movie reviews June 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon •  Cars 2 •  Bad Teacher •  Another Harvest Moon
The Tree of Life •  Green Lantern •  Mr. Popper's Penquins •  The Art of Getting By
Midnight in Paris •  Super 8 •  Small Town Murder Songs •  Road to Nowhere
Judy Moody Not Bummer Summer •  X-Men: First Class 

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

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Transformers: Dark of the Moon
by Dan Lybarger

You can suspect that a movie in a franchise might be wanting if the filmmakers spend all their time in interviews explaining why the last movie sucked or why the leading lady was fired instead of letting viewers know what to look forward to in the new installment.

transformers, Bumblebee

Transformers: Dark of the Moon proves that the 2007 writers strike and Megan Fox’s vapid presence weren’t the only reasons that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was such a tedious, empty slog. As long as Michael Bay is in charge and the only interesting characters are extraterrestrial robots that can turn into cars, these movies are guaranteed to be overblown annoyances.

It’s also not as much fun to watch seemingly innocuous devices turn into sentient WMDs in an instant. Now that we’ve had two movies where trucks and cars can break into death matches, there’s not much suspense to be had.

At least credited screenwriter Ehren Kruger comes up with a promising scenario before squandering it on the same old nonsense. In the early ‘60s, the United States government discovers that a spacecraft from the Autobots home planet Cybertron has landed on the dark side of the moon.

President Kennedy orders the moon missions in order to retrieve it and find the craft before the Soviets do. Pretty soon we learn why the transmission from the moon in 1969 abruptly stopped and why the space program abandoned moon exploration in 1972.

It’s a fun blend of historical footage and silly speculation, but it’s as close as the Transformers series will ever get to wit.

After that, it’s more of the same. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is a bit morose because his past relationships with the benevolent Autobots can’t land him a job. Instead, he’s dependent on the good graces of his comely live-in British girlfriend Carly (former Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Because his heroic Autobot protector and car Bumblebee is too busy saving Earth, poor Sam has to settle for driving a Datsun that barely runs.

He also has to contend with the fact that Carly’s boss is a tycoon named Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), whose more assured fortunes make Sam’s own look bleak. If the romantic rivalry sounds pretty typical, it is, and fortunately Bay seems as bored with it, as his audience would be. And yet he continues.

Because Bay has the camera scanning up and down Huntington-Whitely’s lovely bod, it’s hard to tell if she can actually act. That puts her on par with her predecessor Megan Fox. Neither has been asked to do much more than confirm that Bay may be the worst director working with actresses today.

Of course, no one is watching these films for their insights into the human condition. It’s the robots duking it out that justify the existence of the franchise. With the 3D, Transformers: Dark of the Moon doesn’t feel quite as ADD-addled as its predecessors, but it’s not all that fun, either. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/29/11)

Cars 2
Test Driven by Dan Lybarger

If any studio but Pixar had made Cars 2, it would be easy to enjoy it as a fun lark with likable characters and striking visuals. It’s too bad the folks from Emoryville, CA, have consistently spoiled us with breathtaking animated movies like The Incredibles, Toy Story and Up. These folks have set the bar so high than any film that fails to reach the Olympian heights of these predecessors plays like a letdown.

If only my other disappointments were this entertaining.

Cars 2

Actually, the new entry is better than its predecessor Cars. It’s more evenly paced and has a more energetic storyline. While both movies feature a world inhabited solely by motor vehicles, Cars 2 doesn’t focus on the egocentric race car Lightning McQueen(voiced by Owen Wilson). Instead, McQueen’s best friend, the rusty tow truck Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) occupies the spotlight.

Mater accompanies Lighting while the latter is participating in an international series of races sponsored by Sir Miles Alexrod (Eddie Izzard). Sir Miles has developed a biofuel called Allinol that can replace gasoline, and all the racers involved have to use it, even McQueen’s cocky Italian rival Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro).

This appears to be a dicey proposition because many of the racers involved blow up. Before you can blame the fuel, a couple of intrepid British spies named Finn McMissile (Sir Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) believe something more insidious is at work. The diabolical Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) has been torturing and killing spies who’ve discovered his plots, so a wise agent (the ever-cool Bruce Campbell) leaves his data with Mater.

The amiably goofy Mater is instantly mistaken for a CIA expert because of his encyclopedic knowledge of clunkers and why they break down. A person’s enjoyment of Cars 2 is directly dependent on how much he or she likes seeing Mater bumbling his way through exotic locales and dangerous situations. If Larry the Cable Guy’s nasal drawl gets on your nerves, it’s a good idea not to buy a ticket because you’ll hear a lot of it.

