reel reviews
movie reviews
October '09
The Baader Meinhof Complex  •  Amreeka  •  The Serious Man
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant  •  The Burning Plain  •  Amelia
Where the Wild Things Are  •  Law Abiding Citizen  •  Couples Retreat •  The Boys are Back  •  Zombieland
Capitalism: A Love Story  •  The Invention of Lying  •  Whip It

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

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The Baader Meinhof Complex
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While it’s based on historical incidents, Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex doesn’t play like something off a brittle, yellowing page. In chronicling the acts of the German terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF), Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) and screenwriter-producer Bernd Eichinger (Downfall) vividly recreate the horror and the madness of their crimes. It’s not surprising the film was Germany’s 2008 submission for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The RAF was as oddly fascinating as they were reprehensible. Their most noteworthy alumna, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), was a respected, if stridently opinionated, magazine editor before she picked up a gun.

Like many of her generation, she became disillusioned with life in West Germany because she worried that the nation was slipping back into the fascism. For example, to her, it seemed hypocritical that Germany warmly welcomed the Shah of Iran, whose regime was hardly democratic.

As her marriage was falling apart, Meinhof wearied of merely writing about injustices and decided that violent action was the only way to remedy Germany’s woes. She covered an arson case involving the young radicals Adreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu, Run Lola Run) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek, Aimée and Jaguar).

Others might not have found the 1968 burning of two department stores in Frankfurt a useful step toward ending the war in Vietnam. But Meinhof gradually moved away from her typewriter and took up arms even though it meant an end to her career and her family.

Because Edel captures the turmoil that ran through Germany’s streets so vividly, it’s easy to see how Meinhof embraced terrorism. He has a terrific eye for action sequences, so the bank robberies and hostage situations are tense and nerve-wracking as those in more expensive American films.

Thankfully, Edel holds nothing back in depicting the RAF’s cruelty, thoughtlessness and downright folly. Baader (charismatically played by Bleibtreu), for example, spent as much time joy riding in stolen hot rods as he did trying to start a new society. It was a habit that earned him additional jail time and probably explains why he’s not on any T-shirts the way that Che Guevara is. Edel also includes some scenes where the RAF attempted to train in Palestinian guerilla camps and ended up alienating their hosts though behavior that has to be seen to be believed.

Ideal casting keeps the story from feeling like an encyclopedia entry. Gedeck (Mostly Martha, The Lives of Others), in particular, projects an intelligence that makes you wish Meinhof could understand how evil and counterproductive her actions are. Thanks to the actress’ nuanced portrayal, it becomes mesmerizing to watch Meinhof’s idealism transform into fanatical vengeance.

What's most chilling about The Baader Meinhof Complex is not that the events in the film happened but that it stops at the end of the RAF's first reign of terror. Another generation mistook their thuggish behavior with heroism before the group disbanded in 1998. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/30/09)


Amreeka
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Watching writer/director Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka it’s easy to imagine the life of a recent immigrant as akin to a freshman’s first day of high school. Everything’s new and exciting until reality hits and the freshman discovers that her social value has plummeted from its junior high status.

In high school she’s seen in only one dimension. She’s the ignorant newbie. Most of her new acquaintances are blind to her assets. Such is the case with Amreeka’s main characters: recently divorced Arab mother Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour) and her teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem).

Mother and son have come from Bethlehem to the United States so that Fadi can get a better education and have better opportunities. Muna also wants to protect Fadi from the occupying Israeli soldiers that they face everyday at checkpoints on the drive to and from work and school.

Dabis introduces us to the mother and son while they are still residents of Bethlehem. We get a glimpse of their daily routine, which includes the unpredictable checkpoint stops and Muna’s mother’s unrelenting curmudgeonly behavior. She often reminds Muna that she’s gotten fat and gripes about everything from the television to grocery items that she’s asked for.

Amreeka is extremely low-key, but the dry humor that runs through it keeps things interesting. For instance when Fadi and Muna go through inspections in a U.S. airport the inspector asks what country they’re from. Muna tells him she doesn’t have a country. The inspector gives her a puzzled glance, and at once the scene is both humorous and political. The political message: The Israeli occupation has left her and others like her without a country.

Muna soon learns that the United States won’t be her country either. Despite two college degrees and ten years’ banking experience no one seems interested in hiring her for a professional-level job. Fadi is an outsider at school. Her doctor brother-in-law has lost many patients since Sept. 11.

The family’s trials run long because of Americans’ post-9/11 attitude, which rejects all Arabs. Still, the family dynamics and family drama continue. Like any family they love each other but at times don’t like each other very much.

