movie reviews October 2011

Puss in BootsThe Rum DiaryMargin CallThe Interrupters Johnny English Reborn Higher GroundThe ThingFootloose The Ides of MarchMachine Gun PreacherThe WayReal Steel

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

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Puss in Boots
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As the Shrek movies have progressed, the swashbuckling cartoon feline Puss in Boots (zestfully performed by Antonio Banderas) has consistently upstaged the lead ogre and his donkey sidekick. Banderas’ suave inflections and braggadocio are contrasted by the character’s tiny size. It’s almost as if Zorro (a character Banderas has ably played twice) is struggling to burst out of the cat’s body. He also runs into trouble because moving lights and hairballs can easily distract him from his daring feats.

If sheer ferocity doesn’t work, the little critter gives potential assailants a long glance with his enlarged eyes. His urchin face is so disarming that bad guys don’t see his foil coming their way.

It’s a given that any movie featuring the fencing feline is probably going to be more entertaining than the last two Shrek movies. Thanks to a more dynamic character and some gorgeous Spanish settings, Puss in Boots is a huge step up, even if the ogre and the donkey are nowhere to be found.

Puss starts his new adventure trying to stay a step ahead of the law. If that weren’t difficult enough, he’s also trying to find some elusive magic beans. These powerful frijoles can grow into a giant beanstalk, which leads to a gold filled castle.

He discovers that the seeds are in the hands of the skuzzy roving outlaws Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, who are a riot together). Complicating his quest is the fact that another cat, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) wants the beans, too.

Don’t let her name fool you. She’s as tough as the other gato, but because she’s been declawed, she can effortlessly pick pockets before her victims notice their stuff is gone. She’s also working with Puss’ former best friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). It seems the treacherous egg man knows the only place where the beans can be grown, so Puss has to join them in order to end his life as an outcast.

With the relentless action and the stylized Iberian backdrop, for once the 3D glasses are worth it. Chris Miller, who directed Shrek “the Third” and the hysterically funny Lea Press on Limbs short, has teamed with Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro to create sweeping vistas and nail-biting chases. Sonically, the film is also a treat, thanks to the nimble fingers of Mexican guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriela. Henry Jackman’s score owes a huge debt to the Spaghetti Western scores of Ennio Morricone, but to his credit, he knows how to make these themes fit effortlessly into the current offering.

The story mysteriously loses some momentum around the third act. Humpty Dumpty isn’t all that appealing (it’s easy to see why he and Puss parted ways), and the dialogue doesn’t have the same wit and finesse of the first two Shrek movies. With Banderas’ graceful delivery, it’s a shame that the lines don’t have the same finesses as the feline swordplay. Nonetheless, it’s nice to know that the scene-stealing cat is comfortable in the spotlight (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 10/28/11)

The Rum Diary
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

In the 2003 salon.com interview, Hunter S. Thompson relates a story how Johnny Depp, when visiting Thompson’s home in Colorado, and himself decided to buy a pair of 454 magnum revolvers. Whether Depp still has his gun is unknown. But with Thompson, one has to wonder that if the writer had been able to screen The Rum Diary (Thompson died in 2005 by suicide), would he have taken his magnum and emptied a few rounds into the screen.

Despite the homepage paid to Thompson in this film, which is based on an early novel by him, The Rum Diary is a confused mess lacking a great deal of the sardonic brilliance that could mark Thompson’s writing.

Depp plays Kemp, a journalist who has just arrived in Puerto Rico to take a job at the “San Juan Star.” Looking puffy-faced — maybe to add a realistic touch to the character’s lust for alcohol — we know little of Kemp other than he could be from New York, claims to be a novelist and was the only applicant for the job.

Kemp stepped into a newsroom populated by characters waiting for the hammer to fall, consequently there seems to be little newsgathering going on. It doesn’t really matter since most of the gringo reporters have little regard for the Puerto Ricans while the locals heartily return the favor.

Attempting to run the place is Lotterman, played by Richard Jenkins. His nemesis is Moburg, a Nazi-loving, liquor-loving nutcase played so well by Giovanni Ribisi it’s as if he spent a month living under bridges and eating from dumpsters as research. Moburg, supposedly on the crime beat, only shows up at the newspaper on payday, which causes Lotterman to go ballistic. Kemp’s mentor in all this is the newspaper’s photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), also a drunk, though not as bad as Moburg.

