movie reviews September 2012

Sleepwalk With Me[REC] 3: GenesisLast Ounce of Courage End of WatchFor A Good Time, Call
2 Days in new yorkceleste and jesse foreverThe WordsThe masterTrouble with the curveHotel TransylaniaLooper10 Yearspitch perfectwon't back down

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

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Won't Back Down
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Someone must have told Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis that Won’t Back Down was going to be Oscar bait. There are lots of dramatic soliloquies that that pass for dialogue and several moments where their characters get to burst into floods of affected emotion. Many of these scenes would probably look great on an awards show, and director Daniel Barnz co-wrote and directed them as if he had a quota to meet. Somewhere in the process, he somehow forgot to make a movie to go with them.

Won’t Back Down is the first movie that Barnz has directed that isn’t a fantasy. Unlike his previous movies Beastly and Phoebe in Wonderland, the new offering requires characters that are more than ideological mouthpieces. Considering that you can set your watch by the number of emotional outbursts, this demand is probably beyond Barnz’s skill set.

Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a feisty single mom who has to juggle selling cars and alcohol to make a living. Her task is even tougher because her beloved daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is in the second grade but has difficulty reading because she’s dyslexic. The lass isn’t likely to get in help in her Pittsburgh classroom because the teacher is too busy keeping up with her texting than with her curriculum. Thanks to a lazy principal (Bill Nunn) and a silly policy, Malia is stuck in the class even though a better teacher named Nona Alberts (Davis) is just down the hall.

Because Nona has a son who also has special needs, both join forces to try and take over the school in order to structure it like a charter institution. This puts them head-to-head against the powerful Pennsylvania Teachers Union. It might as well be the NEA; the filmmakers don’t want to be sued. Unlike the unions in Norma Rae and Matewan, the teachers union is dead set against any sort of reform, particularly if it involved firing cruddy teachers.

Getting rid of teachers who approach their work in a manner one would not accept from fry cooks at McDonald’s is an excellent start, but it’s hardly a cure all for what’s ailing our crumbling school systems. Teachers in the United States don’t receive the pay or the prestige that instructors in other industrialized countries get. In Japan, for example, teachers are greeted with the title “sensei” and often come from the top students in colleges. Most of our educators come from the lower rungs because many graduates want careers that might be able to pay back their steep student loans. Many capable people still go into the field (my parents I’m happy to say were two of them), but it will take more than weeding out incompetents to improve education.

Let’s face it. Both the right and the left in this country have found ways to undermine our schools, both intentionally and unintentionally. Barnz doesn’t want to deal with subtleties like these. He prefers to feature Ned Eisenberg and Holly Hunter playing unintentionally amusing caricatures of union bosses. Both are backstabbing creeps. The movie attempts to put some balance on the issue, but when characters speak in statistics and platitudes instead of conversation, it’s hard to take anything in Won’t Back Down seriously. This is especially true because a union cast and crew made Won’t Back Down. None of the performers would have even been allowed to work on this film if they hadn’t kept up with their Screen Actors Guild dues. It’s too bad we can’t get Tom Green to give up his union card for being as inept a performer as some of the teachers in the film are to their craft.

After seeing the damage scab referees did to the NFL in just a few weeks, I think I’ll be happy to look for the union label elsewhere. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/28/12)

Haiku
Won't Back Down

Hiring scab teachers
won’t fix the school system or
this crummy movie.


Pitch Perfect
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

A film about college a cappella competition, Pitch Perfect basks in its own ridiculousness but never loses its heart. Adapted from the 2008 nonfiction book by Mickey Rapkin, the screenplay by 30 Rock and New Girl writer Kay Cannon incites members of the movie’s female ensemble to hilarity without impeding their humanity. Oscar-nominated Anna Kendrick shines as the edgy co-ed finding the desire to share her voice.


Loner freshman Beca (Kendrick) makes a deal with her estranged dad, an English professor. If she successfully completes her first year at the college where he teaches, including making friends, he’ll pay for her to move to L.A. to pursue her passion to become a DJ. Recruited shamelessly by body confident Chloe (Brittany Snow), Beca successfully auditions her way on to the college’s all-girl a capella team, which this year is made up of quirky misfits, including the defensively self-titled Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and low talker Lilly (Hana Mae Lee). She’s also being chased by film nerd Jesse (Skylar Austin), who as a member of the rival all-boy a capella team is strictly off limits.

Pitch Perfect has the potential to become a cult classic. So much of the dialog is highly quotable. Rebel Wilson brings her impeccable comedic timing to her candid observations as Fat Amy. Lilly’s breathy whispers include grim gems such as “I set fires for joy.” As a misanthropic protagonist not seen since Julia Stiles’ inspired performance in 10 Things I Hate About You, Kendrick drolly delivers her wisecracks without malice. These aren’t lines written just for a laugh, although they do deliver in that regard. They also reveal the defensiveness and vulnerability of these characters.

Yet, where the film stands apart from the likes of Heathers or Jawbreaker is in its musical numbers. Sure, director Jason Moore uses all the tropes of a typical romantic comedy. However, when Beca breaks into “No Diggity” during a riff-off in an empty swimming pool, the movie takes on a different vibe. Its updated and fresh, but still provides plenty of nostalgia for any member of Gen X that ever stepped inside a college radio station.

