movie reviews June 2010

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse  •  Solitary Man  •  Mother and Child  •  Ondine  •  Grown Ups
Knight and Day  •  Toy Story 3  •  Winter's Bone  •  Please Give  •  The Karate Kid  •  Ajami  •  The A-Team
Splice  •  Get Him to the Greek  •  The Human Centipede  •  Casino Jack and the United States of Money  •  Marmaduke

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

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The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Hold on tight, spider monkey. With its third installment, the Twilight series has reached dangerously close to competence. Many of the traits that have annoyed non-Twihards are still here, but The Twilight Saga: Eclipse has fewer of the technical and narrative problems of the first two films. It won’t make detractors of the series any more tolerant of the sparkly vampires or sensitive, shirtless werewolves, but fans can appreciate the greater care that went into this and possibly the next two chapters.

The perennially mopey Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is growing closer to her shiny undead boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). As the two talk about their futures against a mountain range that seems to be borrowed from a beer commercial, they fail to notice some difficulties arising in addition to the fact that he’s an undead guy who seems to spend every waking moment stalking her.

Bella has also not patched things up with her werewolf pal Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who still pines for her like a Milkbone dog biscuit. Her police chief father (Billy Burke) would probably like Edward even less if he knew that his potential son in law fed off of the blood of wild animals to resist the call of human fluids.

Being stuck in a romantic triangle involving ghouls might complicate a more stable person’s life, but the brooding Bella discovers that she may be needed to help Edward’s family stop a mysterious spate of serial killings in Seattle. A legion of new bloodsuckers has been recruited by Edward’s old flame Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) to get revenge on Bella’s pallid, whiny boyfriend and to kill as many humans as possible in the process.

Having an invasion of young, hungry vampires outside of lowly Forks, OR gives the new installment a much needed dramatic boost. It’s also refreshing to see the undead and the wolves duke it out instead having ninety minutes of blank stares and mangled dialogue. Melissa Rosenberg’s script (she wrote the other two) still has some groaners. It’s hard to hold back an unintentional chuckle when Bella’s mom observes, “You move. He moves…like magnets.”

Thankfully, this time around Rosenberg finally seems to be having fun with Stephenie Meyer’s source material. Instead of treating the original novel like scripture, she pokes fun at things even die-hard Twihards groan at. Seeing the eternally bare-chested Jacob approaching, Edward asks where the werewolf’s shirt is.

Moments like this give Eclipse a sense of tension that neither of the previous Twilight films had. Now that Pattinson and Lautner can share the screen for more than a few seconds, the romantic triangle becomes more tangible. It also doesn’t hurt that Stewart’s Bella finally develops traces of a spine and that Rosenberg gives her more to do than bite her lip.

Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) has a better eye for creepy atmosphere that his forbearers did, and his special effects budget appears to be larger. This time the wolves look more convincing and expressive. It’s too bad the sloppy editing continues. The battle scenes often look less like a fight to the death and more like a twisted rugby match.

Some of the changes aren’t for the best. Howard can play conniving beautifully, but she isn’t as potentially intimidating as Rachelle Lefevre was in the role. Oddly, the pint-sized Dakota Fanning is actually quite creepy as an unforgiving leader in the Volturi, or vampire council. She gets a lot of mileage from her steely gaze.

Thanks to these improvements, it’s somewhat easier to tolerate the core deficiencies that haven’t been rectified. Eclipse and the previous films are supposed to be love stories, but neither of Bella’s suitors seems all that appealing. While some parents of teen girls might be relieved by Edward’s Victorian sexual standards, he’s still a stalker. He frequently breaks into her room as if he were a spy, and his condescending almost domineering concern for her safety gets irritating. If he were human, he’d get slapped or arrested.

Jacob’s monomaniacal attraction to Bella is also disturbing. Lautner’s master body sculpting hasn’t done much for his acting chops.

Eclipse is still a Twilight movie. If you chuckle every time Edward twinkles in the sun, the improvements in this installment won’t impress you. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 06/30/10)

Solitary Man
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Like his father Kirk, Michael Douglas is master at playing a repellent jerk. His turn in the new black comedy Solitary Man is as assured as anything his old man did in Ace in the Hole or Detective Story.

Still of Michael Douglas and Jesse Eisenberg in Solitary Man

A little bit of contact with Benjamin Kalmen (Douglas) goes a long way. From decades of selling cars in person and on television, he can win over most people with masterful small talk. That said, he never seems to know when he’s not selling. The film opens with him schmoozing a client who turns out to be his own doctor. Maybe in the back of his mind, Ben thinks he can use his silver tongue to coax a favorable diagnosis.

Six years later, Ben has gone from the owner of a chain of successful dealerships to a convicted felon. “New York’s Honest Car Dealer,” as he’s dubbed himself, has also wrecked his personal life with his pathological womanizing. Unwilling to admit that he’s 60, he tells his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and grandson (Jake Siciliano) not to address him as a relative in public for fear of losing another conquest who’s younger than his own offspring.

Ben is a free man because he bought his way out of jail, but he has almost nothing left but his ingratiating manner. He seems on the verge of returning to grace. His new girlfriend Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker) is well connected with bankers, and it looks as if he’s going to land himself a new dealership.

Needless to say, his boundless libido and vanity are guaranteed to sink him again. A simple trip accompanying Jordan’s daughter (Imogen Poots) for a college interview in Boston can’t stop Ben from trying his luck with legions of coeds. Even the young lady he’s chaperoning looks like a potentially rewarding target.

It’s a testament to Douglas’ charm and his acting chops that watching Ben dig his own grave becomes a mesmerizing spectacle. In the hands of another performer, Solitary Man would probably send patrons dashing for the exits. Listening to Douglas offer a pitch is almost like hearing Renée Fleming sing. It’s difficult to resist the urge to buy a car after Douglas finishes speaking. When Ben turns off the charm, however, he can lose everything he’s worked for with a few impulsive acts. Douglas was born to play alpha males, so he handles these scenes with equal finesse.

Veteran screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen), who shares directing duty with David Levien, writes several juicy monologues for Douglas to spout and also creates a supporting cast of characters who as interesting as the lead. From watching Danny DeVito as an old friend of Ben and Susan Sarandon as his ex-wife, we slowly learn how people have tolerated his unsavory behavior for as long as they have.

The film’s conclusion is somewhat problematic. It’s as if Koppelman and Levien have strained a little too hard to wrap up Ben’s thorny life. Much of the pleasure of Solitary Man is deciding for ourselves how Ben has become such a moral wreck. Having a concrete starting date for his transgressions seems unlikely for a fellow who has learned many wrong lessons about his life.

