movie reviews October 2012

Frankenweeniev/h/sThe perks of being a wallflower the orangesTaken 2Argosearching for sugar manHere comes the boomSeven psychopathssinisterAlex crossHarry & Tom: The Boss and the PresidentLiberal artsCloud atlasFun sizechasing mavericks

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Chasing Mavericks
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

It’s sometimes tricky for a filmmaker to take on a project immersed in a subject few of the film’s potential moviegoers engage in or even know much about. This is particularly true if the subject deals with an extreme sport that’s geographical specific. Where a film encompassing skiing or snowboarding as a story center may be familiar to most regardless of where they live, surfing seems uniquely California even if surfers chase waves all over the world.

Chasing Mavericks is about surfing, specifically one surfer and the impact he had on others. There’s no how-to do it in the film, or even much of an overt explanation as to why some people become captivated with riding an ocean wave, and want to do it over and over again.

Based on a true story, Jonny Weston plays Jay Moriarity, a surfer from Santa Cruz who at 16 made the cover of Surfer magazine when he rode Mavericks, one of the biggest waves on Earth, in Half Moon Bay in California.

Fascinated with the power and beauty of the Pacific, young Jay is rescued from drowning by local surfing legend Frosty Hesson. Played by Gerard Butler, Frosty is moody and distant to most yet thoroughly in love with his understanding wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer). What Brenda knows is that surfing to Frosty is the escape from childhood pain.

As Frosty watches from a distance while Jay grows older and gains in skill and poise as a surfer, he begins seeing himself within the teen — with the help of Brenda. Where Frosty wears his darkness openly, Jay is forever smiling and positive even as he deals with and takes on the role of a parent to his alcoholic mom Kristy (Elisabeth Shue). Within the restlessness of Frosty and beneath the outward cheeriness of Jay, both the man and the teen share the loss of having been abandoned by their fathers. Their growing closeness takes some of that pain away.

Chasing Mavericks presents the unfolding of emotions and the discovery of fear in both Frosty and Jay. For Frosty, it’s the acknowledgment that he is a father, afraid he will run like his father did, and for Jay it’s accepting the fear that he may never see his father again. Riding the Mavericks carries both characters into themselves and each other with change and tragedy as companions.

With cinematography by Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope, Chasing Mavericks is spectacularly filmed, visually reinforcing the awe one can experience along the California coast as Nature expresses herself while surfers seek to dip into and abandon themselves to the ocean’s spirituality not understood.

But it’s primarily a human story of love and loss, a universal one, presented against an immense backdrop of natural beauty oblivious to comings and goings of mere mortals. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/27/12)


Fun Size
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Films dealing with the trials, foibles and supposed triumphs of teens usually fall somewhere within the range of horrible to tolerable. The exceptions were films done by John Hughes, notably The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink. Under Hughes’ direction, his actors gave weight to already plausible storylines, enhancing the film with a genuineness associated with really knowing the stumbling confusion and crazy exhilaration that can push the young to adulthood.

Fun Size director Josh Schwartz has a ways to go before he’s in John Hughes’ territory; same goes for screenwriter Max Werner. While Schwartz has a big complement of good actors, they are saddled with a script crammed with fingernails-on-a-blackboard character exaggerations and situations dealing with kids and adults that would hardly exist in the real world. Still  — largely due to the actors — Fun Size is borderline cute and can keep even a cynical adult interested in finding out what will happen next.

Victoria Justice plays Wren (Yes, spelled the same as the name of a plain brown bird.), a pretty, smart teen thinking of college while saddled with the weirdness of her widow mom (Chelsea Handler) who is dealing with death of husband by taking up with a twenty-something stud Keevin (Josh Pence), and coping with little brother Albert (Jackson Nicoli) who has stopped talking with his father’s death yet continues to be an adventurous pest.

On Halloween night Wren is commanded to take Albert trick or treating so mom can go party with Keevin. Once Albert’s little feet hit the pavement, he’s gone. Wren, with best friend April (Jane Levy), spend the remainder of the film trying to find Albert as the little tyke hooks up with clueless convenience store clerk (and fellow Spiderman fan), Fuzzy, played with effect by Thomas Middleditch.

Along the way, the two teens, together with nerd admirers Roosevelt (Thomas Mann) and Peng (Osric Chau), destroy a chicken statue atop a fast food restaurant, battle bulling jocks, crash a party and wreak the car of Roosevelt’s lesbian parents Barb and Jackie (Kerri Kenny and SNL alum Ana Gasteyer).

