movie reviews April 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)  •  The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Furry Vengeance  •  The Losers  •  Vincere  •  The Back-Up Plan  •  Kick-Ass  •  Death at a Funeral
City Island  •  The Joneses  •  The Runaways
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  •  Date Night  •  Cloud 9  •  Clash of the Titans  •  The Last Song

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

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A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

When producers Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Bradley Fuller go to sleep tonight, it’s a safe bet that their dreams will be tormented by Wes Craven and Robert Englund sporting gloves with bladed fingers.

After a long series of perfunctory sequels, dream demon Freddy Krueger, whom Englund played with such gleeful menace has gone from a boogie man to a non-entity. But in Craven’s 1984 original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Fred was truly frightening because the only time a victim knew if Fred was real or imaginary was if he or she would up dead.

For those of you haven’t been exposed to the original or the infinite number of sequels, Freddy Krueger is a serial killer who traps his victims when they’re most vulnerable: during sleep.

Freddy uses the dreams to lure his victims to their doom. In the unconscious world, he has nearly absolute power because he can shape shift or adjust the environment to expedite his prey’s demise. Writer-director Craven gave Freddy a murky back story, so it was hard to determine how Freddy worked, making him both scarier and more deadly.

Sadly, freshman feature director Samuel Bayer does little more than imitate Craven’s original images. If you’ve seen the original, there’s nothing new to be seen here. Despite a long career of making commercials and music videos, Bayer can’t think of any way to embellish Craven’s template. Twenty-six years of special effects technology development does nothing to improve the looks of the remake.

The story, which was practically written by a committee, again concerns a group of teens who fight to stay awake because even a simple catnap can be deadly if Freddy’s on the prowl. The teens in this film are named Quentin (Kyle Gallner), Nancy (Rooney Mara), Kris (Katie Cassidy) and Jesse (Thomas Dekker). Although Wesley Strick (Cape Fear) and Eric Heisserer are credited with the script, the material feels as if it were run through a blender because none of the leads make any sort of impression until Freddy’s blades run through them.

The same could be said of some of Freddy’s previous victim’s, but the first movie featured a novice actor named Johnny Depp (gee, I wonder what happened to him?) and an inspired turn by Englund. While the character became more campy than creepy as the sequels progressed, it was still fun to watch Englund offing a smug teen because he seemed so committed.

Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) simply isn’t up to wearing Englund’s glove. To be fair, the script doesn’t give him much to do, but his flat voice and grim manner are a weak substitute for Englund’s maniacal energy. While Haley can be frightening (he earned an Oscar-nod as a child molester in Little Children), he’s fairly short, so he practically has to pull his victims toward him in order to look scary.

Craven has publically condemned the remake (the original is a personal favorite of his own films). If Craven himself disowns this abomination of A Nightmare on Elm Street at the expense of potential royalties, perhaps it would be best if viewers gave Time-Warner accountants nightmares by spending their cash elsewhere. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 04/30/10)

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Although The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers covers events that happened nearly four decades ago, directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith make seemingly arcane crises urgent. The Oscar-nominated documentary plays more like a Robert Ludlum spy thriller than a history lecture.

Their subject is 78-year-old former Marine Corp officer and State Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who helped topple a president by simply standing over a Xerox machine.

Over a series of several months during the late 60s and early 70s, Ellsberg copied a 7,000-page history of America’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. Known as the Pentagon Papers, the top secret study, which was commissioned by then-outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, revealed that every president from Harry S. Truman to Lyndon B. Johnson had lied about the reasons for the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam war.

For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower worked to help scuttle elections in South Vietnam after the French failed to retake their former colony because the likely winners would have been the Communists. Keeping the world safe for democracy sounds a bit hollow when people can’t vote.

The Pentagon Papers also revealed that despite constant Washington declarations that the war was turning the corner, the conflict was instead running slowly into a ditch. The study had little, if any, information that was useful to the North Vietnamese Army or the Vietcong guerillas, but its contents sent shockwaves here in the United States.

Ellsberg was probably the last person anyone might have suspected to leak the information in the Papers to The New York Times and other outlets. He had been hawkish on defense and remains a staunch anti-Communist.

But after the leak, Ellsberg went from an advisor to presidents and other officials to their chief antagonist. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” and Nixon’s Justice Department prosecuted Ellsberg and Tony Rizzo for leaking the documents. Had Ellsberg been convicted, he would have spent the rest of his life behind bars.

Nixon even set up a squad called the “Plumbers,” who tried to stop Ellsberg by breaking into his psychiatrist’s office. The crew botched the heist, just as they did when they broke into the Watergate hotel in 1972. Ellsberg also had to worry about being physically assaulted by thugs who’d been hired by the Nixon Administration to neutralize him.

When recounting what happened to him after he leaked the papers in 1971, Ellsberg has a frighteningly detailed memory and proves to be a more colorful character than he initially seems. He plays piano and can do perform magic tricks. Erlich and Goldsmith also reveal that he has a complicated personality. A childhood incident left Ellsberg with a wariness toward authority. This might have led to his fateful decision.

Both Ellsberg and his second wife Patricia Marx Ellsberg are candid but poised. They’re media-savvy, so it’s much more engaging to hear them recall own their lives instead of hearing some outsider drone about them. There’s a solid drama about them called The Pentagon Papers, which stars James Spader and Claire Forlani¸ but the thespians, while good, simply aren’t as engaging as the real people.

The film is obviously sympathetic to Ellsberg, who narrates it. Nonetheless, there are some frightening and revealing comments from Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean and from Egil “Bud” Krogh, who led the “Plumbers.” Krogh’s testimony is especially chilly, and it’s interesting to note that he and Ellsberg are now friends.