Nonetheless, there’s something truly awe inspiring about watching a performer like Douglas make the most of a character, even it’s someone we’d hope to never meet in real life (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 06/24/10)

Mother and Child
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

This may be a film about women, but Mother and Child shouldn't be mistaken for a typical chick flick. Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) thoughtfully sidesteps melodrama in favor of raw human emotion. The film's candid portrayals of longing and loneliness earn its heartfelt finish.

Still of Samuel L. Jackson and Naomi Watts in Mother and Child

Mother and Child  unfolds in tight, deliberate increments. Karen (Annette Bening), a defensive, difficult perfectionist who has never forgotten the daughter she gave up for adoption nor forgiven her now-elderly mother (Eileen Ryan) for forcing the decision, is chaperoned through transformation by late-in-life love Paco (Jimmy Smits). Crackerjack lawyer Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), who wields her tight body like a weapon in defense of her wanderlust and pathological destructive behavior, breaks ties with her new boss and lover (Samuel L. Jackson), but carries an unplanned, risky pregnancy to term. Overly honest Lucy (Kerry Washington) follows through with an adoption despite the dissolution of the marriage it was meant to save, a distrustful birth mother (Shareeka Epps) and Lucy's own mother's (S. Epatha Merkerson) reservations.

Ostensibly, the three leads seem destined for three separate but related narrative arcs. But Garcia is no sly puppet master. Thankfully, he quickly reveals the ties that bind. The circumstances that cause these women to cross paths are not contrived nor mysteriously and conveniently serendipitous. Instead, they consist of the moments in which their lives honestly overlap, complicated by bad timing and a filing error of Shakespearean tragedy proportions. In that way, the film resembles a well-written short story collection. Each scene complete on its own but chosen for its needed contribution to the whole, which in turn feeds each scene. As a result, the film's interior logic justifies — if not outright celebrates — Karen's short walk to possible redemption.

The performances of the leading actors, as well as those in supporting roles, commend Mother and Child more than the storyline. Benning plays the transformation from grossly unpleasant to openly vulnerable without a missed note. You only notice the change once she delivers Karen there. There's no “acting” in her acting. Watts and Washington are equally adept with their performances, playing beautifully off their characters' complements in Jackson and Merkerson. In two short scenes, Garcia even showcases Epps' characters' relationship with her mother. No opportunity is lost, but neither is it heavy-handed.

Los Angeles itself plays a part in Mother and Child. It's sprawling and melancholy. Neither high-rise apartment nor suburban bungalow is immune to the pervasive sense of regret and loneliness. It's the city in which Karen spends her entire life. It's where Elizabeth always and ultimately ends up, and where Lucy lives just a block away. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 06/25/10)

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Is she or isn't she? The provenance of the title character in writer/director Neil Jordan's Ondine remains coyly ambiguous until the final moments of the film. As a result, the unfulfilled promise of chimerical fantasy unceremoniously bumps into a harsh, modern reality with no time left to sort out the inevitable repercussions. Neither mythical romance nor dark tale of cynical disappointment, the film forces an unearned, unsatisfying “happy” ending.

Alicja Bachleda and Colin Farrell in Ondine

Irish fisherman and recovering alcoholic Syracuse (Colin Farrell), known as Circus to the town folk for his previous clownish drunken behavior, yearns for something “strange and wonderful” to happen in his bleak life. His wheelchair-bound 10-year-old daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), faces kidney failure with little hope of a matching donor, he still mourns for his deceased mother and his estranged wife, and despite still being a heavy drinker, holds custody of Annie. So when Syracuse catches a strange woman in his fishing net, he's plenty game to keep her to himself.

Other than a haunting song, beautiful Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) offers no clues to her true identity. As she hides out in Syracuse mother's ramshackle yet chic seaside bungalow wearing oversize clothes, both Syracuse and his daughter provide her with a background from folklore. Notwithstanding the numerous gratuitous shots of Ondine's shapely yet wobbly bare legs, they begin to suspect she's a selkie, a breed of seal that can shed its pelt to become human, and not a mermaid. Syracuse believes she brings him good luck. Annie longs for an undersea world in which there's less pain. Ondine prefers to propagate the myth rather than be forced to reveal the truth. But then the arrival in town of a swarthy stranger leads Syracuse to confess he knows that what follows will either be “wonderful or terrible.” It's terrible.

The relationships among the characters in Ondine are forced and too pat. They suffer from too much tell and not enough show, and rely on caricature portraits instead of a slow and careful build. In some cases, the exposition contradicts what has transpired mere seconds before or is overtly redundant, a common affliction of small Irish movies (Remember Waking Ned Devine and its subsequent ilk?). The most interesting interactions occur between Syracuse and the town's priest (Stephen Rea). The running gag of “if you were a tree, what tree would you be” is quite endearing.”

In comparison with Jordan's 1984 film The Company of Wolves, which subverts werewolf folklore to create a complete stylized nightmare, Ondine merely touches on the myth of the selkies and then pulls back abruptly. It's as the director was afraid of reaching too far into fantasy, so he offers up a last-minute plausible explanation. Regrettably, this straddling of fantasy and real world shortchanges both. Fortunately, movie lovers can always return to John Sayles masterpiece The Secret of Roan Inish for their folklore fix. In the 1994 film, Sayles successfully relies on the child narrator to provide the belief without the rude awakening. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 06/25/10)

Grown Ups
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The title for the new Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups is supposed to be a misnomer. Nobody pays hard earned money to watch the comic demonstrate how sophisticated his wit can be. While Sandler is more than capable of handling material that doesn’t involve flatulence in films like Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, he understands that most of his bills are paid for by his comic tantrums.

Still of Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and Kevin James in Grown Ups

With Grown Ups Sandler surrounds himself with regular collaborators like Rob Schneider, writer Fred Wolf, director Dennis Dugan (Happy Gilmore, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), David Spade and Kevin James. As a result, the film plays like a gathering of old friends where the viewer feels like a stranger who has stumbled into it. As the old buddies giggle about past glories or stumbles, it’s easy to feel left out.

With the lazily conceived script by Sandler and Wolf, it doesn’t feel that great to be included, either. Grown Ups concerns a former junior high basketball team who’ve reunited to attend their coach’s funeral. As adults their lives haven’t matched the same glory they’ve experienced on the court. It would be easier to buy the story if at least one of the lead actors stood over six feet. Lenny Feder (Sandler) is making money hand over fist as a Hollywood agent, but his children are spoiled brats who can’t be pulled from their Gameboys and cell phones.

Kurt McKenzie (Chris Rock) has been cooking and cleaning because his wife (Maya Rudolph) has a better career than he does. Eric Lamonsoff (Kevin James) seems to have a decent job, but he’s still tormented that his wife (Maria Bello) is still nursing their four-year-old son. Spade plays a fellow who chases after young women even though he’s no longer much of a catch himself, and Schneider plays a massage therapist whose cures probably cause more ills than treat them.

