Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Who knew that a team of Australians and Brits would be the best folks to make a movie about the all American phenomenon of moonshining? With Lawless, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (the team behind the grim Australian western The Proposition) manage to keep the Prohibition era seem fresh by emphasizing how violent and dangerous the era could be.
While Al Capone’s unruly Chicago is familiar, Franklin County, Virginia was probably equally volatile. The combination of steady demand and cheaply produced supply lead to some fierce competition, and not just between moonshiners.
For the most part, the Bondurant brothers haven’t needed to worry about the law. Whenever Forrest (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises), Howard (Australian actor Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) go on their deliveries, the local sheriff and his deputies are not only permissive, but they are the most courteous and reliable of their customers.
Franklin County’s experiment with laissez-faire toward bootlegging comes to a sudden halt when authorities in Richmond send Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) into the country. Rakes dresses like a dandy and is condescending and uncompromising.
Naturally, he alienates the Bondurants and other rumrunners. He’ll allow the booze to keep flowing (the rural economy would crash without it), but he wants a tribute to look the other way. The other bootleggers quickly agree; Forrest refuses.
As played Pearce, Rakes is as scary as he is foppish. His refined manner barely masks a volcanic temper. Pearce’s performance is over the top, but his eyebrow-less face projects a convincing menace. His utter lack of compassion makes any other character trait he has meaningless.
If Forrest’s rejection of the deal seems foolhardy, it’s wise to remember that he’s survived both the Great War and the Spanish Flu. The preening Rakes hasn’t killed nearly as many as those two have. He also has the support of his easily agitated brother Howard, who can neutralize potential assailants before they can even draw their guns.
Jack, the youngest of the siblings, with his stunted growth and baby face, simply isn’t intimidating. He has some interesting ideas for the business, and he’s a good driver. Still, he’s as lucky in the trade as he is at appealing to a comely preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
In other words, he’s in trouble.
Hillcoat creates a gritty atmosphere that makes the story come across as anything but a dry history lesson. People were willing to shoot each other for control of liquor distribution, so his approach is just about right. Cave is the same Nick Cave who sang lead for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, so the score he and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis is appropriately moody. Cave also manages to get the American idioms, so the dialogue doesn’t sound stilted.
Cave also comes up with some intriguing supporting characters. Gary Oldman has a small but memorable role as a liquor kingpin who isn’t above taking a Thompson machine gun against his opponents, and the omnipresent Jessica Chastain gives a subtle turn as a woman who leaves Chicago hoping for a quieter life in Virginia. Good luck with that.
Addiction stories are still resonant, and Cave and Hillcoat make great use of songs like “White Light/White Heat,” which sound surprisingly effective as country folk. Perhaps these Aussies have managed to make Lawless work because people from all over the world can relate to substance abuse and lawmen that aren’t interested in upholding the law. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/28/12)
Deputies are more
scary than the people who
break the liquor laws
The Queen of Versailles
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Many of us fantasize about the day when we become so rich that we’ll never have to worry about paying bills or keeping bankers at bay. The Queen of Versailles is a thoroughly entertaining but sobering reminder that this scenario is potentially more unrealistic than The Lord of the Rings.
Jackie Siegel would seem to be the embodiment of the American Dream. She successfully pursued a degree in engineering at a time when few women were going into the field. She’s also a former model and a beauty queen married to David Siegel, a fellow who became worth billions because he got into selling timeshares when the industry was in its infancy. His company, Westgate Resorts, is the largest timeshare company in the world. This might explain why the two live in a home so lavish it might as well be a palace.
With eight kids (that’s remarkable considering the 30-year-gap in their ages), David and Jackie find that the home they live in is too small, so they wind up building a home in Orlando they dub “Versailles.” It’s 90,000 square feet.
To give some perspective, that’s bigger than the White House, and it’s the biggest private residence in the United States. It’s got $5 million worth of Chinese marble and has a couple tennis courts (why stop with one?) and other amenities fit for royalty.
This might be appropriate. Siegel claims to be responsible for George W. Bush becoming president. He’s coy about how, and he wonders if the Iraq War might not have happened if he’d stayed out of politics.
The Siegels, who are obsessed with Louis XIV’s reign in France, even have hilariously goofy portraits painted of themselves, in which they are depicted as 17th century Gallic monarchs. Perhaps the Siegels need the extra space to handle all of their possessions and the stuffed remains of their dead pets, which adorn the furniture of their current home.
Around the time that the American Versailles has been halfway completed, the 2008 credit crunch hits. With their opulent, if downright gaudy, lifestyle, the Siegels would seem the last people who’d be affected by the economic downturn.
Actually, David’s entire empire is based on access to easy credit. Siegel fell in love with the idea of timeshares because they enabled middle class people to have a period in their lives when they could live like Rockefellers. Tapping into just about every person’s dream of partying like a tycoon is what made Siegel rich, but it doesn’t provide squat for financial security.
People can’t rent a room from Westgate Resorts. They have to buy them with loans that are eerily similar to subprime offerings. Perhaps the reason only the rich can go about their business this way is because only they can afford it. As a result, Siegel has to lay off thousands, even from his household staff. Jackie and the kids have a tough time adapting, especially since they never house broke any of their endless set of pets.
Director Lauren Greenfield, who won the directing award for Documentary Film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, scores a lot of laughs at the Siegel’s bad taste and odd ways of adapting to their newfound misfortune. Thankfully, Greenfield also makes the Siegels sympathetic.