The most terrifying moments, however, come from listening to Nixon himself. In the film, the Watergate tapes reveal that he thought nothing of destroying dikes in North Vietnam, which would have killed 200,000 people. He was even eager to use a nuke. Nixon was also willing to do whatever it took to stop Ellsberg regardless of whether it was against the law or simple morality.

Erlich and Goldsmith include some crude animation to help explain what the speakers are recalling. It may not be the most sophisticated technique, but it does help establish an appropriate atmosphere of dread.

The film ends with Ellsberg actively protesting abuses of authority like the one he pursued so valiantly in 1971. Much of the reason The Most Dangerous Man in America still resonates is because it explores the deeper meanings behind terms like “national security” and “freedom of speech.”

Ellsberg would argue that there isn’t any security to be gained by pursuing an unnecessary war, and the documentary convincingly indicates he’s on to something. (N/R). Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 04/30/10)

Furry Vengeance
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

One of the disadvantages of being human is that it’s occasionally difficult to identify with your own species. Because of our tendency toward hypocrisy seems unique to us, it’s easy to side with nature instead of people.

That’s especially true when the homo sapiens are as dim and one-note as they are in Furry Vengeance, a new comedy for children that’s heavy on eco-moralizing and poop jokes but a little short on likable two-legged characters.

The new film concerns an Oregon real estate venture where some relatively pristine forest in the mountains is set to face the ax for that ultimate necessity: a subdivision. In a region where the real estate market hasn’t sunk as low as it has in the rest of the country, a development tycoon named Neal Lyman (Ken Jeong, Role Models) has decided that strip malls are needed more urgently than a healthy ecosphere.

On paper, which is probably not recycled, Lyman’s company is green, but he and his subordinates frequently take shortcuts. His hatchet man in the area, Dan Sanders (Brendan Fraser), might drive a hybrid SUV. But he thinks nothing of dynamiting a beaver dam to keep construction costs down. Consequently, he alienates his science teacher wife (Brooke Shields) and his disaffected son (Matt Prokop).

Dan hopes moving from Chicago to this remote construction site might lead to a promotion in Lyman’s empire, but he soon discovers why the seemingly untouched land hasn’t been tainted.

The animals in the woods defend their territory with such ferocity and shrewdness that any humans who get in their way soon regret it.

If they live.

The feral insurgency has an intelligence network that puts the CIA and MI6 to shame. Some of the attacks are simple. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what kind of damage skunks can do. In addition, the critters, led by a raccoon with George Washington’s leadership skills, demolish Dan’s appliances, keep him awake all night and make getting out of his house an impossibility.

Watching the animals make a chump out of Dan is guaranteed for a few chuckles. But screenwriter Josh Gilbert (Mr. Woodcock) and Michael Carnes and director Roger Kumble (The Sweetest Thing) run out of clever ways for the beasts to attack. To their credit, they actually come up with fecal humor that actually works. Unfortunately, for every gag involving excrement that amuses there are two or three that don’t. It doesn’t take much imagination to have a squadron of birds dive bombing environmental offenders with their droppings.

Kumble has never directed a film for children, and it shows. There’s a gross-out ethos that gets tiresome, and the film’s condemnation of green hypocrisy is handled with the subtlety of a supernova. The talented cast, which includes Samantha Bee and Overland Park’s Rob Riggle, is stuck with one-note characters that are less interesting than the four-legged co-stars.

Because the people aren’t that interesting or even that smart, the story lacks any tension because the cute little animals are already sympathetic. The film argues that animals and young people may be smarter than biological, but not moral, adults.

But the filmmakers approach the material as if anyone watching it, regardless of age, is simple-minded. Perhaps if they had intended the film for the animals portrayed in it, Furry Vengeance might have been more fun. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 04/30/10)

The Losers
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Based on a group of DC comic-book WW II heroes from the seventies, The Losers is essentially a remake of a remake (or re-boot, re-start or whatever it’s being called this week), and while it does possess some snappy dialog and nifty photography, nothing can save it from the PG-13 rating hanging on its back.

The plot is so barebones it’s almost non-existent. Colonel Clay (Jeffery Dean Morgan, best known as the Comedian from Watchmen) and his team are left for dead after being betrayed by their CIA handler “Max,” who also orders the death of a bunch of children the guys just saved, in case they weren’t pissed enough anyway. After a meeting with Aisha (Zoe Saldana) this rag-tag bunch, these outlaw misfits, this, this…”A-Team” goes back to the States and with great vengeance start shooting guards with darts.

That’s right, darts. These are the most non-lethal bunch of undercover Special Forces soldiers you’ve ever seen. About ninety percent of the bad guys they run into get taken out the Loser’s favorite weapon: paint guns that shoot knockout darts. How exciting. At least the A-Team shot at the bad guys with real bullets (even if it was always at the ground in front of them), and occasionally made something blow up.

All the characters here are so two–dimensional, so lacking in anything distinctive that you can just name them off by their trademark feature: Glasses (computer guy), Cowboy Hat with Rifle (sniper), Guy with lots of Knives (no idea what he does…) and so forth.

Really, the only joy here is Jason Patrick as Max. He manages to portray one of the most interesting and truly twisted villains since Keith Ledger’s Joker, and elicits more laughs than any other character here. Pity he’s barely in the thing.

I’m not sure if the comic it was based on is as bad, but I bet money that it was far more violent. What is it with action films and PG-13 ratings? I know studios want the teens to be able to plunk down their ticket money, but this film feels just so …diluted, like getting an over-priced drink that’s mostly soda water. There’s no feeling of danger at all here: even the final fight against a bunch of guards is just boring. Storm Troopers are more dangerous than those guys. In one scene that had me laughing in my seat, Clay sneaks up behind guard #37 and knocks him unconscious after choking him for approximately 0.5 seconds. I’ve seen better action in an episode of “Frasier.”

