movie reviews September 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps  •  Catfish  •  The Town  •  Easy A  •  Alpha and Omega  •  Mao’s Last Dancer  •  Ghost Bird  •  Flipped
The American  •  Machete  •  Cairo Time  •  Anton Checkhov’s The Duel  •  Going the Distance

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

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Money may never sleep, but Oliver Stone’s return to the setting of his 1987 hit Wall Street gets soporific pretty quickly. Michael Douglas clearly relishes returning to his Oscar-winning role as convicted inside trader Gordon Gekko, but the vigor that the actor applies to playing a white-collar criminal is missing from the rest of the film.

In the first installment, Stone’s moralizing and fear-filled thinking were a remarkably good fit for a movie about crooked stock deals. Stone is the son of a stockbroker and managed to make a potentially arcane business drama seem unusually gripping and urgent.

wallstreet

As anyone who’s scanned a web site or stared in horror at the meager remains of their 401K can say that the ravenously greedy Gekko seems almost tame compared to the real-life folks who thought credit default swaps were a good idea (for whom?). Curiously, this new venality and the popular outrage it ignited don’t make for engaging cinema.

For one thing, Douglas may be top billed, but he’s more of a peripheral character in the screenplay credited to Allan Loeb (The Switch) and Stephen Schiff (The Deep End of the Ocean). The main story deals with a young broker named Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) attempting to keep his promising career afloat through the 2008 stock market crash.

The mortgage-backed securities that left the Street in tatters have disgraced his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) and forced Zabel’s company in the hands of a Wall Street carnivore named Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Bretton has managed to acquire Zabel’s old firm for pennies on the dollar. In order to keep his job, Jacob now answers to Bretton, but he’s searching for ways to find dirt on the seemingly clean Bretton. It seems the only person who can help Jacob in his quest is former jailbird Gordon Gekko.

Gordon has an old beef with Bretton, and he’s eager to help Jake because the lad is engaged to the older man’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Gordon may not know his way around the Internet and has an antiquated mobile phone the size of a football, but he still knows enough of the game to bring the younger man to his knees. He also wants back in his daughter’s life even though she’s ashamed of his white-collar crimes.

Because Gordon is more of attack dog than the central villain this time, most of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a simplistic revenge tale. The heel is identified early, and his guilt is obvious. There’s no suspense in seeing him brought down. Brolin is a proficient actor, but he lacks Douglas’ energy and charisma. Those deep-set, beady shark-like eyes let opponents know they won’t last long. Even though the older actor has been suffering from cancer and looks every second of his 65 years, he projects a voraciousness that easily upstages Brolin. Bretton isn’t prey; he’s a pre-digested meal.

Stone and the screenwriters don’t seem to know what to do with the iconic character. LaBeouf, Mulligan, Langella and Susan Sarandon (as Jake’s mom) are stuck with one-note roles that really don’t merit their talents.

Stone seems to know the urgency of his previous film is intermittently present here and only when Douglas is on camera. In his earlier films, Stone benefitted enormously from the camerawork of Robert Richardson. Stone is a filmmaker of many virtues: subtlety isn’t one of them. Richardson’s expertly titled camera placement and cold, eerie lighting made what could have been a torpid story seem tense. His low-key finesse was a perfect counterweight to Stone’s full-bore earnestness.

Richardson’s been too busy working with Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, for which he won a well-deserved Oscar) and Quentin Tarantino (the stunningly shot Inglourious Basterds), so Money Never Sleeps features lots of hyperactive visuals that don’t really aid the storytelling. When a ghostlike image of Louis is superimposed near Bretton, it’s unintentionally hilarious.

Stone and Douglas have been told by people currently working on The Street that the first film inspired them to enter into the fray. This is ironic because the first Wall Street is a scorching morality tale that unambiguously decries corporate greed. The only comfort that can be taken from the sequel is that it may discourage future white-collar fiends. They’ll find the life too tedious to emulate. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 09//24/10)


Catfish
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Catfish is a film that knowingly or unknowingly seems to be saying as much about its makers as its ostensible subject. New York-based Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman delve into unsettling subject matter but approach their material almost like a joyride. In the process, they make viewers their accomplices.

In the early portion of the film, Schulman’s brother Nev works as a photographer for the now defunct New York Sun. A photograph of ballet dancers has apparently inspired an eight-year-old midwestern girl named Abby to paint her version of the photo. Nev begins a long correspondence with her and her family as the girl sends him more painted versions of the shots he’s taken.

catfish

Nev starts friending Abby’s family on Facebook and starts having long conversations with Abby’s mother and her 20-something sister Megan. The latter is a woman who is slightly younger than Nev who seems to be a real Renaissance woman. From reading Facebook, you’d assume she’s raising horses, writing and performing her own tunes and finishing up her higher education. She seems almost like a dream woman, so Nev starts to wish she wasn’t simply a face on his monitor or a voice on his phone.

When Nev gets an assignment in Colorado, he, Ariel and Joost decide it might be fun to visit on their way back to New York. Before they do, they make a stunning discovery. The songs that Megan has been sending them turn out to be the compositions and performances of others. Using just a little Google fu, they quickly discover that every one of her songs has been pilfered note-for-note from someone else.