You won’t shed tears for them, but their plight becomes understandable. Because David’s business plan of relentless expansion worked flawlessly for nearly 30 years, it’s easy to see why he didn’t anticipate the bubble bursting.
While Jackie’s idea of belt tightening might be amusingly different from ours, she does look out for employees who’ve been let go and helps out friends from her past who’ve had tough times. At the same time, she learns that letting David handle the money that does come in may not always be the wisest thing to do.
Jackie and David are both astonishingly candid in interviews. Perhaps, David was too candid. He’s currently suing Greenfield, saying that the film doesn’t cover how Westgate has turned around.
Curiously, it’s when David is at his most despairing in the film that he becomes the most sympathetic. Seeing him stress about money like everyone else does, makes him seem less self-aggrandizing. Unlike some folks, he’s more interesting when he’s losing. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 08/25/12)
The Queen of Versailles
Big houses and timeshares
can lead the gullible to
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Killer Joe is a deep-fried, jalapeño-flavored noir that tests audience endurance. It dares viewers not to look at the depravity onscreen while gently nudging viewers to revel in it. Playwright Tracey Letts and director William Friedkin (the 77-year-old mind behind The French Connection and The Exorcist) have managed the rare feat of creating a film that’s both sickening and oddly satisfying.
They also have a strange knack for making viewers take an interest in people we’d probably avoid if we met them in real life. From the moment Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) bangs on the door of his father’s trailer home somewhere outside of Dallas, we know this guy is in trouble and is trouble. From his frantic manner and shabby appearance, it’s obvious this guy is a loser.
He might as well be wearing a Royals jersey. Thanks to some bungled dope deals and his own habit of getting high on his own supply, Chris owes a wiseguy named Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay) $6,000 and will die if he can’t get the money soon. His dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) is a struggling mechanic, so he doesn’t have the cash, and his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) wouldn’t give it to him even if she had it.
Chris’ biological mother hates all of them and has ostracized all of her family and exes. The only relative on speaking terms with her is Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple), and she spends most of her time playing with dolls. Because mom is never there for her offspring, perhaps it would be good if she might pass on and leave her descendents her $50,000 life insurance policy.
Based on a couple of rumors he’s heard, Chris decides to hire a moonlighting cop named “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). As his nickname implies, he performs hits if the cash is right, and because he’s a cop, he often winds up investigating killings he’s committed, guaranteeing he won’t get caught. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s consistently smarter than his clients.
When Joe meets with Ansel and Chris, they discover that his fee is higher than they anticipated and that he only provides his services if paid in advance. He quickly changes his mind when he sees the lovely, if unkempt, Dottie and decides to keep her as a “retainer.”
While Joe is a smooth and capable operator (McConaughey’s silky Texas drawl has never sounded more appropriate), the Smith clan has a gift for shooting themselves in the foot. Chris, in particular, is probably incapable of making a wise decision. As played Hirsch, he’s so pathetic that he almost arouses a viewer’s maternal instincts because he’s clearly unable to get through life without help.
Letts’ characters are broad but occasionally fascinating. Dottie seems lost in a child-like daze, but on a closer glance seems wiser and more observant than the rest of the clan combined. Temple seems to find the right blend of innocence and mystery so that viewers have to guess if she really doesn’t know what horrible deeds are occurring.
Haden Church’s Ansel is a human doormat (Gee, how did Chris get the way he is?), and Sharla has loyalty to none. Gershon projects the right level of confidence, making it easy for viewers to see how she dominates her passive husband.
Friedkin orchestrates all of the backstabbing, lying and vindictiveness with an assured, graceful hand. The trailer park looks like something out of Dante, and every inch of the film’s version of Dallas (actually a masquerading New Orleans) looks like it’s drenched in some type of filth.
From the costumes to the tacky music, Killer Joe reeks of steaminess, and when Friedkin and Letts go for shocks, they deliver. The film is loaded with a nervous, guilty laughter, but these folks are as dangerous as they are corrupt. Friedkin gains most of his suspense from the fact that we don’t know how low these characters will go.
Letts wrote the play back in the ‘90s, but the odd delight of Killer Joe is that its stage-bound origins are an asset. Because the film is so claustrophobic, we feel like we are trapped with the characters in their own form of Hell. (NC-17) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 08/25/12)
This sick movie won’t
let you think of chicken legs
the same way again
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
While I, and a lot of other movie fans, thought the whole idea of an action/chase flick centering on a guy riding a bicycle sounded less than awesome, Premium Rush actually takes that idea and does something interesting with it — sort of, anyway.
The first thing director David Koepp does right is cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wiley, a New York bike messenger extreme whose motto is "steel frame, fixed gear, no brakes". Wiley quit law school for a life where he's "paid to ride,” and ride his does, in some breathtaking and terrifying high-speed runs through NYC's endless snarls of traffic and pedestrians. A last-second delivery soon has Wiley being chased by a crooked police detective named Monday (Michael Shannon), who's desperate to get the "ticket" in the envelope Wiley is taking to Chinatown. As the time runs down and Wiley finds out the stakes of what's in that envelope, he must ride his fastest to lose the cop and make his life-saving delivery by jumping, racing and crashing his way across New York.
