reel reviews
movie reviews
June '09
Away We Go  •  Outrage  •  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen  •  The Proposal  •  Year One
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 •  Imagine That  •  The Merry Gentleman  •  Tyson  •  Anvil! The Story of Anvil
The Hangover  •  My Life in Ruins  •  Land of the Lost  •  Drag me to hell

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

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Away We Go
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Oscar-winning British director Sam Mendes has made a name for himself with brooding dramas like Road to Perdition and Jarhead, but his debut movie American Beauty also indicated that he had a wicked sense of humor.

Away We Go demonstrates he hasn’t lost his comic gifts after making the dour Revolutionary Road. As a result, his always striking camerawork is much more subtle, and he’s smart enough to stay out of the way of a good performance.

He finds plenty of them in his latest movie. The supporting cast is unusually strong. His two leads John Krasinski (The Office) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live) aren’t household names, but after catching their work here, it’s a shame they aren’t.

Krasinski and Rudolph play Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant, an unmarried couple who discover they’re expecting a baby. While Verona bluntly refuses to wed Burt and finds some of his personal habits annoying (like his tendency to speak like his fellow insurance salesmen), their attraction is stronger than most diamonds.

The two may be odd, but Krasinski and Rudolph give Burt and Verona believable anxieties and have a chemistry that makes viewers see the duo as lovers instead of kooks.

Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) complicate Burt and Verona’s plans because they aren’t about to let a little thing like grandparenthood get in the way of their lifelong desire to spend a few years in Belgium.

Figuring their modest home in Colorado (a poorly heated trailer, actually) is inadequate and that there’s no point in being near the former home of Burt’s self-important parents, the two roam the United States and Canada looking for a city where they have friends or relatives. Despite their powerful bond, they notice that every other couple they know seems shallow, vulgar, hypocritical, miserable or just plain weird.

Verona’s pals in Phoenix, Lily and Lowell (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan), curse like sailors and have such a gloomy outlook on life that they’re downright creepy. The same is true for Burt’s cousin LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose bizarre New Age philosophies are more oppressive than helpful and do little to endear her to others.

Even Burt’s brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) isn’t in much of a position to help. His wife has just dumped him, so Burt and Verona toil to keep his spirits up.

The debut script by the celebrated married writing team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida has a cornucopia of snappy lines and amusing situations. While Burt and Verona’s encounters are frequently entertaining, the people they encounter are so broadly drawn that they seem little more than caricatures. After a while, their smugly silly friends and relatives seem more comic ploys than people. The humor seems becomes less potent as the buffoonery becomes monotonous. With a lesser cast, the broad characters might have become more irritating than amusing.

Only Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina as a couple of sad Montreal residents seem fully human. A few more encounters with people like these might have Burt and Verona’s quest for a good home for their upcoming family seem more poignant and compelling.

Away We Go is still funny and occasionally touching but it might have been even more entertaining if Mendes and the screenwriters hadn’t tried to so hard to make us laugh (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 06/26/09)


Outrage
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

When former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was arrested for lewd conduct after attempting to solicit sex from an undercover cop in a Minneapolis airport bathroom, he unintentionally gave a Christmas present to every comedian in the country. David Letterman, Jon Stewart and even the normally overheated Keith Olbermann found something funny about the way Craig allegedly went looking for love.

According to documentarian Kirby Dick, the incident is actually indicative of a national tragedy. Craig has maintained that he’s not gay even though he plead guilty for the toilet incident and several men have since come forward claiming to have had relationships with him.

According to Dick’s new film Outrage, Craig’s double life is not an isolated case. The movie documents several appalling instances when politicians who frequented gay bars at night and voted against AIDS research, gay adoption, civil rights legislation and other issues by day. While the idea of politicians drafting laws that they themselves can’t follow is sadly nothing new, Outrage makes a convincing argument that legislating while living in the closet is detrimental to everyone.

When Dick replays the audio of Craig’s arrest, the incident takes on a new light. As he presents it, the situation becomes so humiliating that it’s hard not feel sorry for him. The sympathy ends when Dick documents Craig’s voting record. Craig and many of his ilk have not only voted for laws that punished his own actions, but they’ve even cast deciding votes for the legislation or even sponsored the bills themselves.

Dick claims that former New York Mayor Ed Koch, current Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and California Congressman David Dreier (a Kansas City native) have followed in Craig’s footsteps. Because all of these politicians have denied being gay and many of their accusers are anonymous, the cases against them as sexual hypocrites vary in their strength. The allegations range from smoking guns (a congressman’s lurid voice messages at a dating service) to reasonable suspicions.