On the plus side, director and Pixar chief John Lasseter (assisted by Brad Lewis) does more than rebuild the plot of the first movie. The espionage scenes owe more than a small debt to The Incredibles (soundtrack composer Michael Giacchino made both films scores reminiscent of James Bond movies), but they give Cars 2 a greater emotional weight than its predecessor. There’s more on the line than simply winning races.

While the 3D isn’t worth the extra bucks it costs for the glasses or the eyestrain, Cars 2 is still fun to look at. Gaze closely at the rock formations in the background and you’ll notice that they’re all in the shape of engine blocks. The Pixar crew also appears to have had a ball imitating the techniques of Anime during the Japan sequences, and familiar European cities are given a unique Pixarian makeover. Paris is loaded with nods to Ratatouille.

Listen closely, and you’ll hear prominent racing drivers or sportscasters playing automotive versions of themselves. If you are a gearhead, it’s hard to resist that attention to detail.

If more of that anal retentiveness had gone into the story itself, Cars 2 could have easily kept pace with its predecessors. At least, Pixar won’t have to make any factory recalls with this one. (G) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 06/23/11)

Bad Teacher
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Cameron Diaz's easy comedic timing and watchable lean physique aren't enough to save Bad Teacher from disjointed yet repetitive scenes and a script too shy of actual raunchiness to make it funny. Director Jake Kasdan wastes prime comedic talent on a shallow, cowardly vehicle that is merely amusing instead of rollickingly naughty.

Bad Teacher

After she's dumped by her rich fiancée, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) returns to her job as an English teacher at John Adams Middle School. Still, her dreams of becoming a trophy wife live on in her plans to skim enough money from the school to afford a boob job and be able to bag trust-funded, overly earnest substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake)—competing for his attention is overachieving rival colleague Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch).

As Elizabeth schemes to win a bonus for the highest test scores at the school, she transforms her apathetic, hung-over teaching style, which consists of only showing movies during class time, into that of a sadistic drill sergeant. Eventually, low practice quiz scores push Elizabeth's depravity further, garnering the unwanted attention of her nemesis, Amy, and resulting in a close-call ending in which Elizabeth, despite all previous evidence of the absence of a moral core or empathy, begins to care for her students and finally, blessedly receive the advances of charming gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel).

For the script of Bad Teacher, writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg tread too lightly in the R-rated world. Elizabeth swears like a sailor, drinks, and gets stoned on the job—prerequisites for this titular character, to be sure, but the film never strives for extra credit. Elizabeth just isn't bad or surprising enough. All behavior subsequent to her first departure from the school pales in comparison when it should be the stuff of legends. In Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton properly defiled the jolly ol' icon and filled in a satisfactory back story to boot. Elizabeth's maneuvers are stuck at the level she teaches—junior high. She merely experiments and teases, failing (literally) to go all the way.

Despite this drawback in her character, as Elizabeth, Diaz does all she can to deliver the physical comedy. In a seemingly never-ending supply of neck-breaking Louboutin booties, she prowls the hallways or curls up in fetal position at her desk. Her long-legged clumsiness, like Bambi on ice, is fun to watch. She also strives to provide moments of reluctant heart. There's a charming scene between Diaz and Segel involving climbing ropes. The chemistry between the two plays realistically.

Unfortunately, as the gym teacher, Segal is only one of the stellar backing actors that gets to play more than one-dimension. The characters portrayed by John Michael Higgins, Dave (Gruber) Allen, Molly Shannon, Phyllis Smith, and especially Punch as the rival, are stuck on one note each. Even with a hefty role, Punch's character remains at the same level of high-strung goodie-goodie, never hitting the proper higher pitch. A previous breakdown is alluded to without proper follow through at the end. She's a foil without any necessary threat or complications. In addition, the choice of Timberlake for his role is questionable. He's stilted and smirky. What works in a five-minute sketch on late-night television doesn't translate to the big screen. R Rating: 2.5

Another Harvest Moon
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

With a terrific cast, even the most mundane of situations can seem breathtaking and new on screen. Another Harvest Moon is a modest but effective little drama that seems a lot deeper than it really is because some skilled and dedicated performers give it their all.

Another Harvest Moon

The setting for Another Harvest Moon is a Pennsylvania nursing home where the residents whose minds are still sharp struggle with bodies that are slowly giving out. Former marine Frank (Ernest Borgnine), who was an avid hunter in his youth, now wonders if getting out of bed is worth the trouble.

After suffering from diabetes and a stroke, it’s becoming obvious to his children (Cybill Shepherd and Richard Schiff) and his grandson Jack (Cameron Monaghan) that Frank will probably die in this bleak if not inhumane atmosphere. His idle time also forces Frank to relive painful memories of World War II that he doesn’t want to share. His offspring are understandably suspicious when Frank says he wants to show his antique pistol from the war to his nurse.

