movie reviews February 2010

Cop Out  •  Antichrist  •  The Crazies
The Last Station  •  The White Ribbon  •  2010 Oscar-nominated Short Films  •  Shutter Island
The Wolfman  •  Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief  •  That Evening Sun
Valentine's Day  •  From Paris with Love  •  Dear John

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

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Cop Out
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

At least the title for Cop Out seems appropriate.

The new offering from Kevin Smith, the director of Clerks and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, promises bawdy laughs and action but lacks the wit or energy to deliver either. The film is so listless that it offers little more reward than the blank screen that preceded it.

The pairing of Bruce Willis and 30 Rock comic Tracy Morgan as a couple of renegade New York police detectives has potential, but Willis strolls through the film will an air of indifference as Morgan flails for laughs that never come.

Admittedly, the film’s opening offers the crude chuckles that Smith can deliver on a good day. Jimmy Monroe (Willis) and Paul Hodges (Morgan) have spent nine years as partners and have worked out a routine that scares perps into confessing. Jimmy pretends to be a homicidal maniac while Paul plays straight man.

Feeling bored, Paul demands they change roles and proceeds to work over a suspect quoting every movie line he can think of, even if the quotes have nothing to do with police work, interrogation or reality.

Jimmy, in turn, draws dirty pictures on the glass outside the interrogation room as their peers enjoy a good laugh at a criminal’s expense.

Unfortunately, the plot has to kick in some time, and from here Cop Out quickly loses steam. The script credited to Robb Cullen and Mark Cullen is routine and doesn’t give the performers much to work with. Every now and then a character might spout a line that would sound at home in a “Jay and Silent Bob” movie, but the plot, characters and dialogue remain stillborn.

Jimmy and Paul are such diehards that they chase after a ruthless Mexican drug lord known only as “Poh Boy” (Guillermo Diaz) even though they’ve been suspended for a botched sting operation. They also have personal issues to contend with. Jimmy insists on paying for his daughter’s (Michelle Trachtenberg) lavish wedding, while Paul is convinced that his neglected wife (Rashida Jones) is having an affair.

None of these scenarios accelerate the pace or lead to any chuckles. Seann William Scott from the American Pie movies shows up every 15 minutes or so as a crazed hood who’s more annoying than amusing.

Smith, who’s used to working on low-budged comedies, has trouble adapting to making his first major studio action film. There are car chases and gunplay, but neither are much fun.

In an attempt to put a little style into the moribund proceedings, Smith puts a few nods to the ‘80s police comedies like Beverly Hills Cop that he grew up with. There’s even a distracting score by that film’s composer Harold Faltermeyer. The notes from Faltermeyer’s keyboard sound so much like the ones he wrote for the previous film and they do little more than remind a viewer how much more enjoyable it would be to rent that movie.

At his best, like with Zack and Miri, Smith’s movies combine a dirty mind with a heart as big as all outdoors. The latter is definitely missing here, and only the dirt remains on the former.

Originally, Cop Out was supposed to be called “A Couple of Dicks” until it was deemed that some filmgoers might not appreciate the double entendre. That’s too bad. The original title was funnier than the movie it was intended to accompany. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 02/26/10)


Antichrist
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

After its contentious reception at last year’s Cannes Film Festival where it won an award for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s acting and an “anti-award” for its alleged misogyny, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist has finally come to Kansas City, and it is indeed as shocking as advertised.

Whether the movie has any genuine merit is another matter.

The Danish von Trier is a creative stylist who is willing to shatter narrative and technical boundaries with his films. With Dancer in the Dark, he inverted the normally cheery musical genre into something oddly morose, and he’s the founder of the Dogme 95 movement, which requires that directors not take credit for their work on a film and that they use only available light and handheld cameras.

While he can be guaranteed to find unusual ways to present a story or ideas, von Trier’s actual content is often less daring or well-conceived than its delivery. With Antichrist, von Trier comes up with some unforgettably gruesome scenes, but the rest of the film comes off like a pompous rant from a freshman philosophy student.

Antichrist pushes the limits of what sort of erotic content or violence can make it on screen, but the two lovers/combatants in this film are so shallow and smug, I began to wonder when von Trier would be kind enough to relieve me out of their self-imposed misery.

It’s obvious von Trier and his collaborators put some care and effort into this mess. The film opens with delicate black-and-white photography of married couple (Willem Dafoe and Gainsbourg) making love in the shower. The encounter is so energetically steamy that they frantically relocate their coupling to bed.

If you don’t catch the couple’s names, don’t worry. von Trier hasn’t given them any other than “He” and “She.” In The Road, I was willing to buy into nameless characters because civilization had collapsed, so having a name didn’t matter much any more. Here, leaving them immediately renders the two leads into abstractions.

