Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Farewell is a spy thriller that manages to be engrossing despite the fact that its climactic vehicle chase would look pretty tepid in a James Bond movie. With a minimum of gunplay and no explosions, the film consistently feels nerve-wracking and tense. Apparently, the real-world consequences of espionage are more frightening than the “gentleman spy” fantasy.
The stakes seem credible because French director Christian Carion (Joyeux Noël ) is working from a fascinating chapter of history that’s only come to light recently. While Carion and his co-screenwriter Eric Raynaud fictionalize some of the characters and the events, the state secrets trafficked in the film are the ones that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.
Farewell focuses on a vain, but idealist KGB colonel named Sergei Gregoriev (moonlighting Serbian director Emir Kusturica), who has grown disillusioned with the Soviet Union and believes the only way he can save his country is by doing whatever he can to bring down its government.
His goal sounds both hubristic and even suicidal, but through his job he possesses the documents to do just that. To get these documents to Western spy agencies, he finds an unusual courier. Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet, the director of Tell No One) is a French engineer working for Thomson, the real-life British conglomerate that owns RCA and Reuters. Pierre lives in Moscow with his German wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) and is fluent in Russian. His linguistic skills are his only qualification for the task that awaits him.
Much of the story’s tension comes from Pierre’s recognition that he’s handling vital information and that he’s far over his head. Pierre lies to his wife about what he’s involved in and quickly realizes that KGB agents could be watching from any corner. Oddly, because he’s not a professional spy, he doesn’t appear on the KGB’s radar. Because Pierre is so outmatched, he’s engaging even though his risks could have fatal consequences for his entire family.
Pierre’s boss has ties with the French intelligence agency DST and forwards Sergei’s data to newly elected Socialist President François Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan). The fervently anti-Communist American President Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) is initially furious that a NATO ally like France would allow Red ministers to serve in Mitterrand’s cabinet. Ironically, it’s Mitterand’s left-leaning government that ends up giving Reagan and his advisor Hutton (David Soul) the information they need to undermine the Soviets’ entire espionage system. The French also shrewdly give Sergei the code name “Farewell,” which initially misleads the Soviets into thinking their mole is dealing with the CIA instead of the DST.
Carion understands that the threat of violence is frequently more unsettling than on-screen carnage. Frequently, a simple change in the lighting or the vague sight of a figure approaching the camera is enough to make a scene eerie. Having rich, fully developed characters doesn’t hurt either.
The tall, imposing Kusturica is believable as an idealist, but he and Carion wisely explore Sergei’s fascinating contradictions. He claims to be acting in the interest of his son Igor (Evgeniy Kharlanov), who despises him. The younger Gregoriev resents his dad’s ideological diatribes (although he appreciates the Queen tapes that Dad scores through Pierre) and the flagrant affair Sergei is having with a coworker. Kusturica’s performance is even more remarkable when you consider that he had to brush up on his long dormant Russian skills and awkward French.
Actually, the language barrier makes Farewell a much richer and more convincing experience. The transitions from French to Russian to English make the film disorienting to watch and make the viewer feel the same chills the characters do. With the exception of the Russians (who are usually played by Ukrainians), the actors wind up playing characters that are their own nationalities, so a sense of rivalry and gamesmanship occurs naturally. It’s also a treat to catch Willem Dafoe in a cameo as a ruthless CIA agent.
Farewell works primarily because its makers assume that viewers are as smart as the spies themselves. It’s a dangerous and brave assumption, but it appears as if Carion and company are correct. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/27/10)
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Veteran heavyweight cast notwithstanding, Get Low irreparablysuffers from first-time director Aaron Schneider's callow filmmaking and a script dripping in forced momentousness. Subtle performances are no match for tired stereotypes and high-pitched melodrama.
When long-time hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is reminded of his approaching mortality, he shakes off his isolation and about 40 years of beard growth in order to arrange his own funeral. Refused a church burial by the local preacher, Bush takes his unusual request — to be alive and present at the funeral — to flimflammer turned funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and quickly warms to Quinn's folksy assistant, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black). He also runs into a former love interest, Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), newly widowed and having returned to town.
The three men decide to throw a party for the funeral, and anyone who has a story to tell about Bush is invited. Also, during the massive PR campaign for the party — at least by 1930's rural Tennessee standards — Bush announces a plan to raffle off his prime timber acreage. Finally, he forces Buddy Robinson to drive him miles out of the way to find Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) to preside over the festivities and tell a big secret Bush has kept for the last four decades. At first, Jackson refuses, but then eventually relents.
Schneider reveals his inexperience through lack of point of view. It's often difficult to discern if a scene is meant to be humorous or dramatic. For example, when establishing Bush as a hermit, he vacillates between scenes of Bush as a harmless, quirky stereotype and a dark, dangerous character. Bush's threats to the children daring each other to knock on his door are clearly empty, yet his quick action in defense of his mule in town is disarmingly violent in contrast. And the running schtick with the no trespassing signs is downright ridiculous.
