movie reviews January 2013

The impossibleHyde park on hudsonnot fade awaypromised landTchoupitoulasGangster SquadThe house I live inzero dark thirtymamarust and boneBroken cityHansel and gretel: Witch hunters quartet

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

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Quartet
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

At 75, Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with Quartet and demonstrates some real promise if the acting thing doesn’t work out.

It’s a given that he knows how to get the most out of his fellow actors, even though he’s not on camera this time. Hoffman also has a good eye for editing and offers some technical flourishes that are clever without drawing attention away from the story.

Thankfully, he’s picked a good one. Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) adapts his own play fluidly, so the filmed version retains the sharp dialogue without feeling boxed in. That’s a formidable achievement considering that Quartet is set in a retirement home.

The facility in question is populated musicians who may not have stopped singing or playing their instruments but who are in no shape to continue their careers. While getting older isn’t for sissies as they keep reminding themselves, none of these folks are remotely wimpy, and none are ready to occupy their graves.

Vocalist Wilf Bond (a perfectly cast Billy Connolly) is about as randy as James Bond and readily propositions women his own age or younger. He’s recently had a stroke, but it seems to have loosened his already bawdy tongue instead of debilitating him. His chum Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) still teaches music classes in the home and giddily demonstrates for teens how hip hop and opera have more in common than they might realize. The two have to keep an eye on the sweet natured but forgettable Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), who can still perform opera when her mind hasn’t wandered back to the past.

The three and their musical director (Michael Gambon) are at a crossroads because the home is running short of cash, and the annual gala that raises money for the facility is short a star performer.

A potential solution presents itself when retired soloist and full-time diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey) moves in. She’s performed Verdi’s Rigoletto with the other three numerous times, but she can’t bear the thought of performing at less than her peak. Adding to the stress is the fact that she and Reginald were once married and parted acrimoniously. He’s understandably still sore.

Because neither Hoffman nor Harwood are spring chickens, Quartet feels consistently honest in exploring how aging affects us. They never ask viewers to pity the characters but never deny that losing mobility and mental faculties sucks. The two simply ask viewers to respect their characters as they are and to recognize that aging and dying are two distinct processes. Getting older doesn’t stop people from making bad decisions or from falling in love or from appreciating good things that didn’t exist when we were born.

Some of the supporting cast is actually retired musicians who get to play some fine selections during the film.

Hoffman also cleverly cuts together musical pieces during the opening without drawing attention to what he’s doing behind the camera. It takes a wise director-actor to know when it’s best to stay out of the spotlight. Hoffman thankfully realizes his four stars deserve it. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/27/13)

Haiku
Quartet

Hoffman makes a film
on old folks that doesn’t
hit any wrong notes.


Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Writer/director Tommy Wirkola is brilliant at coming up with a great conceit. In 2009, he pitted medical students on a ski break against zombie Nazis in the subversive mix of horror and black comedy Dead Snow. And although that film falls apart at the end, at least Wirkola carried the idea through. In his most recent release, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, the Norwegian filmmaker co-opts the well-known German fairy tale about the brother and sister who outwit a wicked witch, but unfortunately doesn’t take it far enough.


Witches are kidnapping the children of the medieval village of Augsburg so the mayor hires experienced bounty-hunter siblings Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) to bring them back safely and rid the village of the “witch plague.” Soon, despite obstruction from the cranky sheriff (Peter Stormare), the two are on the trail of master witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who plans to use the rare Blood Moon to make her and her kind invincible to fire, the witch hunters’ favorite means of killing witches. However, to destroy Muriel before she puts her plan in place, the brother and sister vigilante team must face their own enchanted past.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters contains some really clever ideas. The hand-printed missing children signs tied onto milk bottles, Hansel’s diabetes from eating too much sugary candy at the first witch’s house, even the premise —their becoming witch hunters because of their experience killing that first witch — are all funny jokes, but nothing more. Wirkola just lets them lie there while he relies on short bursts of exposition between elaborate and confusing fight scenes to move the story forward.

What could prove to be emotionally moving — such as Hansel and Gretel’s rage, bordering on racist sociopathy that must then be reconsidered in light of their past —I s turned into simple greed because Wirkola has made them into mercenaries instead of missionaries. Filmed for 3D, Wirkola has focused all his effort on tricks and visual effects, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie lacks visual thrills. The production design consists of a muddle of medieval and steam- and cyberpunk.