While He and She are grinding with furious delight, their four-year-old Nic breaks out of his play area and steps out their apartment window to his death. The scene would be tragic, but von Trier has the tot die right as She is at the height of screaming ecstasy. Instead of making the child’s passing tragic, it’s as if von Trier implies that orgasms lead to bad parenting.

Last time I checked, they potentially led to, well, all parenting.

In the aftermath, it becomes obvious the pair had issues before Nic’s death. He is a smug psychologist who takes just a little too much pride in the fact that he doesn’t treat his patients with drugs. She is working on a graduate thesis on gynocide, the systematic killing of women, particularly during witch-hunts in the Middle Ages. With a horrifying subject like that, it’s easy to see how she’s probably been morose for some time.

During these long sequences, the two speak in stilted whines. “You were distant to Nic and me,” She chides her husband. A more capable dramatist would have demonstrated the distance instead of having the characters tell us about it.

These slow, dreary scenes progress like an Ingmar Bergman drama, which might feature long sequences that feature two actors discussing abstract ideas and brooding. But Bergman knew how to make scenes like these work because he didn’t need to make his characters suffer bleeding and dismemberment to demonstrate they were human.

Suspecting that they need to get away from the city to get over their grief, He suggests they leave Seattle and take a vacation in a cabin in the wooded area called “Eden.”

Of course, the name is symbolic, and Antichrist treats subtlety as if it were a vice. When the two arrive, they gradually discover that nature is loaded with an unspoken force that awakens their latent animosity. He discovers that his psychobabble and controlling attitude can’t help him here.

At its most ludicrous, Antichrist begs to be taken seriously so much that it ends up producing either tedium or unintentional hilarity. In the woods, He encounters a fox that stares him in the eye and warns, “Chaos reigns.”

No, I’m not making this up, and I was stone cold sober when I saw the film.

The third act features acts of mutilation that even though I knew they were coming were still nearly unwatchable. von Trier has dubbed Antichrist a “horror movie,” but effective horror movies manage to generate more fear than gore. The grisly images do stay in your head, but the characters in Antichrist are so uninvolving that it’s impossible to care if they live or die.

From watching Antichrist, and some of von Trier’s other movies, it’s safe to say that, as his detractors say, women don’t come out well. In many cases, they’re duplicitous and conniving as She is. He seems to revel in making women suffer, but to be fair, the men come off poorly, too. When fate puts obstacles in the way von Trier’s latest male protagonist, He folds.

As frustrating as it is to sit through Antichrist, there are some astonishing moments where von Trier demonstrates that he’s as skilled as he is eccentric. He’s as famous for his phobias (like traveling far from Denmark) as he is for his films, but Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) renders every image from gross to gorgeous in exquisite detail. von Trier also pairs Dod Mantle’s images with Handel’s music in stunning ways, and he coaxes some typically terrific work from Gainsbourg. That said, it would have been more rewarding to see her working with better-developed material.

Despite some strikingly flourishes, von Trier’s latest makes him look less like a mad genius and more like he’s simply, mad. (N/R). Rating 2.5 (Posted on 02/26/10)


The Crazies
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

While many of my geeky horror movie fan brethren are already howling at Hollywood’s re-make fever, director Breck Eisner’s version — The Crazies — of George Romero’s low-budget classic is a fast-paced horror flick that welcomes any comparison to the original.

Let’s be clear: This is NOT a zombie film. Just like the 1973 original, the inhabitants of a sleepy little rural town become victims to a military virus released in an accident, an accident that the government seems far more interested in covering up than curing.

Sheriff Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), whose ideal life with his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), who also happens to be the town doctor, get turned upside down when he’s forced to shoot an old crusty local who wanders onto the field of a high school baseball game clutching a shotgun. Soon, others begin to act weird, just standing like statues, and eventually turning homicidal.

Before you can say, “We’re from the government, we’re here to help you,” soldiers in full Hazmat gear show up and start brutally rounding up the entire town. After getting tested for the infection (apparently running a high temperature is the main sign other than the killing, of course), the “safe” ones are loaded onto buses to be taken to “safety.” Yeah, right.

Of course, Sheriff Dave’s wife also happens to have a fever because she’s pregnant, but since the military doctors who check her out have never been taught that people can have a temperature for reasons other than having the plague, she gets tied up in a room filled with possible psycho-billys (that’s what I‚m calling them, anyway). Soon, with his trusty porn-stached deputy Clank (Joe Anderson), the sheriff sets off to rescue the wife while dodging various weapon wielding infected and trigger-happy army squads.