Schneider has the same lack of finesse with his actors. Given some of the best, he has no use for their proven abilities. As Mattie Darrow, Sissy Spacek comes off as an extra. Although her character is written as a swept third-aside third wheel, her performance didn't have to echo it. In the card-playing scene it seems obvious that she's present because her character must be; and not that she would be. Also, as Frank Quinn, Murray is at times funny and charming (“hermit money”), but he is completely out of place in this period piece. His dry, ironic delivery plays out of sync with the other characters' devotion to earnestness. It's like he's filming a different movie altogether — a comedy — and the time machine should be hidden under a tarp in Bush's barn.
To be fair, some of Schneider's woes stem from the screenplay. The schizophrenia originates in the idea of turning a funeral into a carnival and forcing your audience to remain somber. Based on a true story of an Appalachian resident in 1938, this Hollywood version, worked to death by writers Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, for the most part relies on its conceit more than story or even character. The party loses all the momentum when the writers decided to hang the plot on a patent mystery and grand confession that results in affected and eye-roll worthy redemption. A better movie would have stuck with the stories about an old hermit. PG-13 Rating: 2.5 (Posted 08/27/10)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
It’s tempting to wonder if producer William Packer feels as if he’s been robbed like the victims in the new heist drama Takers. Thanks to a convoluted and underdeveloped script, a cast of some formidable, high-dollar actors demonstrate little of the gifts they’ve shown in previous roles. Even if they had brought their A-games, it’s doubtful that director John Luessenhop would have known what to do with them. Thanks to his propensity to take shots out of focus and overuse “shaky-cam” effects, it’s even difficult to tell if human beings are somehow involved with these elaborate burglaries.
Matt Dillon and Jay Hernandez play a pair of cops named Jack Welles and Eddie Hatcher who are eager to catch a gang of robbers capable of stealing millions without leaving incriminating clues. Brothers Jesse Attica (Chris Brown) and Jake Attica (Michael Ealy), stoic British immigrant Gordon Jennings (Idris Elba), slick marksman John Rahway (Paul Walker) and demolition specialist A.J. (Hayden Christensen) spend a year between daring, elaborate heists in order to minimize the chances of getting caught.
Unfortunately, greed and an old accomplice might lead to a trip to the slammer. A short, but bitter ex-con nicknamed “Ghost” (rapper T.I.) wants to rejoin the gang and to claim his part of the earnings from the crime that put him in the slammer. Short, whiny and irritable, Ghost understandably creeps the gang out. It doesn’t help that T.I. comes off like the annoying little brat the other kids either beat up or avoided in school.
Nevertheless, the potential earnings from robbing the armored car that Ghost has picked out are irresistible. The new job only gives the gang five days to prepare. The midsection of Takers makes viewers feel every second of those days. The script that Luessenhop and four other credited writers have churned out seems to have been completed without considering how Alfred Hitchcock defined the movies. While the Master of Suspense called them “life, with the dull bits removed,” Takers prominently features scenes and relationships that go nowhere, very slowly.
Gordon has a drug-addicted sister (Oscar-nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and Jake is preparing to marry his girlfriend Rachel (Zoë Saldana). Both subplots are designed to humanize these thieves, but neither is developed enough to be that involving. The actresses involved are simply asked to show up and recite their lines. Jean-Baptiste leaves more of an impression, but that’s because she gets to wear more than slinky black dresses.
Luessenhop has obviously seen Michael Mann’s Heat and liberally borrows from that film’s structure (featuring both police and heist procedurals) and over-the-top action. While he’d like to achieve Mann’s results, he lacks the older director’s sense of pacing or striking visuals. Mann’s The Insider is a nail-biting film that features no gunplay or explosions whereas Takers has a plethora of property destruction, and little of it thrills. Luessenhop’s sloppy editing takes the fun out of seeing the thieves use their wits and weapons to stick it to the Man, and Dillon is stuck playing the same rudely uncompromising cop he played in Crash. Perhaps Luessenhop could have saved the producers some cash by simply pasting in footage of Dillon from the previous film. Viewers might not have noticed.
It also doesn’t help that Luessenhop sacrifices logic to so-so eye candy. Most clever burglars would cancel a heist if an irritable cop like Welles were obviously following them. No, there wouldn’t be a movie if the gang quit, but there isn’t much of one when they proceed.
Brown and T.I. are both credited as producers, so they are most likely to benefit from the rest of the cast if Takers does well at the box office. There’s no point in rewarding them. Just because they and others went along with this venture doesn’t mean paying audiences should. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 08/27/10)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
The Switch is based on a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides, the author of The Virgin Suicides. Stretched out into 100-minute movie, it’s easy to get the feeling that an idea that would work great in a short sketch has been stretched past the point of being interesting. Rarely do directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, the team behind the occasionally funny Blades of Glory and the regrettable Caveman series, offer anything that can’t be bested by YouTube or Funny or Die.
Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman star as Kassie Larson and Wally Mars, a couple of BFFs whose relationship is strained by Wally’s neuroses and Kassie’s desire for motherhood despite the fact that she can’t bring herself to marry or even have an affair with her pal of nearly two decades.
Kassie’s worries aren’t unwarranted. At 40, her days of being able to have children are coming to a close, and Wally is as insecure and cynical as he is loyal. His heavy drinking also makes him a potentially questionable choice as a father or even a husband.