Beca’s struggle to incorporate her own arrangements into the group’s performances becomes a quiet battle of wills with group leader Aubrey (Anna Camp), which leads to touching breakthroughs in the friendships among the girls. And just like the cheers in Bring It On, the songs provide fast fun. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/28/12)


10 Years
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

About 12 minutes into the new movie 10 Years, my girlfriend lamented that seeing the film was like going to a spouse’s class reunion. You don’t know or care much about the folks you encounter and any useful memories the former classmates may have about your beloved are lost in a sea of booze. I’m sorry to outsource my lead to her, but after she left, shortly after making those remarks, the film improved only marginally.

There are lots of attractive, familiar faces in 10 Years, but writer-director Jamie Linden, who wrote We Are Marshall and Dear John, can’t seem to get past their visages to reveal anything interesting about them. Perhaps the most suspenseful moment in 10 Years comes when Jenna Dewan-Tatum (playing Jess) walks in front of the camera. Up till that point I’d always wondered what sort of woman would marry the chronically handsome Channing Tatum (who plays Jake), but it wasn’t all that surprising to discover that she’s comely as well. Equally predictable, the two play a couple that might be tying the knot.


Because we rarely get more than a still picture of what the rest of the late 20-somethings looked or acted like before the reunion, there’s nothing to get worked up about. We have little idea about how these folks have grown or regressed in the decade, and it’s impossible to keep track of who’s who without the help of the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). In properly made ensemble reunion movies like The Big Chill or The Return of the Secaucus Seven, a viewer doesn’t have to work that hard to figure out who characters (much less strain to remember their names) are, and they’re interesting enough to follow for a couple of hours.

That’s not so with this bunch. From what little plot there is, Jake is still smarting from his breakup with Mary. That’s probably because she’s played by the equally easy on the eyes Rosario Dawson. Two old friends (Max Minghella and Justin Long) have moved to the Big Apple, but they’re both smitten with a woman who still has the same glow that entranced them back in the day. All three are in for a big surprise, but it takes us less time than it does them to figure out their lives haven’t been as glamorous as they seem.

Linden does come up with a few choice zingers but can’t seem to tell his strokes of genius from his bursts of banality. One of the class is now a popular singer (Oscar Isaac), and the shy, but, of course stunning, wallflower (Kate Mara) that spends most of the film with him may have inspired his hit. It’s too bad she hasn’t heard it. Because she’s played by Mara, who happens to be Oscar-nominee (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Rooney Mara’s also talented sister, she actually pulls of these scenes off. Little of the rest of the film works this well.

This should be a new rule for filmmakers: If the people you’re following aren’t as interesting as the real folks you know and love, your movie won’t be much to leave home for or come home to. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/28/12)

Haiku
10 Years

I’d rather skip this
pretty reunion and just
spend my time at home.


Looper
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Given that even the most talented science fiction writers struggle with all the inherent pitfalls and conundrums of a time-travel story, it's impressive when Hollywood can even come up with one that doesn't just completely suck. The best ones, like Back to the Future or Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure quickly dump logic for laughs and have a "just go with it" attitude.

Serious time-travel dramas are different. One of the best is probably 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's dark and moody film, which remains a bit of a cult hit. In that movie, we have a grizzled Bruce Willis sent back from the future to try and prevent a terrible event, with the possible cost being his own life and/or existence.
 
Writer/director Rian Johnson's Looper stars Joseph Gorden-Levitt (who also stared in Johnson's film Brick) as "Joe,” a mob hit man in the year 2042 sent back to kill people for the mob 30 years in the future. Trussed up with a hood over their head, his victims have no chance, but the hit man knows that, according to his contract, one of his marks will eventually be himself from thirty years later, something called "closing your loop". When that day comes for Joe, he is suddenly faced with a grizzled Bruce Willis, or "Old Joe,” who has come from the future to prevent a terrible event, with the cost being his own life. (Okay, yeah, it's not hard to see a lot of 12 Monkeys in this film.)
 
This isn’t to say Looper is a bad movie or a rip-off of another: it's not. The storyline is okay, Joseph and Bruce do a great job with a plot that kinda meanders all over the place before the final act. Very creative visually with some great action scenes, Looper also has a dark, nihilistic ending will turn a lot of people off even if the film gives us many reasons NOT to consider either "Joes" a real hero. Both are essentially amoral psychopaths who tend to do the right thing only out of greed and self-preservation. Both have a woman who comes along and tries to get them on the right track, with young Joe's girl Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid playing a pivotal role in the final battle between both men.
 
The pre-production publicity made a pretty big deal about the extensive make-up Gordon-Levitt wore to look like a young Willis ... and they probably shouldn't have. At night, in the dark, it looks okay, weird, but okay. But in daylight ... lets just say sometimes the eyebrows didn't even look straight. The pacing and editing are at times great, and at others pretty no so great; and one particular event is both so horrible, and so meaningless it's like the film itself just tries to forget it ever happened.
 
Still, I appreciate the attitude behind the film that the audience isn't all idiots, and it gives me enough Willis to last until “Die Hard: 4.” (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 09/28/12)


Hotel Transylvania
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Hotel Transylvania is a reanimated mash up of Mad Monster Party, Monsters, Inc. and Ratatouille that has little life of its own. It’s as if Victor Frankenstein had assembled this monster from the parts of better animated films and but had failed to give his creating much wit or charm of its own. Perhaps the not-so-good doctor, in this case director Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls) couldn’t harness enough abnormal brains to make this one memorable.