At this point, most of us would simply un-friend somebody like that and get on with our lives. Nev and the filmmakers, however, decide that driving to the small Midwestern town is a now necessity. They must discover why the people on the other end of the monitor have been presenting themselves as something they’re not.

Nev and his crew don’t stop to ask if it might be cruel to unmask Megan and her family. There doesn’t seem to be any harm in their deception. Meg isn’t making any money by presenting others’ music as her own. At the same time, Catfish becomes creepier and creepier as it progresses because the filmmakers’ quarry could be dangerous. What lengths would they go to in order to protect their ruse?

Joost and the Schulmans attempt to burst bubbles as gently as possible, but it’s still fascinating to try figuring out which parts of the Facebook fraud are true. The same could be asked of the film. Would someone in an online relationship like the one depicted in the film be willing to sign releases even if the content could be deeply humiliating? The photography is handheld but consistently slick and sharp, which begs the question of how much of the film is spontaneous or staged. There are no writing credits, so Joost and the Schulmans are wisely keeping coy.

Lying on Facebook is about like fudging your weight, height or age. It’s certainly a sin, but it’s hard to see the merit in exposing the mendacity. At least Joost and the Schulmans do including viewers in their voyeurism. Catfish is certainly involving, but it’s hard to feel good about it. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 09/24/10)


The Town
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Despite its seemingly generic title, The Town is actually a rare delight. It’s a studio picture that offers intriguing situations and characters as well as the gunplay and car chases that dominate most Hollywood fare. Director, co-screenwriter and star Ben Affleck knows how to create adrenaline rushes without insulting the intelligence of viewers. Even though Affleck has left his fingerprints all of The Town, he wisely shares the spotlight with a first-rate ensemble.

Still from The Town

Affleck plays a career bank robber named Doug MacRay. Despite working on construction and demolition sites as a cover, Doug and his team have spent years carefully swiping small fortunes from Boston financial institutions. Part of the reason they are so prolific is that their neighborhood of Charleston, MA (the “town” in the title) is in real life the nation’s capital for bank robberies.

With that much competition and with law enforcement eager to end Charleston’s reign, it’s easy to understand why Doug wants out of this line of work. His best friend Jim Caughlin (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker), however, likes both the rush and the income, and isn’t eager to stick with just his day job.

As the film begins, Doug can sense that his latest heist should have been his last. During the robbery, the gang beats up a manager and takes an assistant manager named Claire Kesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage. Even though Doug and his crew are career criminals, assaults and abductions aren’t standard operating procedure. Jim thinks they should harass Claire in case she tries to talk to either the FBI or the cops. Doug, however, sees intimidation or worse as a one-way ticket to the pen.

Doug starts following her and winds up striking up a friendship. Claire doesn’t recognize him, and Doug wants to get out of the racket before he winds up a prison lifer like his dad (KC’s own Chris Cooper in a great cameo). Getting out turns out to be tougher than he plans. His tight relationships with Jim and his drug-addicted sister Krista (Blake Lively, completely shedding her Gossip Girl image) aren’t easy to break off, and Charleston’s Irish mob don Fergus “Fergie” Colm (Pete Postlethwaite) isn’t about to part with a capable earner like Doug.

Staying in the game isn’t so easy, either. The FBI has placed the particularly determined Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) on Doug’s case, and Frawley in his own way can be just as ruthless as Fergie. Because The Town is framed around a series of elaborate heists, it’s easy to assume from the trailers that the film specializes in gunplay and property destruction. Affleck and his co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard (working from Aaron Stockard’s novel Prince of Thieves) focus more energy on developing the characters and their volatile interactions.

In past performances, Affleck has often seemed stiff and aloof, but in The Town, he projects a fascinating blend of diffidence and slow-burning discontent. Having once tasted a life outside of Charleston’s bleakness, he wants out but can’t tell either Jim or Claire what he’s thinking because both are capable of ruining him. Keeping his crushing ennui to himself is a difficult, if not impossible task.

Similarly, the other characters are more involved than they initially appear. Hamm’s matinee idol face and resonant baritone initially mislead viewers into thinking Frawley is a straight arrow. But as the film progresses, Hamm eagerly leaps into Frawley’s dark side. Similarly, Renner can play Jim’s mean streak and his commendable loyalty with equal flair.

While Affleck may not have overloaded The Town with action, he’s certainly not avoided it. In staging the film’s one major vehicle chase, he demonstrates a remarkable discipline in his editing and shooting decisions. Boston’s narrow streets make any car chases seem more dangerously nail-biting, and Affleck stages the mayhem so well that it’s easy to follow and appreciate the crashes.

His old director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) should be forced to watch The Town the way Malcolm McDowell was forced to watch propaganda films in A Clockwork Orange so he can learn how to make action scenes that are involving instead of lazily chaotic.