Even the “twist” at the end is no surprise, and seems as pointlessly forced as anything here. Sad as it is to waste a decent cast, this bunch of Losers never had a chance. (PG 13) Rating: 2 (Posted 4/27/10)


Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s not as if there is a shortage of reasons to hate World War II-era Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. As an ally of Adolf Hitler, he’s responsible for the deaths of millions. In addition to opposing free speech, supporting anti-Semitism and launching catastrophic military campaigns (for his own side) in Greece and North Africa, Mussolini was a lousy husband.

The fact that he cheated on his wife Rachele Guidi with Claretta Petacci and other mistresses is well established. Until recently, the extent of his marital treachery wasn’t known.

The new Italian film Vincere covers the dictator’s rise to power from a previously unknown perspective, that of Milanese beautician Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). From newly unearthed records, she was also his first wife, even though he abandoned her instead of having the decency to file for divorce or make provisions for their child. Through her eyes, the not-so-great dictator that emerges is still a cad, but it becomes easy to see why she and the rest of the nation fell hard for Mussolini.

The man she meets and later worships isn’t the bald, almost cartoonish fellow you might have encountered in the pictures in the history books. As played by Filippo Timi, Mussolini is handsome and suave, sporting a full head of hair and a well-groomed moustache.

He is an engaging speaker who talks passionately for socialism and against the looming conflict that became World War I whereas the dictator Mussolini actively courted the Catholic Church for support, as a young man in the film he dares God to strike him down for denying His existence.

Timi handles the role with remarkable finesse and effortlessly shatters both Mussolini’s pedestal and the temptation to demonize him. After all, tyrants are still human. Timi projects both the confidence and the cruelty that helped drive Mussolini to power. At the same time, Timi captures the energy that made even the most outlandish statements seem captivating.

Co-screenwriter-director Marco Bellocchio also gives us just enough hints of the menace to come. While the young Mussolini embraces different ideologies than he’d espouse later, the violence in his rhetoric hints at how ruthless and destructive he’ll be later.

If Vincere (which translates to “win” in English) gives viewers a new angle on a seemingly familiar subject, it’s worth catching primarily for Mezzogiorno’s sympathetic turn as Dalser. Mussolini did more than simply abandon Dalser and her son. He had young Benito, Jr. taken from her and had her put in a mental institution.

Dalser’s undying belief in her husband’s devotion even as he spends less and less time with her would initially seem pathetic, but Mezzogiorno imbues her with a feistiness that almost makes viewers hope she can regain Il Duce’s love and live in his palace.

She becomes less of a doormat and more of fighter. In a just world, the dictator would be hers and probably not ruling. Whether Dalser is swooning at his speeches or claiming what is hers despite the fact that Mussolini’s entire machine is literally against her, Mezzogiorno consistently brings viewers to the beautician’s point-of-view even when it borders on delusional.

Then again, siding with Dalser is rather easy considering the fact that she sold everything she had to help pay for a newspaper that threw Mussolini into the public eye. For many, he’s proof that journalists should probably avoid seeking public office. During the later portions of the film Bellochio presents Il Duce solely though black-and-white newsreel clips. As Mussolini gradually becomes the familiar despot, he seems more abstract.

Vincere is much smaller in scope than might be expected for a film about a figure as towering as Mussolini. But Dalser tragically learned before the rest of us that people who are ogres at home easily become monsters in public. By then, it’s too late. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/23/10)

The Back-Up Plan
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For all its contrived capriciousness, The Back-Up Plan fails to deliver on its promise of  unconventional quirk. Rather, this tale of would-be single motherhood evades genuineness, leans on stereotypes for laughs and completely turns its back on “going it alone.”

Baby-crazed Zoe (Jennifer Lopez) is determined to have one of her own. Therefore, on the very day she undergoes artificial insemination, nothing can bring her down: not cautionary tales told by friend Mona (Michaela Watkins), not the rain and especially not a combative stranger in the back of a cab. Potentially pregnant, Zoe begins to prepare for her life of single motherhood, even attending a support group for single mothers, complete with the usual hippies and man-hating lesbians. But even surrounding herself with unattractive women in bad clothes won't change Zoe's mind.

Experienced (she's dated “hundreds” of men) and financially well off (she traded in stock shares to buy a pet store), Zoe is finally ready to commit to a life of “baby makes two” to fill the hole left by her absent father and dead mother. Yet, when Stan (Alex O'Loughlin), the surly stranger from the cab, who, dealing with his own parental legacy of an upstate goat farm, inserts himself into her life, Zoe can't help but go along. Effectively, this immediately turns the film into a tedious study of the male ego.

When loosening grip on her tightly wound sense of control, Lopez is at her best. This was true for both the romantic comedy The Wedding Planner and heist caper Out of Sight, and is no different in this film. Watching Zoe messily stuff her face or let her hormones get the best of her is strangely entertaining. Unfortunately, these moments are few. Instead, we're forced to witness a series of heavily clichéd dates, supposedly orchestrated by Stan, that drag on and somehow, without real intimacy or connection, convince these two that they actually know and like each other.

But that's the catch. Faced with Zoe's transforming body, Stan panics that the well-dressed and fit woman that he fell for has been taken over (or possibly eaten) by the voracious mess who no longer fits into her designer duds and takes up all the room in the bed. But not all of Stan's concerns are shallow. Some are merely sexist. On the advice of a complete stranger he meets at a park, Stan resents Zoe's preparations for the coming baby and freaks out about money even though Zoe's made it perfectly clear she's got it covered.

Zoe's no better. Instead of delving into Stan's vocation, she whines about the smell and ignores the mysterious absence of goats on the goat firm. Instead, she happily uses the stinky cheese man to first fulfill her hormonal desires and then to step into the role of daddy without much thought to feelings, consequences or the truth. When Stan tells a former girlfriend the babies aren't biologically his after all, Zoe flees in a hurt rage. Perhaps her confession of how she acquired her own vocation as a “pet” passion should have tipped him off to her stability.