The film starts with Count Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) arriving in a bedroom, presumably about to feed on the neck of a nubile young meal. Instead, it turns out the resident is his baby daughter, and the sharp-toothed lass has decorated her diaper the way most infants do. The wit doesn’t get much more sophisticated from here.

In addition to being a single dad, the Count is starting what may be the first vacation spot of its kind, the Hotel Transylvania. The new luxury resort is designed to keep him and his fellow monsters safe from humans and their torches, pitchforks and Keith Olbermann. For 118 years, the Count has hosted the greatest of the ghouls, including the Frankenstein monster himself (Kevin James), his wife (Fran Drescher), Mr. and Mrs. Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon), Griffin the Mummy (David Spade) and a host of other demons voiced by Sandler’s protégés.

Two things might hurt the Count’s creepy version of Club Med. The first is his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is now also 118 years old and, in vampire terms, a teenager on her way to adulthood. The second complication is that a goofy backpacker named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) has stumbled into the forbidden resort and, predictably into Mavis’ undead heart.

The storyline for Peter Bayman (Borat) and Robert Smigel’s script simply limps like a zombie from one plot point to the next without much in the way of suspense or surprise. Both Bayman and Smigel have delivered delightfully shocking bits of adult cartoon fun in the past, but in making something for toddlers, they are apparently unable to come up with anything that’s much fun. It’s hard to believe that Smigel, who has given us The Ambiguously Gay Duo and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog couldn’t create something that has the subversively sick fun of his earlier work. Apparently, he or whoever signed the checks on this one decided that kids don’t want anything imaginative or witty.

The casting of Sandler and his posse is also problematic. It’s refreshing to hear Sandler playing something other than the man-children he usually plays. After annoying efforts like Grownups, Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy, it’s nice to hear him slip into that accent and act like an adult vampire for a change. The downside is that there isn’t anything distinctive about Sandler or his Bela Lugosi impersonation. While Sandler plays the role well, he doesn’t do anything that an anonymous voice actor couldn’t do as well or better. One wonders why a high-dollar performer like him was recruited when Jim Cummings, Maurice LaMarche or other voice specialists could have played the role without much effort.

About the only thing interesting about Hotel Transylvania is its release date, September 28, World Rabies Day. Thinking of that will result in more giggles and shrieks than anything on screen. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/28/12)

Haiku
Hotel Transylvania

Sandler’s Dracula
isn’t funny or scary,
just kind of undead.


Trouble With the Curve
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Randy Brown's screenplay for Trouble With the Curve — his first — is rigged. As the plot goes through the motions toward the ending, inevitably happy, it requires nothing more of its lionized lead than to depend on his innate traits, now iconic. In collusion, director Robert Lorenz, Clint Eastwood's long-time assistant director, lets Eastwood squint and growl through the film without having to act or even talk much about baseball.

When veteran scout for the Atlanta Braves Gus Lobel (Eastwood) starts losing his sight to age-related macular degeneration, front office scouting director Pete Klein (John Goodman) suggests to Gus' daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), that she go along with her dad on a scouting trip to North Carolina. There's a hotshot batter bent upon being first pick in the upcoming draft in the territory, and it's vital to Gus' contract renewal that he get the goods on him.

Despite her ambivalent feelings about her father, who was absent for most of her life, Mickey risks her own promotion to partner at an Atlanta law firm to act as his eyes. She tries to keep up with a major work project while also helping her father assess the talent. However, as she regains interest in the game and becomes attracted to another scout, Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a former pitcher with hopes of making it to the broadcast booth, Mickey becomes determined to confront her father over their spotty past.

The flipside to the number crunching in Oscar-nominated Moneyball, Trouble With the Curve is heavy on message. Yet, for all the romanticizing of the throwbacks in baseball, there's actually very little love of the game evident in the film. Gus seems too addled to pay attention, and Mickey and Johnny reduce it to trivia. The talented batter is an arrogant jerk who wants only the money and fame baseball can bring him. The one lesson Gus finally imparts is obvious and simple.

Trouble With the Curve is a vanity project for Eastwood, but he doesn't look good in it. He plays Gus' confusion and loss of sight for laughs, but he comes off as a danger to himself and others. Adams plays Mickey as both forthright and unguarded. She's charming on the field and defiant in the bars. The supporting players are either unequivocally good or evil, especially Matthew Lillard as a sniveling, striving Braves administrator. And a tacked-on happy ending involving an overly foreshadowed pitch is a downright groaner. (PG-13) Rating 2.5 (Posted on 09/22/12)


For a Good Time, Call
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Despite a sweet girl-on-girl friendship at its heart, For a Good Time, Call is swamped by contrived dirty talk. For his first feature film, director Jamie Travis attempts to fashion a contemporary, platonic Pillow Talk out of the script, co-written by Katie Anne Naylon and Lauren Miller — who also co-stars. But the plot gimmick just keeps getting in the way.

Dumped for being too boring, underemployed overachiever Lauren (Lauren Miller) must find a new place to live in expensive New York. Lascivious wild child Katie (Ari Graynor) needs to find a roommate so she can afford to keep the spacious apartment she inherited from her grandmother that is now no longer under the protection of rent control. Gay mutual friend Jesse (Justin Long) makes a blind match, knowing the two hate each other from an after-party incident in college. With no other alternatives, the two become roommates, if only temporarily for the summer.