As a result, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, anachronistically or politically. Although it clearly strives to be on par with meta-horror masterpiece Zomblieland, it rarely even follows its own logic. In addition, the film contains a troubling lack of insight into the sexual and gender issues its raises. Both Hansel and Gretel have stalkers (Pihla Viitala and Thomas Mann, respectively) who take the lead in disquieting scenes played for laughs. Even worse, the film largely ignores the ludicrous nature of witch hunts (already illustrated perfectly by Monty Python) or the difficult task of its audience to watch a group of women, no matter the makeup, gunned down. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/27/13)


Broken City
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In recent years, the broody Scandinavians have produced a welcome resurgence of interest in noir, originally associated with Hollywood in the 1940s and ‘50s. Led by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Wallander, the novels were successfully made into television series and feature films. Soon enough, the Brits, obsessed with Nordic noir, began making English-language versions of the moody crime dramas, mostly for the small screen.

With Broken City, director Allen Hughes, who with his brother Albert began their careers as auteurs with a type of urban noir expressed in Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, takes on a very American neo-noir political thriller. But the script from first-time screenwriter Brian Tucker isn’t smart or dark enough to anchor the film’s intended seriousness.


No relation to the Glaswegian detective DCI Jim Taggart, ex-NYPD cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) makes his living as a private detective. His specialty lies in photographing unfaithful spouses in compromising positions and not in bill collection, which he leaves to his loyal office assistant Katy (Alona Tal in the one standout performance of the film). So when New York mayor Nicolas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), facing a close election, offers Taggart $50,000 to tail his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Taggart finds himself over his head in a political embroilment involving a closeted relationship and a real estate swindle.

Director Hughes is familiar with the formula for British crime dramas. As producer and director, he brought “Touching Evil” — minus the brilliant Robson Green — to the American television audience in 2004. Yet, in Broken City Hughes relies on camera and post-production tricks to set mood instead of using developing political, familial and personal relationships. His actors aren’t given the opportunity to perform. They’re placed on set and then surrounded by Hughes’ roving cameras, revealing more continuity errors than insight into character.

For instance, the opening scene, in which Taggart in cold blood guns down a man suspected of raping and killing a 16-year-old girl, is slowed almost to a stop, shadows take over, a wisp of smoke rises from the barrel of his gun. These effects are incongruous with the act, which eventually put the events of the film, placed seven years later, into motion. This murder and Taggart’s subsequent acquittal from it should haunt Taggart in multiple, deep ways, but don’t. Hughes has resorted to being a surface director, more interested in producing a scene that looks cool than one that adds to the story.

But to be fair, Hughes is overcompensating for a lack of sophistication and intrigue in Tucker’s script. The dialog is wincingly clichéd and the plot is childishly uncomplicated, and all of it delivered by one-dimensional characters. For a private eye who used to be a policeman, Taggart is unbelievably gullible and incurious. And for a man who once swore to uphold the law and then used his badge as a means to get away with murder, he surprisingly remains lacking in insight and ambivalence.

Compared with hit Brit crime drama “Luther,” starring Idris Elba as DCI John Luther who also administers his own idea of justice in the first few moments of the show, Broken City is troublingly untroubled. It may just be that Americans can’t do noir anymore. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/18/13)


Rust and Bone
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Through restraint, French director Jacques Audiard does a better job of tugging on viewers' hearts than most filmmakers can achieve with excess. When tragic sequences happen in his new movie Rust and Bone, the violence or the calamity happens in the corner of the screen.

If there is violence or nudity, it’s presented out of focus or in the background. Audiard rarely uses close-ups for emphasis, correctly figuring the audience is well aware that he's delivering bad news.

His new effort was received at last years Cannes Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain (working from Canadian author Craig Davidson's story) deal with some familiar tropes by find dozens of ways to structure their tale without making it feel contrived or stale.

Rust and Bone begins with Ali (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, Bullhead) trying to start his life over again in the southern French city of Antibes. With his checkered work history, he needs to start over, and his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) has a place for him and his son Sam (Armand Verdure) to stay.

Sam's mother is only briefly mentioned, and Ali himself isn't much of a parent. Anna frequently has to remind Ali of his obligations. It doesn’t help that Ali has trouble with punctuality and in controlling his own emotions.

According to Rust and Bone, Antibes has gorgeous seaside views but spotty employment opportunities. Anna is lucky to have the job she does, and Ali scrambles by working as a bouncer, a security guard, a physical trainer and even an unsanctioned mixed martial arts fighter. On the rare occasions he has cash in his pocket, much of his income comes from less than legal sources.