The one activity Frank looks forward to that he can still participate in is a card game with his neighbors Ella (Anne Meara, Ben Stiller’s mother), Alice (Doris Roberts) and June (Piper Laurie). The games aren’t terribly competitive because June has dementia and bursts into baffling non sequiturs. The other two women have issues that rival Frank’s. Ella’s broken hip has put her into a wheelchair, and Alice eagerly takes Spanish lessons even though her cancer probably won’t let her complete them.

Jeremy T. Black’s script dwells on all of these maladies, but thankfully gives the performers roles that are nuanced enough to give them room to work. There are subtle hints that the widower Frank has a thing for Ella. The 94-year-old Borgnine also goes through dozens of emotions in the film’s brief running time, and his alert manner makes Frank’s health issues seem more sympathetic.

While Black can’t be faulted for lazy characterizations, he seems to be eager to add temporary dead ends. Some of the subplots could be interesting films on their own, so it’s sad to see them shortchanged. In addition, some of the monologues seem a little forced, as if they were borrowed from a play.

Visually, Another Harvest Moon looks like a TV movie, but director Greg Swartz knows that you don’t need a lot of flashy images when performers this good are working. As long as you shoot them in focus, you’ve done it right. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 06/23/11)

The Tree of Life
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Tree of Life is one of the most frustrating films I’ve ever sat through. It leaps back and forth in time, try centuries and even pre-history, with little explanation. It’s hard to catch the names of major characters, and many of the questions the film poses seem like those of a child. The pace is almost glacially slow, and many of the people in the film take effort to like. It’s easy to imagine legions of people walking out before it has reached its 138-minute running time.

Despite all of this, I can’t get enough of it and am eager to see it again.

Part of the reason The Tree of Life held me in its grip and never let go is that the questions the film asks are simple, but they are also the most essential ones we wrestle with. Because writer-director Terrence Malick used to teach philosophy, it’s not surprising his latest movie ponders the existence of God and if the Almighty has our best interests at heart.

What makes The Tree of Life more than a 2½ lecture is that he also manages to create people who inhabit his musings who are fascinating, even if they seem to need a good smack in the head.

On second thought that smacking may be the origin of some of the characters’ difficulties. Set primarily in 1950s Texas, where Malick himself grew up, the primary story concerns a cynical engineer and frustrated musician named Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt). In the early portions of the film, O’Brien seems like a loving father and husband, but as the film progresses, he slowly becomes a prisoner of his own occasionally warranted pessimism.

His wife Ms. O’Brien (a terrific Jessica Chastain) believes that fate and God reward those who live just lives, until misfortune starts putting that notion to the test. One of their three sons dies, and Mr. O’Brien’s career starts taking him from home.

The senior O’Brien believes that he has to teach his lads to fight because the rest of the world certainly won’t love them the way he does, but in the process he gradually alienates Jack (promising newcomer Hunter McCracken).

All of this unfolds in a measured, almost documentary-like approach. As with his previous movies Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, Malick frequently resorts to jump cuts, which can be jarring, but which make the conversations, which devolve into arguments, seem more real. Pitt sports horn-rimmed glasses and an unflattering crew cut (which are appropriate for the period), but it’s hard to another leading man who can make viewers feel for Mr. O’Brien, even as he paves his own path of ruin. In turn, McCracken and the other juvenile performers don’t appear to be acting. They really look like kids observing their parents slowly drifting apart.

Malick presents all of this in a manner of fact way and doesn’t waste an audience’s time with needless exposition. During one quarrel, we don’t clearly hear what has set the O’Briens against each other. We simply hear a rumbling behind frosted glass, much the way Jack hears it.

Malick correctly figures the words are needless because the visuals and the sound give us the substance. Similarly, take a good look at Mr. O’Brien’s briefcase. It’s only on screen for a fraction of a second, but you can use it to tell how his career is going.

Throughout the O’Briens’ difficulties, Malick interrupts the story by going back to the dawn of time. These sequences are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but what makes these scenes intriguing is that Malick frequently reaches a different conclusion about the progress of humankind that Kubrick.

In the previous film, Kubrick demonstrates how much people have accomplished (with extraterrestrial help). Malick, on the other hand, seems, to my own eye at least, to wonder if our own progress hasn’t been forward. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous photography certainly bolsters that argument. Texas in the 1950s doesn’t look so enthralling.

There’s a real sense of wonder in his scenes of creation that comes only fitfully during the sequences with the O’Briens. Sean Penn plays Jack as an adult, and he seems to draw little hope or awe in the contemporary world that surrounds him.

In a sequence with some impressively rendered dinosaurs, Malick also wonders if the forces of aggression, which can be our undoing, date back to our roots, or if animals might have more sense than we do on these matters.