Presented in a mix of real-time action and somewhat annoyingly long flashbacks, Premium Rush manages to keep itself centered on Wiley's riding skills, particularly with scenes where Wiley "slows" time, plotting all possible paths and then visualizing them, complete with cringe-worthy crashes into taxis, pedestrians, and in one case a baby in a carriage, until he finds a clear path. The audience I was in actually had quite a few bike couriers invited to the showing, and they simply loved those shots.
Levitt continues to prove his acting skills here, bringing a somewhat hackneyed two-dimensional character to life and making him believable despite some silly dialog and a bland love interest.
While I liked Shannon's half-scary, half-moronic Detective Monday at first, he seemed like a cartoon character at the end, and not in a good way. While I would not recommend the "no brakes" part if this ride, it should still give you a pretty decent rush. (PG 13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 08/25/12)
Hit & Run
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
The vanity project of writer/lead actor Dax Shepard, which he co-directed with David Palmer, Hit & Run risks being considered parody — Car Chase Movie — instead of homage. Although the filmmakers clearly esteem the great car chase movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the film lacks the mechanical muscle, brooding anti-heroes, and unexpected turns of those American classics.
Former getaway driver Charlie Bronson (Shepard) leaves the cover of a witness protection program to drive his girlfriend of a year, Annie (Kristen Bell), to a job interview in Los Angeles, the scene of Charlie’s last crime. Instead of traveling incognito, Charlie revs up the old getaway car, a 1967 Lincoln Continental with a $12,000, 700-horsepower souped-up engine. Already tailing them are one-note characters: Annie’s jealous ex-boyfriend Gil (Michael Rosenbaum) and Randy (Tom Arnold), the bumbling, accident-prone federal marshal ironically assigned to keep Charlie safe.
As Annie and Charlie get closer to their destination secrets about Charlie’s past begin to surface, unsettling Annie and threatening their relationship. Turning the heat up more, Gil tells Charlie’s former bank-robbing accomplice Alex Demitri (Bradley Cooper) where the couple is headed. With revenge for Charlie’s testifying against him in mind, Alex gets the old gang, including Charlie’s ex-fiancée (Joy Bryant), back together and on the road.
Shepard understands cool, but unfortunately he can’t play it. His loose reprise of the Bandit from Smokey and the Bandit lacks the charm and assurance the gum chewing, cackling Burt Reynolds brought to the role in the 1977 film. Although not as much a caricature of fool as either Gil or Randy, Charlie is often put in the position of acting stupid or like a jerk. It’s as if Shepard, afraid there wouldn’t be enough chemistry between his character and Annie, sacrifices Charlie’s dialog to force it. He’s bigoted and offensive only so the two can argue and make up. The set ups are obvious and ruin the comedic bits.
As for the action, there isn’t much of it. For all his gear-head moves, Charlie can’t seem to shake his chasers, including Randy in his minivan. Overall, the chase scenes consist of Charlie doing smoky donuts in parking lots or endangering allies in narrowly missed head-on collisions. There are no surprise maneuvers, so the chase scenes drag instead of thrill. It’s frustrating when Charlie gets behind the wheel.
Bell’s Annie doesn’t have sufficient flesh on her either. As cute and charming as she is, Annie is left in the passenger seat through most of the film. The one character given a scene of substance is Cooper as vengeful Alex. He comes delightfully unhinged over a matter of dog food. However, he seems to be channeling a lesser version of Gary Oldman’s turn as baddie in 1993’s dark love story True Romance, which is more menacing, more romantic and funnier with bigger, better star appearances. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 08/22/12)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
If the authorities in Beijing had their way, you would be unaware of Ai Weiwei. At first, you’d probably think that the Chinese government would be happy to claim the nation’s most famous artist. After all, he co-designed the distinctive “birds nest” stadium that housed the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It’s only after seeing Alison Klayman’s debut documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry that it becomes clear why he’s been beaten by police and why he continually needles his government over its failings. Ai has blogged about Beijing’s bumbling and malice, but what probably worries the Communist authorities more is that he inspires others to do the same.
As the film begins, Ai hardly seems charismatic or even that wise. With his beard and broad waistline, he initially comes off as a nut. He drones about cats opening doors, so it’s easy to wonder if some Mandarin idiom has been mangled in translation or that he may just be deluded.
As Klayman quickly reveals, he may be eccentric, but he’s lucid, articulate and speaks English clearly and precisely (he used to live in New York). One of his cats can indeed open a door unassisted (it’s in the film), and many of the outrageous acts he commits or the provocative things he says come from an active and focused mind.
His anger is also well placed. In 2008, a powerful earthquake hit the Sichuan province and killed thousands. While the quake itself obviously couldn’t have been prevented, at least 5,000 children died because they were in poorly built schools. Ai and his supporters argue convincingly that the youngsters would still be with us if they hadn’t been trapped in what he’s dubbed “tofu constructions.”
The Chinese government appears to have little concern for the fate of victims or the families who lost them. Ai has gone to other countries and used his art to call attention to the appalling negligence.
In Berlin, he collected thousands of backpacks that spelled out a message about one of the children who died. He also photographs himself flipping off international monuments like the White House and Tiananmen Square. Ai would probably upset some folks here in the States by doing that, so one can get an inkling of how much he aggravates the folks in power in Beijing.
Ai also tweets about his activities and even invites admirers to join him at cafés. Naturally, the authorities tail him and even put up extra cameras around his home. He, in turn, photographs the cops and even makes clay replicas of the cameras just to tick off his tormenters.