As a result, Stan and Zoe become the victims of their own delusions and miscommunications. They break up and get back together several times, all the while not achieving any greater understanding of each other or saying anything interesting. They treat each other like props, so it's really no great surprise that an inanimate object, a pillow, is what ultimately drives them apart or brings them together.

The real and more dynamic characters in this movie, including best friend Mona, the paraplegic dog, the men-hating women in the support group, Zoe's grandmother (Linda Lavin) and her fiancée (Tom Bosley), and even the muffin girl, are given very little screen time. Yet, when they act or speak they do so in a heartfelt, honest way. Still, Zoe and Stan never seem to listen or learn. PG-13 Rating: 2 (Posted on 04/23/10)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Titling a movie “Kick-Ass” is a dangerous proposition. If the movie is wimpy or wanting in any way, it’s easy to imagine all the ridicule the moniker invites. Happily, this adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic books has enough biting wit and bone crunching action to justify the title.

The irony is the film’s main superhero is probably the wrong person to be calling himself, “Kick-Ass.” In fact, a more appropriate name might have been, oh, “Captain Wanabee.”

Dave Lizewski (British actor Aaron Johnson) is a lad who has some good friends but nothing much else in his life. Bullies kick him around, and the only time his female high school peers seem to care about him is when they think he could be their gay BFF.

To find some worth for his life and to meet an altruistic need for helping others, Dave decides that he can take out bad guys just like Batman does. The latter has no powers but lots of expensive high-tech toys. Dave has only good intentions, a diving suit and a name that’s simply wishful thinking: Kick-Ass.

After a bizarre series of injuries (on the job, of course), Dave develops the ability to take a good deal of punishment before he feels any pain. This comes in handy because his attempts to rectify wrongs in his community, even when successful, usually end up in his getting clobbered.

Fortunately, for David and the rest of the city, there are two other masked vigilantes prowling the streets of the city who actually know what they’re doing. Damon Macready a k a Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) is a former cop with a disturbingly encyclopedic knowledge of weapons and armor who makes life a living hell for a local gangster named Frank D’Amico (the always scary Mark Strong). By killing and robbing D’Amico’s goons, Big Daddy has managed to finance a law enforcement strategy that circumvents the crooked police force.

If the Batman-like Big Daddy weren’t intimidating on his own, his sidekick is even more formidable. That’s because she’s his daughter Mindy Macready a k a Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz). She hasn’t reached puberty, but her seemingly helpless appearance lures criminals into thinking that she’s a small but easy target. Like a piranha, she can reduce her prey to bones in a few seconds. She also has a mouth on her that makes Kevin Smith seem like a prude.

Realizing that powers or no powers, the masked crime fighters might send him to bankruptcy, jail or a dirt nap, D’Amico enlists his bright but frustrated son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) into posing as a superhero to lure the legitimate supers into a trap.

If you think that Kick-Ass sounds like wonderful film for your small children to see, I’d highly suggest that you turn yourself into SRS immediately. Much of the joy of the new comedy is that it is so unremittingly and unrepentantly dark and edgy. While there are some deviations from Millar’s books, director Matthew Vaughn (Stardust) and screenwriter Jane Goldman keep the film at a frenetic pace. They also find the right balance between affection for the characters and acknowledgement at the implausibility of the setup.

Vaughn has apparently watched every John Woo and Sam Peckinpah movie several times. Unlike others who’ve imitated these choreographers of carnage, he actually understands what worked about their movies. The action scenes can be followed and even savored. Vaughn also has remarkable taste in music and seems to find just the right tunes for a scene. It’s a rare soundtrack that flawlessly uses the music of both Elvis Presley and Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).

It also doesn’t hurt to have actors who embrace their roles with demented gusto. Johnson is appropriately earnest and glum, and Cage goes from being geeky out of costume to imposing behind his mask. His blend of homicidal vengeance and paternal affection is both hilarious and surprisingly moving. It’s been a while since his off-center sensibilities have worked to his advantage.

The real star of the film, however, is Moretz. She has both the aggressiveness and the athleticism to make you believe she can pulverize grown men ten times her size. At the same time, she comes off as just innocent enough to make viewers hope the bad guys don’t get to her.

Kick-Ass may alienate some viewers because its violence and language are so relentlessly crude. Nonetheless, there’s purity in its crassness that makes the film as refreshing as an attack from Hit-Girl is painful (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/16/10)

Death at a Funeral
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Despite being practically a play-by-play remake of the 2007 British farce of the same name, Death at a Funeral is nothing like the original. Minus the impeccable comedic timing and sly ironic distance of the former, the new incarnation comes off as a plodding, oversimplified setup ceaselessly interrupted by moments of sustained histrionics.

But disparaging the Americanized versions of Britcoms is too easy. Less like the recent ham-fisted handling of Alfie or even the wildly successful version of The Office (funny in its own way but not nearly as cringe-worthy or heartfelt as its predecessor), the film's U.S. makeover suffers most not from a comparison to the original but to what this film could have been.

Directed by Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty, In the Company of Men) with a screenplay adapted for the American audience by comedian Chris Rock (although Dean Craig keeps screenwriting credit), the film never fulfills its promise of biting, edgy yet thoughtful entertainment. Instead, it relies on pointless physical comedy and literal potty humor performed by an underutilized and over-stimulated all-star cast in-between obvious plot points.

It is funny to describe the story as predictable. In suburban Los Angeles, a middle-class African-American family gathers at the home of its deceased patriarch to pay him final respects when chaos of “The Cat in the Hat” proportions ensues. Among the botched body delivery, unintentional LSD dosings, a posthumous outing of a well-respected husband and father, and the kidnapping and near-death experience of a little person, there should be some surprises. Unfortunately, these extraordinary events aren't given proper weight or reaction, bogged down in constant exposition or ignored by characters more interested in their own personal dramas than the larger goings-on of the day.