All converge with their wives at a lakeside resort in New England (apparently Sandler and Wolf couldn’t be bothered to name a state, much less a major city). The thin plot offers little more excuses for Sandler and the other comics to toss out wisecracks that Lorne Michaels would have rejected from Saturday Night Live, where most of the cast have cut their teeth. Many of these exchanges seem unscripted, which makes one wonder how weak the material was on paper. Apparently, Dugan isn’t that interested in quality control.

Sandler and Wolf throw out dozens of subplots, none of which go anywhere. They also give talented actresses like Bello and Salma Hayek very little to do. Of the performers playing the wives, only Rudolph gets any mileage from the weak material. At least, the screenwriters have discovered another body function to exploit. Thanks to lactation, there’s a welcome break from half-hearted gags involving urine, feces and flatulence.

Grown Ups makes a few banal attempts to extol the virtues of honesty and simplicity, but there are fewer laughs and insights in this film than in five minutes of Rock’s standup act. The few sequences that work (like a genuinely funny cameo from Steve Buscemi) eventually wear out their welcome because Dugan doesn’t have the sense to move on before the jokes become stale.

In addition, a lot of the physical humor doesn’t work because it’s handled in such a mean spirited way. It would be easy to feel sorry when these folks injure themselves, but they’re not likable enough to elicit any sort of response.

With the scenic locations, it appears as if Sandler and his cohorts had a good time putting Grown Ups together. It’s too bad they forgot to make a movie while they were at it. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 06/25/10)

Knight and Day
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As a collection of set pieces, Knight and Day is occasionally impressive. For a few minutes, director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) makes the outlandish seem real. There’s also something oddly refreshing about the way that Mangold refuses to settle for simple vehicle chases or explosions. Why have a motorcycle chasing after cars when you can set the pursuit through a stampede of angry bulls in the middle of narrow Spanish streets?

still of Diaz and Cruise

Mangold, whose specialty used to be intimate dramas like Girl, Interrupted, is surprisingly less assured when he and credited screenwriter Patrick O’Neill try to explain how the characters find themselves in such jaw dropping situations. With the exception of Tom Cruise’s turn as a spy who’s as lethal as he is enigmatic, the characters are too thin for the able cast to develop. The plot takes more shortcuts than a foolish out-of-town driver trying to second-guess his or her Garmin.

At least Knight and Day gets off to a terrific start. A polite but distant fellow named Roy Miller wanders through the airport in Wichita. Thanks to Cruise’s intense stare and beady eyes, it’s obvious that he’s not a tourist. He makes a little small talk with a Beantown garage owner named June Havens (Cameron Diaz), who’s in Wichita to score some spare parts. When it looks like she might be late in getting back to Boston, an opening magically occurs on Roy’s flight.

During the flight over the Midwest, June emerges from the bathroom to discover that Roy has killed all the other passengers on the plane. Landing directly in Boston is now impossible because Roy has been in a shooting match with the flight crew, too. Roy claims to be some type of spy, but if he were, why has he left the understandably inquisitive and frightened June alive? Killing her would have eliminated the only witness to his or others’ deeds.

June wakes up safe in her bed but winds up being tailed by FBI agents (Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis) who claim that Roy has gone rogue and must be stopped before he initiates a national security nightmare. Considering the fact that he wounds or kills more people than a street full of IEDs, the charge sounds credible. She and Roy are also wanted by a Spanish arms dealer (Jordi Mollà) who seems even more dangerous than the rogue agent himself.

As long as viewers are unsure of what to make of the skilled but trigger-happy Roy, Knight and Day works. Because his antagonists are as homicidally determined as he is, it’s easy to wonder if he’s offing opponents as a necessary evil or if he’s simply, well, evil.

After a while, Mangold gets bored with the guessing game, and the film follows suit. It doesn’t help that the other characters aren’t as interesting as Roy. Diaz is fine as June, but there’s no chemistry between her and Cruise. Sarsgaard, Davis and Paul Dano are all saddled with one-note roles that really don’t give them much room to work. As a result, the story lacks the tension it needs to keep up with the over-the-top action. After a while, there isn’t much here that hasn’t been in Cruise’s Mission: Impossible films.

To Mangold’s credit, he can stage action scenes that are easy to follow and that have a genuine sense of awe. If only the people getting into the vehicle crashes were as well thought out as the accidents they get into. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 06/23/10)

Toy Story 3
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Pixar has created a world exclusively populated by cars and has made a love story involving two robots, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they can also make a sequel that retains all the charm of the film that preceded it. After all, they’ve done it before.

Toy Story 3 has certainly made for commercial gain, but the crew at Pixar has approached the construction of this film as if it were their child instead of their product. Because it’s been 15 years since the first Toy Story and 11 years since the second, the Pixar crew has had plenty of time to develop their visual prowess. Regardless of whether you see the film in 3D, the images are breathtaking.

still from toy story 3

It’s probably redundant to say that folks at Pixar have also retained their unerring eye for storytelling. Toy Story 3 has all the clever wisecracks and sight gags of the previous entries, but there’s also an emotional resonance that’s deeper than the first two installments. In addition, as with Wall-E and Up, Toy Story 3 examines themes that a child can grasp but that would make an adult’s head spin. There’s actually a bit of food for thought in a film that’s allegedly a diversion for kids.

While the toy cowboy Woody (the voice of Tom Hanks) and his pretend Space Explorer friend Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) haven’t aged since 1999, their owner Andy (John Morris) is now ready for college and has all but put away his childish things. As he gets ready to leave, his mother (Laurie Metcalf) demands that he dispose of the playthings or donate them to the Sunnyside Day Care.

Through some moving mix-ups, all of the toys wind up being donated to Sunnyside. Woody knows that he’s still a favorite of his master, but Andy’s other toys know that life in the attic isn’t so fun and that it’s only a matter of time before they’re unceremoniously dumped into a landfill.

Woody makes a daring escape in the hope of being reunited with Andy, but the other toys quickly discover that new acquisitions are on the low end of the totem pole at Sunnyside. A seemingly friendly but bitter teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) makes sure that none of the new arrivals make it to the areas where the older kids play.

Buzz and his compatriots soon discover that being placed in the hands of toddlers is like being one of the sinners in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. In addition to being a hilarious comic nightmare, these new sequences also demonstrate that director Lee Unkrich (who edited the first two installments) and Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) have actually spent time watching pre-schoolers. Leave a child that young unattended, and he or she will become a walking WMD.

