movie reviews January 2012

The GreyAlbert NobbsA Dangerous MethodMan on a Ledge ShameRed TailsExtremely Loud & Incredibly Close The Iron LadyJoyful Noise CarnageContraband Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's JourneyTinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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The Grey
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 quest south.

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 do it.

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)

 

Albert Nobbs
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Albert 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 clip” scenes.

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)

 

A Dangerous Method

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

 

David 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.

 

 

In 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).

 

Within 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.

 

Adapted 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 buttoned-up.

 

The 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 footage.

 

As 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)

 

Man 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 Cushion.”

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 appropriately despicable.

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)

 

Shame
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 fun.

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)

 

Red Tails
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 good idea.

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 Padme.

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 credits.

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)

 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Reviewed 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.

 

 

When 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 father.

 

Taking 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.

 

Adapted 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 flop.

 

There 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.

 

Max 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

 

If The 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)

 

Joyful Noise

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 repertoire.

 

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)

 

Carnage
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

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)

 

Contraband
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In Contraband, 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 nap.

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 meaning.

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)

 

Being 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 Kevin Clash.

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 apart.

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 went badly.

 

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 relationship.

 

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)

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Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.


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