For a while Kemp attempts to be a journalist, something Lotterman has no interest in nurturing. An oily gringo capitalist named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) eventually recruits Kemp as a PR writing specialist to help push a plan for developing a nearby island once the U.S. military stops using it as a practice bombing site. Sanderson has a beautiful girlfriend, Chenault, played by Amber Heard, who, unsurprisingly, catches the eye of Kemp.

Nothing is really spelled out in how the plan for developing the island will work, but it doesn’t matter. Kemp’s chaste pursuit of Chenault, which one night leads to Chenault getting gang raped — though we’re not really sure of that — has Sanderson nixing the deal and declaring Kemp an enemy, one in danger of disappearing into the blue waters of the Caribbean.

Throughout all this is the usual Thompson-trademark mayhem — heavy drinking, drug-taking, running from pissed-off people, pissing off the cops, getting arrested and going to jail … and always, it seems, fighting hangovers. Interesting, there’s no real gunplay though Kemp does learn to be a fire breathing drunk with the help of Moburg’s special brew.

On paper all this probably sounded like great satirical fun. Under the direction of Bruce Robinson — who is also credited with the screenplay — the only reason to watch this film is out of respect of the actors because most of them really try to make The Rum Diary succeed. Jenkins, Rispoli and especially Ribisi put a lot into their characters. Depp, besides some close-camera mugging, never makes much of an effort to carry this film beyond its chaotic presentation.

The ending is particularly lame. Chenault splits back to New York, the newspaper has folded, Moburg seems now able to speak coherent sentences and Sala continues to whine about not having a car. And into the sunset floats Kemp, stealing Sanderson’s boat as revenge and in the hope of again meeting up with Chenault.

On the plus side, the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski is stunning, as is the period setting in clothes, cars and overall island feel of the early 1960s. But it’s not enough, even with Johnny Depp. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 10/28/11)

Margin Call
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Given the fact that the collapse and bailout of the housing market openly revealed both the culture of corruption that passes for a "free market" and the utter failure of politicians to prove they are anything but big-bank bitches, you would think Hollywood would jump at the chance to dramatize such an important event.

Well, while writer/director J.C. Chandor does attempt to explain how the collapse happened — sort of  — his small budget-big movie star film Margin Call is more infuriating for its "nobody's fault" tone than the events it depicts.

Covering a 24-hour period at an unnamed investment bank, we start with Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) being laid off in a most inglorious manor. As he leaves, he turns over a computer file to young Peter (Zachary Quinto) with a simple phrase- "Be careful." The reason for that statement quickly becomes apparent as Peter stays late finishing the file. Soon, in terms even the filmmaker doesn't seem to understand, Peter explains to his boss Will (Paul Bettany, not killing vampires for a change), who calls his boss Jared (Simon Baker), that basically all their investments are worthless. I don't really know any other way to explain it: There are several references to "the formula,” the system that they use to make millions trading mortgages back and forth, but I doubt a dozen economists could explain what the hell their talking about.

As the night progresses and ever-higher up people arrive, the decision is finally made: Sell off everything as fast as possible, saving the company by destroying the careers of their own traders. Opposing this is Sam (Kevin Spacey), who stands as a somewhat sympathetic figure here, although even he in the end chooses his bank account over his morality.

Well made, with a stellar cast, great dialog and impeccable timing, Margin Call has just one problem: It feels more like a big-business propaganda piece than an indictment. Even if you accept the attitude here that nobody was really at fault (and if you believe that, I have some great mortgages I can sell you), that still doesn't change the fact that the entire company committed fraud to get out of the hole they had themselves created.

Not once here is there a single mention of the damage this and other big banks have done to this country with their snake-oil tactics and endless greed. Soldiers overseas who lost their homes while they fought for us, family's destroyed by debt, people who committed suicide when they saw no other way out ... well, according to this movie, they just shouldn't have listened to the financial advisers that told them they could afford a home. Pathetic.

Someday, maybe somebody will make a film that actually points out that all these people — expensive suits and all — are very possibly the biggest criminals in the history of America, but all Margin Call does is shrug and say, "Gee, sorry about destroying the economy guys! Oh, well, what can you do?" That's one margin that this film misses by miles. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 10/28/11)

The Interrupters
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If poverty and crime are unavoidable, there are signs that homicide and violence aren’t. That’s the idea behind a Chicago organization called CeaseFire, who go into bad neighborhoods and try to stop residents from shooting each other.

