movie reviews March 2010

The Last Song  •  Hot Tub Time Machine  •  How to Train a Dragon  •  The Girl on the Train  •  Chloe
Diary of a Wimpy Kid  •  Caught in the Act  •  Repo Men  •  The Bounty Hunter
Our Family Wedding  •  She’s Out of My League  •  Remember Me  •  Creation  •  What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Green Zone  •  Alice In Wonderland  •  Brooklyn's Finest  •  Ghost Writer

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

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The Last Song
Reluctantly Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In The Last Song, Miley Cyrus demonstrates what she can do now that she’s grown too tall to board the Hannah Montana gravy train.

She sings on camera for just a few seconds, and the only vocal stylings fans will get to hear play in the background or during the closing credits. Sadly, without the blonde wig and the canned country tunes, Cyrus doesn’t have much to offer.

This time around she’s cast as a sullen high school graduate named Ronnie Miller. Apparently miffed at her parents’ divorce, she’s managed to get out of school (barely), to get into legal trouble and to reject a scholarship to Julliard. Apparently, Ronnie, like her father Steve (Greg Kinnear), is a gifted pianist but appears to be aiming for a career in sulking instead.

Ronnie gradually expands on her skill set when her mother (Kelly Preston) sends her and her precocious brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) from New York to live with Steve on the Georgia coast for the summer.

From the earliest moments, Cyrus is out of her depth. Although the Nicholas Sparks novel and the screenplay he wrote with Jeff Van Wie could hardly be considered Shakespearean, they require a range that’s wider than Cyrus has ever needed before. Sadly, bitter teen seems beyond her normally sunny on-camera persona.

It’s hard to get worked up about the story when the leading actresses’ discomfort distracts from it. Sparks and Wei clumsily inform viewers that Ronnie really isn’t a bad girl because she’s a teetotaler and a vegetarian. While both stances are commendable, it’s as if the filmmakers felt the need to advertise Ronnie’s virtues rather than let viewers discover them for themselves.

To say that Ronnie Miller has a rough time fitting in would be an understatement. Steve Miller has had some difficulties of his own recently (it’s hard to believe he couldn’t fly like an eagle from his problems), and many locals instantly look on Ronnie with contempt.

As it often happens in the movies, Ronnie gradually becomes involved with a popular man-about-town named Will (Liam Hemsworth). Will fixes cars to pay his bills before he heads off to college, but he also works for the local aquarium and helps Ronnie protect some ocean turtle eggs from hungry raccoons. The fact that he’s got a set of abs that resembles the grill of a classic car probably doesn’t deter her.

Because Sparks, who gave us The Notebook and A Walk to Remember, wrote both the novel and part of the screenplay, it’s easy to guess where things will go with Ronnie and Will. It’s like betting on the Saints vs. the Chiefs. Viewers can also be assured that Sparks and his collaborators will kill off at least one major character before the final reel.

I’ll give Sparks some credit for the fact that he doesn’t revel in his characters’ demise the way a horror filmmaker might. But he kills his characters in such a heavy-handed way that their losses seem more obligatory than heartbreaking. It’s as if he were contractually obligated to cull his fictional herd.

Cyrus’ teen and pre-teen fan base would probably not object to the hackneyed nature of the story and might even prefer it. Thankfully, Greg Kinnear manages to take the routine material and to make it fresh and believable. He can play both torment and compassion with equal skill and projects a quiet authority that makes Steve seem like a capable if not an ideal father.

Veteran television director Julie Anne Robinson (Blackpool) manages to get the most out of some gorgeously authentic Georgia locations. But she can’t do much to liberate the story from Sparks’ rigid template.

There’s nothing wrong with a good cry, but the filmmakers have to earn their pathos, and The Last Song regrettably takes its Kleenex Factor for granted. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/31/10)


Hot Tub Time Machine
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

“Do-over” movies are a repeating theme in film. Some are uplifting, romantic stories where two souls find their way back to the past to reunite in a “new” future. Others are revenge seeking, justice-in-action tales to right a wrong or prevent an evil from destroying the future. And some are outrageous, goofy, check-your-brain-at-the-door faux metaphysical trips into comedy that will leave your face numb from laughing.

Such is Hot Tub Time Machine, a story of four guys — John Cusack as Adam, Craig Robinson as Nick, Rob Corddry as Lou “the Violator,” and Clark Duke as Jacob, the dweeb young tagalong nephew of Adam, and the smartest of the bunch — and their attempts to recapture some past glory to counter the dullness of their current lives. Adam is a sad sack who can’t keep a girlfriend, or a flat screen TV, Nick, a dog groomer who has taken his wife’s last name, and Lou, a suicidal alcoholic who embraces Motley Crue as a guide for the meaning of life. Instead, they fall into a time wrap. Their return to a now dilapidated ski lodge results in a hot tub malfunction, courtesy of a spilled energy drink, taking the four back to 1986.

Yes, much of that era returns there — bright clothes, bad hair, narrow ties, ankle leggings, tiny glass coke vials, cassette Walkmans, Ronald Reagan, cigarette coolness and random sex, though that could have been an exaggeration for a Hollywood effect.

It doesn’t take long for the boys to discover where they’ve landed. And since they’re dressed circa 2010, carry cell phones and use words like “email,” it isn’t long before the local baddies, Blaine (Sebastian Stan) and his ski patrol cronies take the four for Russian spies. 

Thrown into the mix is Crispin Glover as the one-arm bellhop Phil and the ongoing gag as to how and when he loses that arm, the revelation that Jacob’s mom Kelly (Collette Wolfe) was a slut, Chevy Chase as the guru hot tub repairman and a Super Bowl bet that goes horribly wrong because of a squirrel.

Hot Tub Time Machine is like that insane, loud, fun drug and alcohol fueled party you remember with relish yet will never tell your kids or mom about, a place in time where all the laughs came easy. Much like this movie. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 3/26/10)


How to Train Your Dragon
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The critters in How to Train Your Dragon may not be as cuddly as the ones in Up or The Lion King, but in their own way they become just about as lovable. That’s a pretty formidable achievement when you consider that they’re as big as a house, breathe fire and can make off with all of a village’s precious livestock.

The remote Viking hamlet of Berk has particularly strong reasons for wanting dragons out of their lives. The town’s resident have lost their homes, limbs and even lives whenever those giant lizards with incendiary halitosis fly in for an attack.

Because these reptilian vermin can cause more damage than rats, wartime enemies or disease combined, it’s considered a rite of passage to kill one of the beasts. One young Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel from She’s Out of My League) has invented a type of crossbow that could send a dragon crashing to earth during an attack.

Sadly, no one takes the lad seriously because he’s a small and sometimes chokes under pressure situations. He also has the unenviable task of living up to his burly father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler, in full 300 bluster), a renowned warrior and the village’s chief. While Hiccup shows signs of being a born engineer (he can understand how dragons can both take flight and be brought down), his gadgets and scrawny build make him an outcast in his own village.

