movie reviews March 2013

21 and overjohn dies at the endOz the great and powerful a place at the table the incredible burt wonderstoneThe call Olympus has fallenAdmissionlike someone in lovestokerthe croodsOn the road the hostthe gatekeepersG.I. Joe: Retaliation

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

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G. I. Joe: Retaliation
Reviewed b
y Bruce Rodgers

Casting for the film G.I. Joe: Retaliation must have been a fun exercise, maybe even a little voyeuristic.

When the call went out for the G.I. Joe team, it must have been something like this: need men for action movie, good guys must be menacing yet sympathetic, well-built with prominent biceps a must, at least 6 feet, the taller the better, shaved head a plus, ability to downplay any intellectual tendencies required, and able to lift, aim and shoot a variety of big, noisy weapons and display pleasure while doing so; bad guys can be under 6 foot but must have confident strut and believable snarl with shifty eyes.

Need women, though only two, must be dark-haired (blondes convey lesser intelligence) and thin yet shapely but not overly so, be able to look bored with a hint of superiority yet attentive to men but subordinate when the script calls for it; athleticism that does not overshadow sexiness a must along with knowledge of martial arts moves and adequate upper-body strength to hold large weapons.

With the cast assembled all that’s needed is some good CGI with 3D thrown in and a script with a beginning, middle and end containing lots of explosions and shooting throughout where the really bad guy — in this case Cobra (Luke Bracey) — escapes untouched in the final battle to plot his revenge in a future GI film.

That’s not to say G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a bad film, it’s not. If I was 12 years old, it would have been one of the coolest films I had ever seen and I would tell all my buddies about it, while planning to mow lawns, shovel snow, recycle beer cans, whatever in order to buy the DVD when it comes out. I would also secretly dream that as an adult I would look like Roadblock, played by Dwayne Johnson. (And as an adult male, I might still wonder why I don’t look like Johnson and blame family genes for my physical inadequacy.)

Johnson, looking more buff than usual, leads the surviving G.I. Joe team back to civilization after a firefight designed by a fake U.S. President (Jonathan Pryce who is really Zartan, when revealed, played by Arnold Vosloo) kills most of Roadblock’s comrades including the beloved Captain Duke (Channing Tatum). It’s part of the bad President’s scheme to de-nuke the nuclear powers of the world in order for Cobra to become ultimate world dictator.

Roadblock, together with Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Jaye (Adriana Palicki), head back to Roadblock’s old neighborhood — in the ‘hood — to plot their strategy after concluding the President isn’t really the President. Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), Jinx (Eldoie Yung) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park) join the team and the fighting force is assembled to battle the bad guys. There’s little suspense during the nonstop action, and even Roadblock loses a hand-to-hand encounter with Firefly (Ray Stevenson) before being saved by Flint and Jaye from total annihilation.

In the end the good guys win, with the help of General Joe Cotton, played by Bruce Willis who delivers his patented deadpan wisecracks, including an unexplained insistence in calling Jaye “Brenda.”

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a fun, escapist ride than makes the popcorn taste pretty good. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 04/02/13)


The Gatekeepers
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Simply by assembling all six of the surviving directors of Shin Bet, or the Israeli Security Agency in one documentary, director Dror Moreh has achieved something unique. These men have all been charged with keeping the Mediterranean nation safe from terrorism, so it’s not surprising that most of these folks have been silent up till now. They kept vital secrets and engaged in campaigns that might not have been PR successes even if they were effective.

What makes the Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers essential as well as unique is the fact that these men not only held important posts, but that they are engrossing to listen to, even if you have to read subtitles to understand them (nearly the entire film is in Hebrew).

Most of the publicity surrounding the film has come from the fact that all six men admit that the only way Israelis can achieve peace is by making serious concessions to the Palestinians.

All believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s active encouragement of West Bank settlements are counterproductive and even toxic to Israel’s long-term security. These guys are not lily-livered peaceniks.

For example, Avraham Shalom, who ran the agency from 1980 to 1986, initially comes off as a friendly grandfather. It’s only after listening to him and his successors for a long time, that it becomes clear how zealously he’s acted on behalf of the state.

A 1984 scandal involving the shooting of terrorists on a bus led to his resignation, and some of his successors believe he was too ruthless in his handling of the situation. Shalom actually discusses his role in the crisis even though it doesn’t necessarily make him look good. If someone like this thinks that current policies are dangerously unsustainable, it would be wise to listen to him.

While this perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian situation is an important part of the film, it’s hardly the only virtue The Gatekeepers has. Each of these fellows has his own personality and his own attitude toward the job.

In addition, all are refreshingly candid about national policy mistakes and where they themselves may have gone wrong. Most lament that clever tactics, at which Shin Bet has been prolific, were no substitute for judicious long-term plans, which were clearly lacking. Some lament that the operations they conducted shocked their targets but did little to ensure lasting security.

That said, these guys make James Bond look like a wimpy, trigger-happy fool.