If the idea sounds naïve and overly optimistic, the new documentary The Interrupters indicates that some of the techniques that we’ve used to fight violent crime might need to be reexamined. Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin has likened the transmission of violence to the transmission of disease. In his theory, the idea is to address grievances that lead to shootings before someone gets hurt or killed.

To keep tempers from reaching the boiling point, CeaseFire has a group of interrupters who go to crime scenes or potential crimes scenes in order to prevent someone from searching for a Second Amendment solution.

Expectedly, this is not an easy task, and it takes a certain kind of individual to pull off these sort of mediations. The film focuses on three astonishingly effective interrupters. The one thing they have in common is that they’ve all done hard time before they devoted their lives to preventing murders. In fact, some of the people they talk down from the ledge would probably only talk to them if they had been to prison.

Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra and Ameena Matthews are three fascinating people in that their present lives bear little resemblances to their criminal pasts. Bocanegra and Williams have changed dramatically since their outlaw days, and the former now looks more like an art teacher than someone who did 14 years for murder.

Matthews’ path is especially intriguing. She is the daughter of former Chicago crime lord Jeff Fort, and became a gang leader herself. Now a devout Muslim, she now uses her commanding presence and silver tongue to keep a new generation from living the life she used to. When a backsliding pupil says that she’s simply doing “shit,” Matthews warns, “I don’t abide by shit. I flush shit down.”

Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and long form journalist Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) follow these three for a year and cover the trio’s successes and struggles. Right when the task looks easy, Matthews has to stop an angry relative from going after the man who assaulted her brother. The sister has a butcher knife at one point and a concrete block during the other. It’s remarkable that Matthews manages to prevent a melee. At other times, we can see when things don’t go right.

James gets to know his subjects intimately, and he and Kotlowitz coax astonishingly frank and thoughtful comments from the three. While their efforts are heroic, it’s great that James has resisted the urge to put halos on their heads. It’s downright gut busting to see the intelligent, commanding Matthews locking herself out of her car. She may be able to convince gangs of large, angry men from rumbling, but she can make the same blunders we do.

James and Kotlowitz are unsparing in their depiction of how rough life in Chicago’s mean streets can get. Nonetheless, they also have a deep compassion for the people they follow. Individuals a viewer might be tempted to write off as losers go through dramatic transformations during the course of the film. The two would not have captured these moments if they hadn’t have followed their subjects so closely and for so long.

One might wonder if merely stopping violence does nothing to stop the other evils facing the neighborhoods that CeaseFire patrols. The Interrupters proves simply doing that is a major accomplishment. People can’t leave lives of crime if they’re in jail or dead. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 10/21/11)

 

Johnny English Reborn
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

On TV, British comic Rowan Atkinson is a riot. If he’s being an annoying jerk in Blackadder or a delightfully infantile imp on Mr. Bean, Atkinson’s voice and body can contort themselves into bizarre forms that mock the laws of physics. In 20 to 30-minute doses, Atkinson is a complete delight.

In a feature film, however, Atkinson can get old quickly. While he certainly has the talent to hold a feature, the filmmakers he teams up with can’t seem to come up with 90 minutes worth of silliness to keep him busy.

In Johnny English Reborn, he’s paired with Oliver Parker, who normally does literary adaptations such as An Ideal Husband and Othello. Neither Parker nor screenwriter Hamish McColl (Mr. Bean’s Vacation) come up with much in the way of quality insanity to make this sequel to 2003’s Johnny English worthy of Atkinson. To be fair, it’s a shade better than the dreary movie that preceded it.

The title character (Atkinson) is an MI-7 agent whose courage is undone by his smugness and complacency: two traits that are not conducive to spycraft. Essentially, he’s a far less successful version of James Bond.

After bungling a revolution in Mozambique, Johnny is called back into duty because a shadowy organization known as Vortex has been hired to kill China’s premier. To prevent the plot from succeeding, Johnny and his new, smarter partner Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya) head to Hong Kong to stop the three members of Vortex from meeting.

Needless to say, Johnny creates as much trouble as he solves. One wonders why his impatient boss (Gillian Anderson) sent him on the job instead of his slicker co-worker Simon Ambrose (Dominic West). About the only person who believes that Johnny is up to the task is a psychologist (former Bond Girl Rosamund Pike), who seems to find the short, wiry Johnny something of a hunk.