When his weapon actually works as planned by bringing down a dreaded beast, called a “Night Fury,” Hiccup discovers he has another disadvantage: He sees dragons as other living beings and can’t bring himself to kill one. Even though the animal has an injured tail and can’t fly to safety, Hiccup’s heart is too soft to finish off the monster.

Instantly learning that empathy sometimes requires more courage and initiative than vengeance, Hiccup releases the dragon he’s caught and named “Toothless,” and even gives it a prosthetic tailfin that enables him to fly again.

When he has to train with other young Vikings in the art of subduing dragons, Hiccup discovers that lessons he’s learned from bonding with Toothless enable him to neutralize the threat the animals pose without drawing a sword. Even his previously skeptical instructor Gobber (Craig Ferguson) is duly impressed by Hiccup’s previously unknown ability.

But it takes more work to get the rest of the village or Stoick to acknowledge that the only good dragon isn’t necessarily a dead one. The best of the new breed of dragon slayers is a young lady named Astrid (America Ferrera), and naturally Hiccup finds himself smitten with a woman who wouldn’t appreciate the way he’s made nice with a Night Fury.

The storyline liberally cribs from Dragonheart, The Black Stallion and just about any other kids film you can think of as well as Cressida Cowell’s books. Nonetheless, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch) create such vivid characters and settings that the familiarity doesn’t matter.

BeBlois and Sanders make the inaccurately named Toothless just threatening enough so that Hickup’s friendship with him doesn’t seem at all like a foregone conclusion. Compared to other dragons, he might be cute, but he can still take out any person or thing that crosses him. This might make the film frightening for the youngest of tots, but adults and school age youngsters will appreciate the way the film avoids pandering to them.

Also, the filmmakers have wisely dispensed with making the flying lizards anthropomorphic. Toothless flies like a bat and moves in a feline way, but audiences are spared having to hear a celebrity voice bellowing out his mouth. Hiccup and Toothless have to relate to each other without words, and the filmmakers have still managed to make their partnership credible.

Although the screening I attended wasn’t in 3D, I honestly didn’t miss the glasses. The scenery and character expressions are so masterfully rendered that they rival genuine landscapes and flesh-and-blood actors. Toothless’ eyes dilate, and he can go from rage to affection within a fraction of a second. The backdrops are also more than simply scenic. During the battle scenes, they provide all sorts of fascinating obstacles to keep one side from getting a clear advantage. Murky clouds and forbidding landscapes seem lethal on their own, even without dragons or bloodthirsty Vikings.

How to Train Your Dragon has been assembled with such care that it forces us to wonder if St. George was really all that heroic. Perhaps if he’d taken a few lessons from Hiccup dragons wouldn’t simply be part of our mythical past. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/26/10)


The Girl on the Train
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Unlike a lot of ripped from the headlines films, André Téchiné’s The Girl on the Train makes no effort to surprise viewers with unflattering or tragic revelations about its protagonists. From the opening frames, you can tell the title character is not quite right. Instead, the veteran French director assumes his viewers have read the same news reports he did and would probably rather know why his characters have made regrettable or even reprehensible choices.

Émilie Dequenne stars as Jeanne, a 20-something woman who’s having difficulty with the Parisian labor market. It probably doesn’t help that she’s trying to land a white collar job using a résumé littered with typos. Jeanne attempts to talk her way past the fact that she’s grossly unqualified for the position.

From her shifty expressions, it’s obvious that some of the things she’s telling her potential employer, Jewish attorney Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), simply aren’t true. Because Samuel once knew her father she relates a whopper of a story about her dad that sounds more like a John Wayne war movie than anything that might have actually happened. Thanks to a subtle performance by Dequenne, it’s easy to see why some people can be taken in by Jeanne’s baloney.

What makes Jeanne a fascinating, if troubling, character is that she’s frequently as innocent as she is prone to embellishment. When she and her boyfriend Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) get a job as caretakers of a storage facility, she doesn’t think it odd that their boss pays them with cash. Even in France, it’s a bit shady to hire folks without filling out payroll and tax forms.

Because Franck is a promising wrestler, Jeanne thinks the two of them have a bright future, but alert viewers can spot the disaster to come. When the headstrong Franck gets into predictable trouble, a dejected Jeanne returns home to her well-meaning but domineering mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve). Louise’s expectations seem a bit unrealistic for her daughter, so that might explain part of where Jeanne gets her tendency to lie.
That propensity takes a nightmarish turn when Jeanne files a fraudulent police report claiming to be the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime. Showing up at the police station with gashes on her face and swastikas drawn on her belly, Jeanne causes a major uproar.

In real life, France has had a series of similar attacks, but Jeanne’s stunt only exacerbates the situation because it distracts from the real outrages that have been occurring. Because she says her phony assailants attacked her after seeing Samuel’s business card, she inadvertently draws Samuel into the crisis when his own life is in turmoil. Louise and Samuel attempt to defuse the situation because, unlike the gullible media and authorities, they instantly know Jeanne’s story is false.

Téchiné resists the urge to overtly condemn Jeanne’s behavior, figuring that viewers can probably figure out for themselves that Jeanne has committed a serious crime and certainly needs professional help. Jeanne appears to have an unconscious resentment of Samuel and his family, presumably because he didn’t hire her.

In an intriguing subplot, while Jeanne may have subjected Samuel to anti-Semitism and might even have anti-Jewish sentiments herself, Samuel and his daughter-in-law Judith (Ronit Elkabetz) are feuding because he’s an agnostic, and she insists on a bar mitzvah for his grandson Nathan (Jérémy Quaegebeur). Further complicating matters, Samuel’s atheist son Alex (Mathieu Demy) has divorced Judith but insists on raising Nathan in Venice. He also argues with Judith at one moment but makes love to her the next.

Working from Jean-Marie Besset’s play, Téchiné, Besset and Odile Barski raise some fascinating questions about religion and demonstrate how debates within the French Jewish community can be heated even without outside hostilities.

Téchiné has assembled a dream cast, so it’s easy to take their work for granted. There aren’t that many shouting matches or emotional outbursts during The Girl on the Train, but Téchiné gets a lot of mileage out of quietly seething resentment. The film never feels slack or dull because viewers can sense a volatility hidden under the surface.

The Girl on the Train may deal with a phony hate crime. But the dangers it represents should not be ignored. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/26/10)


Chloe
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Every so often some big Hollywood Starlet takes a shot at a “mature role” in some artsy-type film that generally includes a “brave and daring performance,” which, of course, is movie-speak for lots of frontal nudity.

Well, in director Atom Egoyan’s remake of the French erotic thriller Nathalie, we get not one but two major actresses bravely and daringly showing their lady-parts off for the sake of art — Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried. Too bad they did it for such a bland and blatantly manipulative story.

Catherine (Moore) and David Stewart (Liam Neeson) are the perfect couple, wealthy, attractive and educated, living in Toronto in a magnificent house nobody real could ever afford. David, a professor, misses his flight home to Toronto leading Catherine to believe he’s having affairs with his many attractive young students.