At first, prudish Lauren thinks Katie is an oversexed loudmouth. Then she finds out she’s merely a phone sex operator. Out of work and in need of a project, Lauren sets Katie up with her own line and takes over billing. When the business takes off, Lauren decides to become more involved, training for and eventually taking calls on her own. Finally, as Lauren begins to become more comfortable with her sexuality, Katie reveals a secret of her own — she’s a virgin.

Although the script is littered with raunchy conversation, there’s very little sex in this sex comedy. Graphic cameos by Seth Rogen and Kevin Smith aside, the film could be classified more as a romantic comedy, with the romance between two female friends. Miller’s transformation into liberated woman is familiar, but Graynor, who looks a bit like Tatum O’Neal without the self-consciousness she acquired as an adult, plays mock lusty Katie as wise-cracking yet vulnerable. It’s not surprising that the bulk of Graynor’s past roles (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Celeste & Jesse Forever) consist of playing the best friend. She makes a great best friend.

Travis tries his best to add a Technicolor sparkle to the film. The vibrant pink phones and the set design are inspired. However, the plot is bound by concept. There’s no escape from the litany of phone sex because the two leads rarely leave the apartment. If they were allowed to take a step away from it, they may realize that it’s not such a good time after all. Not for them anyway. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/22/12)


The Master
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Master Reviewed by Dan Lybarger Paul Thomas Anderson, the mind behind There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights, raised quite a bit of controversy when he based his fictional cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Having read a pair of biographies on Hubbard, the similarities are almost impossible to miss. Dodd, like Hubbard, had a wife (in the film, Peggy, played by Amy Adams) who acted as his enforcer, and he evolved from practicing quack medicine and psychiatry to forming his own self-help based religion. If I were a practicing Scientologist, it would be easy to take offense at The Master. Thankfully, Anderson has chosen to do something more substantial than to take cheap potshots at Hubbard in 70mm.

In fact, Dodd is not the main the character in the tale. Instead, The Master focuses on a sailor named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Anderson doesn’t show any of the combat, but because Freddie has survived the Pacific Front in World War II, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture in your own mind the horrors he’s endured. Instead, Anderson presents little glimpses of Freddie’s uncontrollable behavior as the war winds down. Having been kept away from women for years and having developed an addiction to home brewed alcohol, Freddie doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the peacetime military or in civilian life.

Job after job falls through as Freddie tries in vain to adapt. With no family and a girlfriend he didn’t have the guts to write back to during the war, his loneliness doesn’t help. Phoenix has made a career of playing troubled young men like Freddie, but the miracle here is that he makes the repellent, seemingly doomed fellow sympathetic. Throughout the film, it becomes easy to hope that Freddie will get past his formidable demons, especially since just about everyone in post World War II America seems to have written the poor guy off.

Everyone that is, except for the writer Lancaster Dodd. Freddie passes out on the cruise ship that Dodd has commandeered (no one seems to know how he managed to do so). Dodd is a master at delivering plausible sounding (if not scientifically accurate) jargon. People seem to love repeating his bloviating and hang on his every word, even if much of his discourse doesn’t make a lick of sense. Dodd seems to like Freddie and his unique moonshine and occasionally goes out of his way to help. It doesn’t hurt that Freddie is willing to beat up anyone who questions Dodd and his “breakthroughs.”

It’s a given that Hoffman can deliver Dodd’s pseudo-philosophical speeches with aplomb, but he and Anderson add an interesting wrinkle. Even though Dodd is a scam artiste with a sizable ego, he hasn’t yet succumbed to the megalomania that’s standard issue for cult leaders. He sees Freddie as more than a guinea pig for his bogus experiments and really wants to get the man past his toxic, volatile malaise. In some ways, both men appear to be on the edge because Freddie may offer Dodd his last chance at a legitimacy he won’t have when he and the cult grow in power.

The petite Adams is suitably fiery and domineering as Peggy. It’s tempting to compare her to Lady Macbeth, but Dodd’s rise would be impossible without her unshakable resolve.

Anderson presents the tale in an out-of-sequence, hallucinatory manner that’s just about right for a story about an organization that’s essentially based on hazy premises. The sexual manipulation that often goes on in cults is visible here, and in Dodd’s world reality is just as transitory and tricky to fathom as a fairytale. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood delivers an eerie, dissonant score that’s just right for the troubling settings. The use of percussion is particularly effective; giving a sense that something dire is creeping around the corner.

Just as you don’t have to know anything about William Randolph Hearst to appreciate the craftsmanship and insights of Citizen Kane, The Master is a subtly gripping experience that no mere hatchet job on L. Ron Hubbard could ever hope to have been. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted on 09/22/12)

Haiku
The Master

Watch this movie for
Hoffman and Phoenix and not
for L. Ron Hubbard


End of Watch
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Writer director David Ayer is obsessed with cops. As a writer, he gave us Training Day, Dark Blue, S.W.A.T., The Fast and the Furious and Harsh Times. He directed the last film and Street Kings. To his credit, Ayer’s latest movie End of Watch makes his own fixation with police work gripping and downright contagious.