The Tree of Life was booed at the Cannes Film Festival before it ended up taking the top prize there. Throughout the movie, I got a sense the 67-year-old Malick cared little about whether he might lose viewers but was eager to destroy the boundaries of what stories movies could tell and what ideas they could contain. He certainly wants to dazzle us and to make us look at the world outside the theater in a different way. In both, by proceeding in his idiosyncratic way, he has easily succeeded. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 06/16/11)

Green Lantern
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Ah, Hollywood. You just have to love their ability to take something simple, something that works just fine, and completely break it into pieces. Such is the case with DC’s B-level superhero Green Lantern, a not-really-well-beloved comic book staple that has been around (in various incarnations, at least) for decades.

Maybe, when this movie was first pitched, that was probably the point: the character is familiar, but not so much so that changing things around won’t enrage the fan base. Best of all, since few know much about GI, the whole plot can be scripted according to the standard origin story, which pretty much writes itself, right?

Well, as for writing itself, the screenplay here lists not one, or two, but SEVEN writers who worked on the script, and man does it show here.

Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a cocky test pilot who’s haunted by the memory of his father’s death when Hal was just a boy, shown here in a flashback sequence that manages to be both idiotic and laughable — which is just what you want in an important death scene. Later Hal is summoned to a dying alien, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), who tells him he has been chosen to take up Abin’s ring and become a Green Lantern, joining a group of thousands of aliens who act as a kind of intergalactic police force.

Soon Hal is summoned to Oa, the home world of the Lanterns, where he is confronted by Sinestro, who feels Hal isn’t worthy to replace Abin Sur. Jordan goes back to Earth convinced he isn’t worthy either, because he can’t conquer his fears, or something like that, anyway. However, forced first by a threat to his love interest Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) from some kind of evil scientist with a giant head and later from the deadly force know as Parallax, Jordan dons the ring and green suit, and fights against seemingly hopeless odds.

Man, is it boring.

First of all, better hope you like green. I mean, like really, really like green because there’s a lot of it through this whole movie. There’s only two real fight scenes, which are way short, the effects range from fairly cool to jumbled messes impossible to follow. The plot is dumb, the characters uninspired and worst of all, I didn’t see a single “Easter egg” for comic fans to blurt out loudly during the film.

Also, since the Lanterns are supposed to be super-cops, why don’t they, I don’t know, actually do some COP THINGS. The only thing they battle here is Parallax (which technically they actually created), which handily beats the twelve or so guys they send to fight it. What do all these Lanterns do with their time? Just sit around Oa glowing greenly?

The best thing I can find in this movie is that the 3D effects are pretty good, but since I hate 3D that’s not much of a positive. Unless you’re a hard-core fan, I’d stay away from this mess, as it might make you turn a little green yourself. (PG 13) Rating: 2 (Posted 06/17/11)

Mr. Popper's Penguins
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

At the end of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a disclaimer informs viewers that no animals were harmed in the making of the film but that the film’s star Jim Carrey suffered multiple bites from his penguin costars. After enduring the finished film, it’s safe to say the birds were too kind to the well-paid comic.

Without Carrey’s participation, it’s doubtful Mr. Popper’s Penguin would have been green lighted. While the children’s book by Richard Atwater and Florence Atwater may have been popular, the tale apparently required heavy revisions before it could have been filmed. Three screenwriters (Jared Stern, Sean Anders and John Morris) have taken a story about a man who longs for adventure and gets a bunch of penguins into a depository for clichés. Take just about any trope from a “kids and animals” flick, and you’ll find it here, in its purest form, untainted with any creativity or charm.

Jim Carrey’s Tom Popper, Jr. is a real estate buyer for a major New York firm who’d like to be a partner. His meetings with clients are an excuse for Carrey to show off his over-the-top physical comedy. Actually, this is a waste of abilities because his skinny, Gumby-like physique is best used when it’s contrasted to ordinary situations.

This time around Carrey has a group of waddling costars that can create as much chaos as he can. When Mr. Popper the elder dies, his son receives a live penguin. Tom tries to return the critter but inadvertently orders more of the birds, turning his upscale apartment into mini zoo. Before he can send the penguins back to Antarctica, Tom’s kids (Maxwell Perry Cotton and Madeline Carroll) fall in love with the noisy, mischievous birds, so he has to keep them.

While director Mark Waters thankfully holds back on giving the birds the power of flight (at least at first), he fails to make a convincing argument that the birds inadvertently make Tom a better father and help him become the mate he should have been to his ex (Carla Gugino). Chances are if she and their offspring were to walk into a room with live penguins and the heat turned down during a Big Apple winter, they would run out in terror.

OK, it’s a movie, but it’s not a particularly clever or interesting one.

It took three screenwriters to come up with three different penguin poop jokes. While bodily function humor can get youngsters to giggle, a little of it goes a long way. The live birds and their animatronic and computer generated counterparts blend seamlessly, but the humans have less personality than they do.