As he tries with mixed success to adapt to life in Antibes, he runs into a drunken clubber who has gotten too rowdy at a bar he's bouncing. Ali takes a liking to Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), even though he thinks she dresses immodestly and she thinks he's a clod. They both go their separate ways.

A few months later, she calls him unexpectedly, and something has drastically changed in her life. She loses her job as a killer whale trainer after an accident sends her to the hospital. She awakes to find her legs have been amputated. Worse, her will to recover seems to have disappeared.

Ali is an unlikely savior. He’s not all that reliable, and he freely pursues other women after making love to Stéphanie. Nonetheless, he keeps her from moping and thanks to Oscar-winner Cotillard’s remarkably expressive features, it’s easy to watch Stéphanie rise from despair.

While the digital effects that hide Cotillard’s legs are first rate, the film wouldn’t work if Schoenaerts weren’t effective as well. He projects just enough decency to make viewers hope that Ali can somehow get his act together. While the demands of Cotillard’s role are more readily apparent, Schoenaerts has the burden of preventing viewers from giving up on Ali even when they have excellent reason to.

With vivid characters and realistic situations, Audiard and Bidegain deliver a love story that's more heartwarming than just about anything coming out of the States. The two certainly have hearts, and thankfully they've got brains, as well. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 01/18/13)

Haiku Review
Rust and Bone
Cotillard can do
more without her legs that most
actors can with both


Mama
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

When it comes to the film Mama, forget about that belief that ghosts can’t really kill you. With this film from director Andrés Mushchietti, who is also listed as one of three writers, “Mama” (played by Javier Botet and voiced by Jean Podolski) not only has a physical presence — maybe courtesy of moths, similar looking to those in The Silence of the Lambs — but she can inhabit bodies.

Unfortunately, as the film slowly unfolds these facts, Mama becomes less and less interesting until a groan-inducing ending where two children are put in jeopardy and “Mama” can’t seem to kill two distraught parents, played by Jessica Chastain as Annabel and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as twin brothers Lucas and Jeffrey, but does dispatch little Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) to the spirit world.

Before the unexplained coincidences and implausible decisions by some characters cause viewers to begin to get antsy, Mama is a taut, effective, sometimes scary atmospheric thriller with good across-the-board acting from all, the standouts being the three child actors, Nélisse as Lilly and Megan Charpentier as Victoria, and Morgan McGarry as the young Victoria. Their performances make the weirdness of the story believable for a good part of the film but the girls can’t overcome weaknesses in the film’s eventual lead-up to a very lame resolution.

When Lilly and Victoria are kidnapped by their distraught father Jeffrey, the three end up at a long-abandoned cabin inhabited by the ghost of a 18th century woman who fled an insane asylum with her child only to kill herself and the child during a pursuit. Supposedly her after-death earthly wanderings have to do with finding her child.

When Lilly, Victoria and Jeffrey arrive at the cabin, she saves the girls from their suicidal father and helps keep them alive until rescue years a later. The girls call the ghost woman Mama.

Uncle Lucas and his girlfriend Annabelle bring the girls under their care with the help of psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) who views his study of the feral girls as a basis of a career-enhancing book.

Much of the story then takes place in the home as Annabelle assumes sole care of the girls, putting aside her musical ambitions after Mama nearly kills Lucas, leaving him in a coma in the hospital. At the home is where Chastain and the two child actors shine in creating suspense, fear, anxiety and even a little humor, as Mama interacts with the girls just out of camera view, seemingly knowing her hold on the children is slipping.

It is only when Dr. Dreyfuss sets out on a journey to find the cabin — of course telling no one where he’s going and stumbling around in the dark in the woods with only a flashlight — and Lucas has a vision of his dead brother pleading for him to save the girls that the story loses it way and stumbles toward a sloppy ending.

Too bad. If the writers had put as much effort in the last third of the film as they had in what came before, Mama could have a horror classic. PG-13 Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 01/18/13)


Zero Dark Thirty
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Zero Dark Thirty is less a celebration how terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden was found and killed than an engrossing examination of why it took a decade to deal with him.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (the duo behind The Hurt Locker) do recreate the raid on the al Qaeda leader’s compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, but most of the film is devoted to the red herrings, the mistakes, the atrocities and the ego clashes that kept bin Laden safe.

Despite saving most of the gunplay and the action for the final act, Bigelow has the rare gift of making arguments and bureaucratic turf fights as pulse pounding as the lead up to a shootout. Admittedly, the stakes are astonishingly high.