Ayer’s quest for authenticity leads him into a few dead ends. The idea of having the film supposedly told in part from cameras hidden on police officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) gets old quickly. Fortunately, Ayer more than compensates by having a good eye for action scenes and has an unerring instinct for dialogue.

Taylor is using his hidden cameras and mikes for a law school project. Police work might be a steppingstone for a more lucrative career, but that doesn’t mean that either officer takes the job lightly. Both patrol one of the meaner stretches of South Central Los Angeles and expect to face trouble at every corner. The movie begins with a seemingly routine traffic stop that degenerates into a bloody shootout. Taylor and Zavala get through it alive. That doesn’t prevent them from winding up in the middle of a war between Latino and African-American drug runners.

Ayer wanders in and out of this plot line, following Taylor and Zavala as they go on calls both mundane and hair-raising. By only occasionally covering the drug and human tracking operations, End of Watch curiously becomes a stronger film. A lot of filmmakers these days tend to play down things like workplace chatter or the procedural aspects of police work, but Ayer dive bombs into them. As a result, we get to know the two far better than if they’d simply gone through their days emptying their clips. Ayer knows the academy 101s, but more importantly he knows that cops are human. Even though Taylor and Zavala are forthright, brave, smart and honest, they still may fall in love and have the same concerns than anybody in the audience might have. Consequently, when they are in danger, it’s easier to hope they’ll get through the crisis. Because the procedures are generally correct, these guys come off as courageous, but not stupid. Their mistakes are reasonable instead of careless.

Gyllenhaal and Peña have a convincing rapport and really look as if they’ve spent hours and hours together in a patrol car. With their unflattering crew cuts and watchful but not quite jaded manner, they and the rest of the film look “lived in.” Because the camera often looks as if it’s simply been plopped onto the scene, it’s easy to take the preparation that went into this film for granted. The crime scenes look authentic, and even the clothes the bad guys wear are reasonably believable. Apparently, the filmmakers are aware of Jesus Malverde, the informal “patron saint” of drug runners. You’ll see his name and visage all over the movie.

The supporting cast, which includes America Ferrera as a fellow cop and Anna Kendrick as Taylor’s love interest, is deep and consistently convincing. The smallest roles are solidly crafted, so a film about some of the minor traffickers and victims could be interesting, too. If Training Day was sort of cautionary tale about what happens when a cop forgets his duties, End of Watch is an eloquent love letter to those who protect and serve. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/22/12)

Haiku
End of Watch

Ayer shows cops as
good guys but still makes them seem
completely human.


Sleepwalk With Me
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Sleepwalk with Me is a modest, quiet little comedy that has an enormous advantage over several recent comedies that have been dumped on the market. It actually delivers just a little more than its quota of chuckles, and it adds some small but refreshing adjustments to a familiar setup.

Mike Birbiglia (who directed with Seth Barrish) plays a struggling New York standup comic named Matt Pandamiglio who hasn’t managed to marry his charming girlfriend of eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). It might have something to do with the fact that she, too, has commitment jitters and that Matt isn’t much of a comic.

Sleepwalk with me

Despite Matt formidable ambition, he sucks. His onstage suggestion that Cookie Monster has an eating disorder falls flat, even when the crowd is sufficiently inebriated. Only Abby finds his dull-witted observational quips amusing. Matt should probably admit he’s better at making margaritas than one-liners. That’s how he makes what little income he has.

Despite his ineptitude, Matt lands an agent (Sondra James) who assigns him gigs in remote east coast and rust belt venues that simply require a warm body. The pay sometimes falls short of the cost to simply get himself there. On the road, he discovers that if he honestly expresses his anxieties about his relationship with Abby, the audience howls. Fears he’d never tell her in person are apparently prime comic fodder.

His gradually improving career prospects have another serious setback. Matt sleepwalks. The problem is so severe that he actually charges through windows and swings his fist at any conscious person who crosses his path.

Birbiglia is a protégé of Public Radio International’s This American Life mastermind Ira Glass (who also produced and shares a writing credit), so it’s not surprising that a good chunk of the film is narrated by him from a moving car. The joy is that Birbiglia has the rare gift of being able to deliver bad jokes. The humor during the early standup scenes comes more from his awkward expressions, where he patiently waits for the crowd to chuckle at a line Henny Youngman would have rejected.

Birbiglia also has the guts to question his own character’s quest for comic glory. Many of the headliners Matt opens for are miserable men and women. That’s not a particularly new observation, but Matt’s desire to do something besides mopping up the vomit of drunken patrons often looks pointless when he finds himself taking jobs more established performers boast about avoiding. These make the broom and the drink mixing look glamorous.

It also doesn’t hurt that Birbiglia and Ambrose are convincing as a couple torn about whether to cross the Rubicon. Matt and Abby certainly like each other, but life on the road and wedding jitters aren’t conducive for long term relationships.

James Reborn and Carol Kane are a scream as Matt’s overbearing if occasionally insightful parents. Matt certainly needs to rethink his life, but his mom and dad have a unique way of making practical decision making seem dumber than getting a steady job. It probably scares Matt and Abby to watch the two bicker when they aren’t dispensing unrequested advice for Matt.

The ambiguous ending is also a nice touch. Only time will tell is Birbiglia will enter the pantheon that Matt longs to stride in. There is something worthwhile about a comic who has the guts to admit not everything that arises from his lips is worthy of Mark Twain. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/14/12)

Haiku
Sleepwalk with Me

Birbiglia doesn’t
need any good jokes to make
a funny movie.