Carmi Gillon, who ran Shin Bet from 1994 to 1996, gleefully recalls how he and his associates managed to kill a Hamas leader with an exploding cell phone. After the target answered the fatal call in an upstairs room, it took hours for his compatriots to discover he was dead. The explosion was so quiet that the people below didn’t hear it. Gillon still grins when he recalls it.

If John le Carré had written an account of this operation, we critics would have found it too outlandish to be believable.

The Shin Bet directors also recount the rise of fanatical Jewish terrorists whose activities led to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and their own frustrations with generations of politicians from both sides of the Israel-Palestinian struggle.

It would be tempting to describe The Gatekeepers as a history or civics lesson, but how many lectures on the nature of war and peace have lecturers who can speak with such authority or who are so engrossing to listen to? These fellows have a lot to say about Israel’s past and future, and the rest of the world pay attention, too. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 03/31/13)

Haiku
The Gatekeepers

Ian Fleming thought
that spying was a dirty
job. It’s deadly, too


The Host
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

Adapted from the novel by Stephenie Meyer (Twilight), The Host offers an shallow teen romantic triangle wrapped up as laughable science fiction. But director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time), who also wrote the screenplay, adds a moody thoughtfulness, extended through nostalgia-inducing allusions and imparted by Saoirse Ronan's strong performance.

Somehow, glowing anemone-like aliens have taken over earth by embedding themselves in humans, making their eyes glow like the icy stare of actress Meg Foster (They Live). In an attempt to distract the Seekers — embedded aliens hunting down the last holdout humans — from finding her younger brother, Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) purposely puts herself in their way.  The nape of her neck is cut open and a “soul” known only as “Wanderer” is put inside her, giving Melanie's eyes the telltale glow.

Wanderer is charged with mining Melanie's memories for evidence of the location of rebel humans. But the work is complicated by the continuing presence of Melanie's battling consciousness. Manipulated by the emotions in Melanie's memories as well as Melanie's strong-willed thoughts, Wanderer refuses to help an obsessed Seeker (Diane Kruger), and finds a reluctant sanctuary with Melanie's uncle (William Hurt)  and aunt (Frances Fisher). One girl with two minds, Wanderer/Melanie are torn between reuniting with Melanie's old flame Jared (Max Irons) and Wanderer's new love Ian (Jake Abel), while still rebelling against the Seekers and their genocidal mission.

The main conceit behind The Host put Niccol in a difficult position. It's a horrific idea being held prisoner in your own mind while a foreign entity takes control of your body — and crucial to developing pathos for both characters, as well as developing their relationship. But how the interactions between Melanie and Wanderer are presented onscreen is at first so ridiculous it inspires guffaws. Melanie's surprisingly brusque and sarcastic remarks, which only Wanderer can hear, are expressed in voiceover, whereas Wanderer speaks her responses out loud. It's a cheap method that is extremely off-putting at first. But surprisingly, as the story continues, it gathers a charm that Gen X viewers might remember from the likes of Escape to Witch Mountain or The Watcher in the Woods.

The Host isn't all after-school special, though. Its production is slick with monochromatic settings and futuristic transportation, and the costume design that is at once both vintage and futuristic. However, its saving grace is Ronan in the dual role. Using her slight frame, she embodies well the peaceable Wanderer as well as the rebellious Melanie. It's to her credit that the initial awkwardness of the voiceover doesn't sink the entire movie. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 03/31/13)



On the Road
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Since its publication in 1957, fans of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road have been waiting for a worth adaptation. After seeing Brazilian director Walter Salles’ attempt to bring the book to the screen, it might have been better for the filmmakers to have waited a little longer or simply not to have bothered.

Much of the joy Kerouac’s novel comes from the prose itself. There’s an energy to his wording and a sense of discovery that’s tricky to visualize. This may have been part of the reason producer Francis Ford Coppola, who has had the rights to the book for ages, was unable to get the film off the ground earlier

.

Merely visualizing the events in the book as Salles, who made the far superior The Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station, and playwright and screenwriter Jose Rivera have done, doesn’t work. The ramblings, both verbal and geographical, of Sal Paradise (British actor Sam Riley) aren’t terribly interesting if you don’t know much about the era that spawned him.

As he and his pal Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) drive or hitchhike their way around the nation, it’s hard to see much point. Sal is Kerouac’s representation of himself, and he comes off as a dull cypher here. The story in print and on screen is through his eyes, but he himself isn’t more than a warm body and an occasional excuse to recite some of Kerouac’s better bits of narrative for the book.

It doesn’t help that Dean, who Sal idolizes, isn’t that engaging on screen, either. The hunky Hedlund gets to take his clothes off a lot, but it’s hard to see why Sal wants to be his friend or why legions of women and some men want to have sex with him. Hedlund has no charm to speak of and often comes off as more irresponsible than free spirited.

Because Kerouac based several of his characters on the writers and friends he knew, even people who haven’t dabbled in Beat Generation writers can spot that Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) is based on Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and that Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) is based on Kansas’ own William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch).

