony-award winning and Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader)
displays heavy-handedness of both scenes and performances. An annoying
voice-over and equally irritating expositive dialog attempt to extort pathos
but instead squeeze any possible genuine emotion out of the film.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), 11, finds a key hidden among his deceased father's
possessions, he embarks on a city-wide hunt for the lock it must open. While
alive, his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), a jeweler who died the year
before during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, set up elaborate — bordering
on paranoid schizophrenic — treasure hunts to keep Oskar, who falls along the
autism spectrum, engaged in the world. As such, Oskar believes the key to be a
clue to finding out the reasons for his father's death left to him by his
direction from the word "Black" written on the key's envelope, Oskar
obsessively begins his mission by attempting to contact everyone named Black in
the city. Fighting compulsions and phobias by shaking a tambourine, he hurries
through the city — eschewing public transportation due to fear — to meet every
Black, starting with a crying stranger (Viola Davis) and her angry husband
(Jeffrey Wright). At home, Oskar is given complete freedom to come and go on
his mission by his grieving and put-upon mother (Sandra Bullock), whom he
largely ignores. He does eventually accept help in his quest from his paternal
grandmother's mute lodger (Max von Sydow), who answers questions by flashing
either the "yes" or "no" printed on the palms of his hands.
by Eric Roth from the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close contains a mystery, but it's
not related to the key. Without giving away too much, that plot device ends as
a futile gesture: a great big wild goose chase. Instead, the filmmakers hang
the tension for the entire film on increasingly desperate messages left on the
answering machine by Oskar's father and a revelation about them that is also a
are a few charming moments in the film, but none of them are due to newcomer
Horn, who plays Oskar too confidently and makes the character a precocious,
annoying intrusion. In fact, it's only through the forced narrative of the
movie that any of the strangers he encounters would try to help him at all.
Still, as Oskar's mother, Bullock gives an understated performance. She's
appropriately concerned, baffled, and scared. Through sheer vulnerability,
Bullock as Oskar's mom keeps a scene in which she and Oskar are each on one
side of the apartment door from mawkishness. Instead, it's poignant and
possibly the best scene in the entire film.
Von Sydow as the mysterious lodger is also a delight. He's brings surprises.
The printing on his hands is reminiscent of The
Night of the Hunter, so for the first time in this film that should be all
about the potential for harm, he brings a true damaged darkness that is too
soon resolved. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted 01/20/12)
The Iron Lady
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Iron Lady were a mere biopic, it would fail. Like most biopics, there are
too many straight and easy lines drawn between incidents in the early life of
the subject meant to be a wink and a nod to a later iconic stature. Plus,
there's a frame story. But unlike most frame stories, this one is rare because
it's absolutely necessary to the functioning of the film as something better
and greater than mere biopic. In fact, by interweaving the authentic facts of
Thatcher's life with both speculation and artistry, screenwriters Abi Morgan
and Michael Hirst, and director Phyllida Lloyd have created a depiction of
power gained and then lost of Shakespearian proportion. And a well-crafted and
fascinating ambivalence toward its central figure, played exceptionally well by
one of America's top actresses, is to be given all the credit.
Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), the
long-deposed first (and so far only) lady Prime Minister of Great Britain,
falls further into a redundancy of sorts as she ages. Isolated by the
prominence of her former position as well as dementia that affects her
short-term memory. The woman who led the country for more than a decade is now
largely confined to her home in Chester Square, Belgravia, reading, watching TV
and tippling. Her only company consists of a small and stern staff, her peevish
daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), and the hallucination of her beloved but
deceased husband, Denis, (Jim Broadbent).
As Thatcher labors to pack up Denis'
personal effects and exorcise the hallucination, she begins to remember her
humble beginnings as a grocer's daughter (Alexandra Roach), her call to serve
the Conservative party, her transformation into an electable candidate, the
reactions to some of her most controversial policies, including the Falklands
Campaign, and, eventually, the betrayal of some of her senior colleagues, which
led to her ousting from No. 10 Downing Street in November 1990.
Although in real life Margaret Thatcher's
political career and legacy are highly controversial, the film's focus is
directed above and beyond the polarizing figure. Instead of a shallow litany of
the most notorious political actions shadowed by cheap exposition and bad
makeup, such as were the entire contents of J. Edgar, The Iron Lady refuses to demonize or canonize its subject. Refreshingly, the film refuses to
draw simple conclusions for its viewers.
Aided greatly by Streep's transformative
performance, the film uses the events in Thatcher's life, realistically incorporated
through the use of historical footage, to portray her earnest beliefs, as well
as her tragic flaw — ambition — that ultimately led to her downfall.