Aaron (Chris Rock) — theoretically the chiding goldfish, to continue the Dr. Seuss metaphor — fixates on his own aspirations as a writer, while his novelist brother, Ryan, (Martin Lawrence) chases the jailbait neighbor girl. Even crotchety, almost-incontinent Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) and hypochondriac Norman (Tracy Morgan), with potentially clear views from the sidelines and plenty of opportunity to add real, true moments, concentrate more on their bodily functions than the unfolding action and its potential consequences.

The performances of these comedians-turned-actors seem both restrained and overdone at the same time. In quiet moments, they act similarly sober, relying solely on dialogue instead of delivery to distinguish one character's personality or ideology from another's. In action, it's a circus of over-reaction, and narrative logic and continuity are nowhere on-screen. It's almost as if LaBute, the former master of dark comedy, was purposefully avoiding getting in too deep.

In defter hands, say Robert Altman, for instance, or a younger LaBute, or even the person responsible for the gem It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, there would exist a delicate and interconnected balance between the individual wants and crises of each character in the ensemble and the Big Picture. Here, each character seems completely oblivious to the larger, darker, chaotic trend, and as such reacts in opposition to narrative logic or to natural human behavior.

These characters don't even seem at cross-purposes; they merely over- or under-emote in isolation. This is most frustrating with the handling of the drug-addled Oscar (James Marsden), whose condition too handily serves to push the dragging plot along. The one bright performance, Peter Dinklage's reprisal of the blackmailing interloper, provides much-needed ambivalence and complexity to the film. Yet, it's still not enough. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 4-16)

City Island
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

According to writer-director Raymond De Felitta’s blog entries on, he has worked a long time to get his new movie City Island to the screen, maybe a little too long.

City Island plays as if every idea De Felitta (who helmed the wonderful Two Family House and The Thing About My Folks) has had in the last 10 or so years has been crammed into the film for fear it might get lost. As a result, the move is loaded with subplots and story twists that don’t serve the film as a whole. There’s also an annoying sense that its characters would be a lot happier if they could open up about their troubling secrets.

At least two of the Rizzos smoke but haven’t got the courage to admit that quitting has been beyond their skills. The father, Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia), works as a prison guard but secretly yearns to be an actor. His wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) thinks he’s playing poker when he’s actually going to acting classes or auditions.

Their daughter Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido) is supposed to be in college but is paying her bills as a stripper, and Vince, Jr. (Ezra Miller) is using Joyce’s credit card to buy time at a pornography site devoted to plus-size women.

The most jaw-dropping concealed fact is that Vince has discovered that a prisoner named Tony Nardella (Steven Strait) is actually his illegitimate son. Feeling guilty about abandoning Tony’s unstable mother decades before, Vince agrees to house Tony for probation until his sentence is over.

Because guards normally don’t drag inmates home, it might have been wise for Vince to reveal that the convict they’re housing has family connections. Instead, De Felitta drags out the deception even after it ceases to be dramatically useful. Thanks to capable performers like Garcia and Margulies, the Rizzos are likable, but it doesn’t take long for the audience to feel like they’re ahead of the characters instead of empathizing with them.

De Felitta can coax a few chuckles out of the material, but they can’t erase the fact that the family would avoid a lot of grief through simple honesty. In fact, a little veracity might have made the film easier to believe. When Vince auditions, he starts by aping his hero Marlon Brando.

A true disciple of Brando’s would follow the actor’s psychological approach instead of his mumbling (Brando, when necessary, could recite Shakespeare with the proper spirit and diction). Basically, the scene would have been funnier if it had more accurately depicted how an amateur like Vince would approach an audition. When Garcia is allowed to do just that, the sequence finally works.

To his credit, De Felitta has managed to find a uniquely captivating setting. City Island is a picturesque neighborhood in The Bronx (no, this isn’t an oxymoron) that used to be a fishing community. The sky is silhouetted with sailboats, and it looks nothing like the rest of New York. De Felitta throws in some of the history and folklore of City Island, and it gives the film some personality that might otherwise be lacking.

With the cast that De Felitta has assembled, which includes Emily Mortimer as Vince’s acting classmate and Alan Arkin as his pedantic teacher, the film was guaranteed to be at least watchable. Still, I think I would have liked to learn more about the real neighborhood and less about the fictional people who inhabit it in the movie. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 04/16/10)

The Joneses
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Steve and Kate Jones are your standard upwardly mobile white couple, attractive and happy. They have two good-looking kids, have just moved into a fantastic new house in suburban Anywhere, USA, and seem to know about every fancy product or doodad out there before their new social circle can hold their breath long enough to turn green with envy.

There’s only one problem: the Joneses don't really exist.

The basic premise of director/co-writer Derrick Borte‚s film is simple: the “Joneses” are a group of “stealth marketers,” professional salespeople who infiltrate rich white-people land and push new, expensive lifestyle accessories to their yuppie neighbors. Steve (David Duchovny), is the new “dad” on the team, led by Kate (Demi Moore) and her fake children, Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth). The result — a bunch of refugees from Glengarry Glen Ross trying to act like a sweet, happy little family — should be rich in possible comic results. Sadly, it’s not.

One scene at the beginning, where daughter Jenn jumps naked in bed with the newly arrived “dad” does elicit a chuckle, but far too much of this film dawdles over Steve pushing the newest golf-club or Kate showing off a new brand of flash-frozen sushi at one of her many house parties. Instead, the growing romance between Steve and Kate is given a back seat, which is a shame because Duchovny and Moore have such great chemistry together. Moore is perfect as a corporate-driven shill with a hidden heart, and Duchovny still manages to chew up every scene he’s in despite that his character is given little to do other than to react smarmily to each overly predictable turn in the plot. Even veteran actor Gary Cole, as the everyman dupe-next-door, brings some life to his own two-dimensional character, but nobody here can save this ill-written screenplay.