Like any sensible person, Catherine hires Chloe (Seyfried), who is some kind of prostitute, to try and seduce her husband although she seems more interested in hooking up with the waifish girl herself. Now, I’m not going to go into too much more of the plot here: You can probably guess there will be a twist on who is really cheating on whom, and an ending where somebody’s obsession with somebody else leads to tragedy. In fact, the whole plot plays out with about as much emotion as that last sentence.

In the film’s defense, I have to note that Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, died suddenly during shooting; resulting in a re-write that probably greatly reduced his role here. Seyfried does make a game attempt at acting rather than flashing her bizarrely large eyes at the camera, and Max Thieriot, as the son Michael, is surprisingly good in a mostly bit role that would seem written solely for a latter plot twist. An alternate title here might have been “The dippy problems of rich white people.”

Plus, there’s little that’s erotic in this erotic thriller, and that fault here lies completely on the director. Egoyan’s direction is as subtle as porn, filming the sex scenes with as much care as an anatomy student trying to fit all the parts in the right place. It’s strange that so much of the rest of the film has such exceptional photography. As for the nudity, well, as attractive as both Moore and Seyfried are, they’ve pretty much hung it all out for little result.

But the biggest problem here is in the title itself. Not once in this film are we given a single, solitary glimpse of a glimmer of an idea who Chloe is, or why she is doing what she’s doing. Not a damn word. After leaving the screening, another critic laughingly said that she did what she did “just because she was crazy.” Of course, we both knew that was a stupid explanation. Making characters do things because they are crazy is the epitome of lazy filmmaking. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 3/26/10)


Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Possibly the greatest virtue of Diary of a Wimpy Kid is that, as the title implies, it’s about a lad who’s in no danger of being a role model. Chances are good, however, that you’d probably never get him to admit it.

While Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) hasn’t had the growth spurt that youngsters normally get when they reach about 12 or 13, it’s not his stunted size that makes him wimpy. Greg is now keenly aware that behavior that was acceptable in elementary school is currently forbidden. Sadly, Greg’s moral and intellectual development hasn’t caught up with his age, either.

He’s ashamed of his pudgy lifelong buddy Rowley (Robert Capron) because he still uses such taboo words as “play” and dresses like a child. Greg still hangs out with the good-natured Rowley because he’s the only person willing to give the self-absorbed Greg the time of day.

Greg’s ambitious pursuit of social status is continually thwarted by his own hubris and by bizarrely humiliating turns of fate. When he suddenly turns out to have a terrific singing voice, his thoughtless music teacher suggests his high-pitched voice makes him perfect for playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

Imagine the blow that announcement inflicts on his fragile self-esteem.

Greg also becomes jealous when Rowley’s charming guilelessness and hidden talents make him a hit with his classmates. Thanks to misplaced priorities, Greg learns the wrong lessons from Rowley’s success and diligently works to undermine the one close friend he has.

Much of the humor from comes from Greg earning a well-deserved smackdown for his reprehensible behavior. That said Greg is generally sympathetic because nobody sets out to be humiliated. Viewers also get a sense that maturity might, just might, prevent him from remaining such a misanthropic fool.

He’s also not getting much help at home. His parents (Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn) seem oblivious to his issues. His much younger brother Manny (Connor Fielding and Owen Fielding) is getting all the attention, while his older sibling Rodrick (Devon Bostick) is sadistic, almost to the point of abusive. With this crew in his home court, it’s easy to see why Greg has so many issues when he gets to school.

Working from Jeff Kinney’s books, the movie version of Greg’s laments is so episodic that it could give less patient viewers a serious attack of ADHD. In the year depicted in the film, Greg leaps from one mishap to another, and some potentially interesting threads get shuffled aside. There are four credited writers on this project (Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs), and it shows. Genuinely entertaining moments are sandwiched between some redundant passages that serve only to remind us of what a vain dweeb that Greg can be.

On the plus side, when the film does work, it’s actually quite funny. It’s worth it just to hear a bunch of middle schoolers earnestly butchering Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which sucked back when it was both new and performed by adults. The Wizard of Oz and aging instructional videos also get a good ribbing here. There are more than a few references to bodily functions, but here they seem appropriate because the physical changes middle schoolers go through can be rather traumatic.

Fans of Kinney’s cartoons will appreciate the chance to see animated versions of what he has done in print. Considering how exaggerated Greg’s worldview is, it’s hard not to wonder if Diary of a Wimpy Kid might have worked better in animated form. Seeing live actors making broad expressions and yelling lines that should have been delivered in a more conversational tone is jarring. Yes, the audience is young, but kids often have radar for artifice and mendacity. So, this broad approach is often counterproductive.

Then again, just as Greg may become a better person when he grows up, perhaps director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) might have made a somewhat more satisfying film if he’d assumed the viewers were grown up as well. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 03/19/10)


Caught in the Act
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Caught in the Act is one of those quirky little comedies like Local Hero or Waking Ned Devine, where lovably eccentric rural villagers in the British Isles attempt to better their hard lives by sticking it to the Man.

Sadly, the characters in Caught in the Act are thin and not terribly lovable. After watching the film, I had to consult the movie’s web site to remember who was who. I’m still attempting to find a reason for why I should care about this sloppily conceived and executed film.

Caught in the Act is one of several titles that have been tagged to the film before its American release, and it’s been on the shelf for a couple of years. It centers on a sleepy Welsh town where the locals have received a tidy sum from a European Union arts fund. Instead of using the Euros to stage plays or other cultural events, most of the cash goes to hold lavish parties and to revive the hamlet’s declining economy.

The gravy train comes to an abrupt end when an EU official (Ralph Brown) shows up requesting that the freeloading players actually stage a performance. The town’s Chairman of Councillors Eric (Steven Spiers, who co-wrote the film) recommends they perform Macbeth in Brussels so that they can keep the money coming and because it’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays. The fact that only Collie (Freddie Jones), the local bookshop owner and Eric’s uncle, knows how to act is apparently only a minor obstacle.

The impossible task of staging a credible performance might have been more engaging if the Eric and the rest of the villagers were likable or at least interesting.

They aren’t.

When Eric isn’t screwing over EU taxpayers, he’s cheating on his girlfriend Gina (Maxine Evans) with a council secretary Marlene (Juliet Aubrey). The duplicitous Eric doesn’t seem like much of a catch, so their fights for him seem a wasted effort.

With the exception of the long-winded but forgetful Collie, few of the other characters leave much of an impression. Despite some agreeable scenery, it might seem that leaving the village for a better life elsewhere would make more sense. It’s hard not to wonder if the predatory local executive (Ian Virgo) might be doing the town a favor.

In addition to a setup that seems more than a little familiar, there are some queasy gags involving Gina’s attempts at getting pregnant and assorted bathroom acts. In the hands of Mel Brooks, Judd Apatow or the Farrelly Brothers, a fart joke can be a comic epiphany. But here, Neil Savage and Spier have apparently included this material in the script because of desperation. They also add some last minute revelations that are supposed to excuse their characters’ wretched actions, but these seem as forced as the physical humor.