Actually, Affleck’s main secret is that he wants the audience to care about the people inside the speeding cars. If he keeps finding terrific actors and material to work with, that shouldn’t be hard. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 09/17/10)


Easy A
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As the title implies, Easy A is a movie made by some smart people. Freshman screenwriter Bert V. Royal and director Will Gluck (who may one day be forgiven for helming the abysmal Fired Up!) appear to have actually read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century classic The Scarlet Letter and have a good grip on the novel’s complicated themes. Better yet, they’ve managed to rework the story into a contemporary setting in a manner that’s more faithful to Hawthorne’s intentions than most straight adaptations of the novel.

Still From Easy A

Ideal casting doesn’t hurt, either. Emma Stone from Zombieland plays Olive, a high schooler in a small California town whose wit and charm do little to stop her from feeling like a wallflower. Despite breezing though her classes (or maybe because she’s so bright), her male classmates ignore her. Her weekends usually result in her blissfully hitting her books.

Her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka, Hellcats) doesn’t buy that. Apparently, Rhiannon refuses to believe that an attractive lass like Olive could or— gasp! — would even want to spend a weekend alone. Knowing that her pal won’t take the truth for an answer, Olive invents a college boy to be the man who deflowers her.
What starts as an attempt to get her friend to switch topics turns into a bizarre nightmare. As Rhiannon and Olive discuss her imaginary boyfriend in the girls’ room, the judgmental Marianne (Amanda Bynes) emerges from a neighboring stall and condemns Olive for her make-believe promiscuity. Marianne is part of a group of abrasively vocal Christians who seem more eager to condemn others’ misdeeds than to demonstrate Christian charity.

Thanks to social networking and good old word of mouth, Olive is branded for the affair she’s never had. Knowing she can’t escape from the label, she decides to play it up. She wears tops that look as if they’ve been raided from Madonna’s wardrobe, and all have a bright red “A” near the heart. Guys who can see through the ruse immediately recruit her so that the traits that others condemn like homosexuality and male virginity can be “erased” by a make-believe tryst with Olive. She quickly discovers that even phony sexual activity has its consequences.

The setup continually flirts with tedium (how many amusing gags about false adultery are out there?), but an able supporting cast helps keep Easy A from sliding. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci are a scream as Olive’s loving and very easygoing parents. The two are so eager to show how forward thinking they are that they become a sort of parody of outspoken liberals.

Her educators are a fascinating mess as well. Her principal (Malcolm McDowell) is draconically prudish, and the guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow) has issues of her own. She, in turn, is married to the platitude-spouting English teacher (Thomas Haden Church), who’s terrified that Olive is taking her required reading of The Scarlet Letter a little too much to heart.

With grownups this misguided, it’s no wonder that Olive takes the actions she does. Stone projects an amiable cynicism. She may find the status quo problematic, but she’s not egotistical enough to hold herself above it. Stone also has well-developed comedy chops that can make even lamely written wisecracks funny.

Royal and Gluck deserve some credit for fitting in footage from the silent Lillian Gish version of The Scarlet Letter and for trashing the abysmal Demi Moore remake. But after a while their shout outs to ‘80s teen movies get old. Flashbacks to John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club are the sort of things you include if your own movie isn’t that interesting. It would have been more entertaining to look at the foibles and benefits of living today than recalling a past most of the film’s young audience didn’t experience and that much older viewers are recalling with nostalgia.

Thankfully, Easy A indicates that Stone is a performer who might develop by not looking back. One hopes she’ll develop a following for her skillful line delivery and not as a tabloid fixture. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 09/17/10)


Alpha and Omega
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

One of the most annoying aspects of commercial filmmaking is that studios and production companies often spend their time chasing past hits instead of trying to make something that, oh, anticipates what the market might want.

Thanks to the successes of DreamWorks and Pixar, there’s now a glut of 3D computer animated movies. Alpha and Omega enters the crowded marketplace with little to say for itself. It’s got celebrity character voices, cute animals that act like people and glasses that barely fit over your own.

Still from Alpha and Omega

With all the effort that went into aping Pixar and DreamWorks, it’s a shame that the team behind Alpha and Omega neglected the one trait that could have given them a fighting chance against the alpha studios and their numerous imitators: a good script. With solid material, the filmmakers could have excused themselves if the visuals lacked flair. Now, there’s really no reason to see Alpha and Omega when the infinitely more entertaining Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me are still in theaters.

Perhaps Steve Moore’s book was more engaging the film that he and Chris Denk have written. As it stands, Alpha and Omega concerns a pair of young Canadian wolves named Humphrey (Justin Long) and Kate (Hayden Panettiere) who seem made for each other. Despite the fact that both are brave, can snag food or can scare away competitors, Kate is an alpha wolf, and Humphrey is an omega. The filmmakers never explain what makes a lupines alpha or omega, but their pack clearly considers the former more prestigious.

Unfortunately, prestige doesn’t bring home fresh caribou meat. Kate’s father Winston (Danny Glover) and Tony (the late Dennis Hopper in what sadly is his last role), the leader of another pack, want their children to marry so the two groups won’t fight over a smaller caribou population.

Before the marriage can proceed, naturalists tranquilize and capture Humphrey and Kate, and drag them to the States in order to repopulate an Idaho preserve. With the help of a couple of wisecracking birds (Larry Miller and Eric Price), they attempt to flee Idaho before Kate’s absence starts a lethal feud.