That’s the big irony that Dabis captures in this film. Muna’s family is as functional and dysfunctional as any other, but the political dynamics of Palestine and the United States these folks are outsiders.

Dabis has crafted a touching and funny family drama. The only flaw is that he felt the need to wrap the whole enterprise in a moral, a cliché about learning to accept oneself, when it was perfectly fine as a simple drama about a family just trying to survive and love each other despite internal and external tensions. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 10/30/09)


A Serious Man
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Coming out of the theater after watching Ethan and Joel Coen’s newest movie A Serous Man, which is a very smart film to be sure, I still have to admit that I was a little disappointed. 

There are some amusing moments watching Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor whose life in the late ‘60s is unraveling right under his bewildered eyes. When he fruitlessly turns to religion in an effort to understand his fate, it’s sorta funny, but it’s just difficult to really care about the guy. Maybe you could blame the high quality of some of the Coens’ previous films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou or No Country for Old Men, which were also intelligent, but possessed a certain kinetic energy that’s lacking with A Serious Man.

Larry (played admirably by newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg) is also hampered by his flop of a brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who sleeps on the couch, and a South Korean student named Clive (David Kang) who is attempting in broken English to bribe his way into a passing grade. To top everything off, Larry’s wife Judith announces that she’s leaving him for another man, an old, oily dude named Sy, who talks like a self-help guru.

Abandoned by a life he though was orderly and controlled, Larry goes to a series of rabbis who give increasingly meaningless quotes and anecdotes that almost manage to sound helpful, but of course are really just gibberish.

It doesn’t take a genius to see what the Coen brothers were going for here (they also wrote the script). Confronted by the reality that no one truly controls his or her life, we turn to religion as our last grasp of faith only to find that it, too, is meaningless — as is all of life — and then we die.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little nihilism, but the problem is that in order to get Larry to that lowly state, the characters around him drive him down with unrealistic and self-centered behavior. Larry ends up living in a motel while his wife is sleeping with Sy in Larry’s house, his brother gets into some kind of sex scandal, and his pot-smoking son only considers him worth anything except as somebody to climb into the roof to adjust the TV antenna. The audience sits waiting for Larry to finally stand up for himself, but he’s so passive and confused he quickly becomes tiresome and a caricature himself.

Love ‘em or leave ‘em, the Coens defiantly know how to make one seriously smart and yet completely bland movie. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/30/09)


Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is a movie about the undead that never really makes it out of the grave. Despite a cast populated with terrific performers and a rich source material (Darren Shan’s books), director and co-screenwriter Paul Weitz (In Good Company and About a Boy) kills a potential franchise in its first outing because he can’t settle on an appropriate tone and is ill at ease with special effects.

That’s not a good thing for vampire move.

The title character (Chris Massoglia) shares Darren Shan’s name and often feels stifled because he tries too hard to please his parents and other authority figures. Darren’s attempt to get some control over his destiny might have been involving if Massoglia weren’t such a bland leading man. He gives off a sense of bored detachment that’s wrong for both a horror film and a teen comedy. The fact that his voice sounds distractingly like Ray Romano’s (although lacking the comic’s sense of timing) isn’t much of a plus.

It’s only fitting that the obedient Darren should be a friend with the class troublemaker Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Steve convinces Darren that to attend an underground freak show even though Steve’s previous suggestions have gotten Darren grounded at home.

During the expectedly bizarre show, which includes a snake boy (Patrick Fugit) and a hunger artist (Orlando Jones), Steve discovers that the magician in the tour is really the 200-year-old vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly). Craving a life of eternal mischief and a way out of school, Steve tries to curry favor with Crepsley so that he, too, can become a vampire.

Crepsley, being that he is 200 years old, wisely rejects the mean-spirited Steve and forces Darren to become his day-walking assistant. The unglamorous duties include cleaning a wolf-boy’s cage and guarding Crepsley’s grave. It’s also the only defense Darren has against a rival group of vampires who think nothing of using his friends and family as a supernatural Happy Meal. Crepsley, as cynical as he is, finds it wasteful to drink more blood than he needs and only kills in self-defense.

Riley, who normally plays incompetents and morons (as he does in Step Brothers), portrays Crepsley as sly, fully aware of both human and vampire foibles but not hardened enough to stop caring about others. He projects a sort of knowing glee that’s absent from the rest of the movie. Once he leaves the screen because it’s daytime or time to feed, the film suffers.

The rest of the cast is stuck with brief roles that don’t give them much to do. Salma Hayek makes a lovely bearded lady, and Willem Dafoe is a natural for playing a vampire leader. But neither is on screen long enough to make more than a superficial impression.