Both actors nail the literary giants’ mannerisms, but without having the writing or the historical context to go with their eccentricities, Sal, Dean, Carlo and Old Bull all come off as shallow, hipster douchebags. They don’t seem to do anything but steal things and drive at excessive speed.

The novel gave viewers a sense that going on the road was a way of rebelling against the stifling conformity that dominated the post-World War II era. While Rivera has the characters drop slogans from the late ‘40s, all viewers get are meaningless sound bites.

Salles and Rivera also try to bring some modern perspective to On the Road. Dean, who is based on Neal Cassady, occasionally has to face penalties for his promiscuity, but this added weight doesn’t make him seem any more real or worth the attention.

It’s obvious all involved wanted this to be a worthwhile effort and give it their all. The film is gorgeously shot, and Kristen Stewart proves that she can do more than mope and breathe through her mouth. But without some idea of why Sal and his buddies are rebelling, it’s difficult to care, no matter how many orgies you have. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/31/13)

Haiku
On the Road

You have a bad film
when the orgies in it still
manage to be dull.


The Croods
Reviewed by
Beck Ireland

The Croods, the new 3D animated feature from writers/directors Chris Sanders (Lilo & StitchHow to Train Your Dragon) and Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps) relies on obsolete archetypes and familiar storytelling. Still, it contains enough stunning visuals of an imaginary biodiversity to make it fun to watch.

In preproduction in 2005, the movie was intended to be a stop-motion collaborative effort between DreamWorks and Britain’s Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run) — John Cleese has a story credit. But in 2007, the two firms parted ways on the project, leaving Sanders and DeMicco to transform the story from a buddy movie into a family comedy. The limited storyline pulls from the familiar family dynamic most recently on-screen in The Incredibles, and also dusting off some archaic mother-in-law jokes. It’s serviceable, but not very engaging.

Grug (Nicolas Cage) heads up one of the last remaining Neanderthal families. Rightly so, he teaches his family to stay near their cave and to live in constant fear. Always on the hunt for food, they protect themselves by forming a crude “kill circle,” which includes mom, Ugga (Catherine Keener); daughter, Eep (Emma Stone); son, Thunk (Clark Duke); toddler Sandy (Randy Thom) and mother-in-law, Gran (Cloris Leachman). But rebellious teenager Eep (Emma Stone) has other ideas, and one early evening, just before nightfall, she spies a light in the sky and decides to follow it, putting the rest of her family at risk.

The source of the light is a fire started by orphaned Cro-Magnon teenager Guy (Ryan Reynolds). With only a lemur-sloth hybrid for company, Guy has been following the sun in order to survive the geological disasters that are bringing about the end of the world. So when an earthquake ruins the Croods’ cave, the family kidnaps Guy to help them navigate the new world in which they find themselves. Eventually, Grug must come to terms with the change and the new type of man it forces him to be.

Despite a ruthlessly frantic opening five minutes, the main story is basic and predictable. At times, the play between Grug and Guy and the new circumstances can be plodding. Instead of just creating prehistoric figures and leaving it at that, Sanders and DeMicco play off of the timing and keep the jokes related to the story. But the love story between Guy and Eep is a bit disturbing at times, particularly when she uses bodily force on him.

But the landscapes in which the story is set are fairly remarkable. The family moves from an arid monochromatic desert to a luscious rainforest populated with strange hybrid creatures that prove threatening in surprising ways. There’s not a science lesson here, except that early cave dwellers weren’t able to consume enough calories to grow a big brain, but it’s still quite entertaining. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 03/23/13)


Stoker
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Stoker has routine setup that doesn’t take much effort to unravel. Thanks to South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s unique approach the journey to the allegedly shocking revelation is creepy, brutal, kinky and mesmerizing. We know where this story is going, but that doesn’t make the path any less unsettling.

Park is responsible for the absorbingly grotesque Oldboy, and he has a knack for making seemingly hackneyed tropes seem fresh. In this case, Park takes a solid, but serviceable script by moonlighting actor Wentworth Miller (best known for starring in Prison Break) and presents it as it as if it were unfolding for the first time.

Stoker concerns an upper class family whose past is littered with tragic secrets. High schooler India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) doesn’t know about all the horrors her father Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) has witnessed or has carried around in his head.

That said, India’s odd behavior seems to reflect the family’s curse or curses. India has a thing for saddle shoes and comports herself in way that bothers the other residents in the small town where she lives.

If India is odd, her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is probably just plain nuts. India can defend herself when lecherous goons come her way, but Evelyn simply wanders through a booze-soaked haze.

If this dynamic weren’t enough to create some problems for the Stokers, the situation becomes volatile when the more levelheaded Richard dies. During the funeral India and Evelyn discover that Richard had a brother named Charlie (Matthew Goode, Watchmen).

Charlie has never shown his face before, but he seems to know everything about the rest of the family. He’s got a sweet Jaguar, a portfolio full of credit cards and a manner that indicates he’s been around the block several times.

He also seems to have a thing for both Evelyn and India.