Unless, you’re pining to hear Welsh accents, there’s little to recommend Caught in the Act. It’s only marginally better than if the phony actors in the film itself had performed it. (N/R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/19/10)


Repo Men
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

The tagline for the sci-fi action flick Repo Men pretty much says everything you need to know: “For a price, any organ in your body can be replaced. But it can also be repossessed.”

Gee, do you get the metaphor? How director Miguel Sapochnik has morphed the whole sub-prime housing collapse and subsequent “repossessions” from homes to artificial organs? Well, you better hope you just think that’s the cleverest idea you’ve ever heard, because that’s pretty much the whole plot.

Jude Law plays Remy, a professional repo man for The Union, a mega-corporation that sells artificial organs. With his ex-army buddy Jake (Forrest Whitaker), he goes around breaking in to people’s homes that have missed too many payments, stuns them with a high-tech Tazer, and cuts them open while they lie on the floor so he can pull out their metal kidney or liver or whatever with his bare hands.

Despite wanting to move to sales for the Union to make his wife happy, Remy continues to charmingly murder people (apparently everybody involved in this film thinks you can have you chest cut open and a major organ ripped out with no real serious complications), and occasionally drives around taunting innocent people with how many days they have left till he’s gonna break into their house and kill them too, which they are apparently fine with.

Suddenly, Remy has an accident that leaves him with (can you guess?) an artificial heart he can’t pay for despite the fact that it was established at the beginning of the movie that he was a wealthy man with an expensive house in the suburbs. Soon, he’s on the run across an apocalyptic wasteland chased by the other repos, including Jake. With that there’s knife fights, an invasion into Union headquarters, some explosions and then a nice happy ending — except for that little twist at the very end that makes M. Night Shyamalan's Signs seem positively clever and delightful. It’s also a blatant rip-off of Brazil, but then this movie rips off so many other films, from Blade Runner to Repo! The Genetic Opera that there’s no point to care anymore.

This is just a dumb film based on a mildly clever idea that would never work in real life. At no point are we given any reason why virtually everybody needs an artificial organ. Is there some kind of organ-eating plague or is it just a keeping up with the neighbors’ thing? How come nobody notices that dozens of men, women, and, yes, children are found dead every morning with their Union-built organs torn out? Why is everybody surprised when a repo man shows up despite the fact that they were sent many letters telling them the exact hour the repo men would be coming for them? In fact, just where is this movie supposed to be set? There is a nice futuristic-looking city shot in the beginning for a moment, but after that the whole movie plays out either in the Union office or in urban ruin. Where’s the government on this, the media? These people would be better off investing in a new brain!

To be honest, there is some decent dialog, and Law does his best to make a fairly despicable character likeable (apparently, no one saw District 9 to see how it’s really done), but most likely watching this film becomes just a matter of waiting for the next fight scene. No need to come repo this movie from me, you can have it for nothing, no money down. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/19/10)


The Bounty Hunter
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While Jennifer Aniston’s love life causes supermarket tabloids to leap off the shelves, the movies she’s appeared in with or without her notable string of beaus are often less interesting than her magazine covers.

The Bounty Hunter has paired her with real live paramour Gerard Butler. While Cupid has apparently smiled on the couple, their agents have treated them with nothing but contempt.

It’s easy to imagine the thespians being promised that their latest vehicle would be “Midnight Run with the sex appeal of It Happened One Night.” What’s mystifying is that Aniston and Butler still signed the contract after reading Sarah Thorp’s script.

Neither the former sitcom star nor the washboard-abed Scotsman is served well here.

He plays Milo Boyd, a former NYPD officer who now struggles to make ends meet. He can earn $5,000 a pop for every bail jumper he captures, but he has gambling debts that negate any of the reward money. Furthermore, his ham-fisted, if effective, techniques often get him put in handcuffs. His beleaguered pal Bobby (Dorian Missick), who has remained on the force, continually has to bail Milo out.

Milo’s fortunes look brighter when his next assignment turns out to be his ex-wife Nicole (Aniston). She’s supposed to be a hard-nosed but perceptive reporter, but Aniston seems out of her depth here. With her baby face and wan manner, she simply doesn’t come off as an aggressive news hawk.

Perhaps director Andy Tennant (Hitch) senses this. After all, throughout the movie, Nicole wears a short skirt regardless of where she is. On second though, maybe the short skirt helps her move, and thus land the stories, because she can apparently run a marathon or two in heels.

It should also be noted that she has a well-furnished apartment. Even in good economic times, reporters don’t make that much. And for somebody who supposedly ambushes cops with scoops, she’d have to be an idiot not to know the consequences of skipping courtroom appointments.

Overlooking these gaps in logic would have been easy if The Bounty Hunter were romantic, funny or exciting. It strikes out on all three counts.

Thorp’s dialogue is loaded with witless double entendres (Gee, he’s not comparing his penis to a gun, is he?). The characters themselves aren’t that appealing and are the sort of polar opposites who only fall in love in the context of a film. What Nicole sees in Mio other than a chest of titanium is hard to see. His slovenly manner and rashly violent behavior guarantees him a lifetime of bachelorhood.

In addition, it might have been more interesting if Nicole were more dangerous than ditzy. If bringing her to jail were a risk to life and limb, the story might have had some tension instead of listlessness.

Thorp and Tennant throw in two groups of villains to little effect. A drug kingpin (Peter Greene) is after Nicole, and a pair of bumbling loan sharks is after Milo. Neither enlivens the tedious plot. Nicole even has an unwanted suitor (played by Kansas City’s own Jason Sudeikis), who’s along for the chase.

Tennant makes poor use a potentially worthwhile cast and has a tepid eye for action scenes. There’s something especially evil about a big budget movie that can’t even feature decent car chases. Only Christine Baranksi (Mama Mia!), as Nicole’s flirty showgirl mother, emerges with her dignity unspoiled by this dross.

Perhaps Aniston should hire the tabloid writers who normally stalk and defame her to start writing her scripts. It could help ensure positive press coverage; they can’t do any worse than the people who are scribbling for her now. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 03/19/10)


Our Family Wedding
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Haven’t America’s ethnic minorities suffered enough? Apparently not considering they have to endure films such as Our Family Wedding, the story of Lucia (America Ferrera) and Marcus (Lance Gross) declaring their intention to marry and the resulting clash that ensues between Mexican American and Africa American families.

The screenplay — concocted by three writers, including director Rick Famuyiwa — could easily have been re-titled “A Guide to Using Stereotypes in Making a Movie.”

Brad, played by Forest Whitaker (who hopefully got a lot of money for this embarrassing career move), is a hip, rich middle age LA radio personality addicted to bedding young woman and Marcus’ father. His girl-Friday attorney Angela, of course, secretly loves Brad as she cleans up after his miscues. Their eventual pairing is absolutely no surprise. Noted actor Regina King is Angela; she manages to add a little normalcy to chaos of the story.

Carlos Mencia is Miguel, Lucia’s father and the clueless husband of Sonia (Diana-Marie Riva). Along with Angela, Sonia plays another of the few normal people in the film. What comedy that does come through revolves mostly around the antics of Miguel as he nurses a prejudice against blacks as Brad counterpunches while everyone else just shake their heads in embarrassment. This scenario is presented ad nauseum.