Deciding to have a child on her own, Kassie pays a hunky, married, but financially struggling college professor named Roland (Patrick Wilson) to donate his sperm. At a party celebrating the child to be, Wally drinks enough alcohol to sterilize a hospital for a week. Finding the jar containing Roland’s seed, he angrily flushes it down the sink in fit of inebriated jealousy.
Quickly realizing what he’s done, Wally frantically replaces it with a sample of his own essence. By the time he staggers home, he has no memory of what he’s done.
Seven years later, Kassie returns to New York from Minnesota where she’s been raising her son. Roland is now divorced, and Wally is still single and pining for Kassie. When he meets young Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), Wally is instantly struck by how the lad seems hard to please and borderline weird. He also has all of his biological dad’s neuroses. Eager to have the family, he missed out on earlier, Wally slowly starts to remember why the lad look more like him instead of Roland. In the process, he winds up tormented by the fact that revealing the child’s origins could permanently kill his relationship with Kassie.
Aniston has been flogging the press circuit comparing the Kassie’s desire for single-motherhood with her own. The problem with The Switch is that it’s less entertaining than the factually challenged accounts of her attempts at motherhood that run in supermarket tabloids. It also doesn’t help that her leading man easily upstages her. Kassie is frankly too passive and one note to be engaging.
Bateman, however, expertly juggles slavish devotion with crippling insecurities. In the hands of a lesser performer, Wally would be an obnoxious mess. As it stands, Allan Loeb’s screenplay doesn’t give much of a hint at the sort of stability that would be needed to make a credible parent or spouse. He drinks a lot on screen, but alcoholism is never discussed or even considered. It’s hard to believe in Hollywood endings when the footage that precedes them doesn’t bode well.
Predictably, Kassie and Wally have best friends played by Juliette Lewis and Jeff Goldblum. The Lewis character can’t stand Wally, and the Goldblum character thinks Wally should have left Kassie behind ages ago. Juggling these standard issue tropes with potentially edgy subject matter like misplaced sperm donations simply doesn’t work.
It’s amazing how The Kids Are All Right, which also deals with sperm donation, is a drama, but it has far more intentional laughs than the Jennifer Aniston vehicle. Just because a star’s personal life makes for engrossing, if deceptive reading, doesn’t mean their movies are anywhere nearly as entertaining. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 08/20/10)
Nanny McPhee Returns
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Overrun with computer-generated effects and frantic slapstick routines, Nanny McPhee Returns is missing the heartfelt charm and sentiment that carried the 2005 film on which this sequel is based. Director Susanna White buries the life lessons imparted by the title character under convoluted schemes and mounds of muck.
With her husband away at war, harried Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is charged with caring for her three children (Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Oscar Steer) and the family's barley farm while also containing the mess at the general store caused by the senility of its proprietress, Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith). The arrival of two snooty young cousins (Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson), avoiding both the Blitz and their parents' divorce taking place in London, results in even more chaos, but magically brings be-moled and snaggle-toothed Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) to the farm.
Claiming to be a service provided by the War Office, Nanny McPhee quickly dispatches magical lessons in sharing, kindness and cooperation. Soon enough, the children provide a united front against the deceitful plans concocted by their Uncle Phil (Rhys Ifans) to force Isabel to sell her family's half of the farm to him to cover his gambling debts and stop the harassment by a couple of lady goons, Misses Topsey and Turvey (Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand). The children also use these lessons to force a father-son reunion with a reluctant father (Ralph Fiennes) and defuse an errant enemy bomb, and in return receive a toil-free completed harvest that will save the farm and the return of the Green's father (Ewan McGregor in a brief appearance) from the front lines.
Throughout the film, there's ambivalence toward the title character's presence in the household. Sure, she gets the children to share their beds, but she doesn't stop spoiled cousin Cecilia from ruining Isabel's cherished wedding dress and veil. In fact, in scenes where Nanny McPhee could be used to best advantage, the homely governess is absent altogether. Cyril confronts his stern father with only his older cousin present. Isabel hears the false report of her husband's death with the old crow nowhere in sight. Aside from using her flying motorcycle, the happy conclusions are rarely due to her magical ministrations.
The lack of a larger objective or proper villain is mostly to blame for the uselessness of Nanny McPhee. The children quickly learn to get along through simultaneous, multiple lessons. Plus, they're not really that rotten to begin with (compared to the unruly brood in the first movie). And Nanny McPhee remains clueless in dealing with uncle Phil's machinations. As the hero of this movie, she's largely unneeded, breaking her one cardinal rule.
The stylized settings and clothing design are wasted on hysterical, last-hour chases that only serve to muck up the storyline. Dragging down each scene, too, are the forced British accent Maggie Gyllenhaal employs as Isabel, the lady goons' empty threats to Uncle Phil, and Uncle Phil's ineffectual chicanery (How exactly will he buy out Isabel when he's in debt from gambling?).