It’s the basic premise here that simply fails. At first it seems more than plausible — only to fall apart halfway through the movie. It’s like the filmmakers themselves realized how unlikely the whole idea was as they made this thing. Example: in one scene Demi’s character goes speed walking in a new jogging suit. She strides by four other trophy-wives out walking, who admire her outfit as she goes by. Cut to the same scene later: they‚re all now wearing the same outfit, to Kate’s satisfaction.

So that’s stealth marketing, huh? Wouldn’t it be easier to, I don’t know, just give away a bunch of free outfits to show them off instead of spending enough money to build a fake family (which is illegal in too many ways for me to count), which affected all of about six other households? Really, isn’t there like a billion other ways to sell stuff than to spend tens of thousands of dollars to show off a new perfume to a total of three teenagers? By this logic the filmmakers would make money paying fake viewers to fill up each and every theater in America, loudly saying, “Wow, this is a great film!” over and over again.

Still, seeing Moore and Duchovny both on the screen together was fun, and a reminder that if somebody in Hollywood could actually write a good script for them, maybe they could make a nice, honest sale for once, 'cause I ain't buying this one. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 4/16/10)

The Runaways
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you’ve never heard of the 1970s rockers The Runaways until recently, don’t be surprised.

Even though the band at different times featured future ‘80s and ‘90s stars Joan Jett, Lita Ford and Bangles bassist Mickie Steele, it only lasted from 1975 through 1979, and their albums never charted higher than #178 in the United States.

Their sexually forward lyrics and scorching guitar licks were out of step with the disco era, and they were better appreciated in Asia than they were here at home. This reviewer didn’t know they existed until 20 years after they had broken up, and that’s because I was in a band with a Japanese guitarist who’d brought a CD with him from home.

The rise and demise of The Runaways seems like a typical rock ‘n roll tale. As Denis Leary puts it, “I’m drunk; I’m nobody. I’m drunk; I’m famous. I’m drunk; I’m dead.” What makes their tale engrossing is that, for the most part, the members of the teen band survived a harrowing experience that might have killed more mature rockers and that they were one of the first all-female rock bands to be taken seriously.

Floria Sigismondi’s new biopic of the ill-fated group has a justified “R” rating, but it’s actually a sanitized depiction of what the women in the band went through. It also reminds viewers that Jett’s tough persona isn’t an act.

Based on a memoir by Runaways lead singer Cheri Curie (Dakota Fanning) and Jett’s recollections, the movie follows the two as they wound up reaching adulthood in a bizarrely hostile environment. While it’s hard to feel much sympathy for rich, spoiled rockers, Jett (Kristen Stewart) and company certainly didn’t start that way.

Curie’s father was an unreliable alcoholic, and, if the film’s depiction is correct, Jett’s parents were downright invisible. Curie had no desire to work in fast food like her sister Marie (Riley Keough), and Jett refused to debase her guitar with “On Top of Old Smokie” even though girls weren’t expected to go electric. If Jett’s desire to be a rocker didn’t earn her enough unwarranted sneers, her lesbianism was another obstacle.

The film depicts how the two met their mentor, record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road). Fowley had found some success producing bands like KISS and knew how to sell both the public and record companies on musicians. As portrayed by Shannon, he’s also mesmerizingly repellent.

Seething with misogyny, Fowley spits out vile diatribes even when he’s merely taking a breath. He’s also delighted that his underage band is “jailbait.” Fowley also shorts the band financially and frequently plays the girls off each other to maintain control.

What keeps The Runaways from becoming yet another story of a group being exploited by a Svengali-like manager is that Sigismondi frames the story by having the girls learn from Fowley before slowly discovering how to develop skills that leave him in the dust.

As the annoyingly passive Bella in the Twilight films, Stewart seems lost and vacant. As the feisty Jett, however, she’s right at home. Not only can she carry a tune and wear Jett’s androgynous outfits credibly, her steely eyes indicate that she’s not going to let smug, sexist buffoons keep her from being the Queen of Rock. At the same time, Stewart gives Jett a nurturing heart, so that it’s easy to hope she’ll get fame on her own terms.

Like Stewart, Fanning handles the microphone nicely, and her familiarity as a former child star gives The Runaways an appropriately unsettling edge. She still looks enough like a kid to make Curie’s descent into drug addiction and sexual exploitation seem even more harrowing.

Sigismondi has a well-honed visual style from shooting music videos, and she does capture the look and feel of the era. She also does a credible job of presenting how the band developed. It’s fascinating to hear Jett go from a girl who can barely hold a chord into someone who can write a song in minutes (yes, as in the film, The Runaways’ signature tune “Cherry Bomb” was completed by Fowley and Jett that quickly).

As with most biopics, it’s best to treat The Runaways with skepticism. Even the surviving members of the band have wildly different memories ( about what happened. While the film is appropriately stomach churning, many of the more interesting aspects of the band’s history have been overlooked.

The group went through bassists the way Spinal Tap has gone through drummers. Jackie Fuchs (a k a Fox) played on two of the band’s albums and during their Japan tour but refused to cooperate with the film. The generic “Robin” (Alia Shawkat) feels like a shallow substitute. Similarly, Ford (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) barely registers, and the late drummer Sandy West’s (Stella Maeve) tragic descent into drug addiction and crime isn’t mentioned at all.

Mentioning some of the band members lives after the group had dissolved might have been interesting because Fuchs is now a successful attorney, and her replacement Victory Tischler-Blue appeared in This Is Spinal Tap and has made a fascinating but disturbing documentary about the band called Edgeplay (if you think Fowley comes off badly in The Runaways, he does himself no favors by taking part in the doc). Neither Fuchs or Tischler-Bue is famous, but it’s refreshing to learn that the two have managed to last through the demise of the band and become functioning adults.