Yet, finally, but also firstly because it's
the opening scene, the filmmakers and especially Streep inspire some sympathy
(however unwelcome) for the woman, who once was one of the most powerful
leaders in the world and is now both bullied and ignored by morning shoppers
and the shopkeepers. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 1/14/12)
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Joyful Noise is both hokey
and uneven. Billed as a comedy centered on a rivalry for a choir director
position, the film, written by Todd Graff, who also directed, loses focus in
storylines more fixed on issues than story. In addition, the musical numbers
are surprisingly unimpressive and sometimes downright boring.
After the death of her choir director
husband (Kris Kristofferson), G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton), the Divinity
Church's main patron, is disappointed in the promotion of Vi Rose Hill
(Latifah) to choir director. Hill is musically conservative and Sparrow and the
other members of the choir, including Hill's daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer),
fear her traditional program will lose them a shot at the national contest of
the Joyful Noise gospel choir competition in Los Angeles. But when Sparrow's
grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) arrives in town, he convinces Hill to update the
The harmony between Sparrow and Hill is
short-lived; however, when Hill learns of the budding romance between Randy and
Olivia. Hill stubbornly resigns from the choir, even after a disqualification
at regionals, which was to give the choir a shot at the national title. This
leaves Sparrow to concoct a scheme to get the choir to the contest where her
tailored choir robe and her grandson's talents can be showcased.
Joyful Noise is only
loosely hinged on the rivalry between Hill and Sparrow. As the spoiled, rich
widow, Parton gets to display her usual down-home humor. Her dead-pan delivery
is a sharp here as it has been in past vehicles, such as the actually funny 9 to 5, but this film loses the plot
many times too numerous to mention. Graff's script is a meandering mess,
covering teen drama, disability, and even the effects of the recent economic
downturn on small town life. As Hill, Latifah is too often put-upon, and her
performance is boxed in by forced uprightness. The majority of her lines are
stretched similes meant to set someone's behavior straight.
The biggest fault of Joyful Noise is its approach to the performances. Instead of the
catchy arrangements found in Sister Act,
the songs are entirely too earnest and yet too showy without much of a show. In
addition, Parton and Latifah aren't showcased well. They both get solos, but
they're unmemorable, slow, and boring. The use of the wistful empty stage set
piece is a wasted gesture, and Kristofferson's apparition in Parton's moment is
a bit unsettling. The only thing lingering after a viewing of the film is the
earworm of Michael Jackson's “Man in the Mirror.” As such, this movie is
torture. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted 01/14/12)
Reviewed by Dan
Is it outrageous to expect a Roman Polanski movie titled Carnage to have a little more bite?
While some of the director’s visual finesse and dark wit is on display, Carnage feels like being stuck in a
tight place with a feral cat instead of a hungry tiger. Sure, both experiences
will have some surprises but Polanski’s better movies have a sense of danger
that’s completely missing here.
While Polanski has assembled a dream cast and has found some
potentially provocative material in French writer Yasmina Reza’s play The God of Carnage, there’s a constant
sense that what’s happening on screen was a good deal more involving on stage.
Polanski and Reza teamed up on the screenplay, but neither seems to know how to
make the material work as a film.
The characters keep wandering in and out of the spacious New
York apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C.
Reilly). It’s as if Polanski and Reza couldn’t think of anything for the
characters to do once their long monologues stopped and that moving the action
away from the Longstreet’s building never occurred to them. By continuing to
drag Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz from Inglourious Basterds) back into the
Longstreet’s apartment, the story keeps feeling artificial and flat.
Reza’s story, however, is loaded with opportunities for
dramatic tension. Both couples have grade school children who have recently
gotten into a fight where permanent injuries might have occurred. Both the Longstreets
and the Cowans try to settle the matter civilly, but their offspring clearly
haven’t fallen far from the tree. Both couples are in less than blissful states
without the added burden of their kids’ misbehavior. Alan is attorney who’s
constantly barking instructions into his eternally ringing cell phone. To say
that Nancy feels neglected is an understatement.
All of this yields a lot of screaming and confrontations
that quickly end after a couple of minutes, only to have the performers switch
sides and then bellow again. In front of a live audience this wordplay and a
few jolting sight gags probably lead to some unsettling but effective
entertainment. While most local productions of the play aren’t going to have
three Oscar-winners and one nominee (Reilly) in the cast, it’s a little easier
to believe all the outrage. In reality, most people would walk out if the
situation became untenable.
It’s not as if Polanski doesn’t know how to make theatrical
material gripping on the big screen. His adaptation of Macbeth may be the definitive film version of Shakespeare’s
Scottish tragedy. With Death and the
Maiden, Polanski and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias cleverly shortened the
timeline from Ariel Dorfman’s play from days to hours. A sense of
claustrophobia and urgency actually increased the tension and kept that film
from feeling static and dull.