The bloated script lacks any emotional connection to the characters, minus a standout performance by Ralph Fiennes as disappointed and stoic Lord Gray changes his attitude toward his son. The transformations in the first movie proved truly magical and miraculous. Unfortunately, this follow-up is stuck in the mud. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/20/10)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Now that Like Mike star Lil Bow Wow is no longer “Lil,” finding decent work must be a challenge. Lottery Ticket does require a leading man his age, but it’s both a little too demanding and a little too underdeveloped for an adult career.
This time around Bow Wow is Kevin, a high school grad from a run-down housing project who’s trying to make a living selling shoes at Foot Locker. As the film illustrates, simply getting to the store can be challenging. His smothering but devoutly Christian grandmother (Loretta Devine) needs him at home, so his dream of designing athletic footware is out. She also winds up detaining him with some local scuttlebutt when he needs to be leaving for work. His childhood pal Bennie (Brandon T. Jackson) is so motormouthed that he further impedes Kevin’s progress, and a local thug named Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) demands that Kevin score him some prized Jordans. Lorenzo also expects Kevin to honor a hefty five-finger discount.
Kevin’s minefield also includes the project’s chief gossip (Charlie Murphy) and a strange fellow named Mr. Washington (Ice Cube, who helped produce the film). The latter continually requests that Kevin score him beef jerky and has not left his apartment in months.
When Kevin prevents Lorenzo from stealing the shoes, he winds up being pursued by the vengeful criminal (he’s only recently been released from prison) and out of a job.
His multiple worries appear to be over because he’s bought his first lottery ticket and thanks to some lucky numbers from the Chinese eatery where his gal pal Stacie (Naturi Naughton) works, it’s a winner.
Actually, his life has just gotten more complicated. Because he’s won over $300 million during the Fourth of July weekend, he can’t claim his winnings for three days. He’s also struck a deal with a suave gangster named Sweet Tee (Keith David), who tears off the arms and legs of people who cross him.
Curiously, Lottery Ticket is at its most amusing before Kevin wins. Kevin’s path to his job is quite funny, and it’s surprising he’s still employed considering how arduous the path is.
In films like Local Hero, where small communities get a sense that they’re about to be flush with wealth, the humor goes into high gear as greed starts to overwhelm the characters. This happens fitfully in Lottery Ticket. Director Erik White has apparently instructed the normally capable performers that microphones weren’t sensitive enough to record any line that wasn’t yelled.
In addition, the actors have broad facial expressions that haven’t been seen on screen since the silent era. Nowadays, it’s amazing what you can do with a close-up. As a result, it takes some effort to care if Kevin’s eventual wealth will turn him into a cad or if he’ll even make it long enough to turn in his ticket.
Mike Epps has an eerily effective cameo as a pastor who seems to have forgotten about what St. Paul said about the love of money. But his obvious wig and his gesticulating almost detract from an otherwise amusing sequence.
White and screenwriter Abdul Williams deserve some credit for examining how lotteries often leave some downtrodden communities with false hope. With such remote chances of winning, it’s pointless to contemplate what to do with money that’s never coming in, even if it’s desperately needed. When Lottery Ticket tries to get serious, it becomes predictable and stale.
For a movie like Lottery Ticket to work, viewers have to feel as if they themselves have come out ahead. If you spend the movie wondering if Bow Wow has a future, it’s safe to say the that a ticket to this film earns about the same return as a typical set of Powerball numbers. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 08/20/10)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is like discovering a history book with marginally interesting subject matter but mesmerizing footnotes and illustrations. The latter are so captivating that the core information seems like a steppingstone to the good stuff.
Faithfully adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Canadian graphic novels, the film’s title character (Michael Cera) is by all measures a loser, except for his ability to survive fights. He’s 23 but between jobs and has to sponge of his gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin). If his lack of career mobility isn’t questionable to begin with, his romancing of a 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl named Knives Chow (Ellen Wong) is.
Actually, Scott sort of has a job. He’s a talentless bassist in an equally mediocre band called Sex Bob-Omb. They open for other acts, and their sole distinguishing trait seems to be the way that Scott’s ex Kimberly (Alison Pill) furiously pounds the drums while his pal Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) wails about … well something. A fellow named Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) is also in the group, although he simply plays video games during rehearsals.
Scott’s personal rut ends when a young woman who keeps appearing in his dreams shows up at parties he attends. Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has multicolored hair (which periodically changes) and actually has a job making deliveries. She hails from New York, so the residents of Toronto find her inherently fascinating. He orders something from Amazon just to get her to deliver the goods. Despite Scott’s lack of charm or prospects, she falls for him instantly.
But Scott quickly discovers that the girl of his dreams comes with enough baggage to fill Toronto’s airport. To have a future with Ramona, Scott must defeat all of her seven evil exes.
Essentially, the matches are Mortal Kombat encounters played in the flesh with the stakes pretty much the same. His combatants include an Indian gamer (Satya Bhabha) who sends threatening emails, a vain skateboarder-turned-actor (Chris Evans), a man with superpowers he’s gained from being a vegan (former Superman Brandon Routh, clearly having a ball poking fun at his best known role) and a music exec (Jason Schwartzman) who says he wants to sign Sex Bob-Omb.