The film might have been stronger had it focused on what Jett did after the band broke up. Her debut album Bad Reputation was rejected by 23 labels, so she and business partner Kenny Laguna (who executive produced The Runaways) founded their own label.

The two managed a brisk business selling discs from the trunk of Laguna’s car before the record companies finally jumped on the Jett bandwagon. Jett’s success as an entrepreneur and a chart topper (with the #1 song “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”) might have been more gratifying than watching the repulsive Fowley drag the women down to his own subterranean level.

Because the history and mythology of rock is grossly incomplete, a film like The Runaways is necessary. It still might have been more enjoyable to see and hear the women shredding amps as much or more than watching them chase a path of self-destruction. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 04/08/10)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo miraculously causes the adjectives “convoluted” and “implausible” to become positive. Thanks to a plot that’s as detailed and intricate as a Faberge egg, the film manages to keep viewers on edge and away from the solution until the final images fade out. By pacing the film quickly, director Niels Arden Oplev prevents the audience from getting bored or from developing skepticism.

Michael Nyqvist stars as Mikael Blomquist, a once lauded reporter facing a long jail sentence because he’s lost a libel suit. He’s also being stalked by a young woman named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) who can hack into his computer and can effortlessly spy on him despite the fact that her numerous tattoos and piercings make her stick out on the streets of Stockholm.

It turns out that she’s actually Mikael’s potential salvation. Her digging proves that Mikael’s reporting was accurate. Based on her remarkably thorough research, an enigmatic tycoon named Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) wants to use him to end a nearly 40-year-old mystery. Because Mikael has nothing but a prison cell awaiting him in the next six months, he accepts the challenge.

Henrik’s beloved niece disappeared from the island where they lived in 1966 and hasn’t returned. Everyone assumes she’s long dead. Mikael and Henrik discover the details of the disappearance don’t add up. For example, a bridge is the only way off the island, but she vanished while it was apparently under repair.

Mikael has personal reasons to solve the possible crime because the sixteen-year-old babysat him as a child and solving the case could restore his dignity. He’s under no illusions that he can crack it easily, though. The local cops have no fresh leads, and the Vanger family have more skeletons in their closet that the catacombs of Paris. For example, they’re still very powerful even though three of their members were fanatical Nazis.

While Mikael attempts to get to the truth without attracting the ire of Henrik’s powerful cousins, Lisbeth winds up in a crisis of her own. Because she has a juvenile criminal record, she’s at the mercy of a crooked probation officer who embezzles her earnings and demands sexual favors. When she gets through with him, he’ll wish he were dealing with his supervisors instead.

It’s inevitable that Mikael and Henrik will eventually team up, but the screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg (based on the late Stieg Larsson’s novel) reaches its conclusions through bizarre twists and turns. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo actually gets more complicated as it unfolds. Somehow Oplev is able to make the Byzantine tale from becoming unwieldy.

There’s an American remake in the works right now, and that’s a cause for dread. Having seen several terrific films botched in the translation process. Abre los ojos, which became mutilated as Vanilla Sky, comes to mind. Thanks to a cast of universally strong performers and slick, moody photography by Jens Fischer and Eric Kress, there’s nothing for a Hollywood crew to improve upon.

The engrossingly sordid story deserves to be seen in its original context. Thankfully the film is thrilling enough to compensate for having to read subtitles. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/09/10)

Date Night
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

When sharp and funny performers like Steve Carell and Tina Fey are running on all cylinders, their vehicle doesn’t have to be that classy. Imagine a finely tuned BMW engine in the body of a rusty Geo, and that’s about how Date Night works. It effortlessly gets you from point A to B but makes you embarrassed to emerge from the driver’s side door.

Carell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a pair of married New Jersey suburbanites whose relationship has slowly grown stagnant. Their best friends (Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo in amusing cameos) are divorcing because they’ve simply become “excellent roommates.” Even secure incomes and their occasionally cooperative children don’t bring them much joy.

To make their bi-weekly date night meaningful for a change, Phil decides to take Claire with him to a swank Manhattan seafood restaurant named Claw. When getting a table proves nearly impossible, Phil pretends that he and Claire are the Tripplehorns, a couple who failed to show up for their reservation.

Phil and Claire quickly discover that the penalty for stealing a reserved table is a night of running for their lives. A pair of intimidating goons (rapper Common and Jimmi Simpson) threaten to turn them into target practice if they don’t hand over a flash drive to a mobster (who else but Ray Liotta?). Because Phil and Claire have no idea how the Tripplehorns have managed to obtain the cash to reserve a table at Claw, they’re forced to figure out why the mobsters and the NYPD, led by a determined Detective Arroyo (Taraji P. Henson), want the drive that the Fosters don’t have.

What follows is both outlandish and routine. If you watch carefully enough, you can spot blatant product placement (Kindle, anyone?) and nods to more entertaining films. At the end, it’s safe to bet that director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Cheaper by the Dozen), screenwriter Josh Klausner or somebody else on the set has seen Fletch.

Nonetheless, Levy deserves a considerable amount of credit for simply letting Carell and Fey run loose. When the two mock other diners at restaurants or demonstrate why some performers should stay away from “Dancing with the Stars,” Date Night suddenly becomes much funnier.

As the outtakes during the closing credits demonstrate, both stars, who are also accomplished writers, can come up with some bizarrely amusing stuff seemingly from the tops of their heads. Watching the two of them breaking into silly costumes or speaking in weakly disguised voices is a lot funnier that listening to the dialogue recited as written.

Several recognizable faces can be spotted in brief but memorable turns. James Franco and Mila Kunis are a scream as a couple of working class stoners with dubious business schemes, and Mark Wahlberg appears to be having a ball poking fun at his sex symbol image.