The film begins in the wake of 9/11, as the CIA has been scouring for clues for bin Laden’s location and turning up a lot of dead ends. When a relatively new agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) comes across a tortured detainee at a black site, the fellow she’s observing looks like he’s been through hell but doesn’t have a lot of usable information despite all that’s been done to him.

Dan (Jason Clarke), the agent doing the interrogating, sure looks mean but digs up little that could the spies any closer to their target.

Zero Dark Thirty has been first accused of being a propaganda tool for the Obama Administration and then later as an endorsement of torture in interrogations. While the film doesn’t feature Maya condemning her partner’s methods, it does imply that shoe leather investigation frequently gets more tangible results than a water-board. One witness (the terrific Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi) gives up a valuable tidbit before he even faces Dan’s wrath.

Through a series of leads, many of which take her nowhere, Maya discovers that bin Laden has escaped capture because he has a courier who delivers messages to and from subordinates. Using a thumb drive instead a phone or e-mail, the courier can pass his messages without being heard or hacked by Maya and her cohorts.

In retrospect, this explanation seems almost painfully obvious, but Maya ends up wearing herself out trying to get someone to chase down her theory. A succession of bosses and coworkers (Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass and James Gandolfini) alternate between telling her to chase after a more “plausible” narrative while entertaining her conclusions.

Throughout Zero Dark Thirty, which takes its name from the time the eventual raid on bin Laden’s compound took place, Maya comes off as a capable professional. That said, it’s unlikely this film will be used as a recruiting tool for the Agency.

As the years wear on in the film, Maya becomes an emotional and even a physical wreck. Chastain manages the seemingly impossible feat of looking spent and dejected but still photogenic. Without a lot of makeup or “Oscar clip” scenes, she seamlessly lets viewers catch both Maya’s frustration and her unyielding resolve.

Maya’s confidence is unusual for an Agency employee. Her peers hedge everything assertion they make. Nonetheless, her personal life is stifled by the 24/7 nature of her job.

She faces all the danger that James Bond would face, but there’s hardly any excitement. Most of her time is taken up by convincing her coworkers that she’s onto something. Meanwhile, bin Laden remains at large.

I’m actually happy Zero Dark Thirty has attracted some controversy even if the partisan chatter has hurt the film’s chances of picking up Oscars.

When the policies recounted in the film were implemented, far too many people kept their mouths shut about torture and let it undermine our abilities to find our country’s enemies because the detainees usually told their tormenters what they wanted to hear simply to make them stop.

Had our foreign policy been as well thought out as this film, the hunt for bin Laden might have been a lot shorter. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 01/12/13)

Haiku
Zero Dark Thirty

Chastain looking tired
is more thrilling than Michael
Bay’s loud explosions.


The House I Live In
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary The House I Live In, David Simon, the creator of The Wire and Tremé, claims that the decades long War on Drugs is a “Holocaust in slow motion.”

That sounds hyperbolic, but as Jarecki persuasively demonstrates throughout the film, it’s probably true.

As the title suggests, Jarecki got the idea from how drugs had affected the lives of those around him. Nannie Jeter worked for Jarecki’s parents as he was growing up and lost her son to drug use. His habit led him to share needles, which infected him with AIDS.

Having seen the cost of drug use firsthand, Jarecki, who has given us Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger, never whitewashes the cost of substance abuse. Throughout the film he presents people busted for drug offences who candidly admit to mistakes they’ve made under the influence.

As they say on South Park, “Drugs are bad, mmmmKay,” but apparently so are the laws that deal with illicit substances. Jarecki cites a series of laws that were enacted in the 1980s that were designed to get tough on crime but wound up putting ordinary drug users in prison for decades along with violent offenders.

In several examples, Jarecki demonstrates that the sentences are grossly disproportionate. Is possessing 50 grams of powder cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana or heroin really as bad as assault, rape or murder?

In addition, prison often does little to help drug abusers end their destructive habits. When they do leave prison, legitimate employers are reluctant to hire them, which sends these folks back to the drugs and the Big House. Jarecki includes testimony not only from addicts trying to better their lives but also from cops, judges and prison guards who are weary of the cycle themselves.

Jarecki also indicates that many of the laws and the enforcement practices that lead to this recidivism fail to deal with addiction and its long-term consequence because they were never intended to do that in the first place. Instead, many of the laws were often used to marginalize people who were deemed threatening.

For example, why until recently have crack cocaine users, who tend to be African American, been prosecuted more harshly than power cocaine users who tend to be white? Jarecki features a montage of once-legal products whose labels boasted of having cocaine or heroin as their active ingredients.