The lovers, Lucia and Marcus, try and deal with the building chaos around them while telling themselves it’s “our marriage, their wedding.” It’s only when tension rises between the two and they break off the wedding that the film gets reasonably interesting as Lucia and Marcus becoming more than a reason why Brad and Miguel act like high school sophomores.

Surrounding the warring personalities, we get a hen-pecked husband, a mouthy grandmother, a just-out-of-prison gangbanger, a couple of cake fights, a goat that eats a bottle of Viagra, Mexican laborers, and a quick-witted, loud-talking playa who is told to keep it down while having a couple of drinks otherwise he would “scare the white people.” (The only remark in the film that made me laugh.)

In the end love triumphs, the marriage ceremony comes together; Brad and Miguel reach a truce, and the blatant, ethic and racial insults end. Lost was the opportunity to present a story where something new could be learned. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 3/12/10)


She’s Out of My League
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

If one of the rules of the universe is that beautiful people belong with other beautiful people and somewhat attractive people belong with other somewhat attractive people and the rest … well, they just sort it out and couple according to luck, personality and the size of one’s bank account, then She’s Out of Your League seeks to disturb that time and space continuum, and doing it a hilarious way.

Kirk, played by a perfectly cast Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder, Knocked Up), is an airport security officer in Pittsburg saddled with a family of losers oblivious to the fact that it’s they themselves who wear a large capital “L” on their foreheads. It’s so bad for Kirk that the family has taken to adopting Kirk’s former girlfriend Marnie (Lindsay Sloane) and her jock-dumb boyfriend Ron (Hayes MacArthur) as housemates and inviting them along to Branson for a family holiday.

Sad-sack Kirk takes it all in stride, projecting a sort of old-soul persona that seems to be an acceptance that he’s working out some sort of bad karma from a previous life. Only a little more supportive are Kirk’s three close friends, Stainer (T.J. Miller), Jack (Mike Vogel) and Devon (Nate Torrence), also airport employees of various sorts.

It should be noted that if these four characters are modeled after real life airport employees, homeland security has been extremely compromised.

In a very believable scenario, with Kirk finding a lost iPhone, he meets Molly (Alice Eve), a “hard ten,” as Stainer puts it. One’s appeal rating by looks underpins Stainer’s running commentary through most of the film as to why Kirk doesn’t have a chance with Molly. If he did it proves that the “universe is out of kilter.” Only at the end of the film does Stainer see the light that yes, a gap in ratings can be bridged, helping Kirk also attain this love enlightenment.

Miller’s superb characterization of Stainer nearly matches Baruchel’s work. Stainer is the epitome of insecurity masked by bravado. His intense faux hatred of Molly’s friend Patty (Krysten Ritter) has so much passion and want, and her disgust with herself in even talking with the guy so betraying an interest in him, carry the makings of another hilarious relationship movie.

She’s Out of My League at its heart is a romantic comedy, realistic in a sense that Kirk and Molly overcome assumptions about their relationship where barriers exist based on looks, careers and what friends think. Molly discovers its more than just having a “safe” relationship with someone that won’t hurt her and she’ll never get serious about, and Kirk finds out that even a guy rated at a “five” or “six” can have a beautiful woman love him.

The laughs come with various situations along the way as Molly and Kirk progress in their relationship, then don’t. In one very funny scene, Kirk runs out Molly’s apartment as her parents interrupt the beginnings of lovemaking because he has an “oyster” in his shorts. That explanation later serves as one of the make-ups between the two.

In another scene that will have most of in the audience howling, dependable Devon — the only married person in the film other that Kirk’s dysfunctional parents and Molly’s upper-crust mother and father — helps prepare Kirk for eventual coitus with Molly by following Jack’s belief in a certain bodily appeal that he thinks helps the act along. It’s fair to say no friend has ever done more for another than what Devon does for Kirk.

What makes She’s Out of My League so surprisingly convincing are the credible portrayals — other than Molly giving up being an attorney to become an event planner — by actors who recognized the goofiness surrounding a relationship when people come from different places in life. Add to that a script by Sean Anders and John Morris that doesn’t, unlike so many in this genre, feel too much over the top in manufactured, unreal situations.

This is a very funny film, worth seeing more than once, and a good cure-all when you’re feeling down on yourself. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 3/12/10)


Remember Me
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Despite the title, Remember Me is an essentially forgettable romantic drama. Sadly, the most memorable aspect of the film is a groan-inducing surprise ending that trivializes a horrific catastrophe and reminds viewers how vapid the rest of the movie is.

If Remember Me gets one thing right, it at least demonstrates that British actor Robert Pattinson, who’s best known for playing a whiny, wimpy vampire in the Twilight movies, might have more personality than an orange barrel on the highway.

This time around he plays 21-year-old Tyler Hawkins, the slacker son of the rich, powerful workaholic attorney Charles Hawkins (Pierce Brosnan). Tyler is definitely not following in his dad’s footsteps.

He’s going to New York University, but he’s only auditing his classes, and his job at a bookstore seems only an excuse for viewers to hear his quasi-philosophical musings during the voiceover. With his chain smoking and misdirected anger, Tyler seems to confuse trivial self-absorption with rebellion.

Tyler’s short temper takes him from laziness to actual danger when he mouths off to a humorless policeman named Sgt. Neil Craig (Kansas City’s Chris Cooper). Resenting the fact that he was merely trying to get the gruff cop to do his job, Tyler’s roommate Aidan (Tate Ellington) convinces him to start wooing Sgt. Craig’s spirited daughter Ally (Emilie de Ravin) as a way to get some revenge. Through most of the film the smarmy, motor-mouthed Aidan serves the story by being so obnoxious that Tyler becomes charming in comparison.

It’s tempting to dismiss Tyler as a navel-gazing twit, but he does have a close relationship with his unbelievably precocious 11-year-old sister Caroline (Ruby Jerins), and a few minutes in Ally’s company makes him forget about revenge against her father. It turns out that both of them are burdened by the loss of close relatives and seem to glow in each other’s presence.

Some scripts break the mold, and others are just moldy. Will Fetters’ writing for Remember Me fits squarely into the latter category. None of the characters or situations are terribly fresh or even that authentic. Tyler’s opening lines to Ally would be more likely to get him a squirt of pepper spray instead of a phone number. As a result, Ally and Tyler’s relationship is more like a collection of highlights than a genuine emotional bond. It’s a bit hard to care if Tyler will ever admit to Ally that he initially flirted with her under false pretenses.

At least director Allen Coulter (Hollywoodland) makes decent use of real Big Apple locations; it’s a shame the people who inhabit Remember Me are less cinematic than the buildings and parks. Still, it is refreshing to see New York playing itself instead of watching Vancouver or Montreal trying in vain to imitate it.

Remember Me has some dramatic outbursts, but the film’s meandering pace causes these moments to appear as if the filmmakers were getting bored with their own story and needed something to break the tedium.