Outrage supplements the work of Michael Rogers, the founder of BlogActive.com, who has outed several politicians and their aides. While Rogers comes off as determined and clever in the documentary, Dick also includes testimony for political figures that have had their sexualities exposed by others. Their stories are just as compelling because many lost jobs and suffered other indignations when their private lives became public.

The most powerful moments in Outrage come from when formerly closeted politicians describe how their lives and their work changed when they admitted they were gay or lesbian. Jim Kolbe, a former Republican Congressman from Arizona, sounds almost euphoric recalling how his life improved when he was forced to admit his homosexuality.

When former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey recalls the torment he felt living in the closet and the relief he felt by admitting the truth, he speaks with candor and clarity that one wishes he had demonstrated in office.

Dick omits details of the scandal that forced McGreevey to fess up and resign. He might have stayed in office and in the closet if he had not put a lover on the public payroll. Including these facts would have made Dick’s case stronger because an out politician might not have engaged in the same reckless behavior.

Dick also includes an interview with McGreevey’s ex-wife Dina Matos McGreevey. After hearing her talk, it’s hard not to feel terrible for the spouses of these officials, knowing that they, too, are living lies.

Outrage demonstrates that politicians who do admit their sexualities tend to vote far differently than those who don’t. With all the corruption and hypocrisy that are already rampant in our government, emptying the closet might make an excellent first step toward cleaning up Washington.

Outrage is playing Friday at 7 pm, Saturday at 4:30 pm and Tuesday at 5 pm at the Tivoli Manor Square in Westport as part of the Kansas City Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Go to http://www.kcgayfilmfest.com for more information. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted 06/24/09)


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Leave it to Michael Bay to take the fun out of explosions.

I won’t fault the director of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor for making popcorn movies. The problem with Bay as a filmmaker is that he generally doesn’t make good ones.

For all the mayhem and destruction that occur in Bay’s movies, they are frequently joyless affairs because it’s hard to care about the shallow characters that inhabit them. If they are people or extraterrestrial robots that can disguise themselves as ordinary machines, Bay can’t make them behave like sentient beings.

Worse, he actually makes the impressive hardware and computer generated wizardry look sadly mundane. With all the metallic spectacle on the screen, you can tell that Bay burned through lots of cash to make Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But his rapid-fire cutting and hyperactive camera work reduce impressive special effects into confusing blurs.

In the first Transformers movie, Bay almost forgot to be himself. There was an interesting premise, even if it was recycled from a 1980s line of toys and a television cartoon series created to sell them. Imagine discovering that your car, your cell phone or even your portable stereo was actually a malevolent robot from outer space and that the only way to defend the human race is to join with other chameleonic bots.

The fights between the giant cyborgs were as suspenseful as they were loud and hyperkinetic. It was cool to seeing the cheesy transformations from the old cartoons rendered with special effects that made them look real for a change.

What little novelty there was in the previous film is gone now. It’s no longer surprising to watch innocent looking objects turning into attackers. It also doesn’t help that both the actors and the robots look as if both are merely collecting paychecks.

Because the first movie made enough money to fund a trip to the Autobots’ home planet, we quickly learn that the victory at the end of the first film wasn’t final. Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and USAF Tech Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) discover a new wave of attacks by the dreaded Decepticons. Even with the help of the Autobots and their leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), the bad robots keep tearing up places like Shanghai and Paris.

Thanks to Bay’s scattershot direction, the mayhem caused in these cities looks more like the comic destruction in the puppet film Team America: World Police than genuine calamities.

In the meantime, the nerdy Sam and his smoking hot grease monkey girlfriend Mikaela (Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox) can’t quite find the way to admit they love each other the way they do the Autobots. That might because Bay has yet to direct a love scene that looks believable. Whenever LaBeouf and Fox interact, the dialogue sounds as if neither Bay nor his screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci or Alex Kurtzman have even had a date or at least overheard a couple of lovers talking.

This might explain why LaBeouf feels the need to contort his face like one of the Three Stooges (my guess is Shemp). Since the material is lousy, he and the rest of the cast (human and mechanical) have to work overtime.

Curiously, even the robots aren’t that cool this time. Because Bay introduces characters of both flesh and steel in such a cursory manner, it becomes tricky to tell Autobots from Decepticons, and even fanboys at my screening couldn’t tell which of their favorite toys wound up on the big screen.