These showdowns go in such bizarre directions that Scott survives though flashes of ingenuity or just dumb luck. Cera may never get past playing nebbishes, but he gradually manages to give Scott a spine, which makes his efforts to win over Ramona, despite already having a girlfriend, seem more plausible.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is loaded with geek culture references and a few nods that gamers will certainly enjoy. Check out the Universal logo at the beginning, and if the joke appeals to you, you’ll probably enjoy the film. If not, the experience might be alienating.
Scott’s quest is a little too simplistic, but British director Edgar Wright manages to make it consistently funny by incorporating O’Malley’s constant use of peripheral information. Whenever characters appear on the screen, a sidebar appears telling viewers their ages and personal data. The text is amusingly sarcastic. When Scott shows up to play at a dive, an info-graphic declares, “Fun Fact: This place is a toilet.”
As with his previous movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright makes fun of what geeks love but never with malice. From watching the battles, it’s obvious he’s read every manga, played several video games and watched more anime than is good for mental health. Wright shares his characters hopes and fascinations, so the humor never stoops to condescension. Because he shares his characters desires, it’s easier to cheer from them as the film wears on, and it’s not a burden waiting for Scott to get his act together.
As Scott’s battles become more stylized and weird, Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall manage to come up with new, creative variations. Who knew that cheating on a vegan diet had such dire consequences or that these sort of battles would end with the opponent turning into game tokens?
It’s also refreshing to see Toronto playing itself instead of trying to pass for some U.S. city. The charm of O’Malley’s books is their uniquely Canadian outlook, and Wright knows better than to tinker with the setting.
Because of Wright’s bursting heart and his love of all things geeky, having one-note characters doesn’t really seem like a flaw. Perhaps those who lament the influence of comics and videogames on movies should instead decry the bad films themselves and not blame the source material. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/13/10)
Countdown to Zero
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
While the documentary film is no stranger to activist film-making, director Lucy Walker has taken an old favorite, nuclear weapons, and once again revealed to all that blowing up the world would be very, very bad.
Presented in the form of interviews with various security, military and political personnel, Walker divides the film into three scenarios: nuclear attack through accident, terrorism or just plain stupidity. Certainly the list of all the "accidental losses" of these weapons through the decades is unsettling, to say the least (it would appear that the things are scattered all over the ocean floor, just to begin with...).
The terrorism aspect is also plenty scary with lots of talk about how little chance America has at keeping out such weapons (basically, none), and of course how much nuclear material is scattered across what’s left of the defunct Soviet Union, which, for reasons unknown, seems to store the stuff in unguarded sheds with a rusty padlock on the door.
While An Inconvenient Truth used images to prove what IS happening to the environment across the globe, this film just loves to show us what MIGHT happen if a bomb went of in New York or London, and so on , in an effort to stir up some nice outrage. The only problem is that right now I would argue that America is already a little "outraged" out, and editing in a bunch of old test footage of buildings blowing away only seems to date this film’s approach.
Really, who doesn't worry about the big bomb hanging over us all? The film treats nuclear weapons like nobody knew about them until this flick, and seems to be patting itself in the back with every "it came really close to happening" scenario it presents. What about the money gained by the military/industrial complex- are they just gonna give all that moola up? Also, just who is supposed to be the first country to give up those weapons?
The fact is we already know all this stuff: we just want a good solution as to how to stop it, and this film has no answers to that difficult question. Counting to zero, indeed. (PG 13) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/13/10)
Eat Pray Love
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Throughout the tedious slog that is Eat Pray Love, I was reminded of a Charles Addams cartoon. It featured an artist facing a dramatic landscape. Despite having an idea vantage point to depict a stunning view of natural majesty, a quick glance at the canvas reveals that the painter has merely chosen to create a bland self-portrait that he could have just as easily produced in a studio.
Sending Julia Roberts across the globe to encounter the pleasures that exotic places can bring might have made for an interesting film, but director Ryan Davis, the mind behind Nip/Tuck and Glee, confuses reaching spiritual fulfillment with navel gazing. Eat Pray Love may have some of the most picturesque locations on the globe, but it’s a portrait of personal indulgence instead of enlightenment.
Although it’s adapted from New York-based Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat Pray Love often plays more like a sitcom (Davis’ specialty) than a credible drama. Any worthy observations that Gilbert has gained from her journeys are missing. In print, descriptions of chowing down on exotic cuisine could make for enjoyable reading. On screen, it looks like an Olive Garden commercial.
Also written narrative can take a reader right into the author’s head, capturing all the emotions and ideas that she might have encountered. Establishing shots, no matter how pretty is a poor substitute.
It doesn’t help that Murphy and co-screenwriter Jennifer Salt (a Nip/Tuck veteran) churn out dozens of cornball quips that fail as bon mots. Early in the film a character laments, “I can’t keep two thoughts in my head. I feel like Liza Minnelli.”
The level of wit and insight fails to improve from there.
Roberts retraces Gilbert’s globetrotting, but what might have been intriguing in print is torpid on screen. Roberts recreates Gilbert’s divorce from the man (Billy Crudup) who proofreads her novels and her brief relationship with a Hindu actor named David (James Franco). On TV, Davis has several episodes to explore a relationship and why it is or isn’t working.