This brings me to the film’s shoddy conclusion. For mystifying reasons, the filmmakers have inappropriately pulled in a real-world tragedy into their limp fiction. Having seen terrific films about the sinking of the Titanic and the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s safe to say that invoking painful historical events is thoughtlessly callous if the event in question is not integral to the story. It demonstrates that the filmmakers have little faith in their material and the characters and don’t seem to have much respect for their audience either.

Pattinson, who sadly took a producer credit on this mess, may grow into a real actor. If so, he may be grateful if this film deservedly fades from recollection. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 03/10/10)


Creation
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s amazing that over 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it’s still easy to get into arguments over the scientist’s findings. He has been lauded and condemned so vigorously that getting a sense of what he was like is difficult.

Creation is an admirable if not completely successful attempt to present Darwin as a complicated human being instead of a marble bust. Director Jon Amiel (The Singing Detective) and screenwriter John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) depict a man who was tormented by his own research and, more deeply, by the loss of his oldest daughter Annie (Martha West, Dominic West’s daughter).

Paul Bettany, who actually resembles the younger Darwin, approaches the role in a way that diverges from what you might have heard in school. While Darwin gradually begins to doubt that God takes an active role in the universe he created, his wife Emma (Bettany’s real-life spouse Jennifer Connely) worries that her husband’s disbelief could prevent him from joining her in heaven when they both die.

Egging Darwin to finish his writing is the abrasively blasphemous Thomas Huxley (Tobey Jones) and the more diplomatic Joseph Dalton Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch). But Darwin is also close friends with their pastor John Brodie-Innes (Jeremy Northam) and sees little reason in upsetting people needlessly.

Charles and Emma’s disagreements make for the most engaging portions of the film. Bettany effortlessly captures Darwin’s actual diffidence about being viewed as the man who “toppled God” with his theories of natural selection. The Darwins remained a loving couple despite the fact that each saw religion differently.

Throughout his soul-searching, Darwin is haunted by the ghost of Annie, his bright, beloved child. While Collee generally follows the outlines of Darwin biographer (and descendant) Randal Keynes’ book Annie’s Box, his decision to have Annie and her father argue about his theories plays more like a distraction than a serious analysis. Essentially, Annie is presented like a cheerleader and her ghostly presence seems out of place in the otherwise accurate depiction of Darwin’s life.

Both Keynes and Amiel imply that the real villain in this story might have been 19th century medicine. Despite all the advances Darwin made in our understanding of biology, he and other scientists of his day were gullible about quack treatments. Through much of his adult life, Darwin was plagued by a variety of debilitating maladies and took drugs laced with opium and mercury as if they were vitamins. It’s hard not to wonder if his embrace of now discredited “cures” like hydrotherapy might have contributed to his infirmities and Annie’s death.

Because Darwin’s theories have been misunderstood since they were printed, the film might have benefited by offering a quick refresher for viewers who slept through biology in high school.

The production is nicely mounted, and the flashbacks to Darwin’s voyages on the ship the Beagle are well presented. While the humans in the film are quite good, it should be noticed that the best performance in the film comes from an orangutan that plays “Jenny,” the ape whose human-like loneliness and sorrow moved Darwin.

If Creation hadn’t dabbled in an ill-advised turn to the supernatural, it might have done a better job of taking Darwin out of the textbooks and on to the screen. As it stands, at least the film can help lead to a more reasonable discussion of what his life meant and what he actually stood for. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 03/12/10)


What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Thomas Frank’s influential book What’s the Matter with Kansas features an acidic wit, keen observations and a panoramic sense of irony about how Kansans have embraced politics that consistently undermine their own self-interest.

It’s a fascinating read, but it’s far too literary to be cinematic. Chicago-based documentarian Joe Winston makes a valiant effort to make Frank’s perspectives work on screen. While the writing has inspired the final film, the author himself has little screen time.

Winston uses the short passages with Frank to illustrate Kansas’ radical past. While contemporary stereotypes of the 34th state, would make such an assertion seem, well, phony. Kansas was indeed the home of Appeal to Reason (www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAappealR.htm), a weekly socialist journal that was founded in Girard. At one point, it sold 500,000 copies each week, and was published from 1897 to 1922.

While Frank comes off as genial and sharp, his reduced presence is actually a blessing. Winston instead focuses on Sunflower State conservative activists and follows them without offering any comments or much in the way of rebuttal. This approach is frequently as shrewd as it is courteous.

The film’s actual “star” is Angel Dillard, a Pro-Life activist who also records Gospel albums. Winston lets Dillard tell her own story in graphic detail. She movingly describes losing a special needs child by time he turned 13. He also approaches his subjects without condescension. As a native Kansan, I’m grateful he chose not to look at us as a bunch of stupid rubes. In the end, Dillard and her husband Ron emerge as likable, forthright people with whom viewers might share an honest disagreement.

He also gets some fascinating observations from Donn Teske, the president of the Kansas Farmers Union. He eloquently argues explains the plight of family farmers like himself, who are loosing their land and their livelihood. Teske recounts that the economics of rural Kansas are so bad that neighbors literally wait for each other to die in order to buy up adjacent property. It’s hard to disagree with him when he laments that behavior doesn’t seem Christian.

If Winston had chosen to look at his subjects in a demeaning light, he might have missed some sequences that are so surreal that even Salvador Dali or Luis Buñuel couldn’t have conceived them. When the Dillards’ politically active pastor Terry Fox is asked to leave his 6,000 strong congregation at Immanuel Baptist in Wichita, they join him at his new home in the middle of a soon-to-open theme park, Wild West World.

It’s tempting to blink during the footage of services or discussions of church business because the silhouettes of gunslingers in the background seem out of place in what’s supposed to be a home for the Prince of Peace. The park closes shortly after it opens and church members wind up loosing a lot of money by investing in it.

The film also features a trip to a Creationist museum in Kentucky that seems more comical than educational and some behind-the-scenes footage from the reelection campaign of the adamantly Pro-Life former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline. From watching the volunteers in the film, you’d never get the impression that Kline was on his way to a sound defeat. Some of the people in the film appear so insular that they have no idea how unfavorably Kline was viewed in the state as a whole.

At times, I wondered if some outside commentary might have helped. When college student Brittany Barden declares she’s like to help return America to its Christian roots, it’s tempting to think that she’s on to something. While my Christian ancestors came here from Germany in 1730 to escape religious persecution (they belonged to then-forbidden Protestant sects), many of this nation’s founders weren’t Christian at all.

John Adams was a Unitarian, and Thomas Jefferson blithely removed passages from the Bible he found inappropriate. He thought that Jesus was imperfect because the Savior had allowed himself to die. If you don’t know these facts yourself, it’s easy to see how someone can be misled. It might have been useful to include this information, but at the same time, Winston may have been seeking to make a different point: These folks may not believe these same things as others, but they are neither stupid nor entitled to scorn. There are, as the film points out, legitimate grievances coming from the movement and they should be heeded.