Because of the other hair-raising situations Andy’s toys have been through, it’s a reasonable assumption they’ll get through this crisis with their stuffings and friendships intact. What makes getting to that conclusion special is that the filmmakers embrace such heavy subject material as mortality and loss, and handle them with finesse that’s missing from most adult dramas.

Woody stumbles into a safe home with a kind little girl named Bonnie (Beatrice Miller) but feels too much loyalty to both Andy and his friends to stay there. While it’s probably true that toys don’t ponder these questions, questions about betrayal and trust have been the sort of thing that William Shakespeare and David Mamet have juggled in their stories.

Arndt, Unkrich and Pixar regulars like John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton have come up with dozens of vivid new characters and have cast their voices flawlessly. Michael Keaton is a riot as Ken. Who knew that Barbie’s (Jodi Benson) boyfriend was so insecure about the fact that he’s little more than an accessory for her? There are some troubling neuroses under that vinyl scalp of his.

If you’re a fan of the previous films, there are dozens of quick throwaway gags that you might have to wait until you can pause the DVD player to see. More importantly, the crew at Pixar has revealed themselves to be the only suck-free studio in California because they are willing to deal with tricky subject material and trust viewers to do the same. They figure correctly that children aren’t stupid, and they’ve been justly rewarded at the bank. (G) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 06/18/10)

Winter's Bone
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Winter’s Bone has been both set and shot here in Missouri. Nonetheless, it depicts a world that is as foreign as Mars. New York-based director Debra Granik (the grossly underappreciated Down to the Bone) leaps head first into the grim environment of the meth trade in the Ozarks. She also manages to make viewers care about characters who wouldn’t think twice about betraying their own families for a few bucks or maybe another hit.

still from Winter's Bone

Based on the novel by local writer Daniel Woodrell (his Woe to Live On was the basis for Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil), Winter’s Bone follows an astonishingly brave teenager named Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, who has definitely stepped up from The Bill Engvall Show) who has wound up being the head of her household despite her youth. Her father has been out of the picture for ages because he’s too busy dealing meth, and her mother is nearly catatonic from mental illness. She’s also burdened with the task of raising her younger siblings and getting through school. To make ends meet, Ree often has to sell her beloved farm animals, including a prized horse, to neighbors.

Even though Ree’s father has become only a distant memory for her, he still has a remarkable way of complicating her life. After his most recent arrest, he’s managed to put up the family home for bond. If he doesn’t show up for trial, which is entirely likely, Ree and the family will be evicted. Looking for him isn’t easy because Ree has had no contact. She also doesn’t have a car, a truck or even a horse.

Although all of the residents of Ree’s community are related in some manner, family bonds mean little when the meth trade is involved. Her dad’s business partners aren’t eager to help her find him. Because he’s betrayed them as easily as he did his own family, many would prefer that he stayed missing. Some like Merab (Dale Dickey, My Name is Earl), the wife of the local dope kingpin would rather shoot Ree than lend her a hand. Even her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), a dealer who gets high on his own supply, requires a good deal of persuasion to do the right thing. He can even get violent when the mood strikes him.

Because she’s fighting for more than her own interests, Ree’s struggle is consistently involving. Granik and her co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini put her through a harrowing ordeal, but she’s as resourceful as she is persistent. So it’s easy to hope for her success, even if it might be unlikely. Lawrence also projects the steely drive to make viewers believe she’d risk her neck so frequently.

Granik thankfully avoids rural stereotypes and has done an amazing job of casting. Her imported thespians like Hawkes easily blend with the regional performers in the supporting roles. Her use of Ozark music gives viewers a feel for the land without making the film slip into travelogue.

While Granik’s tone is straightforward, the film is loaded with tension but also has a surprising affection for its characters. Even a repellent fellow like Teardrop becomes sympathetic through Granik’s eyes. Winter’s Bone is a dark and disturbing film, but Granik’s vision, which is as affectionate and brave as Ree’s, makes it a thing of beauty. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted on 06/18/10)

Please Give
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has jokingly referred to her films as “vagina movies” because the main characters in them are all women and the stories are told from a clearly female point of view.

Thankfully her films also feature quite a bit of heart and a good deal of brain. In both Please Give and Friends with Money, she wrestles with our all-to-human desire for nice things but judiciously avoids ridiculing her characters for sharing a longing that is as universal as it is regrettable.

still from Please Give

Her protagonists Kate (Catherine Keener, who has starred in all of Holofcener’s movies) and Alex (Oliver Platt) have made a decent living with a revenue stream that might make some squirm. They buy furnishings from estate sales where the bereaved are eager to unload their dead relatives’ possessions and then sell them for an astronomical markup at an upscale Manhattan boutique.

The scheme is legal, but it leaves Kate racked with guilt. While the boorish Alex thinks nothing of charging such high markups, Kate often hands money to beggars and searches for some way to atone for her questionable livelihood. She’s also terrified that her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) might grow into an acquisitive monster.

Kate’s attempts to calm her troubled soul would make a terrific movie by itself, but Holofcener also includes the story of Kate’s next-door neighbor Rebecca (British actress Rebecca Hall). A radiology technician at a clinic for breast exams, Rebecca is understandably shy and retiring. She also has the unenviable task of caring for her ninety-something grandmother (Anne Guilbert) who hasn’t said a kind word to anyone in ages. Rebecca’s sister Mary (a wonderfully acerbic Amanda Peet) frankly wishes the ungrateful harpy would die, but Rebecca still wants to provide a dignified home for a grandma who doesn’t return anyone else’s affection.

Holofcener juggles all of these storylines effortlessly and finds convincing but intriguing ways for her characters to cross paths. Her ear for dialogue is also consistently sharp. When Kate sees a sad looking African-American man standing at a street corner, she offers him the leftovers from her restaurant meal only to find out that he’s waiting for a table.

While Holofcener can mock her characters’ foibles, she also recognizes that all of us can be less than noble. Material possessions are easily addictive, and it’s easy to condemn someone else’s greed on the way to grabbing something for ourselves. Thanks to Holofcener’s evenhanded vision and Platt’s careful performance, the seemingly amoral Alex becomes almost likable.

Holofcener’s faith in Keener has been justified and is reinforced here. The actress can play up Kate’s guilt for laughs but can give the character enough dignity so that it’s easy to wish she could find some sort of solace.