First of all, the film looks great. The small town seems real, the characters authentic, and the dialog sprinkles enough humor to make the grimmer scenes truly brutal, even though we’ve all seen the same stuff in a thousand horror films. But as for the rest of the film … let‚s just say the plot hole about doctors not knowing how taking somebody’s temperature works is minor compared to some of the other whoppers. Another example: The trio learns that the virus has a forty-eight hour incubation time (the virus was in the town’s water) meaning the three are clearly not infected until — well, just forget they mentioned that whole incubation time-thingy.

Still, good editing and a decent cast makes this a pretty slick little popcorn munchin‚ horror flick, and I do love me some psycho-billys! (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 02/26/10)


The Last Station
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

First of all, let me be clear: I know little about the writings of revered Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and nothing at all about the actual man’s final years of life. That being said, if you can just turn off that automatic fear most get when they hear the phrase “Turn-of-the-century Russian novelist,” you’d get a chance to see one of the most fascinating and well acted films of the year. Based on a novel by Jay Parini, The Last Station is a lush and fascinating tale about one of the most famed authors of the century, and perhaps one of the most tumultuous romances of all time.

Like may scripts about famous people, this one starts with an outsider, a young “Tolstoan” named Valentin (James McAvoy) who is sent by the villainous Chertkov (Paul Giamatti in full mustache-twirling mode) to help persuade Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) to change his will and leave all his works “to the Russian people,” a k a Chertkov himself.

Upon arriving at Tolstoy’s country estate, Valentine soon discovers that the hero of the Tolstoans, a movement based on vegetarianism, celibacy and the end of all private property, also happens to be married to Countess Sofya (Hellen Mirren), a hotheaded conservative aristocrat who has nothing but scorn for Chertkov and all his sycophants.

Life for Valentine in the gorgeous forests of the estate is as tempestuous as Leo and Sofia’s decades-old marriage, making them the best example of “opposites attract” ever filmed. As the war between Chertkov and Sofya for Tolstoy’s attention increases, both finally drive the man to flee via train even as his health is failing. Soon, he’s lying in the titular last station, as Chertkov, Sofya and the 19th century’s equivalent of paparazzi surround the building waiting for his death.

While it would be easy to argue that the main character here is Valentine himself, a young, intelligent and completely innocent man who finds both love and a mentor who is far more complex than his followers truly know, it’s the combo of Plummer and Mirren here that takes their characters to heart. Watching this film, I didn’t care that this was the famous Tolstoy — the heartache, comfort and bull-headed arguments between these two magnificent actors are some of the best scenes ever created, and director Michael Hoffman is smart enough to simply set up the right lighting and camera angles and then turn them loose.

With a film career that is little short of incredulous in its range (Shakespeare to Star Trek, just for starts), Christopher Plummer has won virtually every accolade an actor can receive except an Oscar. While his best competition for the Academy Award this year, Jeff Bridges, is also a truly deserving performer, Plummer, now in his eighties, has never even been nominated, let alone won, and if this fantastic performance doesn’t do it then I’m just gonna forget about the Oscars and go try and finish War and Peace — again. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 2/23/10)


The White Ribbon
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

German director Michael Haneke is best know for brutal and starkly violent tales that survey the depths and origins of human evil and depravity. His latest film The White Ribbon is no different, although his fans may find this a more restrained and thoughtful study in the dark side of humanity.

Set just before the start of WWI in an isolated German village, Haneke uses the schoolteacher, a relatively innocent outsider, as his narrator. Soon a series of strange and sometimes violent events occur, starting with a wire strung between two trees that injure the village doctor as he rides home. As the year progresses (the movie is broken into acts for each season), a barn is burned, and later a mentally retarded child is viciously beaten.

The village’s leader/owner, the Baron, is only lacking a Nazi uniform in his sadism towards his villagers, his estate and especially his own children (the “white ribbon” in the title is something he ties onto his children as a sign of “purity,” something few in this inbred village can claim). Haneke’s script contains quite a large cast, but since they are either poor serfs or what equates to aristocrats, it’s still easy, if unsettling, to follow.

The most remarkable thing about Haneke’s direction is how virtually every important event happens off-screen: the audience never sees the doctor’s accident, the beatings and assaults, only the aftermath. While some have described this film as a mystery, it is not. Everything here is only implied. At times, we are told that the doctor is sexually abusing his daughter (something a later scene would make likely), that the Baron’s wife is having an affair, and most troubling, that the children of the village may indeed be the source of the seething acts of evil that plague the village. After that, it’s up to the viewer to decide: Haneke offers no resolution, no explanation and frankly none are needed.