On film, we barely get to know either Crudup or Franco’s characters, so Gilbert’s malaise comes off as spoiled whining. If we could see where the relationships went wrong, empathizing with Gilbert’s onscreen moping wouldn’t be so tiring. Hearing lines such as “I don’t want to go to Aruba; I don’t want to get married!” doesn’t help.
Do characters that can just take off to Aruba whenever they want really need that much emotional support?
To find some meaning to her prosperous but empty life, Gilbert heads to Rome, where she samples the local cuisine with an abandon that would make Ms. Pac-Man proud. After some tired sequences involving the consequences of eating too many carbs, she heads to India to pray at the ashram of David’s guru. She is disappointed that the guru is now in New York. Wouldn’t careful travelers phone, e-mail or text first, or maybe wait for a touring guru to come to their own turf?
On second thought, it’s a wonderful excuse for Gilbert to meet a gruff Texan (Richard Jenkins) who spouts florid platitudes between wisecracks. Jenkins should probably get an Oscar for not bursting into chuckles as he utters the nonsense he’s been assigned to recite.
From India, Gilbert heads to Bali, where she confers with a medicine man she consulted before her spiritual trek. Naturally, a handsome and wealthy Brazilian (a sadly underutilized Javier Bardem) happens upon her. He literally hits her with his car. Apparently the path to fulfill one’s soul includes eating Italian food, retreats to ashrams and bicycling into traffic. Just make sure the driver is attractive before following Gilbert’s example.
Robert Richardson, the Oscar-winner who has supervised the camerawork and lighting on Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino’s last few movies, delvers a cornucopia of breathtaking images. It’s a shame the actors have to spoil his artistry by reciting Murphy and Salt’s drivel. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 08/13/10)
The Disappearance of Alice Creed
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Made with a handful of locations and only three performers, J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed demonstrates that sometimes the most unsettling image you can put on the screen is that of three people stuck in a small room.
Blakeson opens the film revealing very little about his characters. Only gradually do we learn their motives or their goals. In fact, the characters don’t even speak for the first few minutes of the film.
Vic (Eddie Marsan, who channeled John Houseman in Me and Orson Welles) and Danny (Martin Compston) are spending what looks like a small fortune on home remodeling supplies. The two have apparently been to the British version of Home Depot and procured every hammer, door lock or other piece of hardware.
It quickly becomes obvious these guys aren’t simply trying to turn a dingy flat into a more livable home. When their shopping trip includes soundproofing, it seems odd because neither is a musician, and the handcuffs are probably not for, um, recreational purposes.
Even with all of their careful planning, it’s a given that something is going to go terribly wrong. The two abduct socialite Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time) and inform her wealthy father that he has two days to raise two million pounds if he ever wants to see his estranged daughter again.
Despite the simplicity of the crime and the careful planning, the situation becomes more precarious with each minute. Vic and Danny may be friends, but Vic’s obsessive attention to detail clashes with Danny’s more casual attitude toward their task. Adding to the tension is that Alice herself isn’t exactly helpless.
Yes, she’s tied up and frequently gagged. Her captors have even stripped her to make the ransom photos look more alarming. When she gets a hand free (she has to eat or use the toilet at some point) or gets to talk with her captors, however, she can exacerbate the tensions between them. With that much money on the line, loyalty and honor become abstract concepts. Arteton’s performance is especially noteworthy because her character has little to say or do until well into the film’s second act. Because of her abduction, Alice is immediately sympathetic, but her ability to hamper Vic’s scheme makes her more interesting than a passive victim.
Similarly her captors can go from being vile to vulnerable in just a few seconds. Marson and Compston, who used to be a soccer player, act less like partners and more like chess players, trying to gain an upper hand without being detected by each other.
Blakeson’s eye for Murphy’s Law is remarkably precise, and he finds dozens of credible ways for fate and treachery to make the situation increasingly precarious. Simple appliances malfunction during pressure situations, and coming up with cover stories for a mistake is not that easy.
Because the characters and the situations are so dynamic, the claustrophobic environment in The Disappearance of Alice Creed doesn’t feel forced, static or artificial. The gunplay may be minimal in the film, but simply the possibility of violence is enough to rattle the nerves. (R) Rating: 4. (Posted 08/06/10)
The Killer Inside Me
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
The controversy surrounding the portrayal of violence, particularly toward women, in Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me is fully deserved. Based on Jim Thompson's 1952 noir novel, the film pulls no punches in order to deliver an unflinching psychological portrait of fetishistic sexuality and submerged brutality let loose.
At the behest of the good citizens of a 1950s West Texas town, baby-faced sheriff's deputy Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is sent to run off prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), but instead finds a willing partner for frequent afternoon S&M escapades. The lovers hatch a plan to extort money from local oil and real estate bigwig Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) by exploiting his son Elmer's (Jay R. Ferguson) infatuation with Joyce. Notwithstanding his purported love for Joyce and loyalty to school chum Elmer, Lou double-crosses them all.