Waltz, an Austrian, manages the nifty trick of losing his
accent and easily passing for a shifty New York lawyer. It’s an admirable feat,
but it’s about the only thing that astonishes in this limp retread. (R) Rating:
2.5 (Posted on 01/13/12)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Mark Wahlberg plays a retired criminal who once made his living sneaking
illicit goods about legitimate trading vessels. That’s fitting because Contraband itself smuggles a powerful
sleeping aid in the hull of what’s supposed to be a thriller.
Despite Icelandic director Baltasar
Kormákur’s gritty atmosphere and lots of body slamming, bullets and profane
wisecracks, no tension ever arises. Throughout the film, I was on the edge of a
Wahlberg has had a bustling second
career as a producer with successful cable TV shows like Entourage and Boardwalk
Empire. Sadly, the talented writers who worked on those shows couldn’t have
been bothered to help out here.
While Contraband is nominally based on the previous movie Reykjavik-Rotterdam, but much of the story
feels ripped from a ‘50s American noir film. Kormákur doesn’t bring anything
new to the mix so recalling the story results in a constant state of déjà vu
instead of suspense. Recounting the story is tricky because Contraband isn’t terribly memorable, but
it can be made more fun by counting all the clichés that pop up during the
first 30 minutes or so. After that, it’s forgivable to lose count because the
number is so staggeringly large.
Wahlberg plays Chris Faraday, the owner
of a small New Orleans home security firm. He’s good at setting up home systems
because he and his pal Sebastian (Ben Foster) used to make a pretty penny as
smugglers. Now with a wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two sons (Connor Hill, Bryce McDaniel),
the old ways are simply too dangerous.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a movie if
Chris had a successful retirement. His not-so-bright brother-in-law Andy (Caleb
Landry Jones) has botched a job for a sadistic hood named Briggs (Giovanni
Ribisi). Because Briggs can’t file an insurance claim for a bungled delivery,
he’d rather take out the ensuing debt from Andy’s hide.
About the only way to meet Briggs’
six-figure demands is for Chris to return to smuggling. What follows is a
parade of thinly drawn characters and a plot that hits all of its points
without providing any surprises. Some of the twists are so obvious that
Kormákur probably shouldn’t have even bothered pretending the reversals had any
About the only point where Contraband comes close to having the
life of a rotting zombie is when Chris and his accomplices wind up in a massive
shootout in Panama City. Once the cops and the robbers run out of ammo, so does
the rest of the film.
Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski throws
around a few vulgar quips, but most make viewers laugh at the characters
instead of with them.
Ribisi gnaws on scenery as if it were a
plate of crawfish étouffée. He’s a rather laughable thug, but he seems to be
the only performer having fun here. Maybe if the rest of Contraband had been played for giggles instead of for jolts, it
might have worked.
The only real subterfuge this film has
committed has been against paying audiences. Thankfully, unlike the characters,
nobody’s forcing us to go along with this. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 01/13/12)
Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
There are several things that are
impossible to do. Swimming across the Pacific is one; another is disliking
The 51-year-old makes his living
turning a red piece of cloth into a living, breathing character who seems just
as alive and lovable as the man who animates him.
Elmo was a puppet on the PBS children’s
series Sesame Street before Clash
operated him. Fellow Muppeteer Richard Hunt tried in vain to figure out what to
do with a character who had Cookie Monster’s vocabulary and a face that
projected innocent wonder. In a fit of frustration the gifted Hunt (well, all
the folks who worked for Muppet master Jim Henson were gifted), tossed Elmo
from his arm.
Clash, however, took Elmo home, and the
two have been inseparable since. Clash gave Elmo a squeaky but appealing voice
and infused the little red guy with an infectious combination of mischief and
guilelessness. If these two traits seem incompatible, Clash has made a
formidable living by effortlessly demonstrating how they can coexist.
Clash has a vocal range that probably
dwarfs that of most opera singers, and his hands can put a cornucopia of
expressions on Elmo’s face at will. But as the new documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey demonstrates, much of Clash’s own life is evident in his plush altar ego.
He grew up in Turner Station, a
predominantly African-American section of Baltimore, with loving but
financially struggling family. Unlike the other kids who watched Sesame Street, Clash, who was nine when
the series started, did more than watch the Muppets. He learned about their
creators Jim Henson and Frank Oz and even used his dad’s coat to make a monkey
puppet of his own.