At first I thought this film might be a little to deceitful in its execution, but upon reflection this movie is almost simplistic in it’s message: neither religion, science or society can deny humanity’s violent impulses, particularly those of children whose parents see only conformity as acceptable behavior.

Visually, Haneke’s stark use of black and white, coupled with the decrepit village setting surrounded by gorgeous German countryside matches his plot and pacing perfectly. While this film is not for everybody, there’s no question that it far too easily reveals the true source of the evil men (and women, and children) do: the reflection in the mirror we all see, everyday. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 02/23/10)


Oscar Nominated Short Films 2010
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

During Oscar telecasts, bleary-eyed viewers use the award announcements for short films as an excuse to take a bathroom break during the seemingly interminable ceremonies. That’s a shame because during some years the nominated short films can be better their feature brethren.

The indifference these films unfairly engender probably stems from the fact that most people don’t get to see them before the statues are handed out. Thankfully all of these little films can now be seen at Tivoli in Westport, and even the worst are better than the broadcast where one will win a little gold man.

Live Action

The first entry, Kavi, is an Indian drama shot by American director Gregg Helvey. It concerns a poor family whose debts have forced them into a slave labor construction site. The sleazy foreman constantly cajoles the young title character with promises of a cricket match if he can move enough rejected bricks. When that doesn’t work, he beats the lad. Helvey takes on potentially delicate subject and doesn’t sugarcoat it. Almost 30 million people work in slave labor every day, so while Kavi is uplifting; it doesn’t have an inappropriately neat or clear ending.

Irish filmmaker Juanita Wilson’s Russian language entry The Door is a sad but powerful look at the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as seen though the eyes of a family whose village was made uninhabitable by it. Within a mere 17 minutes, Wilson gradually reveals the horrors without rubbing them into the viewers’ faces. She has the ability to make a single person’s loss as tragic as a massacre.

Miracle Fish is an Australian thriller from Luke Doolan, which features an eight-year-old who is ridiculed by his peers because his single mom can’t afford to buy him cool toys. To get away from bullies, he sneaks away to the nurse’s office and takes a nap. When he wakes up, he discovers that he now has the whole school to himself. Doolan alternates between euphoria and dread, and manages to pack a lot into the film’s 17-minute running time. Sometimes receiving your dearest wish can be the scariest thing imaginable. It should be noted that the kids in Miracle Fish use language that’s pretty rough for this side of the Pacific.

If you don’t have a strong stomach you might want to avoid, Danish director Joachim Back’s darkly amusing The New Tenants. A bickering gay couple can’t seem to get through a meal without getting into a yelling match, but their domestic misery turns to terror when they discover why they were able to get a New York apartment under seemingly favorable conditions. Their neighbors range from annoying to homicidally violent; two of the scariest are played by Vincent D’Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan.

The Swedish Instead of Abracadabra is the most conventional film of the bunch, but it’s also the funniest. An aspiring 25-year-old magician spends all of his time perfecting his clumsy tricks and trying to woo his pretty next-door neighbor instead of earning a living. His biggest obstacle appears to be that most of his illusions result in injuries to himself and others. But at least he has one thing over the other aspiring Penn and Tellers out there: He’s come up with a magic word to replace the old standby “abracadabra.” Maybe that’s his problem. You’ll have to hear his replacement to believe it.

Animated

The Irish Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty features an amusingly personal take on the old fairy tale. The title character narrates the story by making the wicked fairy unusually sympathetic. As Granny tells it, she was aged, just like herself. Granny’s deviations don’t sit will with her nervous grandchild who’d rather be sleeping peacefully than hearing a favorite bedtime story butchered.

The French-made Logorama appears to be a biting satire of consumer culture, but it’s also wonderfully trippy and hysterically funny. Imagine a world where every single object appears to be a government, corporate or even terrorist group logo. Microsoft butterflies fill the sky, and the stoplights are based on the Stop ‘N Go logo. The plot consists of pair of Michelin tire man cops chasing down Ronald McDonald, who’s on a massive crime spree. You know he’s evil because his gun is in the shape of the symbol for the German terror group RAF. This one, which is in English, by the way, is not for kids, but is definitely a sick and twisted treat. It’s my favorite of the bunch.

Spain’s The Lady and the Reaper concerns a sad widow who longs to be reunited with her husband in the afterlife. When the grim reaper finally shows up, she’s elated, but this annoyingly persistent and hilariously vain doctor keeps resurrecting her, her simple wish becomes more elusive.