Weitz’s clumsily juggles limp attempts at humor with scenes of terror that wouldn’t startle a three-year-old. Watching the vampires chase after each other like Keystone Kops looks more cheesy than thrilling.

It’s easy to suspect that name actors like DaFoe and Hayek were lured on the promise that they’d get more substantial work in the forthcoming sequels. After the bloodless showing of the first installment, it appears as if their waiting will be as eternal as a vampire’s. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 10/26/09)


The Burning Plain
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Because of the way he’s effortlessly juggled complex stories with huge casts, Mexican novelist and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga has made it easy to forget how difficult his feats of narrative finesse are. In Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel, Arriaga managed to invert chronology and story structure, making mundane events suspenseful and keeping a viewer’s attention after revealing major plot twists.

All of three of these movies were directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose presence behind the camera might have helped Arriaga’s latest movie, The Burning Plain. Arriaga takes the reins himself this time around, and after a few minutes, it becomes obvious that he lacks González Iñárritu’s facility with actors.

In one of several interlocking tales Kim Basinger plays Gina, a married New Mexico woman who compensates for her stiflingly dull home life by having a torrid affair with an immigrant named Nick (Joaquim de Almeida).

The appeal of the affair seems obvious. Her lover provides her with the emotional and sexual gratification her handsomely impotent husband cannot. But you wouldn’t notice it from Basinger’s wooden performance. After seeing her masterfully play characters like Gina in 8 Mile, it’s surprising to watch her struggle here.

In another tale, a high-end Portland restaurateur named Sylvia (Charlize Theron) has a long string of fleeting relationships with men, including one with one of her cooks (John Corbett) even with one of her customers.

When she’s not running her business or engaging in cold, loveless sex, she intentionally scratches, burns and cuts herself. She’s also being stalked by a Mexican man (José María Yazpik), who seems nicer to her than the men she’s actually seeing.

There’s also another affair involving Nick’s son (J.D. Pardo) and Gina’s daughter (Jennifer Lawrence), while a young girl (TessaIa) tries to cope after watching her father crash his crop-dusting plane.

All of these seemingly disparate stories are related, but Arriaga connects them more slowly than an alert viewer can on his or her own. As a result, the film’s conclusion seems anticlimactic.

In addition, the characters in Arriaga’s earlier movies were flawed, but there was just enough decency in them to make an audience care if they were able to resolve their difficulties. There’s a sense of karma running through the characters’ suffering in The Burning Plain, so it’s more difficult to care. Theron is typically solid as Sylvia, but the more we know about her, the less sympathetic she becomes.

The stories are set sometimes decades apart from each other, but each one plays as if it were contemporary. Because the hairstyles and vehicles stay the same regardless of the time, it becomes harder to buy into the tales.

At least Arriaga does demonstrate some visual poise. The film is elegantly shot by Oscar-winner Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and John Toll. Thanks to the occasionally striking landscape, there’s something to watch when the people aren’t that interesting.

It’s doubtful that González Iñárritu’s movies would have been made or would have been worthwhile without Arriaga’s pen. It’s sad to note that the two had an acrimonious parting after the making of Babel, so it was hard not to hope that Arriaga could keep maintain his previous quality.

Another capable director might have been able to make The Burning Plain reach its potential, but Arriaga seems to have been having an off day with this particular script. In some ways, The Burning Plain makes viewers appreciate Arriaga’s previous successes because it demonstrates that even he can’t make his expertly crafted stories happen automatically. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/26/09)


Amelia
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Seventy-two years after her disappearance during an attempt to fly around the world, we remember aviator Amelia Earhart not because of how she left this world, but because it was miraculous that she lived as long as she did.

When Earhart was breaking flying records in the 1920s and 30s (crossing the Atlantic first as a passenger and then later as a solo pilot), her achievements were remarkable because legions of others had tried to do what she did and went to early graves.

Aviation during the early 20th century wasn’t the routine experience it is now. The planes themselves were fragile, and radio contact with ground control was often elusive. As a result, it was easy to get lost or ram the plane into an obstacle.

The primary failing of the new biopic of Earhart’s life, Amelia, is that viewers rarely feel the danger Earhart faced every time she went up in the air. Characters calmly discuss the risks of flying, but only a couple scenes come close to making the peril seem real.

Amelia plays less like a movie and more like a timeline. The flying sequences are handsomely shot by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), but placid beauty is a poor substitute for adventure.

There are some thoroughly talented people involved with Amelia, but their efforts come for naught. As the title character, two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank seems curiously ill at ease in the role.