Angela Lansbury has to take a backseat to the birds, as does Carrey. The comic seems to think of the role as a placeholder between better gigs because he’s gives up trying to compete against the birds early on.

We live in an odd society where Carrey delivering a wonderful performance in a well-written gay comedy (I Love You Phillip Morris) is box office poison, but big studios are willing to shell out millions so that Carrey can deal with penguin excrement.

Despite how cute the birds can be, there really isn’t a sense of fun or wonder anywhere to be found in Mr. Popper’s Penguins. When I heard Carrey make a quip about how he expected to hear Morgan Freeman in the background in a reference to March of the Penguins, I was instantly reminded of how much I’d rather be watching that film instead.

Waters also inexplicably includes scenes from three different Charlie Chaplin comedies. If parents really love their children and wish to retain their own sanity, they might want to consider renting The Gold Rush, The Circus, Shoulder Arms or any of Chaplin’s other silent films. Carrey doesn’t need any more cash, and the rest of us don’t have that much to part with. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/17/11)

The Art of Getting By
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In his debut film, The Art of Getting By, writer/director Gavin Wiesen tries to capture the ennui of a new generation of the privileged class. The result is a depressed, isolated anti-hero who delivers too little too late.

High school senior George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore) is given an ultimatum: start doing homework or face expulsion from his New York prep school. Instead, George befriends classmate Sally Howe (Emma Roberts), who with her superior sophistication and zest for life briefly brings him out of the reclusion in which he compulsively draws in his textbooks during class and reads Camus in the lunchroom. The two cut class together to compare personal philosophies and feelings on absent dads and laughable impotent step-dads, and also to visit the Brooklyn studio of alumnus artist Dustin (Michael Angarano). There, George for the first time realizes Sally's appeal to other men.

So, when dragged to a cool kid party by Sally where they encounter her ex-boyfriend, George — eventually relegated to the "just friends" section of Sally's trundle bed — becomes resentful and spirals into an even deeper depression than when we originally encountered him. Added to this are his mother's financial difficulties (step-dad has been bleeding her dry for years) and the final ultimatum from his school's principal (Blair Underwood). George has three weeks to complete a year's worth of homework assignments or he doesn't graduate.

In making George the main character of The Art of Getting By, Wiesen has made a disastrous beginner's mistake. The problem with a depressed protagonist who refuses to act is that it's not very interesting to watch. As George wallows in his fear of life and then in his hurt, the narrative stalls. Better to have fleshed out Sally more thoroughly and followed her as she balances attraction to the artist with her friendship with George — the first platonic friendship she's attempted. Reared by an oversexed, gold-digging mother (Elizabeth Reaser), Sally's conflicting behaviors are the most interesting on the screen, and Roberts portrays her with an adept likability. It's no wonder both George and the artist are drawn to her. But what we can't imagine is why she's so drawn to George.

A far cry from a Lloyd Dobbler in Say Anything, George is both physically and emotionally immature for a high school senior. When he claims to be a loser, one can't help but agree. However, there are plenty of entertaining and intriguing movies about losers. This just isn't one of them, and it's because George, in his misbehavior, is still toeing the line. Polite to a fault, he never takes a risk until absolutely forced to. And by then it's too late. Except it isn't. Wiesen gives him what he wants without any means for earning it, and so the ending rings false.

It's this aversion to risk that keeps the film from delving into true and great emotion. Both Metropolitan and Ordinary People were about depressed rich kids. However, they both deliver honest emotion, clever lines, and true relationships. The Art of Getting By is rather artless. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted 06/17/11)

Midnight in Paris
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Much more than a mere love letter to Paris, Woody Allen's latest comedy cleverly disguises a serious examination of imagination and romanticism behind its surface narrative. Under a charming love triangle subterfuge, Midnight in Paris answers questions of longing for and expectations of another time and place.

Midnight in Paris

Self-described Hollywood hack Gil (Owen Wilson) yearns to share his idealized version of Paris with his more pragmatic fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). However, on a trip meant to inspire Gil's first novel writing endeavor, the couple spend more time shopping and dining with Inez's parents instead of walking in the rain or exploring the Left Bank. When insufferable pseudo intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen), a friend of Inez's they run into at a restaurant, offers to take over the cultural and entertainment aspects of their touring, Gil excuses himself from the group on the pretense of walking the streets of the city or working on his novel.

During a midnight stroll, Gil is picked up by a vintage Peugeot and transported to a party, which at first he thinks is merely a 1920s theme party. Tipped off by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), he begins to believe he has somehow been transported in time to the era he admires the most. After a quick acclimation, Gil pals around with the Fitzgeralds and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who agrees to show Gil's novel to the ultimate literary critic, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).