[REC] 3: Genesis
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Just because a movie is subtitled doesn’t mean it’s any more imaginative or better crafted than domestic films. This is certainly true with [REC]³ Génesis, a threequel to Spanish director Paco Plaza’s “found footage” horror films. Perhaps if I had seen [REC] instead of [REC]³, the sense of déjà vu wouldn’t seem so pronounced.

REC3Gen

The new installment begins as if we were watching a wedding video for a happy, apparently prosperous couple named Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martín). There’s even a slick interactive window before we get to the handheld footage of Koldo greeting guests.

For the film’s first 15 minutes, all proceeds as if we’re simply watching a bunch of people dressed to the nines while an overly zealous videographer named Atún (Sr. B) proudly shows off a camera that would make a Hollywood DP jealous. That might explain why the video looks better than the average wedding DVD. The only sign of trouble is an odd bandage on an uncle’s hand.

Before Clara and Koldo can enjoy any semblance or marital bliss, the infected uncle gets sick and then starts gnawing on the throats of any guest foolish enough to get in his path. Within a couple of minutes, the reception turns into an orgy of the infected dining on those who aren’t.

Despite wearing some formidable heels, Clara manages to be more glowingly beautiful zombie food, and Koldo is equally brave and resourceful. They are, unfortunately, separated by the chaos and have a sea of zombies to crawl through in order to leave the scene together.

Plaza and his cohorts do add a few worthwhile touches by abandoning the found footage angle after the opening credits. How long are we supposed to believe that they made a DVD of a wedding that turns into a zombie infestation? You’d actually have to go back to a computer to put together a DVD.

That said, Dolera does more than look stunning in bridal attire and seems tough enough to hold off a horde of living dead. It’s also refreshing to notice the word “zombie” is never used (even in Spanish). We already know these brain-dead flesh eaters aren’t their former selves. There’s also a children’s entertainer and a priest who find clever ways to avoid becoming dinner.

Apart from these clever touches, [REC]³ Génesis doesn’t find ways to make the dead walk any differently than any film or television series before it. It’s not as consistently witty as Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, and it lacks the social commentary or scares of Dawn of the Dead, and the living aren’t as interesting as the ones encountered in The Walking Dead. (R) Rating 3 (Posted on 09/14/12)
Plaza certainly knows how to get great work out of actors and gory appliances. On a technical level, this film holds its own against its British and American predecessors, but [REC]³ simply can’t help but feel more like [REW]³.

Haiku

[REC]³ Génesis
I wish they’d press [Pause]
instead of making more of
these zombie movies.

Last Ounce of Courage
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas aired and ended up reminding viewers for decades to come that Christmas was thankfully about more than stuffing our faces with food, hanging objects from trees and going broke buying presents. Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz made no secret of his Christianity, but his cartoon’s gentle tone and witty eloquence could make heathens rejoice about the birth of Jesus.

Last Ounce of Courage

I doubt the makers of Last Ounce of Courage worry if their tale of the horrors of political correctness run amock will alienate those who don’t share their vision of Christ. It’s a call for the faithful to rise up if they, or any heathens who stumble in the audience, can wake from their naps or their fits of helpless unintentional laughter.

Directors Darrel Campbell and Kevin McAfee (working from Campbell's script) do roughly what Schulz did but without the cartoon characters, the great jazz score, the insight or the entertianment value.

In Campbell and McAfee’s vision, not being able to say “Merry Christmas” at a retailer is on the same level as being forced to have a yellow star sewn into your clothing. We hear lots of somber music and see dramatic lighting for events that seem, less than dramatic. As a result, it’s hard to take anything on screen seriously.

The film concerns a mountain town where the local mayor is still grieving about having lost his son in the Iraq War 14 years before. While all the women in the town look the same age they did at the beginning of Last Ounce of Courage, we know the time has passed because Bob Revere (Marshall R. Teague) goes from having gray hair on his temples like Mitt Romney does to having a full head of silver.

When his grandson Christian (Hunter Gomez) and his daughter-in-law move back in with him, the teenage lad wonders why his Vietnam War hero grandpa isn’t working to hold the traditional Christmases he used to celebrate in the town. Before you forget, notice the symbolism in the grandson’s name.

It’s kind of hard not to.

Figuring it’s the macho thing to do, Bob decks out City Hall in Christmas lights, hangs up a huge tree and make sure the word Christmas is plastered all over the town.

A nasty civil liberties pundit named Warren "The Hammer" Hammerschmidt (Fred "The Hammer" Williamson) isn’t happy and does everything he can to dampen the Christmas Spirit.

While Williamson is convincingly mean, his motives are non-existent, unless they include embarrasing Bill O'Reilly, who in a Fox News broadcast, looks four years younger than he does now (this film has been collecting dust since George W. Bush was president).

While I have no ill will toward Mr. O’Reilly, it is odd that he’d still be peddling his paranoia about Christmas fourteen years into the future.

Perhaps he’s been frightened by one too many soul food restaurant customers demanding their mother-f-ing ice teas.

It’s probably redundant to bring up Charlie Brown again, but much of the charm of the 1965 TV special is that he’s an underdog, so his redemption through learning about the Lord’s birth seems appropriate.