British animator Nick Park offers more of the same with his latest adventure of the stop-motion duo Wallace and Gromit. This means that A Matter of Loaf and Death is terrific. The endearingly bumbling inventor and his freakishly intelligent and courageous dog discover that their new bread baking business may be endangered by a serial killer who’s targeting fellow bread makers. Naturally, the two get into several imaginative and amusing scrapes. It’s easy to see why Park has won so many Oscars. The non-speaking Gromit has a facial acting range that rivals Charlie Chaplin’s. But unlike the Little Tramp, Gromit’s silence is apparently due to the fact that he doesn’t have a mouth. Amazingly, Peter Sallis is still doing Wallace’s voice at age 89.

It doesn’t take much effort to guess where the wordless French Roast was made. A coffee shop customer discovers that he’s forgotten his wallet and comes up with a bizarre way to get out of paying for his caffeine. He keeps ordering drinks, hoping to make a break for the door before he has to pay.

Each of the short programs runs about an hour and 20 minutes, and the Tivoli will be charging separate admissions. For more information, go to www.theoscarshorts.com. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 02/19/10)


Shutter Island
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

For over two hours, Shutter Island coasts by on creepy atmosphere alone. Thanks to an able cast and a potent setup, director Martin Scorsese could pretty much go through the motions and create an appropriate sense of dread. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to expect a little more from the man who gave us Raging Bull and GoodFellas.

At least Dennis Lehane’s (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) novel offers a bulletproof opening. Scorsese regular Leonardo DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a lawman whose latest assignment has literally made him seasick.

He and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been sent to a remote island, miles off the coast of Massachusetts. Most of the residents of Shutter Island are there against their will, but it’s a good thing the only way any of these folks could make it back to the mainland is by ferry.

It’s home to dozens of mental patients whose psychoses are so advanced that they can’t be held in other facilities. All of them have killed people and would be likely to murder again if they could leave the island.

The marshals have been summoned to the facility because a woman named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) has escaped from her cell and can’t be located anywhere on the island. Despite an army of guards, no one has been able to find her even though she left without her shoes.

When Teddy and Chuck ask simple questions about the case or the island itself, they get vague, evasive answers. Teddy even notices that witness practically recite the same things the chief administrator Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) has been feeding them.

If hunting for a woman who senselessly murdered her three children weren’t unsettling enough, the island’s administrators have absolute power and may be using it for their own ends. When some of the patients seem surprisingly lucid, Teddy wonders if the psychiatrists are using their authority to imprison sane people. There’s also a hurricane on its way to the island, which makes escape impossible and the electronic security systems that secure the most violent patients useless.

Thanks to some ominous-looking locations (the island was once a Civil War fort) and Robert Richardson’s (Scorsese’s The Aviator) moody photography, Shutter Island is always unsettling and disorienting. Even the scenes that take place in broad daylight look scary because Richardson makes the green in the grass look downright unearthly.

Curiously, the film takes longer than it should to reach past being a sensory experience. In some ways, Scorsese and credited screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (we may forgive her for her part in writing Alexander) have almost too much to play with. The film is set in the late ‘50s when paranoia dominated the landscape. The Red Scare and the psychic aftermath from World War II lurk in the background. At times, the period touches fit into the story. In other situations, they slow down the plot by sending it into dead ends. It might not be as satisfying as a good, old-fashioned jolt, but Scorsese deserves some credit for trying to offer more than simple chills. Some of the twists don’t have the shock value they should, but occasionally they seem more credible once the movie ends.

As with their previous collaborations, Scorsese coaxes some intriguing work from DiCaprio. Seeing him as an adult who can effortlessly take on complicated roles pretty much erases the memories of his teen idol days.

Teddy isn’t an ordinary cop. He’s got enough baggage to fill Logan Airport. Viewers get the sense that if his painful memories, which are provoked by the island, don’t crush him, the real dangers will.

The supporting cast is unusually deep. Even performers who have only one scene, like Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley, steal the sequences they’re in.

It’s a given that Scorsese can deliver a watchable movie. At the same time, you can sense that he’d like to invert or tweak the conventions of a thriller and finds himself constrained. He may be a little too smart for his own good, but I’ll take that over the alternative. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 02/18/10)


The Wolf Man
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It is easy to forgive The Wolf Man for being mentally untiring. After all, the only thing this remake of the 1941 movie must do is make the brooding Benicio del Toro turn into a menacing wolf. With his grim but expressive visage, it shouldn’t take all that much makeup.

Instead, The Wolf Man suffers because it’s simply not that scary. Despite being set in some wonderfully haunting moors in the United Kingdom, the only chills the filmmakers seem to be able to muster are a few mild jumps. Director Joe Johnston (who’s behind better films like October Sky and The Rocketeer) revels in gore and severed body parts.