As details of the crime come to light, Lou must then prove he's above suspicion to the county attorney (Simon Baker) and long-time girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson) by setting up an alibi and also framing a drifter (Brent Briscoe) to take the final fall. However, with his inner demons unleashed — what Lou refers to as "the sickness" — Lou finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his outer composure. And he ends up destroying all that he loves most.
Winterbottom's 1950's West Texas is at odds with itself. Its mid-century sleekness clashes with pre-war, small-town ways. Even Lou's fantasies come in two separate packages. Free spirit Joyce looks like a modern pin-up while childhood sweetheart Amy maintains her public propriety and holds out for a marriage proposal. Yet, both are no strangers to the bedroom and their own dark urges. In fact, it turns out that Amy, in a startlingly subtle yet strong performance by Kate Hudson, understands Lou better than almost anyone else, if only a little too late.
Lou's inner struggle is best revealed by his voice-overs that explain the town's code of morals that he follows while acting otherwise immorally. The son of the former local doctor and pillar of the community, Lou is a well-behaved hometown boy, but only when he's not misbehaving. In other words, he may spank you during sex, but he'll call you ma'am afterward. And it turns out he has a lifetime history of this behavior.
The film's strongest suit is as a character study. As Lou, Casey Affleck smolders. His narrator's voice is soft and reedy with a slight twang. At times, you almost expect it to crack like an adolescent's. Overall, the performance is aptly restrained, but there's always a sense of simmering rage as well as a hint of panic just below the surface. And when he finally loses it, you may have a hard time recognizing it. It's not the over-the-top melodrama found in ubiquitous hour-long crime dramas. Instead, it's a desperate acceptance of a deserved punishment. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/06/10)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
During most of the television coverage about the Afghan war, the reports about troops in the field are often filed after three weeks of being embedded. What makes the Sundance Film Festival-winning documentary Restrepo unique is that it’s the result of following a platoon from Battle Company for almost the entire length of their deployment, which lasted from 15 months during 2007 and 2008. And the extra time the filmmakers spent in country is evident in every frame of the film.
Rookie feature directors Tim Hetherington (who’s a veteran still and video reporter for everybody from ABC News to Vanity Fair) and Sebastian Junger (who’s best known for writing The Perfect Storm) immerse viewers in the lives of the soldiers, following them from mundane tasks to the heat of battle.
There’s a good deal of the latter. The Korengal Valley of Afghanistan is so remote and fiercely contested that it’s been nicknamed the “Afghanistan of Afghanistan.” It’s close to the border with Pakistan, so the Taliban and their supporters often use the area to supply the local insurgency. The film actually opens with the troops coming under attack on their way to the outpost where they’re stationed.
That’s not an isolated incident. Throughout the film, the troops are fired upon and return fire at shadowy figures hidden off in the hills. To reverse the dynamic in conflict, Dan Kearney, the captain who runs the unit, orders his men to build a sort of sub-outpost named Restrepo. It’s a hole in the dirt on top of a hill. The walls are makeshift, and there’s no electricity or running water. The outpost is named for the popular medic PFC Juan “Doc” Restrepo who died shortly into the deployment, and it seems odd to name such a ramshackle facility after a beloved comrade.
Amazingly, these soldiers manage to make it into a home. Despite the constant danger and the physical depravations, Restrepo is often a jaw-dropping film because the troops demonstrate a morbid sense of humor and a camaraderie that belies their circumstances. Hetherington and Junger were not permitted to show the platoon members being wounded, but they still know how to make the deaths or injuries hit home.
All of the soldiers were interviewed after the deployment at their permanent base in Italy. Away from the trauma, the men recall their experiences with jaw-dropping candor. Some can’t sleep, and others describe the losses they’ve suffered with their faces against a stark, black background. When they recall a fallen soldier, their faces reflect the sorrow more effectively than any image of a wound could.
It’s doubtful that Hetherington or Junger could have obtained these interviews if they hadn’t become so close to the people they’re depicting. Sgt. Misha C. Pemble-Belkin recounts how it took him months to admit to his parents how dangerous his assignment was, much less that fact that his close friend “Doc” Restrepo was gone. Moments like these help explain why it’s occasionally difficult for soldiers to come home from war.
The mission itself seems challenging if not futile. The Korengalis are wary of outsiders and consider the Taliban to be interlopers. With civilian casualties and property losses, they’re obviously sparing with their cooperation. When a local farmer’s cow dies after getting stuck on an outpost’s barbed wire, the negotiations become harried.
The footage that appears in Restrepo is raw and even includes some home video that the soldiers themselves have shot. As a result, the movie feels like a leaked document. It’s as if you’re seeing something that’s normally filtered out.
For one thing, as the film reveals later, the Army has abandoned outposts like Restrepo for operations closer to more highly populated areas. A lot of effort and blood went into holding the Kerengal, and now it’s no longer a priority. Restrepo may be the story of a minor part of a larger conflict, but its vivid depiction of the cost of war is a microcosm for all conflicts. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted on 08/06/10)
The Other Guys
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
As cop-movie parody, director Adam McKay's The Other Guys is surprisingly clever, full of rapid-fire wordplay and inventive sight gags and slapstick. But that's only the first 10 minutes. After its gangbusters opening, the film degenerates into a subpar buddy-cop movie that, without a charismatic villain, lacks chemistry and direction.