Alpha and Omega manages to stumble where previous, better films have trod more gracefully. The humor is too flat and the pacing too slack for adults, and some of the children at the screening I attended seemed disturbed by some life and death themes. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Although Alpha and Omega runs only 88 minutes, its thin story feels hopelessly padded. There are interminably long, howling musical interludes that are memorable only for their sheer annoyance. They neither propel the story nor entertain.

Even the eye candy isn’t that sweet. Unlike the far funnier Despicable Me, which ingeniously maximizes the storytelling potential of 3D, there’s no reason to pay the higher ticket price and wear the glasses. The images neither jump out at the viewer nor even offer anything that can’t be seen without the extra lenses.

The acting is good, but performers of Glover’s or Hopper’s quality weren’t necessary. The characters are one-note, and those notes fall as flat as a laryngitic wolf’s howl. In most DreamWorks cartoons like Shrek or Kung Fu Panda, performers play up their onscreen personas. In most Pixar movies, the performers are cast by best fitting the roles. In Alpha and Omega, only Long manages to do anything interesting with his animated avatar. Even the normally funny Miller makes a minimal impression here.

It’s a safe bet that 3D animated films won’t be as plentiful in the future. That said, it’s probably high time to start thinning the heard. (PG) Rating: 2. (Posted on 09/17/10)


Mao’s Last Dancer
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Mao’s Last Dancer is a film about politics and ballet that moves with the grace of a ballerina who’s skipped a few rehearsals before going on stage. There’s a potentially engrossing story to be told here, but screenwriter Jan Sardi (Shine) and director Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) occasionally trip over biopic clichés.

Still from Mao’s Last Dancer

That said, it’s almost surprising that nobody has made a film about Chinese-Australian dancer (and now stockbroker) Cunxin Li (played as an adult by fellow dancer Chi Cao). During the 1970s, Li was taken from his rural parents (Joan Chen and Shuangbao Wang) and trained to be ballet dancer. Simply making the cut is an achievement. The instructors are almost sadistically demanding. Legions of young hopefuls are sent back to their villages in resignation because they aren’t considered good enough.

Li honed his craft under the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. The film becomes amusingly surreal as Li and his collaborators have to adjust classical ballet to match the tastes of an official who feels that there should me more gunplay and obvious nods to the glorious class struggle. For some reason, this doesn’t lead to great art.

After Chairman Mao’s death, the Houston Ballet’s artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) recruits Li to take part in a cultural exchange that will enable the young man to perform in the States with some of the best dancers in the world. The authorities warm the impressionable Li not to be taken in by the glowing façade of downtown Houston because the rest of the United States is miserable pit of suffering and decadence. Li’s eyes tell him something else.

In his brief time with the company, he proves to be more than a visiting artist. He winds up playing principal roles and starts falling in love with a struggling ballerina named Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull). She has Li’s drive, but little of his talent. Still, it’s hard not to love a woman who appreciates a good kung fu movie and who can explain some of the eccentricities of western culture.

Li quickly realizes he’s been lied to about life in the West and wants to stay in Houston with Elizabeth, but the Chinese officials tell him that if he remains in the country, he won’t ever be allowed to return home. Worse, his parents and friends will be stigmatized or punished.

Any reasonably well-informed person would know that the real Li would have taken a formidable risk by defecting and marrying Elizabeth. Curiously, this portion of Li’s life gets a somewhat cursory treatment in the film. Sardi and Beresford rightly avoid giving his tale a fairy tale conclusion. Not only would such an ending have been false but also dramatically it would have felt too pat.

That said, their depiction of the stress between the couple during Li’s exile feels perfunctory. They merely have the characters tell us love hasn’t conquered all. It would have been more satisfying to discover it for ourselves. His fears for his family back home and her stalled career amount to a few seconds of screen time. Perhaps if the defection had started sooner in the story, the relationship could have been explored more adequately.

Because the film spends its early portion letting viewers know how awesome the United States is (we already know that!), some later developments that are inherently dramatic might have been given enough screen time to reach their full potential.

Although much of Mao’s Last Dancer is set in Houston during the early 1980s, most of these scenes were actually shot in Sydney. Beresford is generally able to make Australia’s largest city pass for the Lone Star State, but period detail is not the film’s strong suit. A trip through a shopping mall leads to a modern-looking ATM that spits out 21st century bills. Li’s story is closely tied to the era he’s lived in, so having such shoddy attempts at recreating the period makes the film seem less credible.

Fortunately, Chi proves that good casting can help viewers forget problems like that. In addition to demonstrating decent screen acting chops, he also gets ample time to show why he’s been a principal at the Royal Birmingham Ballet since 2002. Beresford, unlike some current directors, understands that when you have a dancer as accomplished as Chi, it’s best to let the camera stand still so the audience can see him move.

Because of Chi’s soul and athleticism and Li’s engrossing life, Mao’s Last Dancer manages to inspire in spite of some of the shortcuts the filmmakers have taken. But Chi and Li wouldn’t have accomplished so much if they had cut the same corners. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 09/10/10)


Ghost Bird
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of the ivory-billed woodpecker or even cared much about it. It’s been nearly 60 years since anyone has been able to take a still photograph or even capture one. Chances are good that the majestic creature is now extinct.