What follows is Gil's struggle to balance his visits to the past with his present-day reality. In the 1920s, he participates in discussions on life and art with his heroes, just as he imagined them to be, and begins to fall in love with a young costume designer, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), hot off a love affair with Picasso. Meanwhile, Inez and her parents, who already disapproved of their daughter's choice for husband, grow increasingly suspicious of his absences and change in mood.

For the time travel, Allen respects his audience enough to rely solely on Anne Seibel's excellent production design. There are no cheesy effects to signify the transition. Much like his original brilliant treatise on escapism The Purple Rose of Cairo, after an initial (and mercifully short) period of disbelief, comes acceptance so that the rest of the movie may progress. It's not important that Gil travels in time; it's what he learns while there that matters.

In Gil's 1920s, the literary figures act exactly as he expects them to. Zelda is zany and suicidal, Hemingway speaks in short sentences that begin with “and.” And is constantly looking for a fight. In a hilarious short scene with Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, the Surrealists steal the show with their nonsense. Yet, the characters represent more than inside jokes for English and art history majors. The scenario is at once a treatise on the problems of modernity but also the tendency to romanticize other eras, the Golden Age Syndrome, as Paul describes it.

As Gil, Wilson shines. His bright-eyed optimism goes well with Allen's lines. As a result, many are delivered with a blithe manner despite their deep cynicism. It's a combination that works well in the film where Gil's ultimate revelation about his fantasies of the past leaves him wiser but not bitter. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 6/10/11)

Super 8
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Although Super 8 is reportedly an original story by Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams, it winds up playing like a more menacing version of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Steven Spielberg shares producing credit with Abrams, but it’s hard to tell if there was too much input from the old master or too little. Spielberg once did escapism better than just about anybody else, but it’s hard to say if the also successful Abrams is either too intimidated to strike out on his own or is too vain to take needed advice.


The title refers to the type film home movies used to be shot on and which budding Spielbergs developed their chops before moving up the 35mm. Both Spielberg and Abrams made movies in that medium before they had the resources to make professional product.

The film’s protagonists are trying to use that grade of celluloid to make their own detective-zombie film, “The Case.” A group of pre-teen filmmakers from the late ‘70s are entering the film into a contest, but have to shoot on the sly because the film’s makeup artist-sound operator Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has a father (Kyle Chandler), who’s a sheriff’s deputy.

Joe recently lost his mother and his dad blames the father (Ron Eldard) of the film’s leading lady Alice (Elle Fanning). The project’s director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), actually likes the clandestine locations he and his pals have selected because they add “production value” to their nonexistent budget.

Unfortunately, one location is a railway station where a train catastrophically derails during the shooting. From here, the crew of The Case discovers that they have more to deal with than with small-town Ohio rivalries and a film contest. A domineering Air Force Colonel (Noah Emmerich) is taking over the area because the train was carrying a mysterious and deadly cargo.

The nature of the merchandise and why it must be kept secret don’t take much guessing or imagination. Despite some impressive effects, the intergalactic conspiracy story never really comes into its own. There isn’t anything here that Spielberg, Abrams or others haven’t done before or better. The déjà vu saps some of the fun from the proceedings.

Where Super 8 really comes to life is during the making of The Case. Because Abrams and Spielberg have been through the amateur filmmaking ringer, they make viewers laugh with the technical mistakes and the story blunders that do-it-yourselfers make instead of ridiculing them. It’s a bit of typecasting to feature Fanning as a budding thespian, but Alice’s competence prevents the whole enterprise from being an exercise in snark.

By sticking primarily with unfamiliar faces in the cast, Abrams gives the story some tension it might not have had otherwise. It’s hard to expect any behavior traits from a performer who’s relatively new. Abrams also has a good eye for period detail from the music, to the products on the store shelves, to the clothing, which looks as flammable as it is unpleasantly gaudy.

Stick around for the closing credits, where we can actually see The Case as Charles envisions it. Perhaps it’s more fun to watch Abrams and Spielberg acknowledging how much they had to learn about filmmaking instead of watching them boast about what they can do now. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 06/10/11)

Small Town Murder Songs
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you’ve only seen Swedish actor Peter Stormare in Volkswagen commercials or in Fargo, you’ve only seen a small fragment of his talent. In Small Town Murder Songs, he plays a character that is far more involved than the Eurotrash psychos that have become his staple roles.

Small town Murder Songs

As a cop in an Ontario Mennonite village, Walter (Stormare) has a primary responsibility that seems to be ticketing speeders. The town is so small and sedate that the words “robbery” and “homicide” appear to be foreign words. Of course that could also be because several of the residents speak Swedish as a first language.

That changes when the body of a young, unidentified woman is left near a lake. Homicide investigations are a little beyond the skill set of Walter and the rest of the force. Washington (Ari Cohen), a detective from the much larger city of London, has to supervise the investigation because none of the locals even know who the victim is, much less who killed her.