NYPD detectives Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) are relegated as paperwork support to rockstar cop team Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson) until an over-confident stunt takes out the latter team. Through former forensic accountant Gamble's pedantic detective work, the desk jockeys unwittingly find themselves on the trail of a multi-billion dollar white-collar swindle perpetrated by Wall Street familiar David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Following the clues, the two bumble through a cliché series of explosions, car chases and fights with anonymous thugs. As a result, they're demoted and separated by their overworked, put-upon captain (Michael Keaton), yet return to save the day (and the police pension fund).
When antagonistic, the good-cop-bad-cop routine between didactic Gamble and hothead Hoitz sparks quick-witted insults and comebacks. Gamble's logical exposition of Hoitz's threat involving a lion and a fish is a highlight. It's when the two become buddies that the relationship fizzles out. Although they still insult one another, it's softer and more predictable. Also, Ferrell as Gamble the straight man to Wahlberg's loose cannon Hoitz was a surprising and successful move. When Ferrell is allowed to riff on his own past as a pimp, the movie gets stuck on the joke and drags. In fact, almost anytime the director allows Ferrell to make jokes, the movie screeches to a halt.
Another drag on the movie is the lack of a formidable villain and a clear-cut crime. Ripped from recent headlines, the plot involves an elaborate Ponzi scheme executed by Ershon and pressured by a character played briefly by Anne Heche, who appears in only a few scenes. It's unclear as to who is the real villain. More than once, Gamble and Hoitz set out to arrest Ershon but end up trying to protect him from Heche's group of thugs instead.
If McKay is making a point about the ridiculous nature of the crimes in buddy cop movies, he needed to make it a bit stronger. However, it is clever when Hoitz assumes drugs are involved in each crime when in fact it's white-collar crime. How times have changed. But Coogan and Heche, both funny in their own right, are completely wasted as the villains. They're more the idea of evil than actual evil. Perhaps this is again a case of being too easy on white-collar criminals, which according to the graphics that play at the closing credits, is not the filmmakers' intentions. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/06/10)
Step Up 3D
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Step Up 3D has pedestrian acting, weak dialog and a storyline that might as well have been generated by an iPhone ap. It’s a good thing that nobody is buying tickets to see this movie for its dramaturgy.
Director Jon Chu, who helmed the last film (Step Up 2: The Streets), thankfully knows this and makes sure to keep the character development and exposition scenes to a minimum. He also sets up dozens of truly impressive dance numbers that make excellent use of the technology. Yeah, there are plenty of moments where objects are tossed toward the camera just to remind audiences why they have paid more money and have put on the glasses.
But Chu and choreographers Rich + Tone, Nadine “Hi-Hat” Ruffin and Dave Scott actually bring some subtlety to the eye candy and come up with some sequences that Busby Berkeley might have done if he had access to PhotoShop or an Avid. In one sequence for example, the dancers have to do their routine while the stage is flooded. Both the water and performers manage to max out the depth of field. It’s also amazing that the dancers can do all of their artistry on such an unforgiving surface.
Chu even makes good use of real New York locations, Washington Square Park and Times Square look vibrant.
The strange irony of Step Up 3D is that its highlights justify the higher ticket price, but the plot justifies home viewing because the film becomes almost unwatchable when the dancers take a break. The fast forward button isn’t available even with digital projection. Moose (Adam G. Sevani, who played the same role in the last movie) is now starting his first semester at NYU with his female BFF Camile (Alyson Stoner). He’s supposed to be studying engineering, but his fondness for street dancing might get in the way.
Meanwhile an aspiring filmmaker named Luke (Rick Malambri) is shooting a documentary about the dancers who live and practice in his loft. He’s a benevolent patron of the arts, but he doesn’t have the money to support his generosity. He naturally recruits a mysterious young lady named Natalie (Sharni Vinson) and Moose to help his dance company the Pirates win a trophy that could help him buy his building outright and defeat the predatory troupe the Samurai.
Despite the thumping soundtrack and the contemporary choreography, screenwriters Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer borrow liberally from every old Hollywood musical from 42nd Street to Babes in Arms. It’s too bad they couldn’t have updated the occasional wit those films had to go with the modern setting. We know the bad guy (Joe Slaughter) is trouble simply because his name is “Julian.” You get the feeling the screenwriters felt that no loving, red-blooded American parents would give their son such a menacingly European name.
If there are any budding Pacinos or Streeps in this cast, it’s hard to tell. Andelson and Meyer don’t create any characters with the depth to demonstrate if these performers can recite dialogue with the same finesse they have on their feet.
At least the scribes know we’re only paying to watch dancers leap into laps without making physical contact. If there’s a rule to follow about 3D movies, it’s that the extra ticket price isn’t worth it if the film was not originally intended to be seen in the format. Clash of the Titans, for example, looks terrible in any format because the 3D was simply a commercial ploy. The people who made Step Up 3D, however, intended to give viewers something for their investment. If only Wall Street were so generous. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 08/05/10)