Klayman deserves a lot of credit for being in the right place at the right time with the right person. Ai is a treat to follow around, and his courage is clearly more than a pose. Klayman recalls Ai grew up in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution and how he has no desire for his son to mature in a world like he did.
She also has an ability to look beyond the temptation to portray Ai’s struggle simplistically. The son Ai talks so passionately about was born out of wedlock. As an advocate for government transparency, Ai is astonishingly forthright with journalists by admitting that his wife was hurt by his affair and that he has made a mistake, despite how much fun he has playing with the tot.
Klayman also finds several experts who explain why Ai is more than a visual loudmouth. Hearing other artists in China describe him is important because without their perspective, it’s impossible to understand how radical Ai and his work really are.
She also notes that Ai’s quest of openness comes in part from his decade in the Big Apple. Ai was impressed that war criminals were being called on their offenses during the Iran-Contra hearings and wanted to know why his own government wasn’t doing something similar.
With than in mind, Ai’s life and work demand that all governments operate with far greater accountability to their citizens. It would be great for everyone if the folks in Washington and Beijing consistently acted the way that Ai requests. (R) Rating 4.5 (Posted on 08/17/12)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei says more
with backpacks than others draw
with oceans of paint
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Sparkle is a solidly, if not imaginatively, made showbiz tale that might have escaped notice had it not been for that fact that one if its stars, singer Whitney Houston, died after she completed her work in it. A remake of the 1976 Motown-inspired drama, Sparkle is festooned with just about every music business movie cliché, including drugs, feuding egos and disapproving parents.
Thankfully, director Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) and a committed cast attack the material with enough sincerity to get past the portions that seem a little too familiar.
Even though the title character is named “Sparkle,” (American Idol alumna Jordin Sparks) she’d much rather be Valerie Simpson (a songwriter) instead of Diana Ross. When her older sibling Sister (British actress Carmen Ejogo) works the mic, it’s easy to see and hear why Sparkle, who has a fine voice, outsources the singing. Sister can flirt with the crowd, belt out the melody and convey a tune’s emotions without any visible effort.
In the late 1960s, Motown is still a serious town for music but getting a break is difficult. It also doesn’t help that all the black men in Detroit seem to be using Sparkle to get to the more desirable Sister. A gifted pool shark named Stix (Derek Luke), however, instantly spots potential in the two women and recruits their sister Dolores (Tika Sumpter) to make a Supremes-like girl group. He doesn’t have any cash yet, but he’s a persuasive talker and has good enough taste to make helpful suggestions.
Sister may have a way with delivering a tune, but Emma (Houston), the mother of the three, doesn’t want them singing anywhere outside of church. She has several legitimate reasons for forbidding her grown daughters from pursuing musical careers. Blessed with a formidable set of pipes, Emma’s career came to an abrupt halt when she wound up pregnant at 16 with the first child in her brood.
Emma is also leery of Sister’s most persistent beau, Satin Struthers (Mike Epps). Satin is a standup comic who has become wealthy and popular by doing routines that play up stereotypes that whites have of African-Americans. Occasionally, Satin has something of value to say in his comedy, but too often he drags Sister into his hazy world of cocaine and domestic abuse.
Epps and Ejogo aren’t the leads, but they easily walk away with the film. Ejogo does indeed have a way with a microphone, and she dominates every scene she’s in.
No, it’s not a stretch to see Epps play a standup comic. After all, that’s how he makes his living when he’s not onscreen. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to see him play a more nuanced character and to see him tone done his usually over-the-top delivery. He effortlessly shifts from being charming one moment to being repellent the next. It’s a shame he’s never been asked to do this kind of acting before.
Speaking of shame, Sparkle demonstrates that Houston could be more than a moonlighting singer in a film. In a bit off unsettling irony, Emma warns her children about the very dangers that ended up contributing to Houston’s own premature death. Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate that Houston never got the chance to develop her acting chops because she certainly had them.
Sparks is believable, and her singing is expectedly good. The soundtrack borrows some of the catchy tunes that Curtis Mayfield wrote for the previous film and supplements them with compositions by R. Kelly. The latter tunes aren’t as accomplished, but Sparks’ impassioned delivery certainly helps.
Kansas City-raised screenwriter Mara Brock Akil (Moesha, Cougar Town) does come up with some snappy banter, but the storyline is simply too safe and pat to be that engaging. In the end, Sparkle still unspools like a terrific cover band playing another group’s hits. It’s great to hear the songs again, but this kind of talent is best spent on fresher material. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 08/17/12)
Epps and Ejogo
aren’t the leads, but maybe they
should have had more time
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
While writer/director Chris Butler's animated film ParaNorman is about a kid who can talk to the dead, it's hardly a remake of The Sixth Sense. Filled with slapstick humor amplified by a charming animation style much like an old claymation film, this is one of those oddities that manages to appeal to the grow-ups with a cleverly disguised message about tolerance and acceptance while giving just enough fart jokes to keep the kiddies into it.
Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is your standard loner, a horror-movie fan with few friends and a family troubled with his frequent conversations with his grandmother, mostly because she died six months ago. A small part in his school's play about a witch that was hung by the town's elders, and a legend that says a curse from that witch which will turn the bodies of the elders into zombies to attack the town has Norman now using his unwanted ability to try and save them all. Soon, with his new comedy sidekick Alvin, Alvin's muscle-bound brother Mitch and Norman's Paris Hilton-wannabe sister Courtney, they all set off to find the witch's grave and stop the zombies.