That’s typical for Park’s movies. Park specializes in forbidden desires and fits of horrific violence. Goode comes off as charming but just a little too determined for his own good. The character seems to be a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, where a charming uncle (Joseph Cotten) leaves a trail of blood nobody else in the family knows about. He’s named, Charlie, too.

It’s a safe bet the new Charlie will also do something awful, but determining the exact nature of his misdeed is where the suspense comes in. Wasikowska and Kidman alternate from wariness to receptiveness effortlessly. Charlie may have some explaining to do for his decades of absence, but he’s a lot more suave and appealing than the young goons in the community. One gets the feeling couples mate in this town simply out of boredom or desperation.

A lot of directors use slapdash editing to try to look daring and wind up losing viewer attention as a result. Park, however, seems to have a sense of what to reveal and what to conceal, so his unusual cutting and bursts of color seem to be leading to something. One gets a sense that he’d make a great tour guide through famous crime scenes. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/23/13)

Haiku
Stoker

Park Chan-wook revels
in violent, kinky tales
that pull viewers in


Like Someone in Love
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami makes quiet, little movies that overflow with content if viewers are willing to pay attention. In his last movie, Certified Copy, a couple who have never met stroll through a small Italian town and go through more relationship stages in a single afternoon than some couples do in their entire lives.

Like Someone in Love also takes place over a short period of time, but the new film’s tone and setting are radically different. Kiarostami’s new tale is set in urban Japan. Instead of a quiet, tourist-friendly village, Like Someone in Love is set in an environment that explodes with color and noise.

Being inside provides no relief from the cacophony out in the streets. Kiarostami manages to adapt his storytelling to this new environment as well and manages to create some fascinating characters and situations in the process.

Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a college student under a lot of stress. She has a pathologically possessive boyfriend named Noriaki (Ryō Kase) and an important interview in the morning that could determine how her studies will proceed. Her grandmother is also in town, and Akiko feels guilty about not meeting her.

Because her parents have modest means, Akiko supplements her income by working as a call girl and simply can’t take the night off. She also knows that the already jealous Noriaki would probably explode if he knew about her moonlighting gig.

Oddly, the one bright spot in Akiko’s evening is her john. Takashi Watanabe (played by 80-something stage actor Tadashi Okuno) is a retired college professor who still makes pocket money writing and translating books. The old man seems more interested in hosting Akiko and feeding her than in rolling in bed. Through it all they wind up being friends and don’t seem to mind that others mistake him for her grandfather.

On paper, this probably sounds dull, but Kiarostami’s eye for detail is astonishing. His characters don’t say things overtly, but through a gesture or a glance they say more than they would in a torrent of dialogue. He also manages to capture the vivid atmospheres of Tokyo and Yokohama without the characters getting lost in the background.

Takanashi, who used to work as a teen model, projects a vulnerability that makes Akiko consistently sympathetic. She’s not a “hooker with a heart of gold,” but she clearly wants out of the racket.

Similarly, Noriaki is as innocent as he is oafish. His ideas about love and life in general are so simplistic that he’s bound to be tragically disappointed every time life disappoints him.

Kiarostami has an odd knack for finding great actors who never thought of being screen thespians. For example, Homayoun Ershadi, the leading man from Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry was a Tehran architect who was simply waiting for the traffic lights to change in Tehran’s crowded, crawling streets before the director cast him. Ershadi has now gone on to give memorable performances in The Kite Runner and Zero Dark Thirty.

Similarly, Okuno has worked primarily on stage and TV, so his assured performance comes as something of a revelation. His droll, likable manner makes one wonder why he hasn’t become an international star sooner.

Kiarostami also knows how to jolt audiences. That’s because he has the rare gift of making his films seem to meander without ever boring the audience. When he does have surprises, they are genuinely shocking.

Nonetheless, watching Kiarostami ramble is more interesting than catching most filmmakers getting to the point. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 03/23/13)

Haiku
Like Someone in Love

Kiarostami’s
dashboard shots are more worthwhile
than most auto wrecks


Admission
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

There’s a hurtful truth about Admission, the new comedy-drama from director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy). Because it finally pairs the two sweethearts of contemporary screwball comedy, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, viewers are going to be willing to cut it lots of slack in order to like it. But its mish-mash of storylines and broadly drawn characters from the script, adapted by Karen Croner from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, won’t let them, no matter how hard they try.

A 16-year veteran of Princeton University’s admissions office, Portia Nathan (Fey) accepts an invitation to review an experimental school led by John Pressman (Rudd). She’s hoping that adding the alternative school to her rounds will impress the Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn), who is soon retiring. Nathan wants to take over the office over her co-worker and rival (Gloria Reuben). At the school, she meets strong opposition from anti-establishment student body, but is able to convince autodidact Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, to apply to Princeton.

Here’s where things really begin to go wrong, meaning that the plot picks up at least four different storylines, each one loose and implausible. Nathan’s live-in boyfriend of 10 years leaves her for “that vile Virginia Woolf scholar,” who is pregnant with his twins; Pressman confesses he believes Jeremiah is Nathan’s biological son; Pressman’s adopted son (Travaris Spears) brings up his own issues; and Nathan’s mother (Lily Tomlin) starts making appearances.