All of this sets up excuses for Atkinson to trip, fall and put his foot in his mouth. McColl’s script is noticeably short on bon mots, which are necessary when Atkinson has to speak in more than the grunts he uses on Mr. Bean.

That said, because the 56-year-old Atkinson is no longer a youngster, the most entertaining sequence is when he hast to frantically chase a much younger and more agile assassin in Hong Kong. In corner after corner, he has to find less strenuous ways of catching up to his more nimble foe. When Atkinson isn’t pratfalling his way through two continents, Johnny English Reborn drags. McColl’s story is fairly routine so much of the film is spent waiting for Atkinson to stumble over some new obstacle. If the exposition is handled properly, viewers shouldn’t have to wait for the fun.

Parodies of 007 are almost as old as Bond himself, so it takes something special to make the satire feel fresh. Atkinson certainly gives it his all. It’s too bad the people around him haven’t. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 10/21/11)

Higher Ground
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Most movies about religion seem to fall into two categories. The first is made as a sales pitch for a particular faith or a warning about the perils of unbelief. The second is a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of believers. After a while, it gets tiresome to hear blanket praise or condemnation.

What makes some of the newer films I’ve seen on the subject interesting is that many look at faith issues from a richer or more intriguing perspective. With Machine Gun Preacher, Sam Childers’ life (as played by Gerard Butler) actually becomes more frustrating and complicated after he accepts Jesus, and he frequently experiences doubts about the calling for which he has given his life. Similarly, The Way indicates that miracles can occur but not in the way we mortals might expect them, and that most significant moments in our lives can be the smallest ones.

Actress Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World, and it helps viewers understand how people can become disillusioned with their involvement with tightly bound sects. What makes Higher Ground fascinating is that it also shows how communities like the one Biggs belonged to can also be appealing.

Corinne (played by Farmiga as an adult and by her sister Taissa as a teen) watches her parents (John Hawkes and Donna Murphy) as their marriage collapses after a miscarriage. She herself marries a struggling musician named Ethan (Joshua Leonard as an adult, Boyd Holbrook as a teen) she’s been writing songs with after they discover that some of the ways they’ve been harmonizing lead to pregnancies.

When their daughter survives an incident that should have killed her, Corinne and Ethan become involved with a Christian Church that rarely interacts with outsiders. Throughout Higher Ground, Corinne encounters almost no one who doesn’t share her and Ethan’s faith.

This isolation results in moments that seem alarming or hysterically funny to non-Christians, or even to the legions of Christians who interpret the Bible differently than these folks do. For one thing, although men and women in this community have strict and distinct rules to follow regarding sex, that doesn’t stop them from thinking about it often and in bizarre ways.

The men listen to a male voice informing them how to satisfy their wives in the most sensual and presumably holy manner. It’s too bad the actor heard on the tape isn’t eligible for an Oscar nomination. It’s impossible to keep a straight face as he recites the names of lady parts as if he were teaching English as a second language. The women, in turn, draw pictures of their husbands’ manhood.

At the same time, Corinne marvels at how her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) can spontaneously break into speaking tongues and sounds as if her body has been taken over by an angel. Their lives can, in other situations, seem stifling. An older woman in the church scolds Corinne for wearing a dress that arouses a man after the gentleman compliments it. The garment in question covers most of her body. She also chews out Corinne for speaking too much in church. That’s a man’s job.

Briggs co-wrote the script with Tim Metcalfe so Higher Ground often feels episodic, and characters abruptly leave never to return. As a result, the film is often tricky to follow. There’s only a vague sense of when the story takes place and how long a period Higher Ground covers.

Fortunately, Farmiga compensates for the narrative speed bumps by practically immersing viewers into Corinne’s world. The clothes and even the smallest objects in rooms mean something. When strangers do venture in, they can seem charming and polite, but their lack of faith in God is sometimes reflected in the treacherous way they behave toward her and others. While Corinne is physically and economically safe, outsiders will have to bend over backward to earn her trust.

Farmiga earned on Oscar nod for Up in the Air and should have won a little gold man for her work in Down to the Bone. The quality of her own work is therefore a given. What is astonishing is that she has a great eye for talented, but unfamiliar performers and an ability to get the most out of them. She also paints even the most buffoonish believers in a sympathetic light. Don’t be surprised if anybody here starts landing work elsewhere.