Sounds kinda trite, doesn't it. Well, trust me-I thought that at first too, but that's just the first half of the movie. As for the rest ...
I'm not gonna say much more about the plot, because it's the message this film embodies, with scares, laughs and some genuine emotion that I really enjoyed, and I want you to do that too. Norman isn't just a video game character going from goal to goal, he has to deal with questions like who are the real monsters in his world, and that sometimes good people do bad things for the wrong reasons. Heavy stuff. But good stuff.
While some kids might be a little scared here, the zombies quickly go from menacing to sympathetic, and the somewhat intense ending is surprisingly refreshing for what on the surface would appear to be just another kiddie movie about zombies. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 08/17/12)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
The Odd Life of Timothy Green, directed by Peter Hedges (Pieces of April, .) and co-written by Hedges and Ahmet Zappa, exhibits failure of imagination. The story clumsily grounds the make-believe elements in reality in a way that makes it both humdrum yet unbelievable. For all its striving for fairytale status, the film is essentially formulaic.
A final morning visit to a fertility specialist leaves Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) childless and devastated. They buck up enough for an afternoon at their jobs, he at the pencil factory and she at the pencil museum, in Stanleyville, a town entirely dependent on a pencil factory run by the bullying Crudstaff family. Back home again, however, they despair of their dashed hopes for a child until Jim takes the ever-present notepad out of his pocket and begins to write down the qualities their child would have possessed. The two indulge in hypothetical child-making, aided by a dusty bottle of wine from the back of a cupboard, until bedtime when they gather the pages into a wooden box and bury it in the garden.
Late that night, a freak thunderstorm breaks the summer drought and wakes the couple to a boy, covered in dirt, running around their house. They soon realize Timothy (C.J. Adams) embodies the qualities from their drunken brain-storming session, except he also has leaves growing from his legs. They hide the aberrant foliage under socks and introduce Timothy to friends and family as an adopted son. As summer turns to fall, Timothy exhibits one-by-one the qualities from the pages in the box, but also begins to lose his leaves as they turn color and drop away.
For a children’s movie, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is overrun with speeches. Almost every scene turns into a lecture, mostly by the adults in the movie but sometimes also by Timothy. This sucks the life out of the film by minimizing the fantastical elements. The biggest transgression is that the leaves that grow on legs are astoundingly compared to a birthmark. And that Timothy’s origin, along with his demise, is so easily accepted. The story is too much in love with its original concept.
Yet, the reality in the movie isn’t much better. Instead of taking Timothy to the doctor, the Greens have him inspected by a botanist/gardener friend. Stems too thick to cut? Just leave them alone. This makes the adults in the movie seem like simpletons. They’re much too accepting of the paranormal to be normal. There’s also an annoying frame story involving the telling of the story to an adoption agent, who, of course, ends up believing it. Again, we’re left to wonder in what world is this supposed to be.
Timothy’s character is just as frustrating. At times, his special status imbues him with a knowing wisdom. At inopportune moments he stops to soak in the sun, to allow for photosynthesis, we assume, but his leaves, once covered in heavy soccer socks, don’t see the light of day. Still, there’s a naïve, innocent side to him that just doesn’t jive with his circumstances and is pulled out for a cheap laugh, such as with his musical performance, or for purely the convenience of the story. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 08/17/12)
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Great performances from Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones carry director David Frankel's latest film Hope Springs, but fail to make up for the stock comedic tropes from the screenplay by Vanessa Taylor and an intrusive soundtrack that strives to manipulate the film's emotional quotient. Profound exhibitions of loneliness and longing by the talented leads are cheapened by the small scope of the film.
In hopes of putting the magic back in her marriage, Kay (Streep) books a week of intense couples counseling for herself and her reluctant husband Arnold (Jones) in Great Hope Springs, ME, with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Finally realizing the ultimate outcome of their 31-year marriage is at stake, the couple tries their best to answer the therapist's probing questions about their relationship and recent lack of intimacy and sex. They also attempt to complete the exercises assigned to them after hours in order to rekindle the spark that brought them together decades ago.
The unintentional core of the film — these therapy sessions are raw yet layered. Streep shines as the dissatisfied empty nester. She adeptly vacillates between open-minded catalyst and insecure martyr. However, it's Jones' performance that brings true focus to the relationship. His character undergoes a dramatic development from stubborn defensiveness to an authentic-seeming vulnerability and reveals a surprising longstanding feeling of rejection.
In a foreseeable career move after his departure from the small-screen sitcom, Carell plays the marriage counselor straight. To the benefit of the dynamics in these scenes, he abstains from any of his trademark wacky, juvenile or hare-brained interruptions. He asks hard questions and expects honest answers. As a result, the interplay among the three is a fascinating poker game, with heartbreaking revelations and redemption as the stakes.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't show restraint in their own comedic interruptions. Frankel and Taylor conspire to dilute hard-earned pathos into pedestrian comedy, starting with the opening scene.
A dolled-up Kay endures rejection from Arnold and hightails it back to her own room, ending with a one-liner meant to minimize her confusion and humiliation. Although applauded for its handling of the mature sex life, the film often relies on this subject for easy laughs and in its single-mindedness on the subject confuses intimacy with sexuality. As a result, the film purposely ignores the serious issues it brings up by decreasing the focus to the re-consummation of the marriage. The only emotion allowed to fully play out in the film is manufactured and accompanied by painfully literal pop songs. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 08/10/12)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Ruby Sparks takes one of the oldest myths in our culture and turns it on its head. Pygmalion, the sculptor who made a living woman from a statue, probably has a different point of view that the bewildered former block of stone who was brought to life by gods.