According to the Department of Interior, however, that’s not true.

Still of dead woodpeckers from Ghost Bird

In the middle of the last decade, some prominent ornithologists have claimed that the ivory bill has been conclusively spotted near the small town of Brinkley, AR. The federal government has even come up with $27 million dollars to preserve the bird’s habitat and to ensure that new generations may see an animal that almost went the way of the passenger pigeon.

Considering how many species have vanished while humans have walked the earth, it’s hard not to get misty-eyed with joy at the thought of once-missing creatures now flourishing. According to Scott Crocker’s new documentary Ghost Bird, the ivory bill’s apparent return may not be worth breaking out the handkerchiefs yet.

As depicted here, the ivory bill’s story isn’t simple or triumphant. As Ghost Bird unfolds, we learn battling wills and wishful thinking have more to do with the resurgence of the bird than cold hard facts. While hundreds of reporters have flocked on Brinkley and the town’s newspaper had an inadvertent bestseller with the issue that announced a 2004 sighting, the evidence that the bird is still with us is scant.

Ornithologists across the country were elated when the sightings happened, but the raw data didn’t look that impressive, particularly to scientists who specialized in these woodpeckers. The one widely distributed video of a sighting has an image so faint and blurry it could just as easily be a dodo. Careful examinations of specimens in storage and a look at the birds’ habitat indicate they disappeared when a company that made boxes cleared out the birds’ territory and inadvertently took them with it.

Nonetheless, people who believe they’ve seen the bird are adamant, and it’s fascinating to watch how passionate people get in their certainty over whether the bird has returned.

Crocker reveals that there’s more than just ruffled feathers involved here. The town of Riley has suffered a long decline, and the sightings have resurrected the local economy. People who’d normally drive by the town between Memphis and Little Rock now stop to get a haircut that makes a person look like a male ivory bill. The locals seem amused by all the attention and take it in stride.

Online, however, it’s another story. One blogger reveals the hatred he’s received by simply stating he doubts the woodpecker is still with us. Proponents of the sightings wouldn’t cooperate with Crocker, and it seems as if bruised egos take precedence over making sure more animals don’t see their numbers vanish the way the ivory-billed woodpecker has.

The film is loaded with ironies. One scientist sheepishly admits that his predecessors in the field were so eager to collect samples of the birds they studied that they actually contributed to the birds’ extinction. Also bird lovers should be grateful to hunters because they’ve been some of the most consistent supporters of habitat preservation.

Crocker includes some truly jaw-dropping statistics that indicate resources devoted to the ghost birds might have been better devoted to fowl that are still struggling to survive but have less publicity. To his credit, he includes web links for organizations devoted to these birds in the film’s credits.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is an unlikely movie star because it’s barely seen in the film. Nonetheless, the attention it has attracted does help us realize how much has been lost in the last century and how much could still be destroyed if we decide that disposable boxes are more important than living birds. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/10/10)

Flipped
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

While Rob Reiner is no stranger to successful feel-good coming of age movies, he may have meet his match in the unworkable mess that is his newest film, Flipped.

We start in a completely generic suburb in the '50s with the arrival of the Loski family moving in across the street from the Baker family. Young Juli Baker immediately becomes smitten with Bryce Loski, because he ... has really pretty eyes or something. Bryce of course wants nothing to do with the tomboyish Juli and her lower class family. Over time Juli's affection cools, while Bryce begins to wonder if he may, indeed, have feelings for the dark-haired little girl across the street. While that storyline may seem a little dated, it still would seem to have a chance to be at least a little bit endearing, except ...

still from Flipped

The entire plot is a miss-mash of overused tropes piled relentlessly on top of one another with careless abandon.

Really, I'm not kidding: a mysterious uncle with mental problems? You got it. A tree that's a metaphor about loss of youth? Check. A derisive dad that really only wishes he could have made more of his life? Sure, why not. A kindly grandpa (the always excellent John Mahoney) who understands the kids better than their parents? Yup. 

It also doesn't help that the two young stars here, Madeline Carrol (Juli) and Cullen McAuliffe (Bryce) are, well, kids. Oh, they're alright, but well, they're child-actors that should be used sparingly as they simply lack the developed talent to pull off so much screen-time (Abigale Breslin does not count: I'm still not convinced she isn't some kind of Russian midget or something).

Really, all that isn't that big a problem compared to two things: the "flip" where we get to see every scene done TWICE, from a he-said she-said point of view, and the incessant, annoying and pointless voice-overs from the two leads.

I really, really don't need someone telling me what they are doing in a movie when I can SEE them doing it. "Show, don't tell" is story-writing 101 folks, and after seeing this mess Meathead needs to go back to school. (PG) Rating: 1 (Posted 9/10/10)


The American
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The quiet and enduring tension that marks The American elevates it above the conventional Hollywood thriller. Director Anton Corbijn wraps up the summer blockbuster season with a spellbinding minimalist tribute to isolation and paranoia.