The film is handsomely shot. For outsiders, it’s worth noting that Kansas has a far more eclectic and scenic terrain than advertised. Winston and Frank also consistently remind viewers that Democrats have consistently undermined themselves by ignoring the wishes of their base.

The film ends with Barden attending Patrick Henry College, a prestigious right-wing school that provided many graduates who later worked at the White House. While the film concludes with the 2006 and 2008 Republican losses, Barden is living proof that conservatism in the Midwest and the country as a whole won’t be going away any time soon. (N/R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 03/12/10)


Green Zone Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Imagine an Iraq War film without the terrifying suspense of The Hurt Locker, the empathy of The Messenger or the lacerating wit of In the Loop, and you get an idea of what it’s like to sit through Green Zone.

Despite the reliable presence of Matt Damon and the normally surefooted direction of British filmmaker Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93), Green Zone attempts to be both a nail-biting thriller and a condemnation of the short sightedness of the war itself.

It fails on both counts.

The film was inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s history of the early occupation of Baghdad, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The book is a vivid and downright jaw-dropping account of early decisions in war had catastrophic consequences that might have been comic if people hadn’t died for these mistakes.

Chandrasekaran is an editor for the Washington Post who was in Baghdad from April of 2003 to October 2004, so he personally witnessed many of the bizarre stories that run though his book. He described veteran bureaucrats and young ideologues that had little understanding of the culture or the region making choices that would up impeding the establishment of democracy and peace.

While he is critical of the occupation, Chandrasekaran painted a nuanced portrait of both the people who lived and worked in the Green Zone (which went from being Saddam’s headquarters to the main base for the people who defeated him) and the people whose lives were affected by their plans. Chandrasekaran documented several people in the walls of the Green Zone who had worthy ideas and earnest intentions, and how their efforts were ultimately futile.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City is long, complicated and with a well defined but voluminous cast of characters. Its ornate, episodic structure would be tricky to adapt into a movie. But Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have removed the book’s complexity painted the situation with strokes wider than a Humvee.

The movies made from Helgeland’s scripts have ranged from the sublime (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) to the sub-literate (The Postman, The Vampire’s Assistant). With the Green Zone, the story has been stripped down so far that only its skeleton remains. A terrific cast is saddled with one-note roles. Worse, the film tells us nothing about the war that a few minutes in front of Fox News or CNN haven’t informed us already. The leads are modeled after real people, but you’d learn more from watching a five-minute YouTube clip than from following their fictional counterparts.

In a role modeled after Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzales, Matt Damon stars as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, an earnest soldier who is getting frustrated because his team is risking life and limb to locate weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in sites where none ever existed. Despite being told that his mission folders are filled with sold, reliable intel, Chief Miller might be more successful if he were assigned to locate unicorns.

He quickly discovers that the local CIA station chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) shares his pain, but their efforts to report or gather the truth are consistently hampered by a Pentagon official named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), who bears no small resemblance to Coalition Provisional Authority leader L. Paul Bremer. Fittingly, there’s also a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan) whose “scoops” resemble those of The New York Times’ Judith Miller.

Miller discovers that a local informant (Khalid Abdalla), unlike the official sources, actually knows where some of Saddam’s top generals are and willing to go to great lengths to help. So Miller winds up working on his own or with Brown in order to prevent the crumbling city from becoming a slaughterhouse.

With United 93, Greengrass managed to take a familiar event that had happened a few years before and make viewers believe they were experiencing the horrors of 9/11 with the passengers of the hijacked flight. He and his collaborators also gave the audience insight into the event that didn’t make it into the evening news.

Green Zone, however, reeks of smug hindsight.

Because Poundstone and Miller are types instead of characters, their conflict never gets beyond the obvious, and Abdalla’s informant is so saintly, it’s hard to believe he has a pulse. Because we have a pretty good idea already what Miller is going to find in his quest and why it’s futile, it’s hard to get worked up about what he’s doing.

As with his previous films, Greengrass relies on shaky handheld camerawork and quick, jarring editing. This actually works because he still knows how to assemble the wiggly footage in a way that’s coherent and emphasizes what’s important. Sadly, this sense of relevance doesn’t apply to anything but the well-staged action scenes.

Green Zone occasionally gives viewers a sense of how surreal Baghdad had gotten at that point with swimming pools and western food within the walls, and deadly chaos outside. It’s too bad that the backdrop is more interesting than the people who inhabit it. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 03/12/10)

 

Alice in Wonderland
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Tim Burton’s new 3D reworking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is full of unearthly sights and situations. Viewers can see end tables held up by monkeys and Crispin Glover (River’s Edge, Back to the Future) playing an almost normal person. While the 3D isn’t as subtle or integral to the story as it was in Avatar, Burton creates enough tasty eye candy to make wearing the glasses worthwhile.

The images rival anything Burton has created for Big Fish and Edward Scissorhands, but the storytelling isn’t quite as engagingly odd. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (The Lion King) tosses in several nods to Carroll’s poems and other writings but fumbles when it comes to fashioning a story out of Carroll’s logic games and bursts of delightful nonsense. While Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) have returned to the screen, Wolverton’s script doesn’t give them enough to do.

At least the casting generally seems to work. Alice (Australian actress Mia Wasikowska) is a 19-year-old who feels out of place in Victorian England. Her fussy mother wants her to marry a dull, wimpy aristocrat (Leo Bill). He’s such an unpromising suitor that it’s easy to see why she’s distracted by the sight of a white rabbit in a waistcoat (voice by Michael Sheen).

When she falls down what’s apparently the rabbit’s hole, she discovers a room where she grows or shrinks depending on what she’s had to eat or drink. After opening the door, she encounters several of Carrol’s established characters that need her to defeat the tyrannically sadistic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). The monarch is so mean that she demands decapitations for the most arbitrary of offenses and even forces animals to act as furniture. Pigs become footstools, and just about any critter might have to act as a chair or table at a moment’s notice.

The shy Alice has been charged with slaying the Red Queen’s menacing champion, a large dragon called the Jabberwock (Christopher Lee). She also has to help the kindly White Queen (Anne Hathaway, looking like an albino Goth girl) regain power.

Understandably, Alice wishes her predicament was merely a dream (she pinches herself several times). But she does get some help from the Mad Hatter (Burton’s regular sidekick Johnny Depp), who’s as well meaning as he is goofy.

Depp doesn’t need much encouragement to get his weird on. Because his Hatter is a supporting character, he doesn’t wear out his welcome before the novelty of seeing him with orange hair and a David Letterman gap-toothed grin wears out.

Thanks to a CGI-altered body and a hilariously obnoxious sense of entitlement, Bonham Carter’s Red Queen easily dominates the film. It’s as if Burton had assigned the role to his off-screen paramour as an act of affection, and she’s returned the favor by getting most of the laughs.

Because of the abundant eccentricity that runs throughout the movie, the routine storyline feels out of place. Being able to predict how the film will come out with the same ease as the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) makes for curiously dull viewing.