For Walter, the humiliation of having to rely on outside help is bad enough, but he’s recently been baptized after living most of his life under the specter of his own violent temper. It’s not a good trait for a cop, especially if the primary suspect Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre) also happens to be seeing Walter’s disgruntled ex Rita (Jill Hennessy).

Even as the clues start indicating that Steve is guilty, Walter has to approach the matter with caution because busting Steve could be a serious ethics violation. Walter has trouble keeping his mind off of Rita even though his current girlfriend Sam (Martha Plimpton) makes sure he gets free pie at the local restaurant.

Stormare effortlessly blends in with the Canadians and Americans in the cast and projects quiet warmth that his previous roles haven’t hinted at. Furthermore, almost hidden behind thick glasses, his eyes appear to be holding back a formidable rage that constantly tests his newfound faith. This is especially challenging because seeing a guilty man walking free only makes his blood boil hotter. Despite Walter’s somewhat goofy appearance, Stomare still comes off as both threatening and strangely empathetic. It’s easy to feel for him as his desire for justice becomes seemingly more impossible with each turn.

Writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly follows a familiar template (most police investigations in films or TV include a visit to a strip club), but makes the most of his leading man and the somewhat unique atmosphere. With some of locals wearing traditional, religious garb or speaking Swedish as their primary language, the town seems almost like an alien landscape. As a result, the seemingly cut-and-dried case becomes more interesting because simply Walter and his London-based coworkers have to deal with language and culture barriers that don’t exist in the rest of Ontario.

The soundtrack, which primarily features vocal gospel tunes accompanied by percussion, gives the film a strange, ghostly feel and a sense that more is happening than a simple homicide.

In this low-key environment, Stormare easily stands out. His Walter is so engrossing that anything else seems superfluous. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 06/10/11)

Road to Nowhere
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

At 78, Monte Hellman, the director of cult favorites like Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter can still make intriguing little films. Road to Nowhere has murder, lust, political skullduggery, greed and a chilling perspective on how movies can skew our perspective on the world outside of theaters. That’s a good deal of content to pack into two hours. It’s too bad most of film feels like an exercise than an actual film. There’s more to admire than enjoy with this one.

road to nowhere

Road to Nowhere begins with a blogger-journalist (Dominique Swain) quizzing young director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) about his movie “Road to Nowhere,” which loosely chronicles the ripped from the postings story the scribe herself had written.

There’s a long, long shot of actress Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon) blow-drying her nails as a Kris Kristofferson song plays in the background. It gradually emerges that Hellman hasn’t lost his marbles by lingering on a sequence long after it has ceased to be interesting (although Sossamon drying her nails is infinitely more edifying to watch than dozens of Michael Bay explosions).

Instead, we’re getting a look inside the head of the movie-within-a-movie’s monomaniacal director. Mitchell thinks the fledgling thespian is almost divinely selected person to play Velma Duran, a young woman who died in mysterious circumstances after an affair with an aging politician named Rafe Tachen (Cliff De Young). Mitchell is also obviously and madly obsessed with his leading lady. He shoots multiple takes and annoys the film’s hypersensitive writer by having her improvise right and left. To be fair, the prose the performers have to recite isn’t exactly sterling.

Then again, maybe Michell isn’t such a lovesick schmuck. He may simply be affected by the real story he’s depicting. Because Rafe and Velma’s tale involved gunplay, plane crashes, deception and torrid romance, it’s no wonder he’s losing his head as well. Through a series of flashbacks we also learn that there’s a reason that Laurel is a dead ringer for Velma and seems like her spiritual error.

Screenwriter Steven Gaydos and Hellman present both the real-life doomed pairing and Mitchell’s personal struggles out of chronological order, making Road to Nowhere play more like a jigsaw puzzle than a conventional movie. There are subtle but profound differences between what apparently really happened and what’s a product of Mitchell’s overactive concentration. Before we get too comfortable establishing what’s true or not, it turns out that the author of the source material may not know as much about the incidents that inspired her as she thinks and that an insurance adjuster (Waylon Payne), who followed the case, has more than busting fraud on his mind.

With all of the smoke and mirrors, it’s a little difficult to share in protagonists’ fixations. If these folks are going to get homicidal or sexual with each other, it might be more involving if the characters weren’t a bunch of gloomy whiners. That said, Hellman gets the most out of performers like Sossamon and Swain who demonstrate here that they’ve been sadly underutilized in previous roles. While the movie feels cold but handsomely shot, it’s not an insult to say The Road to Nowhere plays better in a viewer’s head than onscreen. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 06/10/11)

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Adapted from the popular children’s book series by author Megan McDonald and illustrator Peter Reynolds, Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer is not, thankfully, a bummer. Enough positive energy oozes from big screen to make this film a worthy family diversion on those rainy summer days when the pool is closed.

judy moody

However, that isn’t to say the some parents might take viewing this movie as the grownup equivalent of having to eat your vegetables. No doubt scenes of chaos with bright, energetic kids tearing through a house spouting harebrained kid ideas formulated to break the boredom may be a little too realistic for some adults.