He and his talking heads then note that opiates and cocaine became illegal as they were increasingly associated with Asians and blacks. Because they competed for jobs with whites, they were feared. The real targets of the laws weren’t the drugs, but the people who purportedly used them.

So who is responsible for this draconian and even racist system? According to Jarecki, we are.

In our current political climate, no one gets elected declaring they’ll be more lenient on drug crime. Jarecki includes a long series of clips where politicians of all stripes and party affiliations vow to get tough on crime.

The director cites two who were willing to buck the system. One was U.S. Senator Jim Webb, who stepped down after a single term.

The other, oddly enough, was Richard M. Nixon. While Nixon did campaign on cracking down on drug users, during his first term, his administration focused on more treatment than law enforcement, which actually brought overall crime down. During the 1972 campaign, he held off on explaining the treatment component and decided to back up his bellicose rhetoric.

We all know how that turned out.

It’s a grim conclusion, but our search for easy answers to the evils of drugs is an addiction we must wean ourselves from. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/11/13)

Haiku
The House I Live In

We need to wean off
of drug laws that don’t work and
make the problem worse.


Gangster Squad
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s fitting that Gangster Squad deals with crime because charging admission to this torpid film is robbery. In a just society, viewers would be paid roughly the same salaries as the cast and crew to get through it without bathroom or cigarette breaks. Sleeping would be allowed and even encouraged. Drowsiness during screenings of Gangster Squad may even be inevitable.

Anything you might dream is sure to be more entertaining or edifying than what you’ll see on the screen.

Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and Castle story editor Will Beall don't direct and write Gangster Squad. Instead, they cobble it together from the least interesting parts of previous movies and TV shows. Beall's dialogue is loaded with stale, cheap wisecracks, and his plotline cribs heavily from Brian De Palma's The Untouchables without managing to produce any of the previous film's suspense or chills.

At least he had the decency to move the setting from Depression era Chicago to post-World War II Los Angeles during the reign of top wise guy Mickey Cohen  (Sean Penn). Cohen presided over the L.A. mob during its most eventful era, but you'll never know that from watching Gangster Squad.
   
Instead, viewers get to watch Penn buried under enough makeup for him to pass as one of the grotesque thugs who occupy Dick Tracy. Despite the prosthetic face, Penn looks nothing like the real Cohen (unlike Penn, Cohen was bald) and speaks as if he took rasping lessons from Marlon Brando, after gargling battery acid.

To bring Cohen down before he kills more people by shoving them into the furrows of his forehead, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) asks the Dirty Harry-like John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to recruit a small squad of rogue cops who are willing to break the rules by going after Cohen the way he goes after other mobsters.

When the square-jawed O'Mara isn't beating or shooting perps, he's spouting lots of platitudes and convincing a rowdy group of L.A.'s finest (Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Pena) to destroy Cohen's bookmaking operations without making arrests or killing the kingpin himself.

If you've seen The Untouchables, L.A. Confidential or even Boardwalk Empire, you'll know where this tale is going, and you'll wish you were watching any of these selections instead. Because the script offers no surprises, suspense or twists, Fleischer's bloodletting and dismemberment leaves little emotional impact, except for the occasional unintentional chuckle.

When a bewildered underling swears to God that he's not responsible for a botched shipment of illicit goods, Cohen replies, "I am God. Swear to me!" Beall's clichés, and Penn's Razzie-level delivery turn a potentially dramatic scene into a limp comedy.

Fleischer imitates the glossy look of L.A. Confidential but creates none of the tension that came so effortlessly in the previous movie. Despite the carnage, Gangster Squad never has a sense of danger. It's sort of picture postcard of the era.

For example, Emma Stone, as Cohen's moll, looks great in a red evening gown and has a spunkiness that makes her more likable than the rest of the cast. Nonetheless, she doesn't project the right menace to be convincing as a femme fatale, even if she can smoke a cigarette with authority.

Because of the January release date, it's obvious that Warner Bros. knows that this film is a Tinseltown turkey. Now, you do, too. (R) Rating: 4. (Posted on 01/12/13)

Haiku
Gangster Squad

If James Ellroy was
blindfolded at a typewriter,
it would make more sense.


The Impossible
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Unlike a lot of movies that have the “based on a true story” tagline, The Impossible doesn’t have to do much to remind us that its harrowing tale is genuine. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) convincingly recreates the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and recounts how a family of five managed to get through it. The title is appropriate because their odds of success probably should have been zero.