Juggling these storylines would be difficult enough, but the script steadfastly refuses to tighten any of them. For instance, Nathan could have put two-and-two together from Jeremiah’s file instead of having Pressman stalking her because of a secret he was let in on years and years ago. This just makes him creepy and untrustworthy. Not attributes you want a leading man to have in a romantic comedy. Also, to move the story along, there’s a wrap-up section where both Pressman and Nathan act unethically — probably even illegally. Again, not characteristics that will make an audience root for the two to get together.

As for the chemistry between Rudd and Fey, it’s flat. This might come as a surprise, but Fey doesn’t really interact well with any of her co-stars. It could be that the script has given her too many rivals in her co-worker, her boyfriend’s mistress, and even her mother. There’s no soft place for her to land. Even the final scenes don’t offer any solace. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 03/23/13)


Olympus Has Fallen
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

The next time Hollywood hears the charge that the town and industry is nothing but a bastion of liberal sympathizers just have the studio heads trot out Olympus Has Fallen. This film makes Frank Capra’s Why We Fight World War II documentary film series, commissioned by the U.S. government, almost Vichy-like French in comparison.

Has this country gotten to the point that Americans can only feel good about their country by destroying their so-called enemies, and doing it so that the word “bloodbath” seems to mild too a description, particularly when viewing Olympus Has Fallen? Our governing institutions and founding documents like the Constitution are apparently too esoteric a concept for the citizenry much less something to base a decent film around.

Directed by Antoine Fugua (responsible for the far superior 2001 film Training Day), Olympus Has Fallen essentially has one Secret Service agent, played by Gerard Butler, saving the world — no kidding.

As agent Mike Banning, Butler is typically morose — unlike smartass Bruce Willis of Die Hard fame who was apparently deemed too old or too upbeat for the part — and having difficultly in his marriage (big surprise, right?) while itching to redeem himself after not being able to save the wife of the president (Aaron Eckhart), played by Ashley Judd, during a presidential visit to Camp David.

Eckhart, Butler and Judd join a number of other top-tier actors in this propagandistic exaltation of “America’s superior firepower,” including Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott and Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense who, in the film’s most over-the-top scene, recites the Pledge of Allegiance after being beaten to a pulp and dragged across the floor to her supposed death. With such a cast, the questions remain why this film and did anyone read the script before committing?

Banning (Butler) gets his chance to be the ultimate hero when a gang of terrorists or North Korean special forces (it’s not clear which) take over the White House and kidnap the President and Vice President. The team, led by Kang (Rick Yung), who wallows in the part of evil genius, dies by the dozens, along with scores Secret Service agents, White House security and presumably the kitchen staff, DC cops, and people merely strolling around Washington’s tourist sites — a carnage so ridiculous that Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), the former king of gratuitous violence, would roll in his grave with envy.

Through all the bullets, blood, bodies, RPGs, explosions, depictions of clueless military chiefs and Morgan Freeman sleepwalking a role that’s he’s played numerous times, Banning tells a general where to stick it, kills the evil Kang, saves the president, rescues the president’s son, prevents war between North and South Korea and averts a nuclear holocaust on American soil.

And in the end, those left are still able to salute the flag. God Bless America and those Hollywood producers who see a buck in those stars and stripes. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 03-23-13)


The Call
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The people who answer 911 calls may work from a seated position, but they save lives on a repeated basis. The Call attempts to make a thriller about their experiences and inadvertently winds up being an insult to them and the people who’ve paid their hard earned cash to see it.

Admittedly, there is some challenge to capturing the tension of a genuine emergency call. While a caller’s life might be in a dispatcher’s hands, it’s tricky to visualize what it might be like to have only a terrified voice to depict the situation. The call center itself would probably be a drab environment to look at even though the situations involved could be lethal.

Director Brad Anderson, who has given us the far superior Transsiberian, fills his new movie with lots of ominous musical cues and shock cuts, but a silly storyline, credited to Richard D'Ovidio (the hack behind Thir13en Ghosts and Exit Wounds) undermines him.

All of the visual and sonic jolts are undermined when the story doesn’t measure up. It’s as if The Call were an SNL parody of a procedural thriller instead of the genuine article. To be fair to D’Ovidio, his scripts, which I have not had the pleasure of reading, might have been altered on the way to the screen. Sadly, what’s up there does no one any good.

Oscar and Razzie-winner Halle Berry plays a dispatcher named Jordan Turner who has taken one too many calls that ended in tragedy. She now spends her days training younger operators how to handle emergencies. When an innocent teen named Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) is kidnapped by a psychostalker (Michael Eklund), a rookie dispatcher Jordan has trained almost drops the ball like a Chiefs’ wide receiver.

Jordan reluctantly takes over and tries to keep the understandably terrified Casey calm long enough for the cops, including Jordan’s beau Paul (Morris Chestnut) to rescue her. That’s a tall order because Casey’s in the trunk of a moving vehicle, and the cell phone she’s found doesn’t have a GPS.