Holofcener’s masterstroke may be that she doesn’t pretend to have a cure for acquisitiveness. Please Give is not a sermon and certainly doesn’t play like one. It’s better to address a social ill by addressing it with unflinching honesty instead of offering a fiery but hypocritical condemnation. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 06/18/10)

The Karate Kid
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The retelling of 1984's The Karate Kid story turns up the intensity and raises the stakes. By trading in karate for kung fu, the film's bullying violence turns dangerous and brutal, more clearly defining the desperate and touching friendship between a lost, lonely boy and his broken mentor. With all the appropriate nods to the original's iconic moments, the remake shows off its own mix of weightiness and comedic timing.

still of final match in the Karate kid

Transplanted against his wishes from Detroit to Beijing, 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) must contend with cultural and language barriers. At school he can't quite figure out when to wear his uniform or how to serve himself lunch, and in his apartment there's a problem with the hot water. The object of vendetta at first sight, he's also being terrorized by neighborhood thug Cheng (Wang Zhenwei) and his gang of toughs, just for sweet-talking violin prodigy Meiying (Han Wenwen). His recently widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) won't hear of his unhappiness over her own forced cheerfulness. She's made her choice to stay in China, and Dre must live with it.

During a particularly vicious and unfair beat down, Dre's attackers are quickly and creatively dispatched by Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the apartment building's bowed maintenance man. Although Han fights with Chan's typical Three Stooges-type kung fu choreography — as if he's mere seconds away from “pantsing” an opponent — he later reveals a deep knowledge of Chinese medicine and the philosophy behind his martial art without reverting to too many Confucius-like aphorisms. A failed negotiation with the imperious leader of the bullies' dojo leads to Dre's entry into a kung fu competition with Han as his coach and mentor.

Director Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks, One Night at McCool's) should count his blessings. Instead of merely rehashing the first The Karate Kid, writer Christopher Murphey has handed him an epic training-by-trial kung fu mastery adventure that intertwines the themes of the first movie: death, social elitism, and deceptive exercises in futility, and updates them with issues of racism and silence and stillness in an ever-increasingly noisy world, all against the vast landscapes of China's most eminent places.

In addition, Zwart was given two of the most likable stars to play the leads. Although sometimes buried in a joke milked one time too many or an extra training montage (a missing final edit easily could have taken the movie down to under two hours), the father/son attachment between Han and Dre gives the film a pathos not quite found in the first, attributed perhaps to Dre's young age. There's potential trauma in watching tiny, helpless but still-posturing Dre get mercilessly attacked, accompanied by bone-crunching Foley (but no blood). Plus, it's one thing to witness your mentor blotto and raging at 16, another altogether at a small and slightly immature 12.

The extra feeling also derives from Chan's portrayal of Han's sorrow and his own exercise in futility, drunken and violent as it is. Han's transformation from a dusty, truculent shadow to reluctant champion of the underdog is bittersweet. Unlike Miyagi, portrayed perfectly by the late Pat Morita, Han has no hidden garden to return to once the fight is over, but only a sad, empty shed covered in auto paint dust and fragments of safety glass.

Touted as a family film, parents of young children should be warned the fight scenes and even the emotional scenes between the two actors, although one a child himself, are not easy to watch. However, as the movie proves, kids these days are increasingly more sophisticated, even if they can't always sit still. How times have changed. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 06/11/10)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Ajami may be set in Israel, but at times it plays more like an American gangster drama. The film does address the ethnic and social tensions that run through the country, but it does so in a nuanced and refreshingly clear-eyed way. No wonder it's Israel's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

still of boy with a gun

The film’s writer-directors are Israeli Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti, a Palestinian who’s an Israeli citizen. Both are committed to showing that senseless violence in their homeland often happens with little regard for sectarian issues. As a 19-year-old Palestinian named Omar (Shahir Kabaha), who lives in the Jaffa neighborhood of Ajami discovers, it can happen because you simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong moment.

Because of a long running feud between his uncle and a group of Bedouin gangsters, Omar discovers that the rest of his family has been marked for death. He appeals to a prominent Christian restaurant owner and dealmaker named Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani) for help. Sadly, the solutions that Abu Elias and a Bedouin judge come up with are astronomically expensive.

The proud Omar starts taking extralegal measures to pay the settlement even though doing so is only likely to get him and the ones he loves in more trouble. His attraction to the daughter (Ranin Karim) of Abu Elias probably won’t help. The older man dismisses Omar as a nobody and isn’t about to let her marry out of her faith.

Omar’s pal Malek (Ibrahim Frege) is tempted to join him in an attempted dope deal. He’s working illegally in a restaurant in Tel Aviv. His situation is so precarious that he has to sleep in the building that he works in and rarely ventures out. Because he can’t speak a word of Hebrew, he’d be sent back to Ajami if he’s ever caught. While Malek couldn’t find a similar job back home, the one he has simply can’t pay enough to help him care for his sick mother.

While Omar and Malek are planning their debuts as dope runners, an Israeli cop named Dando (Eran Nain) is trying to juggle an investigation into the stabbing of a Jew in Jaffa and the search for his missing brother. All of the stress is taking its toll on his family.

All three stories are set on a collision course, but Shani and Copti gradually break with chronology and reveal deeper layers. Naturally, tragedy could have been averted if the characters had known more.

In addition, the relationships between the characters, even if volatile, are a good deal more complicated than in the way they are depicted in news broadcasts. For example, one well-off Palestinian named Binj (Copti) is in greater danger from his chemical dependencies than from his romance with an Israeli.

Occasionally viewers learn vital information that the characters don’t know. Like Babel and Pulp Fiction, Ajami is told out of order and in segments. This requires a good deal of patience, but Copti and Shani thankfully know better than to waste their viewers’ attention.

The cast consists almost exclusively of nonprofessional actors, and all played their scenes without scripts. The filmmakers didn’t tell their performers when key developments ensued, so their looks of surprise or outrage are genuine. Furthermore, if Nain seems convincing as a weary Israeli cop, it’s because he used to be one before Ajami started filming.

Shani and Copti wisely avoid trying to find a solution to the turmoil in their own backyards, but their ability to look at the difficult situations around them without stooping to stereotypes or pontificating is certainly a step in the right direction. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 06/11/10)

The A-Team
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Explosions are a lot more fun when they don’t look as if they are happening on the same machine that will be hosting Guitar Hero in a few minutes.

The new big screen remake of delightfully silly TV action series The A-Team has the characters and the attitude of the old series. It also unfortunately has some special effects sequences, such as a few dogfights, that look as if they’ve been screen captured from an Atari 2600.

still of Quinn and B.T.

Any version of The A-Team has the advantage of not being burdened by logic or plot development. The appeal of the series and the film inspired by it is that the title quartet of Army Rangers gets out of danger in the most outlandish way imaginable.

Their pilot, Capt. “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley, District 9), can get them to safety only because he’s willing to take risks no sane pilot would. As his nickname implies, he’s a fugitive for a mental institution.