The only vivid characters are a couple of Autobots who don’t fight particularly well and speak in a dialect that sounds like a racist parody of African Americans. It doesn’t help that one of them looks like he has a gold tooth.

The central idea behind the new film is also far from politically correct. According to this film, the Pyramids and other wonders were actually created by space aliens, not by people who actually lived there. This pseudoscience repeated here is as antiquated as it is contemptible. Adding to the silliness is the strange fact that Bay and his cohorts can’t explain how archeologists could have missed some of the hidden high-tech machines in ancient buildings.

As a result, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is funny when it’s supposed to be serious (watch how Bay films the fall of an apple using the same slow motion photography he uses for a battle) and irritating when it’s supposed to amusing. When a bureaucrat gets in the way of his ability to save the world, Epps laments, “I really hate that dude. He’s an asshole.”

The rest of the movie is just as witty.

In two and a half hours, Bay delivers less entertainment than in a mere 10 minutes of either Up or Star Trek. It’s too bad that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can’t change itself into a better movie. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 06/23/09)


The Proposal
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

There isn’t much in the way of imagination to be found in The Proposal, but likable stars almost make you forget there was ever a movie titled Green Card.

In this variation of the oft-told tale Sandra Bullock plays a tyrannical editor named Margaret Tate who can skillfully cajole high-maintenance authors while terrorizing her subordinates.

Unfortunately, the Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn’t care if she can coax reclusive novelists to appear on Oprah. Because she’s ignored all the letters that INS has sent her, she’s about to be deported to her native Toronto and lose her job.

She quickly ropes her long-suffering assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) into posing as her fiancé. Like most of Margaret’s employees, Andrew can’t stand her but intends on using the sham marriage to land a promotion.

Passing for a happy couple is already difficult for them, but to make the ruse work, Margaret and Andrew have to visit his upscale parents (Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson) in rural Alaska. As a lifelong urbanite, Margaret finds the new environment intimidating (who knew that eagles and dogs were a bad combination), and Andrew discovers the legal penalties for his impromptu romance could be steeper than the benefits.

Movies like The Proposal flourish by meeting audience expectations instead of defying them, so it takes no effort to guess where it’s headed. Fortunately, Bullock and Reynolds are appealing enough to make viewers care if real love will emerge from the legal ploy.

Bullock’s perky charm also helps leaven Margaret’s withering remarks and selfish behavior. A viewer can sense a better person starting to emerge under Cupid’s spell.

Reynolds manages to hold his own, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see what he can do when offered adequate material. In this film and Adventureland, he demonstrates some comedic chops that his previous roles (like the laugh-free Van Wilder) prevented him from using.

The two manage to elevate a tired setup into a serviceable comedy, and they get a wonderful assist from former Golden Girl Betty White. As Andrew’s blunt-tongued grandmother, the 86-year-old White is so appealing that she may be about the only actress who can get away with corny wisecracks about Bullock’s chest. Boasting a vitality that would make younger performers envious, she dominates just about every scene she’s in.

Screenwriter Pete Chiarelli comes up with enough pratfalls and fish-out-of-water gags to keep things moving. The Proposal doesn’t take viewers anywhere they haven’t been before, but Bullock, Reynolds and White know how to make the trip more enjoyable (PG-13). Rating: 3.5 (Posted 06/19/09)


Year One
Reviewed By Brandon Whitehead

When it was announced that Harold Ramis was putting together a movie based on a decades-old script that was going to star Jack Black and Michael Cera as cavemen, nobody expected very much — and that’s pretty much what we got.

It’s not like Ramis, the writer behind such greats as Animal House and Ghostbusters, doesn’t have the skill: it’s just that movie-goers today demand a little more movie plot-cohesion then he seems to be able to come up with, and this big fart of a movie has none at all.

Zed (Jack Black) is a useless hunter and his buddy Oh (Michael Cera) is a hapless gatherer, and both are in love with two make-up wearing and permed females who won’t give them the time of day. Through a series of mishaps they end up being exiled and wander what seems like about 100 feet away, where they meet brothers Cain (David Cross) and Abel … and guess what happens? After a small cameo by Ramis himself as the brother’s father (doesn’t that make him, um, Adam?), the two are captured and taken to the city of Sodom as slaves.