From here, Jordan has to turn herself into MacGyver. The longer the crisis goes on, the sillier the movie becomes. Soon, simply taking the call isn’t enough for the already embattled Jordan. It’s as if the filmmakers are inadvertently saying, dispatchers just aren’t as cool as cops.

At this point, the earlier attempts to acknowledge the actual risks and stresses of the job are replaced by over-the-top mayhem. Apparently, a young woman about to become a casualty isn’t enough for the filmmakers, so the complications get bigger and dumber. Jordan, whom her peers repeatedly describe as a capable pro, starts making almost suicidal decisions. Worse, many of the surprises aren’t surprises at all. At the screening I attended, my girlfriend proved to be a true movie psychic by correctly whispering each plot twist to me. Her flawless forecasting was indicative of lazy filmmaking.

Anderson and his collaborators waste some potentially dramatic developments by going for things that go boom instead of good old-fashioned anxiety. In a credible film, after a certain point, a dispatcher has to wait just like a caller, hoping the first responders act correctly.

While the crisis may no longer be Jordan’s responsibility, her emotions, like anyone else’s, would still be with the caller. In such a situation, the story could be about how she deals or doesn’t deal with the helplessness of the situation, but that would have required more work than anybody involved with The Call was apparently willing to make. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/16/13)

Haiku
The Call

Dispatchers deserve
more respect than they receive
in this dumb movie


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Incredible Burt Wonderstone, director Don Scardino (30 Rock) blessedly keeps his star-filled cast on task. But the movie’s formulaic plot, from a script written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, is far from making any kind of movie magic.

Structurally, the movie is a muddle. It contains a lengthy establishing story that is overturned no sooner than it’s shown. Childhood friends Burt and Anton bond over tricks from a magic kit endorsed by famous magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). The two form an act in which the now grownup Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is the desired showman and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), the brains behind the mechanical stage illusions, plays the straight sidekick. But before any real onscreen chemistry can develop between the two, the film flashes forward almost a decade from the time when Wonderstone is defending his friend to an unearned bitter resentment against him.

Then the film changes tack again by adding in rival Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a hipster street magician who performs tricks involving body modification and bodily fluids. Gray’s new type of magic, performed on the street and televised, is upstaging the more traditional acts on the Las Vegas stage. So after a disastrous attempt at equaling Gray’s hip popularity, the team of Wonderstone and Marvelton breaks up, and Marvelton is shunted off to the Third World (in possibly the funniest bit of the film) while Wonderstone suffers the indignities of a waning career. This then brings the film to yet another storyline in which Wonderstone then revives his love of magic through a chance meeting with Holloway and a developing relationship with a former magician’s assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) trying to become a magician in her own right.

Even with spray tan and lion’s mane wig, Carell plays Wonderstone in a surprisingly reserved way. There may just be too much story for him to get through for his usual time-consuming antics. But unfortunately, this also doesn’t allow time for him to form any actual relationships with his co-stars. As put-upon Marvelton, Buscemi is as creepily endearing as ever, and Wilde as overlooked Jane adds some freshness until she’s finally forced into the stale role of romantic interest. It really didn’t have to go there.

Still, there are some honestly funny moments in the film, mostly having to do with the subject of magic. There’s a bar the magicians frequent where they riff a little with Jay Mohr as second-rate magician Rick the Implausible. Per usual, Alan Arkin radiates sweetness and humor, delivering his character’s philosophy of learning tricks and the motives behind learning magic. And then there’s Jim Carrey, who finally found a role to complement his ridiculous intensity. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 03/16/13)


A Place at the Table
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

One of the most disturbing ironies in today’s America is that 50 million people in this nation are undernourished while there is also an outbreak of obesity.

According to Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s new documentary A Place at the Table, these seemingly incompatible facts are actually reflections of the same underlying problem.

As Jacboson and Silverbush explain in the film, the United States produces an astonishing amount and variety of stuff to eat, the problem is our current system makes it difficult to obtain that food and, just as importantly, to get the kind of food that does more than simply piling on the calories, fat and sodium. Food that makes us gain weight is also far less expensive than the stuff we need to say healthy.

The filmmakers point out that there are several culprits to this crisis. Crop subsidies that were designed to help family farmers get through the Great Depression are now supporting large agribusiness corporations who tend to produce all those sweet and fatty foods.

These subsidies keep the price of the raw materials for processed food artificially low. Because food stamp allotments are so paltry, those who depend on them are more likely to buy junk food because it’s cheaper than fresh fruits or vegetables.

Jacobson and Silverbush also point out that many who have trouble finding their next meals are not deadbeats, but people who are working full time. In one Colorado town featured in the film, even the local marshal has to go to a church’s weekly free meal to get by.

Another recipient of the church’s generosity is a cattle rancher.

The pastor himself notes that he and his wife intended their weekly community service simply to help people get through emergencies. Now, hundreds depend on his church’s initiative to survive an ordinary week.