If Murdock is certifiable, his boss, Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) may be clinically sane, but appears to have a few screws loose himself because he trusts the madman implicitly. Because Neeson plays him, Hannibal has an unshakable air of authority and is usually thinking several steps ahead of his adversaries.

Lt. “Faceman” Peck (Bradley Cooper) is multilingual and has an astonishing ability to work his way into just about any potentially dangerous situation without being detected. Unfortunately his fondness for women occasionally makes him a liability on missions.

Mixed martial artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson plays Cpl. “B.A.” Baracus, a mohawked demolition machine who can neutralize several thugs in a few seconds. With his fists and intimidating manner, guns are optional.

In this version, the A-Team have actually distinguished themselves in Iraq and inadvertently get suckered into a mission that winds up wrecking eight years of successful butt kicking. Recruited by a shady CIA man named Lynch (Patrick Wilson), the four foil an elaborate counterfeiting plan hatched by a Baathist militia.

In the process, they wind up being framed for murder and dishonorably discharged. If you ever caught the series during its regular run or in syndication, you know their incarceration ends quickly. On their trail is the no-nonsense Capt. Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel). She doesn’t get into that many tough scrapes, but she can follow the A-Team for astonishingly long distances in spike heels.

What’s odd about this reboot of the series is that director Joe Carnahan and his co-screenwriter Brian Bloom (who plays a crooked defense contractor) have actually given the film more dramatic finesse than the original series ever had. Their script is serviceable, but its main purpose is to provide a prelude to mayhem.

As the original B.A., Mr. T got by on a surly attitude and his intimidating looks. It wasn’t until Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs that viewers got to hear anything resembling a range from his line readings. Jackson, on the other hand, can act, so it’s nice to see B.A. do something other than sleep while Murdoch is flying.

While Neeson doesn’t bother to lose his Irish accent, he can deliver lines like “I love it when a plan comes together” and “Overkill is underrated” with flair few other thespians have.

The real star of the film, however, is Copley, who seems to revel in his character’s fits of goofy fancy. The South African thespian gets to juggle dozens of accents and happily knows not to underplay the character. Fans of the series can spot original A-teamers Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz in cameos that refreshingly don’t draw attention to themselves.

While Carnahan is wise to imitate the excess in Copley’s performance, it’s a shame that he stages the destruction the A-Team inflicts in such an ADD-influenced way. It’s great that the new performers have wisely followed in the footsteps of their forbearers, but it would be nice if we could also we could watch how they make things blow up, too. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 06/11/10).

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Canadian director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice may be following the same path that Boris Karloff stomped in James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein. Nonetheless, Natali continually retools Mary Shelley’s vision into some fascinatingly offbeat directions. The new monster Dren (played primarily by French actress Delphine Chanéac) is a worthy descendant of Victor Frankenstein’s ominous family tree.

still from Splice

Thanks to some creepy makeup and well-executed CGI, Dren, whose name is an anagram for “nerd,” has birdlike legs, a lizard tail and an elegant face that’s a little too human to look at. As can be expected, she can be a danger to her flesh and blood creators, but Splice is one of those rare creature features where the most menacing beings are the people. As with Natali’s previous movie Cube, the crisis that arises indicates that human beings occasionally need no external forces to do astonishingly evil things.

Clive Nicoli (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are two dedicated scientist who’ve raised a pair of toaster-sized, slug-like creatures they’ve dubbed Fred and Ginger. The artificial duo may not be as attractive as their Hollywood namesakes, but they secrete chemicals that could have enormous medical benefits.

Unfortunately, their corporate backers (Simona Maicanescu and David Hewlett, a regular Natali collaborator) want more than medicinal breakthroughs. The two threaten to pull the plug on the research if Clive and Elsa can’t find more commercial results.

Feeling the pressure, Elsa decides to combine human DNA with that of the hybrid organisms she and Clive have been engineering. Clive objects but apparently lacks Elsa’s iron resolve. Naturally, the new creature grows into something can’t easily be contained in a lab. While it’s easy to declare that Clive and Elsa shouldn’t have played with Mother Nature’s Legos, the situation becomes murkier as Dren reaches her frightening maturity.

While she’s as mute as Karloff’s monster, Dren learns quickly and has an affection that her Frankenparents could use more of. Gradually, killing her gradually becomes as morally repugnant as murdering a person. It also becomes more difficult.

The script by Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor is loaded with in jokes (notice anything odd about Clive and Elsa’s names or the name of the company they work for?) and intriguing moral quandaries.

As the film progresses, both of the scientists have ample opportunity to prove that they are smarter than they are wise. Thankfully, both Brody and Polley project the intelligence necessary to pull this off. Having heard Steven Seagal trip over his own tongue trying to pass as an EPA agent, it’s refreshing to hear performers who can handle polysyllabic terms effortlessly.

Nonetheless, it’s Chanéac’s face that carries Splice. While Dren might not be able to hold a conversation with Clive and Elsa, Chanéac can go from childlike wonder to fear to homicidal rage without moving her lips. Despite all the makeup and the computer enhancement (or is it defacement), she’s frequently more empathetic that her less prosthetic-burdened costars.

Natali attempts to take Splice into romantic territory and seems more at home with dread than he does with love. It’s a credible angle considering the subject matter, but it’s hard not to snicker when bestiality (or is it incest?) rears up its ugly head.

Still, Natali manages to retain Shelley’s original fear with creepy nuances of his own. In continually acknowledging his inspiration and doing it justice, Natali manages to avoid making the same mistakes of his protagonists. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 06/04/10)

Get Him to the Greek
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Director/writer Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Undeclared) cannibalizes the hive mind to crank out another shallow, predictable gross-out for the Judd Apatow assembly line. Even worse, Get Him to the Greek pretends to care about its characters as an excuse to ratchet up pointless scenes of contrived debauchery and a seemingly endless stream of rapid-fire jokes and pop culture references thinly disguised as comedy.

still from Get Him to the Greek

Lowly A&R guy Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) has three days to get to London and escort washed-up British rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) to back to L.A.'s Greek Theater for a reunion concert that's sure to revive Aldous' career, save the record company from financial ruin and jump start Aaron's career in the music biz. This is Aaron's “big moment,” according to Sergio Roma (Sean Combs), the record label's foul mouth, loud mouth owner. But getting in the way are Aldous' self-destructive, wild rock star ways, which teach Aaron a lesson about when to capitulate and when to stand firm.

With his ill-fitting clothes and three-day beard scruff, Aaron represents the everyman. His crowning moment is when he decides to ingest all of Aldous' substances to keep it from the rock star before a morning television appearance. Now that's true heroism. But after he gives in to Aldous too soon and too often, he can no longer be relied on to try to contain the chaos or change with it. As Alan Arkin proved in The In-Laws, an unwilling accomplice is comedy gold;a willing one is tragic. Ultimately, Aaron fails as a foil except in the most transparent, contrived ways, and in the end he's exactly the same as he started out.