The rest is a mish-mash about human sacrifice, gay jokes and Jack Black mugging for the camera like his life depends on it. There are a few more funny cameos, like Hank Azaria as the biblical Abraham, who becomes obsessed with cutting off the end of every man’s … well, you know, and Oliver Platt as a high priest who gives new meaning to the word “hair-shirt,” but those are few and far between.

This whole movie just seems small: supposedly these two odd-couple rip-offs wander across half the world, but you wouldn’t even know if not for their costume changes. Even the supposedly ancient city of Sodom feels about as big as a mall parking lot.

The pairing of Black with Cera, a mumbling milquetoast with Bob Newhart’s comedic timing, is fun to watch, but they spend so much time being helplessly swept along by badly thought-out ideas that in the end you only feel sorry that they ever left their forest-huts in the first place. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5  (Posted 6/19/09)


The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Reviewed by Deborah Young

This latest cinematic incarnation of novelist John Godey’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has a huge similarity to the stuffy 2008 historical drama Frost/Nixon. Both feature an extended jousting match between two men with different motivations and similar passions.

Frost/Nixon’s verbal jousting nearly put me to sleep, but the verbal gymnastics of Pelham’s lead characters had me on the edge of my seat. So what does Pelham have that Frost/Nixon didn’t (besides car chases, crashes and gunfights)? The answer is: charisma and clever dialogue.

The movie’s premise is simple. A group of hijackers (led by John Travolta as Ryder) commandeers the New York subway train that leaves Pelham Bay at 1:23 p.m. Train dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) gets involved because he’s communicating with the train’s engineer via radio at the time of the hijacking. He’s quickly thrust into the role of hostage negotiator.

Bravo to casting on this one. Washington and Travolta have great chemistry. The two actors have successfully created characters that are two sides of a coin. Washington projects a cool exterior, that omnipresent smile of his adding charm to a character that is not exactly what he pretends to be. On the other hand, Travolta presents us with a tattooed and buck-wild financial wizard who has nothing to lose.

Both men have their passions. Ryder’s is revenge. Garber’s is taking care of his family. And both have obvious vices and rapier wit.

During much of the movie Garber sits at a desk at the Rail Control Center in Midtown and talks to Ryder by radio. Ryder’s f-bomb-laced banter comes from a train in the bowels of the subway system.

The mayor (James Gandolfini) gets called into the action because he needs to authorize the payment of Ryder’s ransom demand. One of his advisers reminds him that he also needs to provide leadership to a worried city during the crisis. This scene provides a bit of comedy as the mayor shows his annoyance at the thought of being motivational during this unexpected interruption of his day. “I left my Rudy Giuliani suit at home today,” he drones.

The Taking of Pelham succeeds because it’s simultaneously suspenseful and funny, and because it features very capable, charismatic actors (including John Turturro as a hostage negotiator). And screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire) has put some darned funny words in these actor’s mouths.

I could have done without the sequence that features racing and crashing police cars, but watching this typical action fluff is a small price to pay for the witty funfest that is The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. (R) Rating 3.5 (Posted 6/12/09)


Imagine That
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

When a children’s movie like Imagine That fails, it’s tragedy that the magic spells in the move can’t be used to escape the theater.

From watching the film, it’s also easy to wonder if Eddie Murphy wishes he could have some of that hocus pocus to salvage his faltering career. While Murphy appears to be exercising and eating properly, it’s been ages since his formidable comic talents to good use. With the exception of Dreamgirls, the actor has been settling for quick paychecks and weak material.

It’s easy to forget his work in Beverly Hills Cop and Saturday Night Live when he plays a straight man to a little girl’s imaginary friends. In this case, a girl named Olivia Danielson (Yara Shahidi) proves to be quite a handful for her divorced parents. She refuses to stop hiding behind her blanket and talks incessantly with her make-believe pals.

Her workaholic father Evan (Murphy) has been unable to deal with her issues. He’s under pressure to name hot stock tips for his clients even though every sharp idea he has gets undermined by either fate or his New Age slogan-spouting rival Johnny Whitefeather (a wasted Thomas Haden Church).

When Evan is forced to spend time with his demanding daughter, however, her imaginary princess buddies have insight into the future that would make Nostradamus envious. Olivia’s explanations for her friends’ stock calls don’t make much sense (they involve kissing and soiled undergarments), but they are unfailingly right.

All of this is an excuse for Murphy to do occasionally goofy dance moves (at the request of princesses he can’t see) and make some goofy faces. None of this is remotely funny. Murphy doesn’t seem to be pushing himself, and the routine script by Ed Solomon (Men in Black) and Chris Matheson (Mr. Wrong) does him no favors.