Sadly, gross and scary are two different things.

In this version of the tale, Lawrence Talbot (del Toro) is an American Shakespearean actor who returns to his childhood home because his brother Ben has disappeared. Lawrence has left his native England and the village of Blackmoor because of his troubled relationship with his eccentric father (Sir Anthony Hopkins with his tongue gleefully in cheek).

A mysterious but deadly creature that haunts the woods during the full moon every month, it turns out, has mauled Ben. When Lawrence gets bitten by the hungry critter but survives, he discovers that he, too, turns into a lethal monster when the moon is right. He finds himself falling in love with Jack’s fiancée (Emily Blunt) and being pursued by the zealous Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving), the real-life detective who tracked Jack the Ripper.

Despite the a classic pedigree and a cast full of Oscar winners and nominees, the script credited to Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self never develops the characters into the first or second dimension, much less the third.

As a result, the attempted love story does little other than kill time, and Lawrence’s wandering through the moors seems designed to take up time instead of moving the story along. In addition, it’s hard to tell which homicidal monster to cheer for because neither Lawrence not his lycan rival is all that sympathetic. Blunt, who has been terrific in everything from The Devil Wears Prada to The Young Victoria has little to do but model period dresses.

The one great thing about the original film was that original actor Lon Chaney, Jr. was a reluctant monster. Unlike Count Dracula, he didn’t enjoy being a homicidal beast, so it was easy to hope he’d be free from his furry fate. The new film imitates its predecessor’s makeup and storyline but not its tormented spirit.

Instead, the new film feels empty and dull. It’s hard to believe that another werewolf movie could be as unrewarding as The Twilight Saga: New Moon, but even with the blood, the new movie is just as tedious as its squeaky clean predecessor. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 02/12/09)


Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

If you’ve seen the trailer for Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and thought to yourself, “Hey, that looks a lot like a Harry Potter movie!” you wouldn’t be alone. While it’s not a surprise that Hollywood would be looking for a replacement for the soon-to-be-over HP series, this tepid and overbearing movie lacks both the charm and originality of its predecessor.

We start off with Percy Jackson (boy, that name would go over well in High School, huh?), a dyslexic nobody with only one friend, a boy on crutches named Grover. Soon we discover that Percy (Logan Lerman) is, in fact, the son of Poseidon, and that Zeus blames him for the theft of his “master” thunderbolt. How Percy, who doesn’t even know who he is, managed to steel the most important artifact owned by the King of the gods, is apparently irrelevant.

Soon, after getting training at a special camp for all the teenage offspring of gods and mortals named “Camp Half Blood” (Okay, we get it: this is just like Harry Potter. Enough), Percy and Grover team up with Annabeth, another demigod, and set off to rescue Percy’s mom from hell.

Why, you ask, is Percy’s mom in hell? Well, you see Hades, the lord of the underworld, wants the master lightning bolt to overthrow Zeus, and shows up at the camp looking just like the devil to tell Percy he’s got his mom. Oh, sure: in classical Greek mythology Hades was not the devil, and the underworld wasn’t hell, but who cares, right? Why include some actual information about one of the fundamental building blocks of western civilization when you can just say “Hades=Satan,” right?

The rest is a series of rather uninspired quests to get three special pearls that will let each one of the trio return from hell with Percy’s mom, including a barely-used Uma Thurman as Medusa and a CGI Hydra. Just so you got that: the trio is gathering three pearls to bring back the three of them plus Percy’s mom. Yeah, these kids may be demigods, but they also fail first-grade math. Eventually, the master bolt kinda just shows up at the end, and the race is on to return it to Zeus before he starts a war that will destroy Earth — cause that’s what you do when your Zeus.

Director Chris Columbus has managed to water down what would appear to be an already watered-down tweener novel that replaced the word “magic” with “gods,” but given the popularity of this series, I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of Percy and his gang: just somebody get them a calculator, please. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 02/12/10)


That Evening Sun
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Just like its cranky protagonist Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook), That Evening Sun earns respect by making no effort to overtly win viewers over. Throughout the film Holbrook does nothing to soften his potentially unlikable character and winds up earning respect, and even a little affection in the process.

Abner is a retired Tennessee farmer with a pronounced streak of independence. So, it’s not surprising that once his injured hip heals, nothing will stop him on his way to reclaim his old house. He even walks there from the nursing home in full summer heat and later bribes a driver who’s been hired to take him back to the home.

When he arrives at the house, he’s furious to discover that his son Paul (Walton Goggins) has rented his farm to a troublesome former tenant named Alonso Choat (Ray McKinnon) and his family (Mia Wasikowska, Carrie Preston).