Through much of the film, Swank goes through the film speaking in a distracting drawl that makes her sound as if she were contractually obligated to sound like Katherine Hepburn. At times she seems as if she’s working to meet cues instead of give a performance. Her smiles seem programmed, and her exchanges with her leading men often seem weirdly one-sided.

To be fair to Swank, a good deal of her trouble rests with the rote material that Oscar-winner Ronald Bass (Rain Man) and Anna Hamilton Phelan have given her. Despite the annoyingly frequent use of Earhart’s own writing during the voiceover in the flight sequences, Bass and Phelan never get inside her head. The words are sometimes Earhart’s own, but they fit poorly with the images presented. Worse, when characters meet, they sound like they’re reciting their résumés instead of having believable conversations.

That’s a shame because Earhart’s personal life was as groundbreaking as her flying. She married her devoted publisher and promoter George P. Putnam (Richard Gere) but carried on an affair with fellow flier Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor). Earhart only agreed to marry the former by setting explicit conditions that she not be bound to a traditional relationship.

Even though the film centers on Earhart, it’s Putnam who emerges more clearly. Bass, Phelan and director Mira Nair (The Namesake) are apparently too constrained by Earhart’s legend to depict her as flesh-and-blood. With Putnam, who was the heir to the publishing company, the screenwriters appear to have more latitude, and Gere effortlessly captures his charm, his shaky ethics and his unswerving adoration for Earhart. Because we can see Putnam’s numerous flaws, it’s easy to identify with and believe him.

The mark of a good biopic is that it can give a viewer a more visceral depiction of a subject’s life than simply reading a Wikipedia entry. With Raging Bull, for example, Martin Scorsese makes us experience every punch Jake LaMotta receives and makes his reprehensible domestic behavior come to life.

With Amelia, Earhart’s inherently fascinating life is not whitewashed as much as it is drained of its passion and excitement. I’d rather listen to novelist Gore Vidal, who is Gene’s son, recount his time with Earhart than watch her unforgettable story reduced to the cinematic equivalent of an “infographic.” (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 10/23/09)


Where the Wild Things Are
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are has distinctive images and a captivating story. It’s also only about 10 sentences long, which may explain why it has taken so long for a movie to be made from it.

Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has made a commendable attempt at recapturing the book’s appeal on film. Sendak’s creatures have been brought back to live with both care and heart. The giant, fuzzy talking animals have vivid personalities to go with their stylish designs. Casting talented thespians like Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara and Chris Cooper as their voices certainly helps.

Jonze, who co-wrote the script with Dave Eggars (Away We Go), also creates believable and sympathetic people in the story as well. The film and the book’s hero Max (Max Records) is an imaginative lad who doesn’t have many playmates. He also has a tough time competing for the attention of his older sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and his caring but busy single mom (nicely played by Catherine Keener).

Max’s behavior gradually makes life difficult for his mother. The angry lad gets so out of line that mom sends him to bed without dinner. He then runs out of the house and discovers a small boat.

Feeling that he has burned his bridges with at home, Max sails away until he discovers an island inhabited by strange, talking critters who about twice the size of an adult human. These animals may be verbal, but they easily fit the definition of wild. The largest, an ogre named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), tears down the huts the others live in for no good reason. The others think the tiny Max is a potential delicacy.

Max quickly learns that his bluster, which was a liability back home, does wonders with the animals. They make him their king solely on the basis of his idle boasts (how many other 10-year-olds are veteran kings?). But Max soon has to take responsibility for his subjects, and that makes him miss and appreciate his mother all the more.

Jonze and Eggars may be working from a book that won a Caldecott Medal for the way it has pleased tots for decades. But the two deal with themes that adults wrestle with every day. The earthbound opening portions of the film are captivating, not because they are filled with cute whimsy, but because Jonze treats them as if they are real.

The casting is partly to thank for that. Young Records is an astonishingly gifted actor because he never looks like he’s performing. If he’s arguing with his mom or talking with monsters who would not have been visible during shooting, Records is always unaffected. His ease in front of the camera is as captivating as the special effects.

Sendak’s short tale has little room for monster psychology. All of them pretty much act as one. If they ever differed with each other or felt like dining on one of their peers, Sendak doesn’t say.

Jonze manages to set up some credible relationships and even gives the violent Carol a love jones. But as Max starts to get the creatures to do more constructive things, the film loses energy and drags. At times, it feels as if the audience is ahead of the movie and the characters are struggling in vain to get a clue. At an hour and 45 minutes, Where the Wild Things Are feels padded, and removing a few scenes where the monsters start whining would have helped the pacing.