Yes, in the end Evan learns that it’s more important to be a good parent than a high roller. Because every poop joke and celebrity cameo is telegraphed, there’s no fun to be had. Imagine That has an annoying sense of condescension that seems to be telling viewers that kids, and the adults who pay for their tickets, are not that bright. The tots at my screening reciprocated the filmmakers’ attitude with appropriate indifference.

As I was reading up about the film, I encountered this plot summary on Wikipedia. It’s funnier than anything on screen:

“When all of the sudden evil zombie monkeys attack and destroy the universe. Murphy unleashes his super nuke and destroys the monkeys only to be ambushed by Zeus’ indestructible apple pies. Murphy dies saying his famous quote, ‘Don’t drink the grape juice.’”

Perhaps if Solomon and Matheson had incorporated zombie monkeys or apple pies, or if the producers had hired the scribe who came up with this amusingly incoherent blurb, there would have been a more entertaining or at least original film. Imagine that. (PG) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 06/12/09)


The Merry Gentleman
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

It’s been a while since Michael Keaton has graced the big screen. He did seem to lower the bar a bit by appearing in Herbie: Fully Loaded back in 2005, but thankfully his fans can rejoice once again.

In his directorial debut, Keaton had created a subtle, quiet study in the way people sometimes find what the need in the most unexpected places. Indeed, there is virtually no dialog in the first opening scenes, instead favoring clever editing and wonderful cinematography to establish the mood.

We start with a scene of Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald), most likely moments after her abusive husband has given her a black eye. The reason why he gets away with such behavior becomes apparent when the officers who have shown up simply leave after giving the man a pat on the back: her husband, Michael (Bobby Cannavale), is a cop.

Leaving him behind, Kate tries to start a new life in a new city, working at a new job. After leaving work one night, she looks up at the falling snow only to see a man standing on the ledge of the building across the street. Startled, she yells, and the man falls backward, his suicide attempt ended. But that’s hardly the main story here: The man, Frank Logan (Michael Keaton), is a professional killer who has just shot a man in Kate’s building with a rifle.

What follows is an almost inevitable series of events that brings Logan and Kate together in a strange and awkward friendship that both desperately need. Logan, a feared and respected assassin, is so lonely that he contemplates suicide after every hit, while Kate has to remain hidden from her past life, constantly lying about her black eye to her coworkers and the two detectives who show up to investigate the murder in her building.

One of the detectives, Dave (Tom Bastounes) become enamored with Kate, but even his character is so socially awkward he tries to use the case as a reason to see Kate.

Soon Logan is helping Kate lug in her Christmas tree and sending her flowers in between knocking off everybody associated in the murder, while the two detectives slowly work their way towards tracking down Frank. When Kate’s husband tracks here down, proclaiming the he is “cured” after finding Christ in a way that is far from convincing, Logan takes care of the problem in his own particular style. This tips off the detectives, who start putting all the pieces together.

While many might find the ending rather open-ended, that hardly detracts from the subtle and mesmerizing performances by both Keaton and Bastounes, who portray broken men who have only their professions left to sustain them. While Macdonald’s Kate does seem a bit overly weepy at time, she bears the burden of being the protagonist so well that one often forgets she is portraying a written character. The script, written by Ron Lazzeretti, is dependant on a good director, and Keaton delivers in spades.

This might not be every movie goers cup of tea, but there’s no question that there are some fantastic performances here, and the way Keaton makes the stark winter streets of Chicago come alive are at times transcendental. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 6/12/09)

Tyson
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

The human train-wreck that is the rise and fall of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson has always been both fascinating and repelling, and not just for your average boxing fan.

He’s already been the subject of other films (Tyson: Uncaged, Fallen Champ) attempting to peel back his goofy facial tattoo and bizarre behavior to find the real man-child underneath, if indeed there is anything underneath to reveal.

Director/writer James Toback now takes his own shot at Tyson, in a unique if somewhat strange manor himself: filming a now 40-year-old Tyson, sitting on a couch and talking about his life for 90 minutes.

Indeed, it was a good twenty minutes into this documentary when this critic suddenly realized there would be no narrator, no third independent voice present here: just Tyson, talking and talking and talking…

There are moments, particularly when Tyson talks about his childhood as a frightened, sickly boy growing up on the hard streets of Brooklyn that tug at the heart or elicit a chuckle. However, without another voice to weigh in on the facts, the audience is left with only Tyson’s already questionable honesty to believe in.