Bob Revere, on the other hand, is using public property for a celeration that a lot of people in this country, a minority we must admit, might be offended. His town is pretty small and mostly white, so maybe that isn’t a big issue after all. Still, it kind of makes Bob look like a bully.

Personal bias makes me concerned when the needs of religions minorities are brushed aside. My ancestors came here from Germany in the 18th and 19th centrury to escape persecution from established Christian churches who didn’t like the way my family served the Lord.

To this day, we’re thankful that we aren’t asked to do what others tell us in that regard, and we get upset when others who are also misfits are mistreated. I wonder if Bob Revere or his creators ever gave that matter much thought.

I wonder what he’d think of the fact that some of my male relatives have beards down to their bellies and the female ones where bonnets that get them mixed up with the Amish. I’m obviously not a Dunkard (this Protestant denomination forbids moviegoing), but I’m proud that my relatives and I can share a God and a bloodline, even if I wear regular clothes and miss a lot of church.

It’s tempting to ask the filmmakers what they think of Christian denominations who consider war a sin. I don’t personally belong to one. The folks in Last Ounce of Courage are justifiably proud of war heroes, but my Dunkard relatives don’t go off to fight. Does that make them heathens or cowards? There aren’t many Jews, Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus in Bob’s town, none that I noticed. If there were, it’s a safe bet the movie might feel even more annoying.

Maybe Bob and the rest of his constituents might be abole to give the matter some consideration if they weren’t constantly spouting platitudes instead of dialogue.

On second thought, they’d better stick with the bromides. “I was just so young, I’d never seen a broken heart before,” one character laments.

I’ll also confess to another bias. Last Ounce of Courage has a few scenes shot here in KC. You can recognize the Plaza Lights in one shot and Knuckleheads in a few others. The town square is actually from Paola, KS, my old home town (Class of ’85!). It does make me mysty-eyed to see Emory’s Steakhouse (the home of some amazing pork tenderloins) and the Miami County Courthouse on film.

It’s also nice to see some friends of mine on screen in supporting roles. Sadly, the charm of my hometown, which is generally a devoutly Christian one, is lost in the fatuousness of the of the story.

For the record, Paola has no mountains (a majority of the movie was shot in Colorado). It is in Kansas, after all.

But I can sleep well knowing that Last Ounce of Courage won’t defame my fair burg the way Manos: The Hands of Fate embarrassed El Paso. The filmmakers at least had the Christian charity to spread their silliness on several communities. (PG) Rating: .5 (Posted on 09/14/12)

Haiku
Last Ounce of Courage

I’d rather hear the
William Hung Chirstmas album
than see this again.


The Words
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

During the opening frames of The Words, it’s hard not to imagine rookie screenwriter-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal imagining themselves doing what they depict their characters doing: basking in adulation for creating a work that touches millions of hearts. There’s not one, but two interlocking tales of authors presenting their labors to cheering crowds.

The actors are certainly on board. Every few minutes, some recognizable thespian bursts into a loud, vein-popping outburst. The words “for your consideration” seem to be scrolling by during these extended soliloquies. Just in case we fail to grasp how important all of this is, Marcelo Zarvos’ score blares through the speakers informing any viewers who’ve taken a little nap that the scene is heavy and should move them to tears.

the words

I hate to break it to these folks, but neither of these interlocking threads is that interesting. Even though Klugman has a long IMDB page full of acting credits, it’s striking how little he or Sternthal seem to know about character development or establishing the protagonists’ motives.

For example, we know that Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) and Dora Jansen (Zoe Saldana) are in love simply because they're played by attractive thespians. They get to yell things at each other and cry, but it’s mystifying how these two got together or even why we should spend 90 minutes following them around. The action in the story neither rises nor falls. Its topography is like western Kansas, even though both stories are set in New York. No amount of noise ever brings the film to life.

Rory is a writer of some promise. It can only be hoped because nothing that emerges from his mouth seems as interesting as what the characters are gushing about on screen. Perhaps they’ve had a chance to read something that’s better than what was actually filmed. Because he’s making nothing from his tales, which take up as much paper as the rejection letters he receives for them, he and Dora spend their honeymoon in Paris.

Wait a second. He’s borrowing money from his pragmatic but caring father (J.K Simmons), and he’s going to France for his honeymoon. Any sympathy a viewer might have had for him or his bride has just been lost.

The two find a battered leather satchel in a Parisian junk shop. Or is that a junque shop? I can’t tell. Anyway, inside it is a beautiful uncredited novel that Rory passes off as his own until an old man (Jeremy Irons) confronts him about the plagiarism.

Klugman and Sternthal are too lazy to give Irons’ character a name. They simply dub him “The Old Man.” They do go to great lengths to let us know he’s aged. Irons is in his mid-60s but wears enough latex to cover a house and a hearing aid the size of a compact disc.

Ben Barnes plays a younger version of “The Old Man.” He’s called “The Young Man,” and it’s easy to believe that he’ll grow up to be Irons. His drunken stagger is as affected and phony as Irons’ arthritic gait.

When Irons’ voice isn’t telling us things we can already tell from watching, Dennis Quaid’s voice is droning instead. He’s reading his acclaimed bestseller about Rory’s acclaimed bestseller. A comely young student named Daniela (Olivia Wilde) is staring adoringly at him from the crowd even though he’s old enough to be her dad. We don’t know why she’s there except to wear a flattering dress.