That said, the film is also refreshingly risky. Sendak’s original story was dark, and Jones and Eggars wisely don’t soften the material. Very young children might be disturbed by some of the things the monsters do, but kids around Max’s age (10 or 11) or older should appreciate the craftsmanship that Jonze has put into the movie.

Thanks to Records and Jonze’s unerring sense of style (the soundtrack by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Carter Burwell is appropriately quirky), the film is admirable even if it isn’t untamed as it should be. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 10/16/09)


Law Abiding Citizen
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Law Abiding Citizen gets right to the point. Within the first five minutes we witness the brutal murder of Clyde Shelton’s wife and daughter. The filmmakers only give a glimpse, one scene, of the family’s happy life before the tragedy.

Suddenly, it’s ten years later, nearing the end of the trial of one of the men involved in the murders. The other criminal, the one who really committed the murders, has struck a deal to testify against his accomplice. So the real killer will get only five years in jail.

Clyde (Gerard Butler) enters the story once again. But he is no longer the clean-shaven, grinning inventor we met during the opening scene. His stubbly face now wears a sullen look. He’s the human face of suffering in a beige trench coat.

Prosecuting attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is Clyde’s opposite. He’s all smiles in his tailor-made suit, his haircut fresh, his face clean-shaven. Rice, it turns out, has a 96-percent conviction rate. Reading between the lines it’s clear that Rice maintains his conviction rate by making deals like the one he’s just struck with Darby (Christian Stolte), the killer Shelton’s family.

When the trial ends, Shelton is walking away from the courthouse and spots Rice shaking hands with Darby. After that, it’s on. Shelton runs amuck, systematically targeting everyone involved in the tragedy from Darby to the agents of the legal system. Shelton’s methods are brutal, bloody and unapologetic.

Law Abiding Citizen plays like an exponentially more violent, legal version of the 2002 movie John Q, in which Denzel Washington plays a distraught father whose son is dying of a curable heart ailment because he’s poor and health insurance won’t pay for the transplant. In that movie, John gets a gun, takes over the hospital’s emergency room, and holds the heart surgeon (and others) hostage.

Q was clearly a message movie, as is Law Abiding Citizen. As such, it was pretty hokey at times, way over the top at others, but it elicited cheers from audiences of average Joes who could empathize with John’s dilemma.

Likewise, Law Abiding Citizen will probably get the average Joes’ stamp of approval, even though its excesses are groan-worthy at times. But the two leads carry hunk-appeal for female viewers and macho points for male viewers. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/16/09)


Couples Retreat
Reviewed by Deborah Young

If the inmates are actors and the asylum is a movie project then leaving the inmates in charge might yield interesting (even highly entertaining) results. Case in point: Couples Retreat. The director (Peter Billingsley) and two of the movie’s three co-writers (Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, who also star in the movie) hail from the other side of the camera. And the third co-writer (Dana Fox) has a small acting role here.

Admittedly Couples Retreat retraces ground covered by other couples-in-crisis flicks. In fact, it could aptly be dubbed the Caucasian version of Tyler Perry’s 2007 film Why Did I Get Married?, which also featured dysfunctional couples on vacation together.

And yes, the typical cast of characters shows up. There’s the couple who got married too young (Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis as Joey and Lucy), the controlling husband (Jason Bateman as Jason) and his frustrated but silent wife (Kristen Bell as Cynthia), the mismatched old man/young woman (Faizon Love and Kali Hawk as Shane and Trudy) and the couple in a rut (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman as Dave and Ronnie).

There are some funny moments as the four couples wade through their problems at a lovely tropical resort. During one such moment, resort manager Stanley (Peter Serafinowicz) and one of the husbands (Vince Vaughn as Dave) face off for a Guitar Hero duel reminiscent of a gun battle in the old West. What Stanley doesn’t know is that Dave sells the game for a living and has become a master at it.

The movie’s counseling sessions also create some funny moments as the couples zap each other with one-liners and the counselors sting their patients with blunt observations about their broken marriages.

Likely many critics will say that the inmates (the actors in off-camera roles) took a wrecking ball to the asylum here. I disagree (at least in part). The makers of Couples Retreat created what viewers of this genre have come to expect: a movie with a few laughs and some funny (although not necessarily believable) characters. You watch, you laugh, the credits roll, you sigh about the unbearable lightness of most romantic comedy, and then you go home and forget about it. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/09/09)


The Boys Are Back
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Boys Are Back is about a guy with a dream job. But that occupation gets in the way of raising a pair of sons. Director Scott Hicks (Shine) and screenwriter Allan Cubitt (Prime Suspect), working from Simon Carr’s memoir, deserve credit for not immediately asking us to cry when their protagonist has misfortunes.