In the end, Biggs and Farmiga present neither faith nor doubt as the answer. Perhaps the Almighty wants us to keep guessing. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/14/11)

 

The Thing
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Since there are few films with such an impressive cult following as John Carpenter's The Thing, news that a "prequel" was in the works was met with a collective roar of geek outrage. For those not of this planet, Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing was itself a remake of 1951’s The Thing from another World. All are based on a John W. Campbell Jr. short story titled “Who Goes There.”

The core idea is as simple as it is chilling: A small group of people, working at a remote base in Antarctica (the ‘50s version placed the base in the Arctic) find what appears to be a crashed spaceship under the ice, and frozen remains of a creature inside it. Thinking they've made the discovery of a lifetime, the bring the "thing" back only to find out that is both alive, and extremely hostile not to just them, but possibly the entire human race — if it ever makes it to mainland.

The ‘50s version made the creature a humanoid vegetable, immensely strong and unstoppable. But Carpenter went back to the original story and made the alien an intelligent virus capable of infecting and replicating humans. The result, a taunt psychological thriller combined with fantastically unnerving and gory animatronic effects, became a cult standard against which other sci-fi/horror films would be forever measured (and often found wanting...).

While fans argued that if they were going to screw with the original, they should just do a remake, or better yet a sequel, pretty much nobody wanted a prequel ... and man, we're we all wrong.

Simple in concept and almost fanatically faithful to Carpenter's classic, The Thing hinges on an important plot point in the original: The Americans, after apparently being attacked by some Norwegians from a nearby base, travel there only to discover a ruined camp, the body of a man frozen in a chair after slitting his own wrists, and a burned, monstrous two-faced creature. The filmmakers here ran with a simple idea: What exactly happened at the Norwegian camp and who actually found the monster first?

The sheer feel of this film is so close to the original that, other than the mostly now CGI monsters, both would seem to have been made back-to-back. The music is the same, the look and feel of the camps, the ensemble-type cast, the growing feeling of paranoia all match perfectly — hell, even the font for the titles are the frickin' same. If anything, the prequel at times almost matches Carpenter's film a little too closely in some scenes, but that's hardly a complaint.

I'm not going to get much into the plot here other than to note that yes, there are several Americans present so the whole film isn't in subtitles, most notably a scientist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a pilot (Joel Edgerton). The block of ice with the Thing inside is brought back, and you can guess from there.

For the geeks out there, let me answer a few quick questions. Does it try and match the base found in the beginning of the original movie, scene by scene? Yes, and in a sequence far different and effective than I thought possible. Are the CGI effects weaker than the animatronics? Yes, but so slightly you won't really notice. Does it end with the helicopter chasing the dog? Geez, you really are greedy, aren't you?

I have only one complaint and that's Winstead's performance. Maybe it's just a case of miscasting, but her bland, doe-eyed face just doesn't work as a hero/scientist type. Also, there is one obvious change from the events of the first movie, but it's done to give help to an ending that is original while also matching the other film (Don't jump up to leave after the credits start — there's more, and it ends exactly where it should).

Faithful to a highly regarded geek classic, fun, chilling and original in it's own right, The Thing is the best film I've ever seen based off an idea I absolutely hated. Well done, sirs, well done. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/14/11)

Footloose (2011)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Any remake of the 1984 hit Footloose is unnecessary.

While the film is fondly remembered by those who are courageous enough to admit they were teenagers nearly 30 years ago, the original isn’t that great. It had dull, derivative plot, but was somewhat redeemed by its ubiquitous soundtrack (it was practically sold with cassette decks back then) and a classy, nuanced performance by John Lithgow as the preacher who didn’t want his small town to dance.

While there are some fans that are understandably annoyed at seeing one of their fondest childhood memories desecrated, the makers of Footloose 2.0 can be faulted for actually sticking too closely to the original. Writer-director Craig Brewer copies entire sequences from the first movie, almost shot-for-shot.

Fortunately, the Virginia-born filmmaker makes one noticeable change that gives the film more character and vitality. The original movie was inspired by an incident in Oklahoma but was shot in Utah. Brewer moves it from a sort of Midwestern-ish locale to Georgia.