Judy’s (Jordana Beatty) journey to make sure her summer isn’t a bummer begins on the last day of school as she and the rest of her class bid a summer farewell to their teacher Mr. Todd (Jaleel White). Banjo-strumming Mr. Todd challenges the kids to figure out where he will be spending the summer with a clue about being in the “cold.” The puzzler is carried throughout the film as Judy, along with Frank (Preston Bailey), competes with two other friends — one in circus camp, the other in Borneo — for the most “thrill points” in completing dares.

But as in any kid’s life, diversions abound. For Judy, it’s brother Stink’s (Parris Mosteller) obsession with catching Big Foot, an ongoing pursuit that also eventually leads to solving where Mr. Todd is spending the summer.

As if to prove that not all adults are clueless and hapless — except cool Mr. Todd — Heather Graham as Aunt Opal shows up to take care of Judy and Stink, and add to the fun, as mom and dad leave for California to care for a sick relative. Calling herself a “guerrilla artist,” Aunt Opal adds some lighthearted sentimentality to the film. (And for those dads that remember Graham in Boogie Nights, the shapely actor proves to be a big reason to occasionally pay attention to what’s happening on screen.)

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer isn’t exactly a laugh riot any more than sleepover has a calming effect on the household despite the film’s poop element and Frank’s wimpiness and tendency to hurl. But it’s harmless and girls will like it, and maybe even a few boys, as Stink does hold his own against Judy and Big Foot is captured … or sort of. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 6/10/11)

X-Men: First Class
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

X-Men: First Class is a huge step backward for the film series about superhuman mutants. This is actually a compliment.

By returning some of writer Stan Lee’s most beloved characters to their Cold War-era roots, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) manages to make the seemingly moribund series about Professor Charles Xavier’s exceptionally gifted students come roaring back to life. All the sudden all the references to radioactivity and the social commentary don’t seem quaint.

It’s also refreshing to see Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Jane Eyre) as young men who haven’t developed into the established characters in the Marvel Comics universe. In this take, Xavier is an able-bodied playboy with a full head of hair and little shame about using his mind reading abilities to woo coeds on his way through college.

Erik, on the other hand, is a sullen loner whose sole purpose in life is to avenge the murder of his mother in a concentration camp during World War II. Having seen what the Nazis have done to his fellow Jews, it’s no wonder that he’s a misanthrope. The guards at the concentration camp might have killed him sooner if they discovered he was both a Jew and a mutant.

It turns out that both Xavier and Erik are on the trail of a shady arms dealer named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who has been using the mutual mistrust between the Americans and the Soviets to his own advantage. With a team of deadly mutants, including a powerful telepath named Emma Frost (January Jones), Shaw is eager to get Moscow and Washington to annihilate each other over missiles in Cuba.

Working with a pair of sympathetic CIA agents (Oliver Platt, Rose Byrne), Xavier and Erik raise a mutant army of their own to prevent a nuclear Armageddon. This group includes Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone) a blue-skinned girl who can change herself into anyone else when threatened.

By moving the characters and the settings back a few decades, X-Men: First Class is dynamic in a way that X-Men: Last Stand wasn’t. The metaphors for racism and homophobia from director Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies are back as well, and thankfully don’t feel heavy handed. Singer is credited as a producer here, and his return to the series is welcome.

While it rarely insults a viewer’s intelligence, X-Men: First Class is also a lot of fun.

McAvoy has a ball capturing the young Xavier’s glib charm and has the range to also convey the same gravitas that Patrick Stewart brought to the role. As the Professor’s responsibilities to his students and to other humans become apparent to him, he becomes more paternal than playful.

With his brooding manner, Fassbender effortlessly makes Erik the film’s focal point. While it might take some suspension of disbelief that the German-born Erik would speak with Fassbender’s Irish drawl, it’s hard to think of another actor who could make viewers hope that the future Magneto could lose his grudges even though it’s a guilty pleasure to watch him get back his Nazi oppressors.

Vaughn handles the action with the same finesse he demonstrated in Kick-Ass without sacrificing story or character. He and fellow Kick-Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman might find some odd excuses for Byrne and Jones to strip to their undies, but they have a wonderful sense of the period that spawned the X-Men.

It’s too bad that Jones, unlike Byrne, was cast primarily for her ability to fit in the sort of outfits that Jane Fonda would have worn in Barbarella instead being convincing in a mind duel with Professor X. Nonetheless, Vaughn realizes that superhero stories need brain and brawn, and even a bit of heart in order to save the world. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 06/03/11)

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