After his identity is compromised, assassin and artisan firearms dealer Jack (George Clooney) is confined to a small Italian mountainside village by his shady handler Pavel (Johan Leysen). Beset by loneliness, taciturn Jack, posing as a travel photographer, reluctantly accepts the hospitality and philosophical musings of the village priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and begins courting Clara (Violante Placido), an uninhibited prostitute.

When Jack agrees to take on a final assignment — to build a custom sniper's rifle and bullets for changeable Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) — his paranoia ramps up and he begins to question the motives of all of his contacts, even his new acquaintances. Finally, the film ends in an action sequence that manages to thrill while maintaining an internal, quiet tension.

Jack's paranoia notwithstanding, the film's plot is deceptively simple. In fact, it's almost extraneous. The assassin on the lam and the final job are well-worn conceits. Here, however, they're the delivery system for the real underpinnings of the movie, which are its shows of desperation, confession and redemption. In short, The American is The Godfather if it had been edited down to the best parts: Michael Corleone's showdown and subsequent exile. Could it be purely coincidence that in real life Violante Placido's mother, the actress Simonetta Stefanelli, played Michael Corleone's Italian wife?

Visually, the film contrasts the grainy, claustrophobic scenes in the village with colorful saturated nature shots — the butterfly is the major symbol in the film. Also, many of the interior scenes look as if they were framed by cinematographer Martin Ruhe to be later used as portraits or still shots. The effect is emotional, and even visceral in some cases, such as the close-up on Clara's body during one of her encounters with Jack. When the camera focuses on Jack, it's clear he vacillates between stasis and transformation.

In the spirit of the Man With No Name trilogy, The American makes an art form out of the silent brooding stranger. Clooney's portrayal of the assassin Jack is subtle yet earnest. After a lifetime of control and discipline, he's a man about to crack. The only time he's truly animated is when chasing down hit men or constructing modifications to a rifle. His quick but deep attachments to a clownish priest and shameless whore reveal an authentic loneliness. Although there are several English actors who could have portrayed Jack, Clooney proves he truly is the American. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 09/08/10)


Machete
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

With Machete, Robert Rodriguez demolishes subtlety with the same force that Rome unleashed on Carthage. Every joke is as broad as the Continental Divide. No opportunity for onscreen violence is overlooked. Gore is as plentiful as fresh tequila at a distillery, and female skin is visible by the acre.

still from machete

Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis (who has previously assisted Rodriguez in the editing room) are not simply content to parody ‘70s exploitation films like Shaft and Street Fighter. These guys obviously love the drive-in films of that era and, more importantly, aim for and provide the same guilt inducing thrills. There’s a strange purity to the perversion that is Machete. It’s hard not to love a movie that makes so few concessions to good taste.

One look at the film’s title character gives viewers the sense they are in for a wild ride. Former boxer and Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo plays a killing machine with a body count higher than malaria. With his weather-beaten features, broad shoulders and long, shaggy hair, Trejo’s Machete Cortez looks as if he could scare off a wild puma or even kill it with his bare hands. As the film’s opening suggests, he probably already has.

Women also find his fearsomely haggard looks and forthright manner irresistible. Viewers never actually see Machete getting in touch with his inner romantic, but once he and a leading lady start glancing at each other, some porno funk starts blasting on the soundtrack, letting us in on what will happen next.

In a raid to stop a powerful Mexican drug lord named Torrez (Steven Seagal, yes, that Steven Seagal), lethal Mexican federale Machete manages to single-handedly take out every henchman in the kingpin’s lair, relying primarily on the weapon he’s named for, as well as any sharp object he can find.

Despite killing enough thugs to fill a morgue for weeks, the raid backfires, and Machete is forced to head north to the United States and work as a day laborer. Now, he’s in greater danger. A gang of Anglo border vigilantes led by Lt. Von Stillman (Don Johnson) shoots anyone crossing the border on sight. There’s also the rabidly right-wing Texas state Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) who feverishly campaigns on a platform of draconian punishment for illegal immigration. He even sends supporters DVDs of himself shooting at border crossers.

A local businessman named Michael Benz (Jeff Fahey), who needs the cheap labor undocumented workers provide, notices that Machete can survive incidents that would probably kill others. He offers the destitute crime fighter $150,000 to shoot McLaughlin. Before Machete can say no, Benz threatens to turn Machete into immigration authorities if he refuses.

Of course, it’s a setup, and all the bad guys are working together. But Machete is bursting with enough outrageous characters and situations to make an audience forget every other cheap revenge action picture they’ve seen before. The bizarre casting is part of the charm. De Niro, Johnson and Seagal seem to love playing against type, and their winking performances make some of the bloodshed seem less shocking.

Machete also has to keep his eye on the women he encounters. Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) may be Latina, but she’s got no qualms with sending undocumented workers back to their country of origin. Michelle Rodriguez (no relation to Robert) is just about right as a taco vender who’s secretly leading a network of people who help recent immigrants. It’s also a riot to see Lindsay Lohan playing Benz’s drug addicted, Internet porn queen daughter. Yes, it’s typecasting, but it’s still funny. So is featuring Cheech Marin as a double-barreled priest. When one of Benz’s thugs asks for mercy, he replies, “God has mercy; I don’t!”