Having become something of a specialist in Southern Gothic with his previous movies Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, Brewer has a clearer, more authentic feeling for place and a better ear for dialogue. The soundtrack, while it includes new versions of the original ‘80s songs, has a twangier feel, and the lyrics to the title song can finally be understood. It’s almost, but not quite enough to make viewers forget it’s been done before.

In the role that made Kevin Bacon a trivia god, Kenny Wormald plays Ren MacCormack, a teenager who doesn’t look a day over 26 (neither did Bacon). The lad is forced to move to Bomont, GA, a town barely over 1,000 people, after his mother’s untimely death. His aunt and uncle (Kim Dickens and Ray McKinnon) treat Ren with genuine Southern hospitality.

The rest of the town, however, doesn’t think much of the former Bostonian. Ren’s fondness for hoofing and loud music gets him in trouble with the town’s leaders, particularly the influential pastor Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid). The reverent pushed through a law that banned big outdoor dances because his son died after dancing, drinking and driving. Apparently banning the other two Ds is impossible, so Ren has to keep his itchy feet to himself.

Rev. Moore also notices that his teenage daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough) making eyes at Ren and figures the young carpetbagger might lead her astray.

He needn’t worry about the Yankee.

She’s already getting into trouble with Chuck Cranston (Patrick John Flueger), the son of the local dirt track owner and a wannabe racer. The lad also likes intoxicants, chasing other women and using his lovers as punching bags. Needless to say, the otherwise clean cut Ren would make a significant improvement. The new kid also knows that dancing can lead to salvation instead of ruin.

While the original Footloose may have been made in the ‘80s, the new film is still effective because its premise isn’t dated. In January, a Democratic Assemblywoman from California named Fiona Ma tried to push through legislation that banned events that featured pre-recorded music and lasted more than three and a half hours. Written in reaction to the ecstasy-related death of a 15-year-old girl at the Electric Daisy Carnival rave, the law ran afoul of the Constitution and commonsense. Perhaps busting the dealer who sold the young woman dope might have been more effective and, oh, legal.

Because well-meaning adults still think separating kids from dancing will keep them away from drugs or sex, neither Lithgow’s nor Quaid’s pastor seem like raving fanatics. The latter’s easy charm almost makes his misguided ideas seem appealing.

On second thought, maybe Footloose remakes are essential. As the California case illustrates, curbing our rights does nothing to cure the wrongs of this world. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/13/11)

The Ides of March
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead


Given the current “occupy” protests on Wall Street and across the country, a film about the inherent corruption of today’s politics would seem to be a no-brainer. While director/actor George Clooney's latest film Ides of March is far more than a Glengarry Glen Ross with campaigners instead of salesmen, it still manages to capture some of the cynicism inherent in the system today, and backs that up with some remarkable performances from all involved.

Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is an up-and-coming staffer for Governor Morris (George Clooney) who is locked in a dead-even struggle to win Ohio, and the Democratic presidential nomination. Mentored by a savvy and war-weary campaign leader Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Stephen quickly jumps on board his "win at all costs" mentality, while also jumping into bed with a twenty-something intern with a big surprise. Meanwhile, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who runs the opposing campaign gives Stephen an offer to jump ship and side with him. As Stephen struggles to keep up with the ever convoluted turns from both sides that threaten to destroy his career, a choice bit of information about an undiscovered scandal gives him a sudden opportunity: Use it for some rather ugly leverage or stay quiet and lose everything.

While the "scandal" here is rather laughably passé, the visual narrative presented by Clooney, showing bleakly how the system takes good men and grinds them down into soulless, paranoid egotists, is perfect. You can't help but root for Stephen as each twist leaves him with fewer and fewer choices only to realize at the end that he has achieved the essence of a Pyrrhic victory.

Without a doubt Clooney has proven he can mesh large A-list casts, getting the best out of each actor— himself included. The Sorkinesqe dialog snaps in each scene, and Gosling continues to prove he is one of the best new actors in film.

While it is a shame the filmmakers here missed out on a chance to really delve into the hopeless and heartless (and very, very greedy) soul of current American politics that hardly keeps this from being a great film. It could be because it's based on a play that does seem somewhat dated, but I can forgive that. Wish I could say the same thing about our real politicians. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/07/11)

Machine Gun Preacher
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger


Sam Childers is such a complicated guy that his life would probably work better as a miniseries than a movie. In his 50 years, he’s been a criminal, a biker, a father, a husband, a drug abuser, a pastor, a building contractor, a foreign relief worker and the founder of a successful orphanage. That’s a lot to stuff into two hours.