Although Get Him to the Greek is meant as a buddy road movie, Aldous Snow steals the show. The production values of the mock media created to legitimize his celebrity is amazingly high, complete with multiple celebrity cameos (some of them quite surprising). Plus, Aldous is completely endearing in the moments he's allowed insight into his horrible behavior. At times, it seems as if Brand, when playing Aldous, is channeling the king of cringe, fellow Brit Ricky Gervais. Delivering the fewest outright jokes, Aldous becomes by far the funniest, most engaging character. A member of Judd Apatow's tight-knit lost boys club, Stoller retread the character from the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, written by and starring Jason Segal and directed by Stoller. Regrettably, this means the freshest part of the film is perhaps not so fresh?

 Despite labored attempts and some outright copycat moments, Get Him to the Greek exhibits none of the sly wit of Spinal Tap nor the heartfelt sentiment of Almost Famous. It panders to the music fan through the scrupulousness of its detail, such as the L.A., New York, and London locations, and the song choices for the soundtrack, but the main story offers only a hollow caricature of the music industry. This is what comes from trying to spoof a spoof. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 6/04/10)

The Human Centipede
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

When word began bouncing around the Internet about a horror movie called The Human Centipede, in which some experiment results in a monster that is made out of a bunch of people sewn together mouth to ass, I have to admit I was down for it immediately.

I know, I know: "That's just sick! How could you even want to see such a horrible thing!" you think. Well, I think it sounds cool because for one, nobody's done it before, and two ... well, nobody's done it before is all, I guess.

still from the Human Centipede

By now, of course, everybody knows that Rodger Ebert refused to give it a single star, and that it even lacks an MPAA rating and has garnered mostly horrible reviews. Some of you true horror fans out there (like myself) might find all that condemnation appealing: maybe it's just so over the top, like 1987’s Nekromantik or Peter Jackson's Braindead (titled Dead-Alive in the US), that weaker-willed souls just can't take it.

Man, was I ever wrong with that hope.

Filmed in the Netherlands and written and directed by Tom Mix, the film starts with a shot of Doctor Heiter (Dieter Laser), a specialist in separating Siamese twins, mourning over a photo of his beloved and recently deceased "pet" — three dogs he had connected (can you guess?) ass to mouth.

Soon, our good, mad German doctor captures a trucker guy and two young American girls, who are very possibly the stupidest people on the planet. Let me make this clear: they end up getting tortured and experimented on because they COULD NOT CHANGE A TIRE.

After killing the trucker in an experiment, the Doc catches an Asian man who, in a blazing moment of genius, he decides to use as the "head", which is awesome if only for the fact that that means we do not have to listen to these horrible actresses talking through the rest of the film.

The Doctor treats his new creation like his old multi-dog pal, forcing the man to eat from a dog dish (you can guess what the girls get to eat later...) while his victim screams at the Doc in Japanese.

As the three try and overcome their little "handicap" and escape, the Doctor must deal with two German cops looking for the missing people, who suspect the Doctor because he might as well be wearing a shirt that says "Hello, I'm a Bat-shit crazy doctor who is experimenting on people I keep locked in my basement laboratory".

Will the cops come back with a search warrant in time? Will the three be saved, or will the doctor add even more people to his diabolical creation?

No. They all die. Even both cops.

If that little spoiler seems a bit harsh, all I can say is that you didn't have to watch, or should I say "eat" this crap.

This movie is awful. Not "super-gross" or "mind-blowingly sick" or even a "blood-fest" awful, but just plain old boring, slow and pointlessly dull-type awful. The doctor doesn't sew the three together until halfway through the film, and all they do is lay there while the girls moan. Even then- NOTHING HAPPENS. If you edited all the scenes together where some kind of actual action is performed, this hour and a half film would be twelve minutes long. Everything here, from the acting (the mad doctor does have a face like a good mad doctor, but that would appear to be his only talent on-screen, and the girls, dear lord, the girls...) to the editing,cinematography, lighting, effects and probably even the catering is just bad.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me that the filmmakers knew all this, and that's the reason they didn't submit it for a rating: to generate a buzz that this film must be too "intense" to get a rating. Well let me give you one: a weak R for adult content (mostly language) and a few boob shots.

Right with ya, Ebert. ( No MPAA Rating) Rating: 0 (Posted 6/04/10)

Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Documentarian Alex Gibney won an Oscar for making Taxi to the Dark Side, which exposed how an innocent man was tortured to death and how extreme interrogations are actually be counterproductive in the search to protect our nation from its enemies. His new film, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, doesn’t have the body count or the grotesquely cruel images of the former film. Nonetheless, the subject matter is actually more likely to enrage and for all the appropriate reasons.

still of Jack Abramoff

The film provides a concise but illuminating account of how uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff rose from being a leader of the College Republicans during the 1980s to being Washington’s top influence peddler in the ‘90s to being a convicted felon now.

In case your only exposure to Abramoff’s crimes was a sound bite on cable news, Casino Jack points out Abramoff’s offenses were egregious, but he is more than a cartoonish pariah. On one hand he was a devout Orthodox Jew who converted to the faith despite being raised in a secular home. Curiously, his deep piety didn’t stop him from teaming with former Christian Coalition President Ralph Reed in a scheme where Reed would start grass roots campaigns condemning gambling initiatives in states where the American Indian casino operators hadn’t been paying Abramoff’s lobbying fees.

As the film points out, many of the tribes that did pay Abramoff and his protégé Michael Scanlan to lobby on their behalf spent tens of millions of dollars even though he was actually working against them. In some cases, he was simply cashing checks for services he wasn’t rendering. Abramoff didn’t merely rob the tribes. In private correspondence, he called them “monkeys” and “troglodytes.”

In addition, he also promoted sweatshops in the Marianas Islands. They’re United States territory, but during the 1990s and through part of the following decade, they were exempt from U.S. labor laws. Employees who came there often worked under slave labor conditions because many of them had gone into debt simply to land their jobs.

Women who made the journey were forced to get abortions if they got pregnant and were encouraged to work as nightclub hostesses or prostitutes to supplement their slave wages. Despite the violations of basic human dignity (and the “family values” declarations of the politicians who supported Abramoff), clothing made in these hellholes carried “Made in the USA” labels.