Perhaps, it’s the fact that Tyson himself was constantly surrounded by liars, cheats and even worse, Robin Givens, leaving virtually no one here with a grain of honesty to help tell the story.

Tyson himself destroys his own claims of being “misunderstood,” blaming Desiree Washington for his three-year stint in prison for her rape and drugs for his often-despicable behavior.

One also has to wonder about the wisdom of letting a man parodied for his thick lisp and wacky vocabulary (one scene where he waxes poetically about “performing fellatio on women”) talk for an hour and a half. Toback does his best to give Mike an honest and sympathetic chance to explain his side, but all he does here is bury himself even deeper doing so.

Even the most famous event in his life — his meteoric rise as one of the hardest hitters ever and his twice-as-fast subsequent fall, ending in a humiliating loss to Evander Holyfield after biting a chunk of the guy’s ear off — is told by Tyson in a bland and stumbling manor.

Better the man stick to cameos in buddy flicks about drinking to much. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 6/9/09)


Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Reviewed by Deborah Young

If I were to write a tagline for Anvil! The Story of Anvil it would be: “How long is too long to hold onto a dream?”

The rockers who are the focus of this documentary have answered that question with their lives. There’s no time limit on realizing a dream.

Lead guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (no relation to Spinal Tap’s Reiner) met in the early 1970s when they were 14 years old. At that time they vowed to rock for life.

The first heavy metal band the boys formed released its first album in 1981. More than 25 years, several recordings and many disappointments later, Steve and Robb, now in their fifties, are still trying to realize their dream.

Director Sacha Gervasi includes interviews of famous rockers influenced by Anvil. These include Slash of Guns N’ Roses and Lars Ulrich of Metallica. But the former Anvil roadie turned director is at his best when he’s up close and personal with Steve and Robb.

We see the two men working their completely unglamorous day jobs, arguing with each other, and spending time with their families. We witness a heartbreaking tour to Europe during which few people show up for the band’s performances and, at one point, the band being denied pay after a performance.

Gervasi also goes behind the scenes to discover how Steve’s and Robb’s dream has affected their families.

Basically Anvil! is the music documentary version of The Wrestler, without the tragic ending. It’s a testament to the human ability to keep the fires of a passion burning and the light of hope turned on when it would be easier to just quit. (NR) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 6/9/09)


The Hangover
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As the title implies, The Hangover leaves viewers with a sense of emptiness and remorse. But it sure was fun to get there.

Director Todd Phillips (Old School) achieves a strange type of purity. He and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (the duo behind the annoying Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) make no concessions to decency, good taste or common sense. They also have enough bizarre surprises to keep the audience feeling just as bleary-eyed and disoriented as the protagonists.

Doug Billings (Justin Bartha) is about to marry the wealthy and stunningly beautiful Tracey Garner (Sasha Barrese). Tracey’s father (Jeffrey Tambor) wouldn’t let anyone except an upright person like Doug marry his daughter, but Doug’s friends are another matter.

He couldn’t have picked three more dangerous companions for his bachelor party in Las Vegas. Tracey’s brother Alan (Zach Galifianakis) looks and acts less like her sibling and more like a deranged, unkempt family pet. He abruptly warns his companions he’s not legally allowed near schools or Chucky Cheese restaurants.

We probably don’t want to know why.

Stu (Ed Helms, The Daily Show and The Office) is likable, but his domineering girlfriend suppresses his desires so much that he lies about the party and looks as he’s about to explode with rage and frustration at any moment.

Phil (Bradley Cooper) is the most normal looking one of the bunch, and conversely the most treacherous. While a married father, he thinks matrimony is an overrated institution that gets in the way of his fun. He even embezzles money from the students at the high school where he teaches.

With this crew, the seeds of disaster have been sewn, but the harvest is much more creative and funny that it has a right to be. The group wakes up in a trashed luxury suite with Stu missing a tooth and live animals wandering through the rooms. One of the beasts is a tiger that obviously didn’t escape from Siegfried and Roy. There’s even a baby boy stuffed in one of the cabinets.

The crew has no memory of the debauchery that happened the night before and, worse, Doug has disappeared with less than 36 hours before the wedding.

Just when Phillips and the screenwriters seem to have exhausted their supply of outrageousness, they seem to find new windfalls. The Hangover has a very hard R-rating, and many of the most shockingly funny sequences were too vulgar for the previews. It’s difficult to say if these folks should be offered more Hollywood work or restraining orders.