Machine Gun Preacher covers a good deal of Childers’ adult life, so the abrupt switches in tone and direction are to be expected, even if they threaten to derail the film. At least the producers were wise enough to cast Scotsman Gerard Butler in the title role.

The burly actor can pull of the intriguing hat trick of coming off as both a blue-collar, regular guy and a natural leader. He can make Sam’s shifts from sinfulness to salvation credible. Considering the extremes depicted in the film, that flexibility comes in handy.

Machine Gun Preacher starts with Sam getting out of prison and all too eager to repeat the actions that put him into the big house. When one of his first stops is to get a shot of smack, it’s a safe bet he’ll return to incarceration.

Thanks to the influence of his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), Sam begins to see the error and futility of his ways and abandons the syringe for Jesus. Considering his long rap sheet and hard living, it’s an adjustment, but the change quickly becomes noticeable. He makes his cash building houses instead of stealing others’ dope stashes. He also wants to start a church that will accept people who had sunk as low as he had.

This winds up leading him to Uganda and southern Sudan where he builds an orphanage that helps children who’ve lost their families to the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group that employs child soldiers and makes life miserable for its enemies. Sam is as eager to help the children outside of Kampala as he used to be for injecting heroin.

This might have been easier if Sam hadn’t set up an active church back home or could live with ignoring his teenage daughter (Madeline Carroll) and struggling best friend (the eternally glum Michael Shannon). Screenwriter Jason Keller and director Marc Forster shift gears like a Harley with a ruined transmission. Machine Gun Preacher appears to end simply because the film has reached the two hour mark.

Forster has made both action flicks (Quantum of Solace) and gritty dramas (Monster’s Ball), so he can be forgiven if he can’t quite make up his mind on which Machine Gun Preacher is. At times, Sam blasts his way at the LRA as if he were John Wayne charging at Comanches, and in other instances, we see him as a fellow whose faith may be leading him down the same dark path as his enemies. Occasionally, this ambivalence give Machine Gun Preacher more dramatic weight than it might have had ordinarily because people who’ve gone through spiritual journeys like Sam’s don’t have neat, tidy lives simply because they’ve made peace with the Almighty. As the examples of Doubting Thomas, St. Peter and the prophet Jonah prove, even the most devout have moments of uncertainty. It’s also tough to have a crisis of faith with hundreds of orphans and a heavily indebted church back in the States need attention.

Ivorian actor Souléymane Sy Savané, who starred in the terrific Goodbye Solo, is stuck in a rather thankless role as a Sudanese rebel who guides Sam. Savané is a performer of considerable charm, so it’s a shame to see him reduced to being a sort of African Tonto to Sam’s Lone Ranger. With more vivid African characters, Sam’s efforts to help them would seem even more involving. While the orphans certainly need help, it might have been instructive to learn more than a few sound bites about the situation that led to bands of marauding child soldiers.

At least Forster and company deserve some credit for trying to examine faith issues in a manner that’s more thoughtful and urgent than a stale, simplistic sermon. Both Sam Childers and the people watching his story certainly deserve more than that. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/07/11)

 

The Way
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger


The Way
is a rare movie in that it deals with religion and family issues without playing like a sermon or a satire. Writer-director Emilio Estevez (who once starred in movies such as The Breakfast Club and Repo Man) manages to find the right balance between earnestness and restraint. He’s dead set on moving viewers to tears or filling them with awe. Thankfully, he also knows he’s going to have to earn that sort of reaction.

It helps that he’s chosen a terrific setting, the north of Spain, and that he’s given his father Martin Sheen one of his juicier roles in recent memory. The Way concerns a California ophthalmologist named Tom (Sheen), who has made a comfortable existence for himself but has alienated his only son, Daniel (Estevez).

While Tom seems content to simply treat patients and have banal discussions with his peers over golf, Daniel is determined to see the world beyond the Golden State. At times, Tom is almost glad that he rarely hears from his son.

That changes when Daniel dies in a storm trekking through the Pyrenees. Tom flies to the western border of France and discovers that his son was attempting to follow a nearly one thousand year old pilgrimage called Camino de Santiago or “the way of St. James.” Because Daniel’s gear is still there, Tom, a lapsed Catholic, decides to finish where his son started in the hope of connecting with him in a way he couldn’t when Daniel was alive.