What’s most aggravating about Abramoff’s activities is that they are unfortunately a symptom of a much wider disease. As Gibney gradually reveals, putting Abramoff behind bars didn’t stop the lobbying process, and many heinous pieces of legislation have been introduced and passed because legislators are often spending more time looking for campaign donations than meeting constituents’ needs. Many of the loopholes that enabled the 2008 financial collapse were bought and paid for by Abramoff’s peers, but they didn’t make headlines for their activities and are certainly walking around free. While Abramoff himself was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who dealt primarily with his own ilk, Gibney points out that politicians of any stripe need cash to run their prohibitively expensive campaigns.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money is pretty much guaranteed to make your blood  boil. Many of the senators who condemned Abramoff in hearings, such as former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who’s also a Cheyenne, took sizable donations from Abramoff’s clients until the lobbyist became toxic.

That said, the film is also nightmarishly hilarious. Despite Abramoff’s sharp eye for loopholes, he and Scanlon made the mistake of describing all of their cons in detailed e-mails. As Stanley Tucci and Kansas City’s Paul Rudd read the profanity-drenched correspondence, it’s hard not to crack a smile at how far gone these fellows really were. The film also features detailed testimony from Dave Grosh, whom Scanlan selected to run an international think tank that was actually a front to launder cash for Ralph Reed.

What were Grosh’s qualifications for the job? He was a lifeguard at a beach where Scanlan also worked. “I’m not qualified to run a Baskin Robbins,” Grosh laughingly admits now.

Throw in the footage of former uber-Congressman Tom DeLay prancing around the stage to “Wild Thing” on Dancing with the Stars, and you’ve got a comedy that’s a good deal funnier than Marmaduke.

Gibney did meet with Abramoff but wasn’t allowed to interview him on camera. Abramoff gave so many televised speeches and lived such a public life that it doesn’t take that much effort to get into his head. In his attempts to convince the world that the apartheid government in South Africa and Angolan dictator Jonas Savimby were noble, he co-wrote and produced the 1989 Dolph Lundgren action film Red Scorpion, which seems even more amusingly insipid after its origins are disclosed.

Former Congressman Bob Ney vividly describes the actions that led him to jail in the wake of the scandal. It’s chilling to hear from him because the film implies that politicians in office can’t afford to be as honest about where their money comes from.

Nineteenth century German statesman Otto von Bismarck once lamented, “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” Nonetheless, Gibney successfully argues that ignoring the ingredients of legal sausage is toxic for democracy. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 06/04/10).

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Published since 1954, the comic strip Marmaduke has outlasted many of the newspapers that have carried it. Still drawn by 86-year-old Brad Anderson, the single-panel strip features a huge Great Dane who inadvertently causes mayhem because he can’t seem to get the fact into his enormous head that he is not a Chihuahua.

still of Maraduke and a Collie

I must confess that I have literally been reading Marmaduke all my life. In all my years of stumbling past the strip on my way to Doonesbury or Dilbert, I’ve noticed that despite his cartoon setting, he never talks and usually behaves like a dog in the real world. Occasionally, Anderson can still come up with a gag that reminds readers of the damage their own well-meaning pets inflict.

This is part of why the pointless new film adaptation of Marmaduke is both mystifying and downright traumatizing. Admittedly, Anderson’s simple one-panel strips, which take only a second or two to read, don’t provide much material for a 90-minute feature film. But the charm of original strip is completely absent from the new film.

Perhaps the filmmakers found the challenge of reading even Anderson’s strips to be as overwhelming as keeping Marmaduke himself on a leash.

Marmaduke’s onscreen doppelganger speaks with Owen Wilson’s voice and acts more like a tween boy than a pooch. He and the Winslow family have to move from Kansas so that the father Phil (Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies) can take a PR job for an organic dog food company.

Note that the Winslow family doesn’t come from say, Topeka, Salina or Wichita, just Kansas. This sort of lazy thinking runs throughout the rest of the film. Apparently, it takes so much mental effort to make CGI dogs dance that basic settings can be ignored.

Mom (Judy Greer), the kids ( Finley Jacobson, Caroline Sunshine, Mandy Haines and Milana Haines), the family cat (George Lopez) and Marmaduke have to join Phil when he moves to Orange County. Phil’s new job requires him to market organic dog food for a pedantic boss (William H. Macy). This fellow is so eccentric that he insists that both he and Phil stroll through a dog park barefoot. Yes, it’s an excuse for several poop jokes.

While Phil is trying in vain to figure out how to turn the rest of the nation into suckers for the dog chow, Marmaduke is trying to get in good with the rest of the hounds. He’s not a pure bred, so he’s instantly adopted by the mutts he meets in the park: Mazie (Emma Stone, Zombieland), Giuseppe (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Raisin (Steve Coogan). Unfortunately, Marmaduke wants to move up the social scale.

The mean dog leading the purebreds, Bosco (Kiefer Sutherland, who says there aren’t any good jobs for him after 24?), bullies the much larger Marmaduke. Deep down he’s afraid the Great Dane will steal his collie girlfriend (Black Eyed Pea Fergie).

If you, unlike some of the kids who will eventually suffer through this cinematic equivalent of mange, have seen just about any movie before, you’ll probably figure out where the story is headed. Screenwriters Tim Rasmussen and Vince Di Meglio (License to Wed) add nothing to Anderson’s original format but clichés, lame pun-filled one-liners (“It’s off the leash!”) and gags involving urine, feces and flatulence. Perhaps if they had the creativity or initiative to thrown in vomit, saliva or snot, Marmaduke would have felt more lively and amusing.

Instead, there’s an annoying sense of condescension. Yes, Marmaduke may be aimed at young ones, but it seems almost like child abuse to subject them to this indifferently crafted exercise when there are smarter, funnier and more heartfelt movies like How to Train Your Dragon still in theaters. The latter film doesn’t treat children or their parents like stooges, and has been duly rewarded at the box office.

It’s not as if I object to bodily function humor. In addition to having a heart-tugging story and endearing characters, Up has an excrement joke that’s for the ages.

Part of the reason it is so frustrating to watch dim-witted movies like Marmaduke is that better films have been made by filmmakers who understand that kids are sometimes the most sophisticated viewers of all.

Shrek 2, for example, features a remarkable bit of satire. The film opens with a disembodied narrator telling viewers about the daring feats of Prince Charming. Slowly, we learn the voice is actually that of the vain monarch. Despite the sophistication of the gag, my nephew picked up on the joke immediately and laughed, “He’s talking about himself!” He was five at the time.

If, as Whitney Huston once warbled, the children are the future, shouldn’t we treat them to films made with their best interests at heart? CGIs are no substitute for imagination. The talking dogs here are a pale substitute for the lovable barnyard animals in Babe. Instead of spending $20 or more on tickets to Marmaduke, read the original strip for free at In addition to the more agreeable price, it also has more laughs. (PG) Rating: 1 (Posted 06/02/10)

haiku review

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