On their way to a vacation to Thailand, Maria and Henry (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) try their best to relax even though the flight is driving them nuts. Their sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) don’t get along in the air, which keeps mom and dad on edge. Both are also having serious career decisions to make, which is hard to do with sibling rivalry going in full force.

One of several smart things Bayona does in the film is make sure there’s already tension in the family’s relationship. Because it already takes effort to keep the kids from killing each other, the struggle to stay together will seem more convincing and compelling when real challenges emerge.

Right as the family is beginning to enjoy the amenities of their resort, the tsunami hits. Bayona expertly recreates the speed and the horror of the gigantic wave and how it reduced cities to rubble in a few seconds.

In the aftermath, the town that surrounded them is flattened, and the family is split up. With phone service and other basic services out, trying to find anyone else in Maria and Henry’s family is beyond merely challenging.

The remaining hospitals are overwhelmed, and what might seem like folly in other situations is the only option here. Leaving the children you know have survived with strangers while you search for the ones that are missing might seem questionable, but the situation is so uncertain, it’s hard to tell which decisions are wise. In addition, Maria and Henry have no idea if the other made it.

While Bayona’s recreation of the damage is suitably bleak and harrowing, none of the struggle would be engaging if the people involved weren’t believable. Thankfully, both Watts and McGregor look and behave as if they’re struggling for their lives and that they’ve been through hell. Both go from having movie star good looks to appearing suitably haggard, and neither looks as if he or she has had any sleep.

Holland follows the examples that the grownups have set and easily holds his own against them. The young thespian goes through a series of painful emotions and plays all of them beautifully. One hopes the lad doesn’t suffer any long-term damage from having to dig through such traumatizing feelings. No, it’s not the same as living through a real tsunami, but Holland easily makes viewers think he’s enduring one.

The other lads in the cast are also quite good, even if they aren’t called upon to do the leaving lifting that Holland does. They’re also accompanied by a series of supporting performers who actually lived through the real tsunami so they don’t have to act to remember the horror.

Although the family who inspired the film is actually from Spain (the mother, Maria Belon has been recounting her experiences while promoting the film), Bayona felt the nationality of the survivors should be left ambiguous. We’re never told that Maria and Henry are Brits, and the wave was obviously indifferent to class and ethnic concerns.

Because Bayona has managed to coax such powerful work from his fictional family, it’s pointless to squabble over how much of this true story is actually true. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/04/12)

Haiku
The Impossible

The effects are great,
but the performances make the
damage seem so real.


Hyde Park on Hudson
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Perhaps Hyde Park on Hudson would have been more edifying if it hadn't been released in the wake of The King's Speech. The earlier film dealt with how England's King George VI was able to assume his royal speaking duties despite the fact that he had a debilitating stutter. Seeing Colin Firth convincingly wrestle with his errant tongue helped make the film more than simple Oscar bait. It also sadly forces any movie that touches on the subject, even in passing, to draw comparisons.

Some of which are not flattering.

The primary focus of Hyde Park on Hudson is actually the relationship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" Stuckley (Laura Linney).

Actually, the term "focus" is a bit misleading. Screenwriter Richard Nelson (Ethan Fromme) can't seem to find which aspect of FDR's private life to concentrate on for two hours.

Is the movie about his governing the nation from the seat of his wheelchair? It is about his philandering? Is it about his domineering mother (Elizabeth Wilson)? All of these ideas are touched upon, but Nelson and director Roger Miller (Notting Hill) drop them before they develop. Despite the leisurely pace, Hyde Park on Hudson appears to have been made by people with severe ADD or with a desire to lose viewers once their interest is piqued.

The title refers to FDR's home away from the White House, where he often conducted the People's business. The film is set during an eventful period during FDR's presidency, when he hosted the first British sovereign to visit the United States.

The meeting is more than ceremonial. George VI (Samuel West), known to intimates as "Bertie," has more than his now occasional stammer to worry about. The United Kingdom desperately needs military support from the States if it is to survive the onslaught of World War II. At the time of the film, America is officially neutral, and overt support for the Brits could cost FDR dearly.

While the King is practically obligated to beg for the President's help, he has to get over the anti-British cartoons from the Revolutionary War that decorate the house and the President's insistence that all the invitees must eat hot dogs instead of haute cuisine.

Watching West slip into an occasional stammer instantly brings back vivid memories of Firth's more assured and commanding performance. Nelson does hint how the President and the King could bond over their mutual disabilities, but he moves on to another affair or a quibble between FDR's mother and the closeted First Lady (Olivia Williams). Naturally, nothing much is made of President's somewhat unusual domestic arrangements.