It’s actually hard to have much of a reaction to the story because Hicks’ rambling pacing and Cubitt’s routine approach to the story prevent The Boys Are Back from reaching its potential. For better or worse, they leave presenting the psychological toll of Joe’s loss and his growing obligations to leading man Clive Owen, who is more than up for the task.

Joe Warr (Owen) is a popular expatriate British sports writer who occasionally comes back to his new home in Australia to see his wife Katy (Laura Fraser) and his eccentric six-year-old son Arty (Nicholas McAnulty). As we hear throughout the film, Joe has a knack for taking boilerplate sporting situations and infusing them with enough wit and insight to make picking up a newspaper worthwhile, even if you’ve already seen the event in question yourself.

While he’s managed to make enough money to live in a nice house in his new country and afford to send his older son Henry (George MacKay), who lives with Joe’s first wife in England, to a private school.

Neither his wit nor his affection for his family can prepare him for what happens when Katy suddenly dies of cancer. If the grief over losing Katy weren’t overwhelming in itself, Joe, who has rarely spent any time in the house, has acquired no domestic skills (he treats tables and sinks as if they were storage devices and trash compactors).

He also has great difficulty dealing with Arty’s seemingly endless quirks. The lad’s aversion to bread crust or any sort of food Joe offers him makes getting him properly fed almost impossible. Worse, Joe takes an almost dangerously relaxed approach to playing with the lad. In one sequence, Joe casually drives by a beach. That looks innocent enough until the filmmakers reveal that Arty is hanging outside the vehicle.

What makes The Boys Are Back interesting is that Joe doesn’t become a master homemaker or a more capable father right away. From the details provided, you get a sense that Joe will live up to his responsibilities through gradual evolution. One hopes another ice age won’t come before his lads get proper parenting.

When the teenage Henry comes to live with his dad and his half-brother in Australia, Joe is forced to deal with not only another mouth to feed. He also has to wrestle with the guilt of his divorce and leaving his son behind. Neither Owen nor Hicks do much to make Joe likable.

This is actually a plus. His situation is compelling in itself, even if it is familiar. Presenting Joe’s foibles in an unflinching light actually makes the story more compelling because it’s harder to care for somebody who’s already got his act together.

Hicks and Cubitt err when they abandon this realistic approach. As Arty becomes more difficult to handle, Joe starts having conversations with Katy’s ghost. These scenes really don’t move the story anywhere and even take viewers out of the film. The point of the film is dealing with the absence of a loved one and having her pop up every 15 minutes undermines it.

The moody acoustic guitar music and the gorgeous photography of rural Australia are actually a bit distracting, too. While one look at the scenery indicates why Joe has chosen to live there, several glances make one wonder if the land should be spoiled by any more human activity, fictional or real.

After I watched the film, I Googled some of Carr’s writing and found it to be as focused as it was biting. If The Boys Are Back had these qualities, it might have done justice to its source material. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 10/09/09).


Zombieland
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Since I’m a huge horror and sci-fi geek, it would seem natural that the very idea of an undead-apocalypse comedy starring Woody Harrelson as a chain-saw toting zombie-killer would make me giggle like a little girl. Even the sobering thought: “It can’t be as good as Shawn of the Dead, can it?” didn’t smother my enthusiasm as I bring to this film my unbiased ever-accurate hypercritic abilities.

Then this film blew any doubt away like a zombie’s head getting smashed with a toilet seat.

Zombieland starts with a quick overview of a world now filled with zombies and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a loner who has survived by a combination of his own passive-aggressive OCD tendencies and a personal zombie-survival list with such advice as “Always wear seatbelts” and “Stay out of bathrooms.”

Soon Columbus meets Tallahassee (Harrelson), a somewhat psycho zombie-slayer, and the two set off on an unhappy (but hilarious) partnership. They then run into Wichita (Emma Stone), a con-girl and her young sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) — yes, all the characters get their names from the city they came from before the world ended. After the girls rip off the boys (twice), the four finally come to form as an extremely dysfunctional family of sorts, and head out to L.A. looking for a dubious “safe zone” that’s supposedly free of the walking dead.

It’s there that this film has absolutely the funniest cameo of all time! Even as I was watching it, I was thinking, you can’t be serious, they’re not really going to do this, are they? Then they did it. I’m going to have to see this film again just to catch what happened the next few minutes because everybody was laughing so hard you couldn’t even hear the film.