Thankfully, Clash fell in love with an
art form that he could master and where others in the field, like Henson’s
designer Kermit Love, freely shared their secrets and supported the teen puppet
geek. One of the delights of Being Elmo is that much of Clash’s early work and his pivotal meeting with Love is on tape.
Seeing the wide-eyed teen walking through Love’s shop and helping him bring
puppets to life is breathtaking.
From the way that directors Constance
Marks and Philip Shane present him, Clash appears to know that luck has had as
much to do with his success as his formidable gifts for the art and his
relentless dedication. As he teaches French puppeteers how to do what he does,
he’s remarkably patient. He also gladly meets youngsters who share his
enthusiasm for both Elmo and how to make puppets seem like living beings.
Ironically, because Clash is such an
appealing person, Being Elmo feels a
bit monotonous, particularly when Clash seems to jump from peak to peak in his
career. Clash’s flaws aren’t quite glaring, and his disappointments in life
seem mild with a couple of notable exceptions. The sudden death of Henson back
in 1990 crushed everyone who knew the man, particularly Clash, who idolized
him. Clash also spends a good deal of the film trying to be a bigger part of
his teenage daughter’s life because Elmo, lovable as he is, has kept them
Far from ruining the magic, Being Elmo actually makes it easier to
appreciate what Clash and his peers do. Even though we can see Clash operating
Elmo, the little guy seems utterly alive as he greets children. Being Elmo does a terrific job of
explaining why Clash and his avatar are so special. Now that we can see the
hand that’s operating Elmo, it’s easier to love him and the flesh and blood man
inside him. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/06/12)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
The most satisfying cinematic mysteries
are those where the viewers get a chance to match with the detective, reading
the same clues and seeing if they, too, reached the right conclusion.
With this new adaptation of John le
Carré’s ‘70s era spy novel, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) follows retired British
agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) as he tries to locate a mole that’s been
repeatedly slipping vital secrets to the Soviets. To get through Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it really
helps to be as observant and discerning as Smiley.
Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget
O'Connor and Peter Straughan do little to make things easy for the potential
sleuths in the audience. If you take a few breaks or text during the film,
you’ll be lost instantly. If the complex, multi-character narrative wasn’t
challenging enough, much of Tinker Tailor
Soldier Spy is told in flashback, so keeping track of when events take
place can be a challenge even for the alert.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to reward
those who think they can match wits with Smiley. Alfredson nails the look of
the Cold War and films the movie with a consistently creepy atmosphere, even in
sunny locations like Budapest and Istanbul.
Because a series of missions behind the
Iron Curtain have ended in disaster, with innocent people being killed and
agents captured, Smiley’s former boss Control (played with appropriate
weariness by John Hurt) suspects that one of the top agents in the U.K.’s MI6
it tipping off the KGB.
While the 60-something Smiley retired
at the same time Control was forced out, he agrees to lead a small team to
locate the mole. Outside what the agents dub “The Circus,” Smiley can poke
around and determine how the traitor learned about sensitive operations that
Before he died, Control concluded that
the mole might have been the over-zealous Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), the
fastidious Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), the suave Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), the
carefully dressed Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) or Smiley himself. To keep the
Circus from discovering the operation, Smiley plants a young agent named Peter
Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to act as his own mole to determine how the
traitor has been getting information and sending it on.
Because he was a potential suspect,
Smiley has every reason to locate the mole. His pursuit is hampered by the fact
that he operates in a world where people rarely say what they’re really
thinking. While this might make for a difficult task, it makes for mesmerizing
viewing, particularly during any moment Oldman is on camera.
Behind thick spectacles, Smiley’s eyes
can dominate a room, but he consistently speaks in a quiet, friendly but
distant manner. He can make others feel at ease to spill their guts, but it
takes an alert viewer to know when Smiley has something of his own to confess.
Oldman has spent much of his career dining on scenery.
This time around, however, he achieves
a graceful subtlety that draws viewers into Smiley’s world and mentality.
Patient viewers can spot when his enigmatic façade cracks, and little whimpers
or shrugs take on all the power of outbursts.
If a typical James Bond movie makes
espionage look like a thrill ride, Tinker
Tailor Soldier Spy will never be used for MI6 recruiting. There are still
life and death stakes, but when people die in the line of duty in this film,
there’s nothing cathartic or thrilling. This easily explains why Smiley is not
eager to get back in the game.
While the agents take their work
seriously, living a life of perennial subterfuge takes a toll on all involved.
Smiley’s marriage has fallen apart, possibly because his odd hours and
inability or unwillingness to open up are not conducive to a healthy
In some ways the film itself requires a
mindset like Smiley’s to be enjoyed. But there’s something oddly refreshing
about a movie that makes the viewer feel smarter for having watched it. (R)
Rating: 4.5 (Posted 01/06/12)