A Place at the Table manages to show compassion to the folks who can’t get a good meal without pitying them or browbeating viewers. Jacobson and Silverbush explain how the crisis is ingrained in our economic system but that solutions, while challenging, are possible.

They also get some expert testimony and support from a seemingly unlikely expert, actor Jeff Bridges. While it takes a while to get past the fact that he’s most famous for playing the bumbling slacker The Dude in The Big Lebowski, A Place at the Table reveals that the thespian has founded the Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry campaigns and has been pursuing the cause of hunger in the United States for nearly 30 years. It is refreshing to see a celebrity who actually knows something about the subject he’s discussing and who can do it in an eloquent and useful way.

Because many of our young people have diet-related issues that make them ineligible for military service, Bridges and the other talking heads in the film point out an obvious but inescapable fact: without good food getting to people, everything else we enjoy in about living in America suffers.

Regardless of our political leanings, Bridges says addressing this issue, whether through private or public means, is a form of patriotism. Thankfully Jacboson and Silverbush know how to make this potentially unpleasant news palatable and inspiring. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/16/13)

Haiku
A Place at the Table

The Dude knows more on
hunger issues than most of
the DC pundits


Oz the Great and Powerful
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Oz the Great and Powerful should probably have been titled Oz the so-so and Kind of Entertaining or Oz, At Least It’s Better than The Wonderful Land of Oz. The latter title refers to a 1969 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s books that was made by low-budget schlockmeister Barry Mahon, who decided to take advantage of the fact that Baum’s characters were now in the public domain. Mayhon made badly acted nudie films (The Diary of Knockers McCalla was typical) when he wasn’t making badly acted kiddie matinee fare.

Oz the Great and Powerful is expectedly not as sordid or inept as its 1969 predecessor, but like any other reworking of Baum’s books, it pales compared to the 1939 adaptation that features Judy Garland, unforgettable songs and an excuse for outsiders tell crummy Oz jokes on jaded Kansans.

Part of the reason, we’ll never be free of Dorothy and Toto jokes here in the Sunflower State is because director Victor Fleming (whose work was completed by King Vidor) nailed the right tone for the film so that both adults and kids could love it, and Dorothy’s three pals (The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion) were so endearing that audiences will continue to embrace the movie and its content for years to come.

Veteran filmmaker Sam Raimi, the mind behind the Spider-Man and Evil Dead movies, has a thankless task on his hand. He has to meet some rigid expectations from diehard Oz fans, and he has to deliver some new delights viewers haven't seen before. Forgetting the 1939 movie is impossible, so the new film has is guaranteed to receive unflattering comparisons. Raimi at least has some computer tools that Fleming would have envied. Raimi also uses 3D with a panache that many of his peers do not. He uses it both to tell the story and to “throw” objects at the viewers.

It’s too bad that Raimi also has a spotty script. The adaptation by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire has a few clever touches but gets predictable as it goes along. If you've seen Fleming's film, you've got a pretty fair idea of what's going to happen.

James Franco stars as Oscar or “Oz,” who travels around the Midwest fleecing rubes with slight of hand and early 20th century technical marvels like zoetropes and electric lights. When his womanizing and wizardly pretensions catch up with him, he hops into a hot air balloon during the middle of a tornado.

He awakens from a black-and-white real world into shimmering color and vivid 3D. The new land actually bears Oz's name, and an attractive young woman (Mila Kunis) informs him that he's the wizard who has been prophesied to save the kingdom. Hey, it sure beats being a struggling illusionist.

Unfortunately, traveling into a different dimension hasn’t given him any powers he didn’t have before. Nor did it make him a more honest or considerate person. He also has to face off against a couple of skeptical witches (Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) and to get along with a flying monkey (with Zach Braff’s voice) and a dainty ceramic lass (Joey King). The latter is an impressive work of CGI magic; the former looks like it was done on a computer.

Alert viewers will notice some nods to the story to come, but the current tale has some dead spots. Franco is appropriately smarmy as the Wizard, and Weisz and Williams are enchanting witches. Kunis seems lost, and the monkey and the living doll simply aren’t as fun as the original trio. Perhaps if Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire came up with another CGI character, Oz the Great and Powerful would seem like less of a letdown.

Raimi has nearly $200 million to play with, and every cent shows up on screen. It’s too bad that more of that cash didn’t go into a first-rate script. If you’re going to make a prequel to classic, it helps to at least have material equal to the challenge. True, compared to Mahon’s version, this material seems like the work of Ben Hecht or David Mamet.

Nonetheless, the best way to avoid an unflattering comparison is to rise to the challenge or, if that isn’t possible, don’t bother. Rating: 3 (Posted on 03/08/13)

Haiku

James Franco rides the
same tornado Garland did
but at the wrong time.


John Dies at the End
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Writer-director Don Coscarelli’s (Phantasm) last movie was the funny, scary and oddly touching Bubba Ho-Tep. Therefore, it’s only reasonable to expect more quirky delights from John Dies at the End.