The new film was written by one woman (Zoe Kazan) and was co-directed by another (Valerie Faris). As a result, the film has an eerie undertone it might not have had if a pair of dudes was behind the camera. This remains true even though the frustrated protagonist in this tale is a man.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is pushing thirty, but his life appears to be well behind him. His last relationship with a woman ended some time ago, and he’s unable to write another novel that’s as good as the one that made him famous almost a decade ago. A series of therapy sessions with a seemingly indifferent psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) lead nowhere.
About the only interesting portions of Calvin’s life occur when he’s dreaming. In his dreams, he encounters a young woman (Kazan) who seems to like him regardless of his status or cash. She even likes his fussy dog.
Not knowing if there’s anything worth printing, Calvin furiously creates a back-story for someone who literally is the girl of his dreams. Pounding on his aged typewriter, he names her “Ruby Sparks” and begins to notice odd things about his apartment. There are women’s clothes in his dressers and signs that someone has broken into his place. Perhaps, the event would have occurred earlier if Calvin had typed his books on a computer.
One morning he awakes to find that Ruby is not only real but also living with him.
Naturally, this is a shock.
Kazan, Faris and co-director Jonathan Dayton (Faris’ husband, who teamed with her and Dano on Little Miss Sunshine) don’t waste any time explaining how Ruby literally came off the pages of Calvin’s books. Once we get to know Ruby, it doesn’t matter how she made the transition from fiction to fact.
Ruby matches every detail of Calvin’s prose, and he quickly discovers that with a few keystrokes, he can alter her behavior and even her back-story. Calvin is also so rusty at dealing with women that he really doesn’t know how to relate to Ruby, even if he created her. Calvin may be able to write a character into existence, but he still has a lot to learn about Ruby and relating to other people.
The ethical quandaries involved give Ruby Sparks more weight than it initially seems to have. When she asserts herself or tries to control her own destiny, Calvin isn’t sure what to do and plays God rather clumsily. It would seem narcissistic for Kazan (or any other performer) to cast herself as someone’s dream girl, but she and Dano give Calvin enough convincing eccentricities to make his creation seem something like Ruby.
Faris and Dayton have assembled a formidable supporting cast, and many of these folks manage to keep Calvin from coming off as a manipulative creep. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas get a lot of mileage from their brief roles as Calvin’s mother and stepfather, and Steve Coogan is a scream as a burned out literati who acts like he’s Calvin’s mentor even though he’s accomplished less in his life than Calvin has.
The ending for Ruby Sparks is predictable and seems like a copout. Perhaps if Kazan and company had been as imaginative as Calvin, they might have willed their way past this obstacle, too. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/10/12)
Creations don’t stay
abstract long when they become
flesh and blood women
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
Given the fact that the current state of real political campaigns is already pretty much a bad joke, you would think that the subject would be ripe for a good satire. Certainly putting Will Farrel and Zack Galifianakis in opposing roles as two bumbling politicians sounds about perfect ... if you happen to have a smart, insightful script, and a director with a deft hand. Too bad they forgot about that little bit in The Campaign.
We start with long-term North Carolina congressman Cam Brady (Farrel), a bumbling womanizer who manages to escape his own bad behavior with the aid of Mitch (Jason Sudeikis), his long-suffering campaign manager. Brady's behind-the-scenes money men, the "Motch" brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) have tired of Cam's digressions and want to replace him with Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), the effeminate Milquetoast son of a business partner. Faced with any unexpected opponent, Cam quickly goes "negative", comparing Mitch to Al Qaida, while Mitch stumbles along with the help of the Motch brother's assassin-like political fixer Tim (Dylan McDermott). Soon each side grows ever more desperate (and dumber) as the campaign looms ever closer.
While director Jay Roach is well versed in light, character-driven comedy having done both The Fockers movies and two of the Austin Powers films, he seems a little clueless about political humor. While Farrel does garner some laughs with Cam's childish behavior and idiotic statements, the political humor here is as dated as the Magna Carta. The people of North Carolina are nothing but morons who switch sides with every ridiculous statement, and the Motch brother's evil sub-plot to build a Chinese sweatshop in the states is just stupid. Did you know that big money is behind all politics, and that politicians are spineless slaves to big business? Well, if you did, then there's nothing new here.
The inclusion of a bunch of cameos of various political pundits to lend a little gravitas would seem like a good idea ... except that most are from Fox News, which hardly helps. Aside from some baby punching, I would skip this election and wait for “Anchorman 2.” (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 08/10/12)
Take This Waltz
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
On the surface, Take This Waltz appears to be the story of a love triangle. A seemingly happy relationship is jeopardized when a wife discovers a new man who seems more exciting than her good hearted but oblivious husband.
Thankfully, Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley has more on her mind than simply rehashing a familiar trope, and she’s found a nearly ideal actress to depict what happens when domesticity doesn’t seem all that rewarding. Michelle Williams can play characters who make occasionally catastrophic decisions without alienating viewers in the process.
She plays Margot, a freelance writer who doesn’t seem to do all that much scribbling. No, this isn’t an episode of Sex and the City. Margot isn’t that sure of her gifts or if she really wants to write for a career. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to because her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) has found a niche writing cookbooks.