Throughout The Words, it’s tempting to envy the characters. It’s not just that they get to shuttle back and forth to Paris but that they get to gush about stories that aren’t on screen. As viewers, we don’t get anything to rave about.

The quest to determine what’s real and what’s fictitious has driven some great literature and films. The Words is ineffective because there is no struggle between life and fiction in this story. Nothing in it seems real or even involving. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 09/07/12)

Haiku
The Words

Why can’t I read the
fictional book instead of
the actual film?


Celeste and Jesse Forever
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Celeste and Jesse Forever is two thirds of the way on its quest to be a special film. It features a potent and somewhat novel setup and has two appealingly funny leads. If the storyline soared instead of clumsily meandering, it wouldn’t seem like a patchwork of highlights instead of a movie.

The title is a bit sarcastic. By the time Celeste and Jesse Forever begins the title characters have broken up for good. Wait a second, that’s a bit misleading. Oh, sure, they’re waiting for the divorce to come through, but Jesse (Andy Samberg) has been living in a spare room at Celeste’s place while he’s waiting for his art career to take off. Because he frequently interrupts his workflow to go surfing, that’s going to be a while.

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Celeste (Rashida Jones) has a new cultural commentary book in stores, which clashes with what she does for a living. While she laments trash culture in print, Celeste pays the bills as an image consultant for shallow celebs, like the spoiled teen songstress (Emma Roberts), who is her primary client.

It’s easy to see why Celeste and Jesse have broken up, but it’s also easy to see how they got together. Jones and Samberg play off each other effortlessly and can do some sickly amusing things with lip balm dispensers. When they’re together, Celeste and Jesse Forever has a vitality that’s missing from the movie.

Jones also co-wrote the script with Will McCormack, and it appears that both could have tightened to story and fleshed out the supporting characters. The two come up with some memorable comic bits, but the tale begins to lag as Celeste and Jesse start going out with other people or get reacquainted with people from their past.

Celeste’s socially awkward beau (Chris Messina) is more interesting than Jesse’s attractive but generally low-key girlfriend Veronica (Rebecca Dayan). There really isn’t much in the way of dynamics in how Celeste and Jesse mull over what to do with the rest of their lives. Veronica is pregnant, so Jesse wants to get his life together. Still, his decisions aren’t all that dramatic or funny. Instead of pushing the story forward, this plot point seems more like a speed bump than an obstacle or a turning point.

There are several familiar faces in the supporting cast, but Jones, McCormack and director Lee Toland Krieger don’t give them much to do. Elijah Wood merely looks nervous as a gay talent handler. It would have been nice to see him do something else occasionally. Roberts scores some easy giggles as a teen pop singer whose demands are inversely proportional to her actual talent. Considering how vapid some of these disposable performers are, her bits should have been funnier.

The ending works, but it shouldn’t have taken that much effort to get there. The audience can occasionally take some challenges; it’s too bad the filmmakers didn’t take more. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 09/01/12)

Haiku
Celeste and Jesse Forever

Breaking up is not
hard to do, but making a
movie on it might be


2 Days in New York
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The rule of thumb for sequels seems to be that the second installment be bigger and more crowded than the movie that preceded it. In her follow up to her charming 2007 directorial debut 2 Days in Paris, French actress Julie Delpy recruits more recognizable actors and with co-writers Alexia Landeau and Alexandre Nahon imagines more comic chaos.

While there’s still fun to be had, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

2 days in New Yord

Whereas her previous co-star was the capable Adam Goldberg, this time Delpy’s frustrated Marion is paired with a journalist and talk show host named Mingus, who’s played by an inspired Chris Rock. Unlike a good number of the roles Rock has played, Mingus is a straight-laced fellow who has trouble maintaining his composure when his routine is altered.

By forcing Rock to delay his outbursts ever so slightly in 2 Days in New York, Delpy manages to land one of his more effective performances. Watching him trying to keep his cool despite a series of calamities is a lot funnier than simply having him burst into his usually shouting.

There are a lot of things to test Mingus’ patience this time. Marion’s father (played by Delpy’s real-life dad Albert) is visiting from Paris, and he’s brought along her Bohemian sister Rose (Landeau) and her dim-witted, stoner beau Manu (Nahon).

If the language barrier weren’t enough of a problem, Marion and Rose can’t stand each other, especially since Rose likes to walk around the apartment with less than minimal clothing (her version of yoga is a bit embarrassing). Manu and Rose also don’t think twice of toking in an elevator or in asking Mingus racially sensitive questions.

Mingus is understandably annoyed with his guests, and Marion has frustrations of her own. Her new art exhibition includes a work she's dubbed "My Soul." For some reason, she's reticent to sell it even though she could use the cash.

While Delpy and her cohorts come up with lots of mayhem, only some of it is funny. The brash Albert Delpy is funny on his own, so Rose and Manu seem like distractions. For every wisecrack that works, there are a few that don't. No, the rhyme with Mingus' name isn't that witty.

Perhaps the bustling, crowded nature of the Big Apple is a little tough to fit into 90 minutes. Still, even in New York, it's OK to think small. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 09/01/12)

Haiku
2 Days in New York

This movie needs more
Chris Rock and less of the odd,
rude French visitors.




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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