Add to that to the absolute glee that director Ruben Fleisher dives into the goriest of scenes, and you have one of the best horror-comedies ever. Zombies are shot, smashed, bashed, run over and even destroyed with carnival rides in brutal, wondrously bloody action scenes so over the top they seem like avant-garde artworks. The dialog here is simply hilarious, particularly between Columbus and Tallahassee, who are about as different as two characters can possibly be, and the actors themselves often seem on the verge of cracking each other up.

There are a few slow scenes in the middle of all this awesomeness, but then they gave me a chance to catch my breath and, frankly, stop giggling like a little girl. (R) Rating : 4.5 (Posted 10/2/09)


Capitalism: A Love Story
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While documentary director Michael Moore (Sicko) has made a lucrative career out of trashing the foibles of free enterprise, he uses part of the opening of his latest film explaining how there was once a lot to fall in love with in capitalism.

When Moore recalls how his father, who made sparkplugs for GM, earned benefits like long, paid vacations, it seems like either ancient history or a fairy tale. Believe it or not, Moore’s dad is in the film (he’s much thinner than his famously rotund son). Nonetheless, the shared prosperity his father and his bosses experienced during their working lives is now a distant dream.

Capitalism: A Love Story traces the current economic doldrums back to the Roman era. Moore cleverly cuts between an old Encyclopedia Britannica educational film about Pax Romana with contemporary footage. When the narrator drones about how people who lived on the margins of Rome had little hope of career or social advancement, Moore shows images of fast food workers toiling in drudgery.

He follows that montage with actual footage of a family being evicted. The director spends the rest of the film asking why borrowers like these are getting punished as bankers who’ve made countless bad loans are bailed out at taxpayer expense. In addition, Moore wonders why CEOs who’ve run their companies into the ground can become multimillionaires, particularly running airlines, but pilots are applying for food stamps.

As heinous as that sounds, Moore reveals that many large companies have taken out offensively named “dead peasant” life insurance policies. Such policies are nothing more than cruel bets that employees will die prematurely so that their employers can reap more generous returns. The earlier a worker dies, the richer the payout.

Whatever Adam Smith’s ideas have morphed into since Moore’s father retired, the filmmaker finds them immoral. Because of his blatantly pro-union sentiments, it’s tempting to assume that Moore gets his outrage by reading Karl Marx or Che Guevara. Believe it or not, Moore is actually going back farther than these guys.

Throughout the film, Moore cites Catholicism as his reason for thinking that greed isn’t good. He includes testimony from several priests who find the lopsided wealth distribution we have unfair and downright evil. To further illustrate his point, Moore includes scenes from Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. But he replaces Jesus’ actual remarks about the rich having a more difficult getting to heaven than a camel getting through the eye of a needle with a poorly dubbed voice speaking in warped free market platitudes. Moore’s capitalist Christ also ignores illnesses brought on pre-existing conditions.

At the same time, Moore occasionally gets in touch with his inner libertarian. It’s easy to wonder why the public is obligated to pay for the mistakes of bankers who flaunted sound business rules. The Byzantine complexity of credit default swaps, as Moore sees it, should have been a warning. The film includes some now unsettling commercials for the defunct Countrywide, which offered loans that were, by design, challenging to repay.

Most journalists are content to simply cover an issue. Moore instead uses last year’s breakdown as an excuse for comic stunts and some good old-fashioned grandstanding. The results vary from cleverly amusing and observant to mildly annoying. When Moore tears through Wall Street in an armored car attempting to collect the money that’s been loaned to big banks, it’s downright hilarious.

It’s not so funny to see him charge up unannounced to General Motors’ headquarters in Detroit. It’s doubtful that even in the company’s weakened state that the leadership at GM would listen to the director of the anti-GM documentary Roger and Me.

On second thought, maybe they should. Moore’s balance sheet is probably better than theirs at this point.

Moore does offer some suggestions to how labor and management can work together more effectively. He presents a pair of examples of two successful companies that are run democratically where the workers share the management responsibilities with their bosses. Both reap the rewards, and the customers appear to benefit as well because the people who make the product aren’t simple drones.

It might seem like a fantasy for the baker interviewed in the film to be making $60,000 a year and benefits, but Moore proves the idea is less fictitious than the ones that sank Lehman Brothers. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/02/09)


The Invention of Lying
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Whenever we hear a politician or a sales clerk promise something that simply can’t be done, it’s easy to wish we lived in a world without lies.

As writer-directors Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson demonstrate in The Invention of Lying, such a world isn’t necessarily ideal. Set in an alternate universe much like our own where no one has or is even able to tell a fib, the new film begins like an odd vision of hell.