On a magazine assignment, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on the flight back to Toronto. His insistence on talking with her seems almost stalkerish. Imagine the jolt she feels when she discovers that he’s her neighbor.
Like Margot, Daniel doesn’t have much going on with his career. He’s an artist who has some talent, but he’s not eager to try and sell his skills. He makes his living driving a rickshaw.
If Margot is torn up about her indecisiveness and her stalled muse, it gives her a lot more spare time to spend with Daniel. As played by Rogen, Lou is certainly likable and loving, and he could certainly make a wife happy.
He’s just not right for Margot.
It’s a treat to see Rogen play a character who isn’t spending all of his waking moments baked on weed, and Polley makes him a remarkably sympathetic cuckold.
Daniel isn’t exactly a step up from Lou, but Polley and Kirby at least make him an interesting if not terribly wise selection as a homewrecker. If Margot were in a different frame of mind, she’d probably be slapping Daniel instead of flirting with him. While his art isn’t going to be gracing any galleries soon, he projects a confidence she’s never had. It’s almost as if she’s drawn more to that than Daniel himself.
As can be expected from Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn, Williams provides a solid platform for the film. Her Margot is looking not for a fling but a purpose. She wouldn’t be torn between Lou and Daniel if she had a better sense of who she is or what she wanted.
Polley, an accomplished actress herself (check her out in Splice and The Sweet Hereafter), has a knack for drawing out the best in other performers. Sarah Silverman, as Lou’s alcoholic sister, is surprisingly human for a change and easily lets go of the vulgar wisecracks that have been her staple.
Love has a way of turning Rhodes Scholars into morons. At least, Polley has a knack for making this folly interesting. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/10/12)
Take This Waltz
Sarah Polley can
make stupid decisions seem
well worth repeating
The Bourne Legacy
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
Credited as an "expansion of the universe" of the Robert Ludlum novels, The Bourne Legacy introduces a completely new character, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), in a side plot running somewhat parallel to the first three films. While I was somewhat indifferent to those movies, the new film contains a novel idea, and since the same director, Tony Gilroy, is back, it fits fairly seamlessly into the overall storyline.
The basic plot is that the CIA has created a kind-of super solder through the use of various viral drugs. The result is a small group of agents who are stronger, faster and smarter than the average person. In the first three we follow Jason Bourne, one such agent who attempts to thwart the program and uncover the truth while other agents try and eliminate him. As a result, the agency decides to kill all the other "special" agents as well. A botched assassination on one, Cross, soon has him racing across the country with a scientist, Marta (Rachel Weisz), in an attempt to find the cure before Cross loses his "super" abilities.
Fast paced and well acted, Legacy stays true to the tone of the other films while absent background from the other series, although fans of the first three films should be satisfied. There is a fair amount CIA double-speak that does grow tiresome, but at least it does help propel things forward.
More of a thriller than a straight-out action flick, Legacy stands on it's own, and stands well. While there is some use of the "shaky-cam" in the fight scenes, most are well choreographed, and Renner's take on his character is spot-on perfect.
Add in some unexpected humor and decent chemistry between Renner and Weisz, and a final fight that is far more satisfying than the standard beat-each-other-half-to-death finale, and you have something of a legacy indeed. (PG 13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 08/10/12)
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers
Of course the new redo of Total Recall begs a comparison to the 1990 film of the same name starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid. That exercise is rendered a little easier considering the main characters’ names and functions are much the same.
Quaid — Colin Farrell in the new film — is an ordinary guy with a new memory implanted, shielding his real identity as a secret agent. He has a hot wife, Lori, played by Kate Beckinsale (Sharon Stone in the 1990 version) whose main job is to play lovey-dovey and make sure Quaid doesn’t discover that he’s not really a factory worker toiling away at the “Colony” while pining for a promotion.
Instead of Mars locale in the 1990 film to bring out the action, the new film deals with the Federation of Great Britain ruling over the Colony while extracting resources from it and labor from Federation inhabitants — the main product being the production of super-human cyber-cops to keep the masses in line. The rest of the earth is uninhabitable due to chemical warfare. Space for a growing population is at a premium and major bad guy, Cohaagen, played with effect by Bryan Cranston, wants to invade the Colony and smash the rebels led by the elusive Matthias (Bill Nighy).
The story gets rolling when Quaid decides to visit Rekall, a boutique business specializing in giving people temporary memories of imagined lives, for an experience to shake the drudgery of his current life. That triggers a response from the authorities, since they consider him a double agent, jogs Quaid’s suppressed memories and pisses off Lori who now looks incompetent before Cohaagen.
The action begins with Quaid and Lori battling it out in hand-to-hand combat in their apartment, then on rooftops, in office building, on top of futuristic elevators — just about everywhere. Lori is one angry woman out for revenge and to regain her badass cred.
All this delivers a very fast paced story, jammed with CGI effects and edge-of-your-seat chase scenes. Every once in a while Quaid and his rebel sidekick and real-memory girlfriend, Melina (Jessica Biel), exchange loving looks as she tries to convince Quaid that he is really an agent named Hauser and the key to the success of the rebellion.
A few interesting twists in the story keep it from burying the viewer in exhaustion from all the nick-of-time escapes and implausible getaways. Farrell plays Quaid with surprising subtlety, giving the character the right amount of confusion and slow unfolding of who he is and what he’s really about.