Coscarelli certainly meets his quota of mesmerizingly odd this time. He toys with flashbacks and flash forwards, leaps in and out of the known universe and creates dozens of creepy images that are either nightmare fuel or will eliminate the need to ever drop acid.

David Wong’s novel of the same name certainly gives Coscarelli’s imagination plenty of room to run wild. But like a lot of other stories involving illicit chemicals and altered reality, John Dies at the End might have benefitted from a little constraint. The loose structure sometimes makes the film hard to follow or to get worked up about the apocalyptic proceedings.

The film concerns a pair of two young men named David Wong (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) who regularly try to solve problems involving the paranormal.

For example, one young woman begs for their services because her abusive ex is still harassing her. She needs David and John because the oaf has been dead for a while and still manages to make her life unbearable.

Before viewers have a chance to make sense of that thread, John discovers a new intravenous medicine called “the Soy Sauce” that enables the user to see back and forward in time and across dimensions. Naturally, this freaks him out. The slightly more composed David inadvertently takes some of this stuff himself and winds up seeing giant bugs and other apparitions.

The two also have to face off against a man made of freezer meat, doors with handles that probably shouldn’t be turned and a Jamaican (Tai Bennett) who goes by the unimaginative pseudonym “Robert Marley.”

Trying to make sense of all of this is a reporter (Paul Giamatti) who has trouble believing David’s bizarre tale. Part of this may be because the fictional David Wong, like his creator, is not Asian but uses the pseudonym to protect himself from specters who mean to do him harm.

The scribe is especially skeptical because John has apparently met his maker but still calls David’s cell phone with warnings. Sometimes, he can call without even using conventional telecommunications.

Coscarelli comes up with plenty of quirky surprises and even figures out a clever way to get Phantasm star Angus Scrimm into the film. Despite an enthusiastic cast and a sense that anything can and will happen, John Dies at the End doesn’t quite come together. While it’s good to for the audience to share some of the characters’ disorientation, it’s hard to connect with the characters.

In Bubba Ho-Tep, Elvis and JFK were inherently sympathetic (see that film to find out why). David and John seem to be there simply to set up the next jolt.

Nonetheless, it is refreshing that Coscarelli is willing to offer viewers something that at least tries to take the rules of cinema into new directions. It’s hard to be bored when you’re trying to make sense of Coscarelli’s parallel worlds. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 03/01/13)

Haiku
John Dies at the End

A great movie needs
both a great title and a
great story as well.


21 and Over
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Jon Lucas and Scott Moore are credited with writing the vulgar but consistently amusing The Hangover, but most of the memorable sequences in that film (including the tiger and the misplaced infant) were probably written by director Todd Phillips and Jeremy Gerelick.

With 21 and Over, Lucas and Moore finally have a chance to demonstrate that they can be as witty as well as sophomoric.

I’m still waiting for them to at least start trying.

The problem with 21 and Over isn’t that it’s crude or aimed at audiences who are roughly the same age as the characters (as the title suggests). It’s simply not funny.

Like a lot of movies set in college, 21 and Over is either by or for (and certainly about) people who would score poorly on an ACT or an SAT. The trio in this stillborn comedy would have difficulty even doing the kind of scoring that Beavis and Butt-Head attempt to do.

Party animal Miller (Miles Teller) decides to check up on his old high school pals Casey (Skylar Astin) and Jeff (Justin Chon) because the latter is turning 21. Now that Jeff can legally enter a bar, it would seem only natural that he’d want to enjoy the chance to drink himself into oblivion.

Sadly, Jeff has to take it easy because he’s got a job interview at 8:00 a.m., so the bacchanal will have to wait. Miller, who isn’t even in college any more, decides that rules were made to be broken, even if they were set by Jeff’s strict father (François Chau).

If you’ve seen The Hangover, Old School or Animal House, it doesn’t take much effort to guess what happens next. Jeff gets so wasted that he can’t even remember where he lives, and his slightly less inebriated pals have to get him home before his dad discovers that the only biology Jeff has been studying involves the effects of alcohol on his own nervous system.

Lucas and Moore, who also directed, can’t find any new way to embarrass their protagonists that hasn’t been done elsewhere. Worse, they don’t seem to understand that urine and vomit aren’t all that funny on their own. The two even rip off an animal gag or two from The Hangover, but it’s a little too hard to top a tiger in the bathroom or a dope-peddling monkey.

Whereas the previous film had three vivid, if not necessarily likable, characters, our current trio is astonishingly bland. For all of their carousing, these dudes really aren’t that interesting.

Perhaps that’s why Miller and Casey always refer to their comatose pal as “Jeff Chang” instead of “Jeff,” as most people would. Perhaps Lucas and Moore believe the audience might forget that Jeff is the Asian one if they didn’t hear his surname repeated 20 times.

Actually, 21 and Over really shouldn’t be faulted for being stupid. There’s something criminally wrong with a movie about partying that’s incorrigibly dull. (R) Rating: 0 (Posted on 03/01/13)

Haiku
21 and Over

“The Hangover” is
no fun if you can’t recall
how you got so sick.




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


 

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