Abner is slow to forgive, but he has legitimate reasons for despising Alonso. The younger man is an unemployed alcoholic who has little of the resources, instincts, skills or determination needed to successfully grow crops. The Choats haven’t even paid for a telephone in the house.

Because he can’t contact Paul, who now works as a high-powered attorney and lives miles away, Abner takes over the tenant shack and watches everything that happens on the property like a hawk.

Writer-director Scott Teems (working from a story by William Gay) doesn’t aim for melodrama, so That Evening Sun, while loaded with tension, doesn’t have the visceral impact it should. At the same time, he deserves credit for not making the Choats a southern stereotype. While Alonso can be every bit as mean as Abner, there are hints he wants to make something of himself but has little idea of how to go about it.

While the supporting cast is terrific (particularly Barry Corbin as Abner’s best friend), Holbrook justifiably dominates the film. While the role is juicy, Holbrook wisely avoids scenery chewing. He has a unique ability for being irascible without being obnoxious. He also lets viewers discover Abner’s redeeming traits instead of trying to make Abner ingratiating. Holbrook and the film have won several festival awards, but the joy of his work here is that the festival voters haven’t given the 84-year-old actor a sympathy vote. His turn here is the work of a gifted performer putting a lifetime of learning his craft to use.

The modest production is handsomely photographed and well mounted. It doesn’t look like a TV movie or as if it were made on the cheap. In addition, Michael Penn’s moody score is remarkably effective. That Evening Sun is, for the most part, a quiet little movie that dares viewers to accept it for what it is. And thankfully it lives up to its threat. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 02/12/10)


Valentine’s Day
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

When my father wooed my mother a little over four decades ago, he didn’t have anything suave or clever to win her over. He meekly informed her, “I like you a lot.” Seeing his longing and sincerity, she returned the affection. They’ve been together ever since.

The makers of the new ensemble comedy Valentine’s Day can certainly toss out more romantic-sounding bons mots, but they’ve approached winning over an audience in a manner that lacks dad’s earnestness. Despite some formidable talent, the entire film seems glib and forced as it were simply treating the audience to a shallow one-night stand instead of a serious commitment.

Screenwriter Katherine Fugate (Army Wives) and director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) follow a hectic day in Los Angeles where several of its residents find the Hallmark holiday more frustrating than romantic.

A local florist named Reed Bennett (Ashton Kutcher) is elated because today is the biggest day for his business and his live-in girlfriend (Jessica Alba) has agreed to marry him. His gal pal Julia (Jennifer Garner) wants to surprise her seemingly ideal boyfriend Harrison (Patrick Dempsey, playing another yet another doctor). A teenager named Grace (Emma Roberts) is planning on spending the day losing her virginity with her boyfriend Alex (Carter Jenkins). Roberts’ aunt Julia plays an Army captain who shares a long flight into LAX with handsome charmer (Bradley Cooper).

As I started to type out the plot threads, it struck me that none of the storylines are that interesting to read. They aren’t that much fun to watch either.

One of the dangers of ensemble casting is that piling all the characters into a single story is that promising subplots get neglected while less interesting ones dominate. Valentine’s Day doesn’t have this issue because few of its tales lead anywhere.

Fugate and Marshall attempt to throw viewers with surprises viewers can see coming a mile away, sort of like a gift whose shape can’t be hidden by the wrapping. Once a character is introduced, it’s easy to guess what romantic entanglement will come his or her way and how it will be resolved. If you’re happy with knowing what’s going to happen that’s fine, but I found being Nostradamus pretty dull.

The all-star casting is also a bit of a problem. Many of the performers are indeed stars, but they’re not necessarily good actors. Marshall regular Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine can easily play a couple that has been together for 50 years. Alba, however, has difficulty reciting the simplest of lines. Bryce Robinson is supposed to be an earnest tot hoping to woo one of his female peers, but he comes off as more annoying than endearing.

In some cases, capable thespians have been assigned roles that demean them. Anne Hathaway plays an aspiring actress whose only steady gig is as a phone sex worker. She gets to demonstrate some amusing accents, but the gags become tiresome quickly. Oscar-winners Kathy Bates, Jamie Foxx and Julia Roberts are saddled with forgettable characters that don’t require their expertise.

Just as mediocre horror films show up around Halloween, Valentine’s Day is designed to capitalize on its namesake and sucker desperate lovers who want something to treat a date to even it if isn’t all that good.

Instead, I’d recommend renting the recently released DVD of Bright Star, which is a terrific biopic about the passionate attraction between poet John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne. It has all of my dad’s authenticity and the wit and verbal agility of Keats.