None of the cast, with the exception of a famous boxer who plays himself, are household names. And that’s an asset because we have no idea what to expect from the performers. Galifianakis is essentially rehashing his standup act, but it’s great to see him in a film where his hilariously creepy persona is used to full effect. Whereas most comedians leave you with the impression they could use a psychiatrist, Galifianakis appears to need the services of a good exorcist.

Helms is likable enough to make viewers care if he actually makes sense of the evening gone wrong. There are also some terrific supporting turns, particularly from Overland Park’s Rob Riggle as an angry cop.

Like most bachelor parties, the fun is something that fills participants with enormous guilt afterward, but it’s delightful while it’s happening. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 06/05/09)


My Life in Ruins
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

A great setting can really make a romantic comedy special. It’s hard to imagine To Catch a Thief taking place anywhere but on the French Riviera. It’s not much fun, however, when the setting is more interesting than the people who occupy it.

That’s the issue plaguing My Life in Ruins, the latest vehicle for Nia Vardalos, the Canadian actress who rose to fame by writing and starring in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Vardalos wound up making a small fortune and striking a public nerve by getting in touch with her Greek heritage in the previous movie.

Vardalos and her collaborators are trying to catch lighting in a bottle again by sending her to her ancestral homeland. Unfortunately, she apparently didn’t make the right kind of sacrifices to the deities on Mt. Olympus this time. You can see her and the rest of the cast straining so hard for laughs that you swear you can see them pull muscles.

The new film features Vardalos as Georgia, a laid off college professor who’s stuck guiding tourists through Athens. The beauty and history of the city and the surrounding area still fill Georgia with love, but her unrewarding job and her empty love life give her nothing but despair.

The visitors in her group are an irritating bunch and are more interested in scoring trinkets than taking in the region’s rich history. Georgia would rather lecture than lay out on the beach, so the tourists think her a bore.

Included is a dim couple that seems to be the ultimate ugly Americans (Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch). They’re more boorish than eccentric. There’s a stuffy British family (Caroline Goodall, Ian Oglivy, Sophie Stuckey) who think they can bribe their way past anything and a grumpy widower (Richard Dreyfuss) whose jokes make his complaints more pleasant.

Georgia’s co-workers aren’t much help. Her driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis) looks like a hairy missing link, and a smarmy competing guide (Alistair McGowan) is doing everything in his power to sabotage her tour.

All of this might have been heartwarming and amusing if the people involved were likable or at least vaguely interesting. Only Oscar-winner Dreyfuss can do much with the underdeveloped material as his character loses his anger and starts to help Georgia loosen up. Some snappy dialogue or creative situations would have been nice, but screenwriter Mike Reiss (with un-credited rewrites by Vardalos) thought the audience might fall over by having characters repeat Poupi’s name. Viewers who might cackle at that one are probably young enough to think that they could get massive cooties from getting too close to the opposite sex.

At least some of the footage of the Acropolis and the Greek landscape is authentic and breathtaking. A good chunk of the movie was actually shot in Spain, but director Donald Petrie, who gave us such forgettable drivel as My Favorite Martian and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, seamlessly mixes the two locations so it’s hard to tell when one starts and the other ends.

On a DVD, you could skip to the chapters where Greece’s majesty briefly diverts us from the rest of the film. Too bad there’s no remote in the theater (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 06/05/09)


Land of the Lost
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Since The Land of the Lost is a remake of yet another cheap Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show from the seventies, it would seem silly to expect much. After all, the show centered around three explorers trapped in a world of fake dinosaurs, Neanderthal teenagers and scary yet reeeally slow lizards called “Sleestaks”— perfect, if your ten years old and hopped up on sugary cereal.

Not that it has ever stopped Hollywood: They have already made billions off toy cars that turn into top-heavy robots and probably will again with a soon-to-be released movie about plastic army toys. Plus, moviemakers have a seemingly unstoppable super-weapon for plot-less remakes that were written in about twenty minutes: Will Ferrel.

Yes, the man-who-made-SNL-actually-funny-again sounds perfect for such a broken down vehicle: just let him run around and scream a lot equals box office bonanza. It goes without saying that his other films, such as Anchorman and Old School, are now classics of raunchy adult humor.

But isn’t this ostensibly a kid’s movie? Certainly, the previews would indicate that, as would the fact that it’s based on a kid’s TV show. But parents would be well advised to pay attention to that PG-13 rating. In fact this movie flirts so heavily with an R rating that one wonders if the ratings board actually watched the damn thing.