It’s particularly infernal for a struggling screenwriter named Mark Bellison (Gervais). Because fiction is literally inconceivable in this environment, Mark can’t think of a way to make the 14th century and the Black Plague anything other than dreary. In this realm, movies consist solely of readers telling viewers the naked facts, so Mark is about to be fired because his assignment for Lecture Films is futile.

Mark gets no sympathy because compassion is as scarce as deception. People bluntly admit their hostilities without any thought of another’s feelings. When Mark goes on a first date with the attractive and successful Anna (a terrific Jennifer Garner), she flatly tells him that his pudgy build and dead career prevent her from every considering him as a mate. Conversations like these are the norm in Mark’s universe.

Her rejection and his dimming job prospects put him into a deep depression. When he discovers he doesn’t have enough money in the bank to pay his rent, Mark simply tells the clerk he does and receives the cash.

This is not a fluke. Mark gradually discovers that no matter how blatant the falsehood, any other person believes every word coming out of his mouth. When he tells his best friend Greg (Louis C.K.) outrageous fibs, his pal believes them even when they’re contradictory.

The Invention of Lying is based on a simple idea, but Gervais and Robinson come up with seemingly endless ways to maximize it. All of the buildings are bluntly named for what occurs in them, and people say goodbye by wishing never to see each other again. The cast, which features great cameos by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey and Edward Norton, wisely play all the absurd situations with an appropriate lack of irony. It’s not funny if they appear in on the joke.

In the television work that Gervais has either written or co-written (he co-created The Office), he has always played a smug buffoon, blithely stumbling through life unaware of the harm he’s causing. Gervais can play such roles in his sleep.

With The Invention of Lying, however, the actor demonstrates a range he hasn’t been asked to use before, so he easily adapts to playing a likable character for a change. It’s easy to go along with Mark’s ruses because he’s one of the few people in his world who feels empathy. While he initially enjoys getting bankers and casino owners to hand over unearned cash, he’s too soft hearted to use his gifts to hurt others.

Imagine the agony he feels when some simple whoppers he tells his dying mother turn into a full-fledged religion. Gervais and Robinson use this little plot point to raise all sorts of fascinating questions: Is it better to follow a mendacious faith if it keeps people from misery or evil? Is imagination itself only falsehood or a truth that others can’t see? Is honesty a vice if it isn’t accompanied by concern for others?

Gervais and Robinson manage to probe all of these ideas while coming up with 100 solid minutes of comic irrationality. The Invention of Lying easily exceeds its quota for honest laughs. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 10/02/09)


Whip It
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Based on a book written by real-life roller girl Shauna Cross, Whip It is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a film about the semi-revival of the all-female roller derby circuits.

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a lost and unmotivated 17 year old living in tiny Bodine, TX. Her life is dominated by her beauty pageant-loving mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden).

One day while shopping in nearby Austin, Bliss spies a flyer for roller derby, sneaks off with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) to see a bout and immediately becomes hooked. After a chance meeting with Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bliss tries out for the Hurl Scouts, learns to skate in a few minutes and adopts her own roller derby name, Babe Ruthless.

However, since mom only wants her daughter to compete in fancy gowns not on roller skates, Bliss has to hide her growing fame as her team, including Drew Barrymore as Smashley Simpson, who favors throwing punches rather than scoring points, finally starts winning their way to the top.

Speaking of points…there are at least two scenes where the movie politely tries to explain how the game of roller derby is played: Girls skate in circles, and then points pop up on a scoreboard.

I’m not sure if it’s because the filmmakers didn’t want to waste to much time explaining the rules or if the game just doesn’t really have any, but without understanding what is going on, the bouts have all the drama and suspense of a Harlem Globe Trotters’ performance.

In essence, Whip It is three standard Hollywood movies rolled into one: a coming-of-age story where a child must emerge from underneath an over-protective parent, a misunderstood fish-out-of-water who finally finds acceptance in an unlikely and quirky place, and an-underdog who finally gets a chance at doing something she loves; and if you’ve familiar with any one or all three, you can pretty easily guess how each gets resolved.

While Harden’s role as the mom is a quality performance, there was some really off-putting acting in this film. Jimmy Fallon, as the game’s announcer, is just annoying, and Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven, Bliss’s nemesis on the track, can barely get her lines out while looking like David Lee Roth.

This is Barrymore’s directorial debut, and while this screenplay is a good, safe bet, it’s perhaps a little too safe. The film is undeniably charming but it’s also completely predictable. The skate scenes are fun, and Ellen Page is always eminently watch-able. But in the end, this film mostly goes in a big circle. (PG-13)Rating: 2 (Posted 10/2/09)


Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at dkayyoung@hotmail.com.
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.
 

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