These are two essential traits missing from Valentine’s Day. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 02/12/10)


From Paris with Love
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In a lot of espionage movies, the agents depicted in them can hardly be considered secret. Such is the case with American black operative Charlie Wax (John Travolta). With his shaved head, goatee beard, flashy jewelry and flamboyant manner, he doesn’t exactly blend.

He also leaves behind a body count that exceeds the populations of most major cities. In From Paris with Love, Wax destroys half of the City of Light’s underworld in order to stop either a drug ring or a terrorist cell.

Thanks to some loopy plotting from French action master Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), it’s a bit hard to tell.

Wax dominates From Paris with Love, but he’s actually the secondary lead. The main character is a younger American spy posted in the Paris embassy named James Reese (Irish star Jonathan Rhys Meyers from The Tudors). Reese actually does more of the quiet, low-level spying that real agents might due. He’s also up for a serious promotion if he can keep the cantankerous Wax happy. That’s slightly easier than staying alive with his trigger-happy partner.

Correction, make that trigger-elated.

As Wax, Travolta makes a virtue of overacting. Because of the inherent absurdity of having two men reducing all the criminals and terrorists of Paris into target practice, Travolta’s manic, tongue-in-cheek turn actually works. If a line in Besson and Adi Hasak’s script sounds clumsy, his manic delivery still manages to make it convincing.

Rhys Meyers settles for being Travolta’s straight man and appears content to be along for the ride. He’s got a convincing accent and provides the few believable moments in the film.

Like Travolta, director Pierre Morel (who teamed with Besson for Taken) aims big and figures, probably correctly, that viewers care more about gunplay, vehicle chases and explosions than plot.

By pacing From Paris with Love faster than a French commuter train, Morel rarely gives viewers a chance to think long enough to realize how silly the film is. By keeping viewers as on edge as Wax after a few gallons of the energy drinks, he tries to sneak past customs, Morel almost makes viewers believe that Wax and Reese can get away with leaving huge chunks of Paris in rubble and can destroy terrorist cells by themselves.

Nonetheless, Red Bull pacing is no substitute for good storytelling. Because of the sheer number of bad guys who wind up in Reese and Wax’s gun sights, the villains aren’t that scary. Most are like the ghouls in first person shooter games: They’re dead on the ground before they can be a meaningful part of the story.

Not that there’s anything meaningful here.

Besson and his cohorts have made careers out of creating French films with all the mayhem of their Yankee counterparts. They do manage to capture the energy and the red meat action we love here in the States, but it would be nice if these films had a more distinctly European flavor. You could say that From Paris with Love is a “Royale with Cheese” (Travolta does, again), but it wouldn’t hurt to put a more Parisian flavor on the Quarter Pounder. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 02/05/10)


Dear John
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Based on a popular book by Nicholas “I’m churning ‘em out as fast as I can” Sparks (The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe), Dear John is a charming if somewhat bland romance with some lofty aspirations.

Dear John

We start in North Carolina in the year 2000 with John Tyree (Channing Tatum), a young army enlistee who chances upon Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a college student on her two-week break. The two quickly fall into a romance (complete with pre-requisite making out in the rain), with lots of glowing close-ups of their enchanted faces. But, low and behold, Sept. 11 happens and John is off to battle terrorism, forcing them apart. The two promise to write the proverbial love letter to each other as often as possible, holding on to their special love — for a little time, at least.

John is also dealing with his autistic father (an Oscar-worthy performance by the fantastic Richard Jenkins), while Savannah begins to lose interest in all this writing and reading and stuff.

After a while, Savannah sends John a literal “Dear John” letter, announcing that she can’t wait any longer and is, in fact, already engaged to another man.

When John’s father becomes ill, he gets leave from the military to come home where he finds an older Savannah struggling to deal with her husband’s life-threatening illness (funny how in a romance everybody always gets sick at just the right time). Will Savannah’s husband survive? If he dies, will John and Savannah get back together? Oh, the suspense!

Well, they kinda get back together, sorta. I guess.

While Tatum’s performance as John is probably his best to date, and Jenkins as his father is fantastic, it’s just hard to care about the relationship that’s supposedly at the center of the film. No effort is made to explain why their two-week fling is supposed to be so important, and using 9/11 to push them apart seems a little heavy-handed.

There’s little real chemistry between the leads, and despite her charm, it’s hard to like Amanda’s Savannah: Did everybody involved in this film fail to realize that sending a Dear John letter to a soldier at war is a pretty low thing to do?

The real drama here is the compelling scenes between Jenkins and Tatum, who seem like a far more compelling couple to watch. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 02/05/10)


Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at dkayyoung@hotmail.com.
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.

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