At least the film looks great. Lol Crawley's cinematography is terrific and helps make the UK locations pass for upstate New York. In addition, Murray's jovial turn as FDR is far more poised than the film itself. In Wes Anderson's movies like Rushmore, Murray as demonstrated that he could play patricians with the same ease he has playing blue-collar slobs. His take on the role is so giddy that Murray seems as if he can charge past the weaknesses in the script the way that FDR charged through the Depression and World War II.

Sadly, Linney and the rest of the cast don't get to make much of an impression. Apparently, so much happened at Hyde Park on Hudson that Nelson had trouble figuring out how to fit all of it into a 94-minute movie, much less one that came after two others that featured George VI. At least this effort won't be buried the way Madonna's reviled W.E. was. (R) Rating 2.5 (Posted on 01/04/13)

Haiku
Hyde Park on Hudson

Can I just watch the
other movie that has the 
stammering monarch?


Not Fade Away
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While we remember ‘60s bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, most of the bands that formed during the era collapsed into obscurity before they even had the chance to record a single chord or even pick a name.

That's the sort of combo that David Chase, the mind behind The Sopranos, has decided to follow with Not Fade Away, a look at some ‘60s rockers who lived to play music that would never make it to vinyl, much less the charts.

Chase's tale is reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni's movies. Antonioni's Blow Up plays in the background during Not Fade Away, and the new film, like Antonioni's efforts chronicles what doesn't happen instead of what does.

It's a potentially fascinating way to look at how the real world and the promise of rock 'n roll never meet. Unfortunately, Chase's failed group is no more interesting than one you or your friends might have played in. Looking though old photo albums of other bands is often more edifying and entertaining than sitting though Not Fade Away.

For one thing, Chase can’t decide who is telling the story of the band that didn’t make it. The opening narration comes from the little sister of one of the group members, but she barely registers in the rest of the film. We also get rock history lessons that really don’t have much to do with the main story. At times, it’s easy to long for a good documentary about the Stones (there are several, like Gimme Shelter) than to watch actors briefly trying to impersonate them.

Not Fade Away is actually set in suburban New Jersey where a young drummer named Douglas (John Magaro) starts pounding with his neighbor Eugene (Jack Huston). Because of his looks and inherent appeal to women, the latter naturally becomes the front man. Eugene has decent chops on guitar and is an adequate singer, but Douglas’ voice, relegated to background vocals, is much stronger.

As the film progresses, the two collaborate and feud under the impression that success is just around the corner and is even predestined. Curiously, all the petty bickering feels terribly off-putting. With these two self-absorbed chumps as the lead characters, it’s hard get interested in how they don’t leave a lasting musical legacy.

Chase at least has the wisdom to consult with real New Jersey rocker Steven Van Zandt, who had a prominent role in The Sopranos. He contributes a couple of terrific songs for the no-namers to play and finds ways to make the fake rock band sound as if they are really struggling with poor amps and stage gimmicks that don’t bring them fame.

Actually, some of the authenticity is the problem. Characters in the film know chapter and verse about how the Fab Four came to fame, but some of the things they know aren’t the sort of facts that were available in the Beatles’ rather sanitized contemporary bios. We know this stuff now because their image conscious manager Brian Epstein isn’t there to keep embarrassing information from leaking out.

All of this might have been easier to take if Not Fade Away wasn’t saddled with cultural observations that would seem stale in Mad Men episode. Having Christopher McDonald playing an ad man only makes some of the events in the film seem more hackneyed.

Perhaps Not Fade Away might have worked better as a longer running series. If we could follow Douglas and his love affair with Grace (Bella Heathcote) for long enough, perhaps Chase could find something besides shallow puppy love.

It’s not that surprising that Chase gets his best scenes from Sopranos star James Gandolfini as Douglas’ unsympathetic father Pat. Douglas thinks that rock ‘n roll will offer him the world, but his old man knows it can’t feed him in Jersey.

Pat is racist and has other retrograde ideas that seemed appalling even in the early ‘60s, but he genuinely cares about his family even though he’s in a loveless marriage. Gandolfini can effortlessly play complicated characters and make their struggles engrossing. The younger performers in the cast haven’t mastered that art yet.

Mere nostalgia isn’t enough to make a movie engaging. While many great bands have collapses before their music got its due and many obscure musicians are more interesting than the ones who made it big, some lost, fictional bands would be better off staying lost. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 01/04/12)

Haiku
Not Fade Away

If I want to hear
music from Jersey, I’ll stick with
Bruce Springsteen’s albums.