With this cast of crazies, Machete himself seems, well, normal.

This film was inspired by a phony trailer that ran during Rodriguez’s previous movie Grindhouse. It includes all the fun bits from the faux preview and has plenty of bizarre new sequences to go with them. As with most of his movies, Rodriguez paces the tale with NASCAR speed and kitchen sink gags. If a gag or line falls flat, there are about 20 new ones to take its place before the film ends. His vivid imagination and solid visual sense makes the most outrageous images seem oddly convincing. When he takes out bad guys, Machete uses their remains in effective ways that God never intended.

He also succeeds by embracing the silliness of his ideas. The final showdown between Lt. Stillman’s border vigilantes and some extremely well armed low riders (complete with bouncing cars) is funny because every stereotype imaginable is mercilessly lampooned. Any sort of restraint would have probably taken the life out of these gags. The phony campaign ads for Senator McLaughlin are a scream and sound frighteningly close to what actual politicians are saying.

Rodriguez and his collaborators are so in love with ‘70s movies that they even put scratches in the prologue to make it look as if it were a lost artifact. Machete may not be imitating the classics of the Me Decade, but at least Rodriguez and his crew haven’t forgotten how to have fun on the set and to share their sick delights with us. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/03/10)


Cairo Time
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Despite the love I expressed for cinematic excess in my review of Machete, when it comes to onscreen romance, flirtation is often sexier than consummation. There’s a constant “should I or shouldn’t I” tension that gives a tale some spine. If a couple merely walks happily into the sunset (literally or metaphorically), there isn’t much of story.

still from Cairo Time

Canadian director Ruba Nadda demonstrates a keen understanding of this principle in Cairo Time, which won the Best Canadian Feature Film Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film deals with a couple who might not have a future together but who will probably never forget each other either.

The redoubtable Patricia Clarkson stars Juliette Grant, the wife of a Canadian diplomat working for the UN. Mark is on a mission in Gaza, attempting to resolve a crisis at a Palestinian refugee camp. The issue isn’t fixing itself anytime soon, so Juliette arrives for a scheduled vacation in Cairo without Mark to pick her up at the crowded airport.

In desperation, Mark requests that his old Egyptian friend Tareq (Sudanese-born British actor Alexander Siddig) drive Juliette to the hotel. Tareq has retired from the diplomatic service and seems happy simply to run his father’s old café. He’s also a lifelong bachelor who still pines for a woman he couldn’t marry named Yasmeen (Amina Annabi). Because she’s a Christian, and he’s a Muslim, matrimony is out of the question even though she’s now a widow.

If it weren’t for her now ruined vacation, Juliette would be editing a women’s magazine that sounds like a Canadian version of Vogue. Thanks to Clarkson’s intelligent performance, it’s easy to get a sense that she’d like to write about something more substantial than makeup application.

She’s also a bit claustrophobic. Staying in her hotel room is a soul crushing experience. Even though Cairo has crime and crushing poverty, it is full of breathtaking architecture and thousands of years of culture.

As Mark becomes endlessly detained, Juliette gradually befriends Tareq, but sparks don’t fly. Instead, there’s more of a slow burn. As a result, a story that initially seems to be about people sightseeing and talking becomes engrossing.

Nadda presents Cairo warts and all, but the city is still beautiful. Luc Montpellier’s gorgeous cinematography may have something to do with that. She also presents the city’s residents in a dignified manner and thankfully chooses to make Juliette something other than an ugly American (in this case, Canadian).

Juliette has a genuine concern for the plight of the city’s underprivileged whereas Tareq is something of an elitist. The two are not made for each other, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting company or intelligent conversation. Despite being one of the world’s largest cities, Cairo becomes lonely, and Clarkson and Siddig handle their characters’ flirtation with a remarkable amount of finesse. Simple glances convey more than reams of banter.

Cairo Time also benefits from Nadda’s sense of when to quit. The film is only 88 minutes, but it’s just enough time for these two to change each other’s lives and to linger in our memories for a while. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/03/10)

 


Anton Checkhov’s The Duel
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Good source material is often the cornerstone to a good movie, and it’s difficult to think of a better storyteller than Russian doctor and dramatist Anton Chekhov. Georgian-Israeli director Dover Kosashvili (Late Marriage) and screenwriter Mary Bing know they’re working with a classic novella with The Duel, so they treat it with the same reverence and protectiveness that one might devote to a first child. In the process, they almost smother their well-intended creation to death.

Still from the Dual

Thankfully, Chekhov’s wit and eye for character survives, and a good cast keeps the new film from degenerating into a stuffy literature class. The tale is set in a village the Caucasus Mountains during the late nineteenth century. The town is located in a picturesque landscape, but it’s slowly becoming a cauldron of discontent.

Ivan Laevsky (Andrew Scott), for example, is certainly not a happy man. He lives in a comfortable home with servants and the lovely, cultured Nadia (Fiona Glascott). Curiously, he’s not happy with his government job. It pays poorly, but the state is getting ripped off because his only discernable activities appear to be drinking and gambling. As for his companion, not only is she not his wife but also her husband actually lives miles away.