Burton has created an enchanting landscape and placed potentially entertaining characters in it, but because their activities aren’t that interesting, he might have been better off creating a garden of statues. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 03/05/10)


Brooklyn’s Finest
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Brooklyn’s Finest juggles three separate but interlocking storylines, and it takes considerable effort and intense audience concentration to decide which of the trio is the most tedious.

Director Antoine Fuqua brings plenty of grit and violence, and obligatory exposed bosoms. But unlike his previous grim police drama Training Day, there isn’t a galvanizing Oscar-winning central performance by Denzel Washington to make all tropes he runs through seems not so recycled.

Fuqua has a decent cast this time around, but Michael C. Martin’s (Sleeper Cell) script doesn’t give them terribly interesting characters to play. It was impossible to like Washington’s thoroughly corrupted cop, but Washington’s charisma and a decent script made his thuggish detective engaging.

At least Fuqua, unlike his fellow MTV alumnus Michael Bay (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), can get the most out of his performers. With the exception of Ellen Barkin’s shrill turn as an over-zealous internal affairs agent, most of the performers manage to make lemonade out of their sour, one-note roles.

Ethan Hawke, who picked up an Oscar nomination for Training Day, stars as Sal, a cop who is a devout Catholic and an ethical disaster. Needing a new home for his growing family and his asthmatic wife (Lili Taylor), Sal starts finding ways of pocketing cash he’s supposed to be confiscating from the dangerous drug raids he leads.

While Sal is dodging bullets and debasing himself for real estate that’s too expensive for a cop’s salary, Eddie Dugan (Richard Gere) is trying his damnedest to drink his way through the last seven days of his career. Presumably, he’s preparing for his primary activity when he retires.

His supervisors, however, have decided that he should baby-sit some new recruits so they’ll learn how to properly handle the job. What the indifferent and inebriated Eddie will be able to teach the novices other than how to scowl and empty bottles is hard to say, but he gets irritated by the young cops’ enthusiasm.

While the younger officers’ commitment is overbearing, Eddie is tormented by the thought that over 20 years on the force have gone to waste. Apparently, deep down he’d like to do something useful before his long-suffering liver gives out.

After careful review, the least sleep-inducing segment features Kansas City native Don Cheadle as Tango, an undercover cop who’s been risking his neck for far too long and is eager to get the desk job he’s been waiting for. His boss (Will Patton) is eager to help him, if he’ll bust a drug lord named Caz (Wesley Snipes). Tango would probably rather cut off his own arm. When he was undercover in prison, Caz, as we learn from some stilted exposition dialogue, saved his life.

These days Snipes is better known for his problems with the IRS than for his performances, but his work here is a pleasant reminder of how good he was in movies like Jungle Fever and White Men Can’t Jump. Because his Caz is as charming and loyal as he is dangerous, it’s hard not to wish that Tango could get out of betraying him.

None of the other stories are that gripping because their outcomes are pre-ordained and not terribly insightful. If you’ve never seen Prince of the City or Serpico, you might be shocked to learn that cops aren’t paid proportionally to the risks they take for others’ safety and that some policemen and women abuse their power. Fuqua and Martin try to rotate their clichés, but they can’t switch them quickly enough to stop viewers from cynically asking, “What else is new?”

In addition, many of the crime fighters in Brooklyn’s Finest seem to be begging for their dismal fates. Eddie, for example, thinks a shapely hooker (Shannon Kane) will be eager to run off with him into booze-soaked bliss once he retires. He may be a drunk, but does he really think that a woman who shares her bed with some of his coworkers wants to be with him when he isn’t her client?

It doesn’t help that Brooklyn’s Finest is so relentlessly glum. I’m not suggesting that they need to resort to musical number to cheer things up occasionally (we all know how Cop Rock turned out). But it would be nice if they could work in emotions like fear and anger. Despair on its own is neither fun nor that profound. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/05/10)


The Ghost Writer
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Being a ghostwriter is a thankless task. If you get credit, your name appears below the celebrity or politician who couldn’t be bothered to write for themselves, and you’re shoved aside once the book has hit the stores. In Roman Polanski’s latest movie, The Ghost Writer, merely being brushed off is actually good luck.

Getting too close to your subject or having a perspective of your own could be fatal.

The title character (Ewan McGregor) is appropriately nameless. Whenever he starts to introduce himself, he gets interrupted. Nonetheless, he has a gift for taking unfocused or lifeless prose, and reworking it into something readable and commercially viable. He can also deliver on short notice.

Those gifts come in handy on his latest assignment. The former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (a delightfully glib Pierce Brosnan) has just turned in a manuscript that’s worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Loaded with bromides and shallow observations, it’s as vacuous as one of Lang’s speeches and four times as long.

Lang’s current life, however, is anything but boring. He’s wanted in The Hague as a war criminal. He ordered the extraditions of four of his own citizens from Pakistan to CIA facilities where they were tortured. He’s also promoted a war in the Middle East that is unpopular on both sides of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, U.S. is the only place where he can stay without being extradited. This explains why the Ghost had to be flown from London to Martha’s Vineyard.

The scribe discovers that Lang is charming but evasive, so getting decent material from him is challenging. Worse, the previous writer, while lacking the Ghost’s skill, has died in what authorities are unable to determine is an accident or a suicide. While the Ghost is unfamiliar with politics, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that he could be in as much danger as his predecessor.

The pairing of a politician and a scribbler doesn’t initially sound all that tense or thrilling, but novelist and screenwriter Robert Harris has created an entire army of fascinating characters and situations. With Polanski, he’s also managed to give them wittily crafted dialogue to boot. When the Ghost is surrounded by picketers, he yells into his cell phone, “Can’t talk. Some peace protestors are trying to kill me.”

There are a lot of familiar faces throughout the cast, but Polanski doesn’t waste their time or their talent even if they’re on the screen for a minute or two. Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and Tom Wilkinson (Ride with the Devil) each have only one scene but both are memorable.

Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall are wonderfully catty as Lang’s wife and (ahem) assistant, and both seem a good deal smarter than the men in the story. McGregor is supposed to be enigmatic, but he and Harris indicate there’s more going on inside his head than we see initially. He alternates between opportunism and innocence, and has a curiosity that borders on the self-destructive.

The film contains some not too subtle potshots at former PM Tony Blair. You can find all sorts of nods to the Bush Administration and Halliburton, but Harris and Polanski are careful to never let their potshots get in the way of their own story.

The 76-year-old Polanski paces The Ghost Writer in a manner that’s slow but never dull. Rarely going for cheap jolts, he manages to milk just enough dread out of the proceedings to keep viewers on edge. The same disorienting camera work that has dominated his previous movies still generates more chills than gallons of goo.

The filmmakers have also come up with ingenious ways of making a studio in Germany pass for Martha’s Vineyard. It seems Polanski’s lingering extradition problems have prevented him from shooting on location.

Polanski may never be able to live down his crimes of the 1970s, but it’s refreshing to see that he can still make thrillers that never take a viewer’s intelligence for granted. This doesn’t give him a license to behave like his own villains, but it should inspire other filmmakers to aim as high as he has. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 03/05/10)

 




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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