Carell’s earnest charm and Fey’s sly wit could certainly make for a better movie in the future. As it stands, Date Night features both comics in fine form. It’s too bad they couldn’t have used their recent spikes in income to purchase a classier vehicle. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 04/08/10)

Cloud 9
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Cloud 9 is a typical adultery drama with one intriguing difference: all the participants are at least in their mid-60s, if not older.

It’s not often that viewers get to see passionate, graphic sex between senior citizens, but this German entry benefits from a matter-of-fact approach. Director Andreas Dresen and three other screenwriters wrote a scenario but no actual script. Every word of dialogue is improvised, and when one character tells a joke, the others’ laughter is probably real.

As a result, it’s easier to buy into this sordid but occasionally moving story. Inge (Ursula Werner) seems to be making an extra effort to fix the stitching on a particular pair of slacks. She even delivers the garment straight to the owner’s door.

Before it strikes a viewer that the delivery seems odd, Inge and her client Karl (Horst Westphal) put away the newly mended trousers and start shedding the clothes. Dresen leaves nothing to the imagination.

Because the incident is played with spontaneity and without sentiment or sensationalism, the illicit encounter works. Even though characters might yell or cry, the emotions never feel forced or phony. As a result, Cloud 9 avoids becoming a subtitled German soap opera. It’s easy to get pulled into the characters’ euphoria even if they are too old for a midlife crisis.

Although Inge is a married grandmother, it’s obvious that this is more than a quickie. Karl later shows up at her door with a new piece of clothing to fix in front of her oblivious husband Werner (Horst Rehberg).

From watching Inge and Werner together, it’s obvious to see why she’s drawn to the man whose clothes she mends and removes. Werner is a pleasant, agreeable guy, but his staid lifestyle seems stifling compared to Karl’s. Her man on the side is jovial and has been everywhere. He’s loaded with stories and has something to offer her emotionally after they get dressed again.

Werner may be a likable dullard, but he’s not stupid. And he’s certainly not going to take his wife’s affair well. The outcome seems a little too preordained for such an organically made film. Nonetheless, age does nothing to dull romantic longing or heartbreak. So many similar movies feature performers who appear as if they’re chained to Nautilus machines when they’re not making love. It’s refreshing to see ordinary-looking folks becoming Cupid’s targets.

That said, Cloud 9 might have benefited from a tighter, more detailed story. We know little about Inge and Werner’s past. It’s almost as if viewers are ambushed by Inge’s affair and that her marital issues are only now coming to light. It would seem more likely that hints of discord had appeared much earlier.

For the most part, Dresen’s almost clinical approach is a good complement to the torrid proceedings. Shot with handheld cameras and featuring no musical score, it’s oddly liberating not to hear a musical cue to let us know when to cry or cringe.

Cloud 9 is a slight film, but that might be the best approach when dealing with a subject as unwieldy as love. (N/A) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 04/02/10)

Clash of the Titans
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The gods of Mt. Olympus can be forgiving. They can pardon a movie that deviates from original Greek legend or simplifies the sometimes morally complicated universe they ruled.

But what they cannot abide by is a mythology film that fails to entertain.

On second thought, French director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, The Transporter 2) may be safe from the gods because his remake of the 1981 Ray Harryhausen adventure has put them (and most viewers) into a deep slumber.

The original had stilted dialogue and garbled mythology but was worth the admission price simply because of Harryhausen’s handcrafted monsters. Sure, the stop motion photographic effects look jerky by today’s standards. Nonetheless, the miniature “coworkers” he carefully built and animated had a personality that their computer-generated successors don’t have.

When the demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington, Avatar) takes on a giant scorpion, the battle is impressive. The same cannot be said for the other mythological encounters. Many of Leterrier’s monsters look as if they were created for a Wii gaming system and then viewed through a pair of mud-stained sunglasses. The make-believe creatures don’t respond to gravity and clearly look superimposed.

It’s as if Leterrier and his legion of technicians have scoffed at the charm and wonder of Harryhausen’s work. They should instead be bowing at his altar and begging for forgiveness. A good start might have been to sacrifice the new Kraken, which looks like it was retooled from the critters in the Alien movies.

The new story squanders its potential. Making the hero Perseus a demigod who’s unwanted by humans and leery of his divine roots could have yielded some dramatic blessings. But the script gives Worthington little to work with. For most of the film, he wanders sullenly, leaving the audience indifferent about whether he achieves his destiny.

His father Zeus (Liam Neeson) and his uncle Hades (Ralph Fiennes) think that human beings haven’t given their creators enough devotion. So the latter decides to punish the city of Argos when their queen Cassiopeia (Polly Walker) declares that her daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is more beautiful than Aphrodite.

Hades warns that if the town doesn’t sacrifice Andromeda to the gods, they will have the dreaded sea beast the Kraken do to Argos what Godzilla usually does to Tokyo.

For somebody playing a god, Fiennes isn’t all that intimidating. Sure, he’s appropriately frighteningly in the Harry Potter movies, but Fiennes’ Hades has a whispering voice that makes him sound as if he’s suffering from laryngitis. Neeson, like most of the cast, seems apathetic, but at least his thundering baritone is just right for a deity. I’d probably go through the motions myself if I were costumed in an anachronistic suit of armor that made me sparkle like a vampire in Twilight.

It’s obvious Leterrier and his producers are worshiping at the temple of commerce instead of Zeus’ shrine or Harryhausen’s tabernacle. Shot to be viewed in 2D, the movie has been shoehorned into 3D and looks awful. One of my peers correctly lamented that Clash of the Titans looks like a blurry pop-up book instead of an immersive experience. In short, the glasses don’t improve the movie.

When the Olympians eventually wake up, don’t be surprised if you see a figure that looks a lot like Sir Laurence Olivier’s Zeus in the Harryhausen movie angrily tossing lighting bolts at Los Angeles. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 04/01/10).

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 Wei could hardly be considered Shakespearean, they require a range that’s wider than Cyrus has ever needed before. Unfortunately, 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 04/02/10)

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