The plot, if you call it that, is about Ferrel’s character Dr. Rick Marshall, a self-proclaimed “Quantum Paleontologist” who is discredited by the scientific community due to his research into time warps or tachyons or something. Reduced to teaching at some kind of grade school, Rick is approached by Holly Cantrell (Anna Friel), a student who has followed his work and believes his research might be correct.

The two head off to a run-down tourist attraction out in the desert owned by Will Stanton (Danny McBride), where they use Rick’s Quantum Attractor or Detector what-ya-ma-call-it to open a hole in space/time which all three promptly fall through.

What follows is a mish-mash of T-Rex chases and pee-jokes, with a good amount of boob grabbing, particularly by Chaka (Jorma Taccone), a hairy Neanderthal the three adopt.

There is some kind of plot concerning a Sleestak leader who wants Rick’s show tunes singing device to control the Sleestaks and conquer Earth, but since they also move reeeally slow and have no guns, how he intends to do that seems a little shaky.

Much of this movie is a string of almost certainly improv’ed scenes, which given Ferrel’s ability alongside McBride, who was so good in The Foot-Fist Way, should be comedic gold but is simply not very funny. Add in an F-bomb, lame drug jokes and Rick getting pooped out of a dinosaur, and you’ve got one of the un-funniest Will Ferrel movies ever made.

The only thing “Lost” here is the audience member’s ticket price. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 6/5/06)


Drag Me to Hell
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Sam Raimi might be best known for bringing Spider-Man to the screen, but moviegoers originally fell in love with his work because he was effortlessly able to blend low-rent horror with broad comedy in his Evil Dead movies. While he and Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell both have other gigs to keep them occupied these days, Raimi has finally taken the time to thank his early fans for their patience.

Like the movies that put him on the map, his latest Drag Me to Hell is small, tacky and thoroughly entertaining. As with the Evil Dead series, Raimi’s pacing is frantic, and he can still deliver over-the-top jolts. There are some really gross-looking liquids in Drag Me to Hell whose contents I never want defined. At the same time making Hollywood hits like Spider-Man and intelligent thrillers like A Simple Plan has broadened his palate.

When supernatural forces manifest themselves, viewers never get clear look at them. Raimi prefers to keep them in the corner of the screen or shows only their shadows. He knows that what we can’t see is far scarier than what we can. He also works ably within a PG-13 rating, delivering more chills and guilty laughs than a lot of filmmakers could with fewer restrictions.

Even though Raimi and his brother Ivan wrote the initial script back in the 1990s, the story feels weirdly contemporary. Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men) stars as Christine Brown, a loan officer (they aren’t too popular these days) who has a kind heart and a feeling of insecurity. Her supportive but upwardly mobile boyfriend (Justin Long) has wealthy parents who think she’s nothing more than a rube.

Her boss (an appropriately unfeeling David Paymer) believes she’s a contender for a new assistant manager slot, but thinks she’s just a little too nice to troubled borrowers. You get the sense this cold professional would rather work with her peer Stu (Reggie Lee), who takes conniving to previously unimagined heights. He both bribes their supervisor and deliberately undermines her.

When a sick old woman named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) shows up at her desk asking for an extension on her mortgage, Christine initially tries to help her but decides her supervisor would prefer a firm hand. Mrs. Ganush doesn’t take kindly to Christine’s rejection and places a curse on her that will put her in the arms of the Devil in three days.

Christine tries a variety of ways of negating the spell, but she can’t get the terrifying Mrs. Ganush to change her mind. It seems she passed on shortly after the eviction.

Raimi used to joke that his early leading ladies were chosen primarily for their ability to scream. One of the joys of Drag Me to Hell is that Lohman is capable of doing far more than that. Her child-like face can project just enough innocence to make you care if Christine gets out of her predicament even when she starts stooping to Machiavellian steps to lifting the curse. Actors who do well in horror films rarely get proper recognition, and Lohman’s seamless shifts from terror to resolve are just as enjoyable to watch as the grisly images Raimi dreams up.

While Raimi isn’t above making cheap jokes (look at a poster on Christine’s wall during one of the attacks), he still sets a standard that other horror filmmakers can never hope to meet. He can do more with a set of false teeth and a compelling, if deeply flawed heroine, that most horror hacks can with enough fake blood to flood the Great Basin. (PG-13) Rating: 4. (Posted 06/01/09)


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

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