While the 60-something Tom might be up for the physical challenge of the six-week journey to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, he slowly has to learn how to deal with people as something more than patients.

Wherever he goes, he’s accompanied by a randy Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen). The Dutchman isn’t terribly preoccupied with the significance of the Camino. He’s simply hoping to loose some weight even those the cuisine the pilgrims sample is too delicious to eat in moderation.

Also along for the long walk is a cynical Canadian woman named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) who seems to resent Tom’s comfortable but stale lifestyle and a burned out Irish writer named Jack (James Nesbitt). Out of necessity and out of a previously unrealized desire to see beyond the bubble he’s lived under all his life, Tom gradually starts connecting with his fellow pilgrims.

While The Way is a deeply personal film for both Sheen and Estevez (Sheen’s father grew up in a town near Santiago), it’s thankfully anything but a vanity project. The Spanish landscape is rugged but beautiful, and the sequences inside the Cathedral do merit being seen on the big screen.

In addition, since his last theatrical directing effort Bobby, Estevez has developed a sharper eye for character. His pilgrims feel more like real people, and he gives them credible problems and aspirations. It’s a testament to Estevez’s growing maturity that he can have two characters in the film frankly discuss an abortion without having the scene become maudlin or demeaning.

Having decent performers was a good first step. Sheen gets to dig through emotions he hasn’t been called on to play in some time, and van Wageningen and Nesbitt are funny without being broad or buffoonish.

Another refreshing touch is that while Estevez plays Daniel’s ghost through much of the film, he resists the urge to have the specter tell Tom what he’s supposed to learn from the journey. Similarly, he lets viewers reach their own conclusion about what the quest means. There’d be no point in taking a six-week walk across Spain if the answers were that easy. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/07/11)

Real Steel
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead


Since this movie first started popping up here and there on film-geek websites titled "Rock-em Sock-em Robots-The Movie,” nobody really expected much even if it would get made considering film studios have a habit of buying up project ideas just to keep anyone else from using them.

But then the first photos went up, showing a shadowy robot in a giant boxing ring next to ... Hugh Jackman? Really, they got Wolverine to be in this ... questionable script? How can you turn a game about plastic robots hitting each other, combine it with a huge action star and come up with anything watchable?

Well, it turns out that answer is actually pretty simple: Make a kid's movie and advertise it as an action film. First of all, don't worry: Jackman is not the main character. That honor goes to Dakota Goyo, a child-actor who plays Jackman's estranged son, Max.

We start with Max's absentee father, Charlie (Jackman), an ex-boxer whose attempts at "robot fighting" always end in disaster, mostly because he's an idiot (in one of the best scenes here, Max actually says exactly what the audience was thinking concerning those fights, to my delight). Enter Max, whose mom has just died for some reason. Stuck with Max for the summer until his rich aunt takes the boy in, the man and boy bond as their new robot, a once-scrapped fighter named Atom, begins to win its way up to a big title fight.

As per any script aimed at and written by twelve-year old boys, Max is smarter than all the adults around him. The robots are more cartoonish than anything, the rules make no sense, Max has the perfect quip for every moment, and of course his dad is Hugh Jackman. After a while I just gave up trying to keep track of all the kid-movie moments sprinkled with Rocky clichés even if the main villains are a Russian woman and an Asian emo-guy.

Of course, let us get to the most important thing about a fighting robot move: fighting robot battles. There's a good half dozen or so, and they're okay. Very, very predictable but okay. Atom's "shadow function,” where he mimics the movement of Max or Charlie, is used both for laughs and action, although it does make one think if it's so great why don't any of the other robots ... you know — the best thing you can do here is just NOT think. There are more holes in this plot than a golf course, the main actor is a kid (Goyo tries, but my argument that virtually no child can be good lead actor is not disproved here), and the script is a Frankenstein's jigsaw of plot points ripped off from any other movie unfortunate enough to have wandered too close.

Really, this is a movie for dads to take their sons to, eat some popcorn on a Sunday afternoon, while the boy secretly dreams of what he would do with his own robot, and dad quietly contemplates that it is unlikely he will ever have Jackman's abs. Otherwise, this movie goes down in the first round. (PG 13) Rating: 1 (Posted 10/07/11)

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


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