Or should I say lived? As the film begins, Ivan receives a letter informing him that the cuckold has just died from softening of the brain (a euphemism for untreated syphilis). While Ivan can now marry Nadia, he has no desire to. Having left her husband for the unloving Ivan, who hasn’t even got the guts to tell her about her husband’s death, it’s no wonder, she’s been in the arms of other men and has done favors for those who’ve helped her afford flattering dresses that Ivan (and she) can ill-afford.

It’s a credit to Glascott that she can make Nadia sympathetic. She projects a loneliness that makes a viewer wish that at least one of her lovers would view her as something other than a person to exploit. She also catches the eye of a well-off naturalist named Von Koren (Tobias Menzies). He hardly speaks with her, but Ivan’s loutish behavior toward Nadia makes him seethe against Ivan with self-righteousness. Ivan is obviously jealous of the biologist, but Von Koren’s hatred of Ivan is almost pathological even though Ivan has done nothing to him personally. Because their community is small, it’s only a matter of time before the two clash.

In print, Chekhov manages to reach his climax while introducing vivid characters and intriguing observations about human nature. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Russian culture, you easily might run into somebody like the characters in the film, especially if you’ve lived in a small town.

What’s missing in the new film is a sense of tension. Bing’s script preserves much of the dialogue from the original story. That’s a problem because long passages are designed to introduce the characters and their situations, not to move the story or resemble real speech. There are long passages where the characters tell us what the camera has already shown. In addition, the lines are translated from Russian, so there’s a stiltedness that makes every remark in the film seem formal.

Seeing this film made me realize how much I prefer David Mamet’s reworkings of Chekhov. Working from another author’s literal translation, he crafts dialogue that’s easier on the actors’ tongues and the listeners’ ears.

Perhaps Kosashvili senses that a movie about people talking could get a little dull. There are two nude scenes that don’t move the story but seem to have been added merely to keep the film from slipping into tedium.

On the plus side, the cast still manages to embody Chekov’s characters nicely. Niall Buggy is lovable as the town doctor whose primary responsibility is keeping Ivan and Von Koren from fighting, and Michelle Fairley is a scream as a local matriarch who mercilessly shuns those she thinks are sinners at one moment and then extends a tentative helping hand the next.

By keeping true to Chekhov’s story, The Duel retains enough of Chekhov’s spirit to make the project worthwhile. Nonetheless, it would have been nice if someone involved hadn’t considered the words “classic” and “stiflingly dull” to be synonyms. (N/R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 09/03/10)

Going the Distance
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Going the Distance is an occasionally diverting look at long-distance relationships that takes a few too many shortcuts. While Drew Barrymore and Justin Long (apparently a couple in real life) have an appealing chemistry, their vehicle runs out of fuel halfway through the journey.

Long plays Garrett, a mid-level record company executive who gets dumped by his girlfriend on her birthday. Apparently believing her when she says she doesn’t want a present is a deal breaker.

Deciding to drown his sorrows in alcohol and a Centipede game, he winds up meeting a woman who’s weirdly compatible with him. It’s too bad their initial encounter isn’t terribly convincing. It’s hard to believe a lasting union between Garret and Centipede ace Erin (Barrymore) could be formed from an argument over a video game.

But love does blossom. Garret has every reason to leave his bizarre roommate Dan (Charlie Day) and move in with his new love. Dan “deejays” the couple’s lovemaking and uses the toilet with the door open.

Unfortunately, Erin isn’t staying long in New York. Her master’s degree is almost complete, and she, like Garrett has chosen a career in a troubled field. As a journalist, the only job she’s likely to get is in her hometown of San Francisco.

Once Erin moves in with her sister (Christina Applegate), she attempts to keep up with Garrett through texts, emails and even disappointing phone sex. But human contact has no substitute. Because both have jobs in volatile fields and Garrett can’t stand the record label that currently employs him, the narrative falls flat.

As Going the Distance progresses, it leans too heavily on its stars’ appeal because on paper the two don’t seem that sympathetic. The crisis in their otherwise ideal relationship doesn’t seem as traumatic as depicted. Director Nanette Burstein (who’s behind the terrific documentaries American Teen and The Kid Stays in the Picture) and novice screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe let the story slip into predictability so the conclusion is more obligatory than satisfying. By the time it comes around, it’s difficult to care.

To fill in the time between the stars’ pining for each other, the filmmakers feature comics like Jim Gaffigan and former Kansas City residents Jason Sudeikis and Rob Riggle tossing out vulgar bon mots. Admittedly, many of the sight gags and monologues are funny, particularly Applegate’s musings on how she remains romantically satisfied.

Many times, however, the japery appears to be a substitute for content. The story seems so thin that it probably couldn’t stand up without the carnal support. Long distance relationships can be challenging, and the technology that makes them possible frequently fails. Naturally, there’s some strong comic potential, but often the two lovers feel more like plot devices than people. It might have been more productive to explore flaws in their relationship before the parting, which would certainly be exacerbated by the separation.

It’s amazing that for all of our alleged erudition and technical tools, we are no smarter at figuring out how to love each other. That doesn’t mean the movies made about these struggles have to be just as shallow. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 09/03/10)

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Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.


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