Total Recall of 2012 is a better film than the Schwarzenegger vehicle and worthy of mentioning writer Phillip K Dick as inspiration. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/05/12)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
Reviewed by Dan Lybarge
There’s nothing inherently wrong about films concerning a wimpy middle schooler. What’s troubling is that Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is pretty wimpy itself. To director David Bowers (the animated treat Flushed Away), it might have seemed daring to focus on bodily functions. Instead, it seems as if the filmmakers aren’t up to the challenge of coming up with material that requires a little imagination.
Apparently, their wits aren’t muscular enough for the challenge.
In this installment, Jeff Kinney’s almost terminally insecure lad Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is finally looking forward to a break from the horrors of peer pressure. Summer vacation is starting, and he’d like to spend it reaching new levels on his favorite video games.
His dad Frank (Steve Zahn) has other ideas. He wishes Greg could become the young outdoorsman he never managed to be. Civil War reenactments and camping don’t appeal to Greg. Nor does staying at home with his mother (Rachael Harris), who thinks that teenage boys should spend their vacations reading Little Women.
Fortunately, Greg’s earnest but nerdy pal Rowley (Robert Capron) is willing to let Greg hang with him at the country club. Rowleys’ folks are members, and the swimming pool there isn’t as cramped or as full of icky-looking adults as the municipal pool.
Greg’s crush Holly (Peyton List) teaches tennis to little kids there, so naturally Greg tries to impress her with racquet skills he doesn’t have.
If the story doesn’t sound that engaging, it isn’t. After thumbing through Kinney’s original book, it was striking how the films often miss the charm his writing and illustrations have in print. For example, when Greg tries to justify why he’d rather play video games instead of exercise, he claims he needs to stay out of the sun so that he won’t be wrinkled like his mom when he reaches her age.
He flatly notes that she didn’t approve of his observation.
While sequences from the book do show up on the screen, the results aren’t nearly as funny. Some of Greg’s anxieties are simply more amusing when they’re implied instead of presented. Our imaginations can create horror stories the filmmakers simply can’t match.
The script by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky relies too heavily on human waste. Urine can sometimes lead to comedy gold, but a little pee goes a long way. They also rip off some gags from the previous films to lesser effect.
Not surprisingly, the most engaging moments come when Bowers cuts to animated version of the characters. Animation is where he cut his teeth. The cartoons nicely match Kinney’s illustration style, and the storyline seems more credible when live actors don’t perform it. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 08/05/12)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
Three times is more than
enough of this kid and his
wimpy, dull movies.
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Not every movie that comes our way from Europe is a highbrow philosophical discussion allegedly passing for a drama. Apparently folks across the Atlantic want a good, raunchy laugh even more than we do.
The Danish entry Klown has all the ribald sight gags and wisecracks of The Hangover with a darker edge to go with it. To be fair, the film’s protagonist Frank (Frank Hvam) has one simple, earnest goal. He wants to prove to his girlfriend Mia (Mia Lyhne) that he would make an excellent husband and father. He’s especially miffed because he’s learned of her pregnancy second hand.
Mia has good reason for her reluctance to marry Frank and start a family. The high-strung Frank has a gift for bungling the simplest of tasks. When she asks Frank to watch her nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) to see how he handles the challenge, he winds up leaving the lad alone. She’s also suspicious of Frank’s ornery best friend Casper (Casper Christensen).
After trying and failing to bond with Bo, Frank abruptly abducts the lad hoping that his annual canoe trip will be a chance for the two to finally connect. The problem is that Casper wants to use the outing as an excuse to explore the birds and the bees instead of admiring the great outdoors.
There’s a high-end bordello along the route, and Casper’s libido is so demanding that child endangerment is pretty much guaranteed. The fact that Casper is married to Iben (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity) doesn’t stop him from his carnal pursuits.
While Frank might not be afflicted with Casper’s insatiable drives, he makes regrettable decisions under pressure. These are the sorts of decisions that can land a person in jail. Frank’s buddies, including Casper, inadvertently offer him advice that exacerbates whatever crisis he lands in. Many of these involve bodily emissions.
Klown is loaded with a relentless string of shock gags that are leavened by the fact that Frank is so well intentioned. As an American, it’s amusing to notice English double entendres slipping from the mouths of Danes. Frank doesn’t get them in either English or Danish.
Hvam and Christensen, who are popular comedians inside and outside of Denmark, wrote the script, and there’s a fascinating wrinkle in Klown that’s often missing in American films. In a typical Adam Sandler comedy, the characters behave outrageously and do things that could be harmful. There’s rarely any consequence.
With Klown, however, Frank and Casper pay dearly for the emotional and physical damage they’ve caused. Director Mikkel Nørgaard won’t let the audience or the characters forget their transgressions. Just when it seems that Frank and Casper have mended their ways, the narrative reveals past misdeeds that negate any improvement the men have made.
This might explain why Klown manages to remain funny even though much of its humor derives from being, well, icky. Adam Sandler and his cohorts have nothing on these rowdy Danes. Their love of drugs and illicit sex makes their American peers seem prudish.
Fortunately, there’s still some heart to go with all the bathroom and bedroom humor. Frank’s desire to be a dad might not keep him out of trouble, but it does keeps him from losing audience sympathy. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/04/12)
Al Qaeda can’t hope\
to cause the damage done by
two Danes in canoes.