Promised Land
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In attempting to make Promised Land more than a simple diatribe about the evils of fracking, director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk) oddly makes the story seem less authentic.

With Elephant, Van Sant was able to explore a situation similar to the Columbine High School massacre and created a more rewarding movie by holding off on the pontificating and leaving some key details out. Viewers were able to fill in the rest, so the movie was able to examine the horrors of kids with guns, making the subject seem both new and freshly terrifying.

While fracking for natural gas has some frightening long-term consequences, they’re a little harder to convey in a movie set over a limited period of time. Matt Damon and Frances McDormand play Steve Butler and Sue Thomason, a pair of natural gas company employees, who travel around the country, particularly in the Rust Belt, hoping to buy drilling rights.

It’s usually an easy sale. Steve is a Midwesterner who has seen his hometown fall apart when factories and other industries left. Unlike some company flacks, Steve identifies with the people he’s trying to persuade. Consequently, he and Sue often need only a few days to obtain the drilling rights for an entire town. Many of the towns Matt and Sue have visited in Pennsylvania are struggling, so the extra cash from the gas company is welcome.

At their latest stop, however, a local science teacher named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) stands in his way. Frank is as knowledgeable as he is hostile to the plan, so his wavering neighbors could be swayed.

There’s also an outsider named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who has a backstory similar to Steve’s. He, too, has apparently seen his family farm go on the auction block, and he’s not about to see others sell their property for cheap. He also struts through the community giving presentations that make the oil company’s plans sound like something out of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the script for Promised Land, and they’ve given themselves some juicy, dynamic roles. Dustin’s glib theatricality undermines Steve’s earnest but potentially harmful pitches. For once, Steve has an antagonist with the energy and resources to challenge him, and he doesn’t take it well.

Sadly, Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant have difficulty deciding if they want to make a polemic or a drama, and Promised Land feels a bit short in both categories. If you’ve seen some of the damning clips from Gasland, it’s a little hard to feel much sympathy for a mouthpiece like Steve.

There’s little suspense in whether he’ll outsmart the interloping tree hugger or if he’ll eventually see the light about what he’s doing. Damon’s ability to come off an accessible, likable fellow can only take the character so far.

Much of what follows feels premeditated and not all that engrossing. Van Sant deserves some praise for wanting to avoid graphic sequences of environmental Armageddon, which would have been easy to present. Watching simulated ruin can be a cheap thrill, but it doesn’t add much that’s useful to the discussion or to the story.

Also, natural gas does burn cleanlier than other fossil fuels. As the characters in the film readily cite (as if they’ve read a brochure), it may not be an ideal fuel (who wants flammable water coming from their sinks?), but out electronic toys have to be powered by something.

What’s troubling about Promised Land is that Van Sant and his leading men oversell some of the plot points, which undermines the integrity of the film as a whole. Maybe there is something to be said for a fire and brimstone sermon powered by natural gas. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 01/04/13)

Haiku
Promised Land

It’s more fun to see
a flaming sink than watching
mediocre drama


Tchoupitoulas
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Both a loving tribute to the color and chaos of New Orleans and a somewhat frustratingly narrative-free vision of directors Bill and Turner Ross, Tchoupitoulas is both an original and enthralling mess.

First of all, this is not a movie for people that like things like plot or linear action. For the most part, we follow three constantly quibbling brothers and their dog through an evening in the Big Easy. They ramble and squabble lovingly, as only brothers can do, through streets, alleys and theaters filled with flashes of color and motion. Buskers, dancers, artists and burlesque girls flit by in fast (sometimes too fast) edits that try and mimic the sights, sounds, and even smells of Bourbon Street.

The problem is the filmmakers almost do that too well. The camera angles, often over the shoulder or pointed away from the action does indeed make you feel like you're standing against a wall, watching a show over the heads of the rest of the crowd. That's pretty much the way every scene is shot.

Now, do that for eighty minutes.

I'm not saying this is a mistake, I completely get what the Ross partners were going for, and I think they accomplished it well. It's just that the idea itself is so experimental it's a little ... boring. The music, the lights, colors and people all pop, but the constant feeling that you need to stand up in the theater to get a better view gets kind of old. The brother's constant rolling dialog is sometimes charming, and sometimes annoying, nothing more.

Bravo for at an artistic, completely unconventional documentary that only film students will probably see. (unrated) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 01/4/12)

 



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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