Fun Size closes on a happy note. Albert is rescued and talks again, the nerds score, Wren prepares for college, mom realizes her age isn’t 26, and Fuzzy’s heroics attract a new girlfriend.

Of course, it’s the movies. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 10/27/12)


Cloud Atlas
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Cloud Atlas is oddly reminiscent of a child’s artwork. It’s easy to admire it because of what it represents, even if the youngster’s drawing skills aren’t up to the lofty ambition behind it.

In the case of Cloud Atlas, the visuals are consistently impressive. Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have always made movies that are great to look at. What’s occasionally missing is a reason to get worked up about what we’re seeing.

In retooling David Mitchell’s complicated, multilayered 2004 novel, the Wachowskis and Tykwer have mixed success weaving six stories set decades or even centuries apart. The first, set in 1849, involves a notary Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) who becomes horrified when he sees how the Maori population in the Chatham Islands have become enslaved. If that weren’t enough to make one sick, perhaps being treated by the squirrely looking Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) might not bode well.

Flash-forward to 1931 when a struggling young British musician named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw, Bright Star) agrees to help an aging composer (Jim Broadbent) create one last great work, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” The old man may be decrepit, but his demands are strict, and he interrupts Robert at inconvenient times with fragments he’s literally gathered in his dreams. Robert practically winds up a prisoner of the old man’s mansion.

In 1975 San Francisco, an intrepid reporter named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is investigating whether a local nuclear plant is safe. With Arab oil at a premium, local officials may be willing to overlook a few environmental complaints to keep the City by the Bay going. One of the engineers who have been slipping her incriminating documents, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), just happens to have been Frobisher’s lover years before.

Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again) is a contemporary London publisher whose failing business starts coming alive when one of his authors (Hanks doing his best Cockney) kills a critic for trashing his book. Unfortunately, Timothy doesn’t see much of the cash because it’s paying off his old debts, and his author’s gangland associates want a cut. He appeals to his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant), who secretly locks up the unfortunate Timothy in a nursing home without his consent.

Watching a movie version of Timothy’s amusingly harrowing tale (where Hanks plays him), almost a century later, is a clone named Somni-451 (Doona Bae, The Host) who works taking care of “consumers” in a ritzy eatery in Neo Seoul. After seeing one of her peers (Xun Zhou) stand up to costumers treating them as less than human, Somni-451 joins a rebellion led by Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess, clumsily made to look Asian) that might lead to her early demise.

The final tale involves a post-Apocalyptic word where a lone tribesman named Zachry (Hanks) agrees to help a woman (Berry) from aircraft get to the top of a particularly treacherous mountain. The task is complicated by hostile rivals of the tribe and a devil-like tormentor (Hugo Weaving) who keeps telling Zachry to do awful things.

In print, it was a little easier to get involved with each tale because each character was encountering the story of a predecessor by reading a journal or seeing a movie. Point of view was easier to determine, and the relationships between characters and their tales were a little easier to understand.

At times, the narrative for Cloud Atlas becomes almost symbolic. We hear characters discussing their dilemmas and explaining the themes we’re watching. This softens the emotional impact of the film because it would be infinitely more rewarding to discover the themes for ourselves. All that time jabbering could have been devoted to storytelling.

By mixing and matching actors from different segments, Tykwer and the Wachowskis do create a connection between the tales. At times, it’s distracting. Seeing Sturgess and D’Arcy trying to pass as Asians gets distracting. It’s hard to get into the tale when all you can think about is, “Gee. That European sure looks like a white guy in makeup.” To be fair, Asians are made up to be white in other segments, but the gimmick is more tiring than awe inspiring.

The most engaging segment is the Cavendish ordeal because the characters and the makeup aren’t as distracting. Weaving is a riot as a sadistic nurse, but it’s easier to tolerate him in a drag role after The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The Wachowskis have explored identity shifts and liberation struggles in their previous films like Bound, The Matrix and V for Vendetta (which they wrote and produced but didn’t direct). In those films the fight seemed more visceral. Here it seems like an idea that didn’t make it to the screen.

Just like a school kid’s drawing, Cloud Atlas gets some value for what it represents instead of what it shows. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 10/27/12)

Haiku
Cloud Atlas

It might be better
to tell one story well, not
six told too dryly.


Liberal Arts
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

“How I Me Your Mother” star Josh Radnor writes and directs movies that play like 97-minute episodes of the television series. Actually, they play like episodes of the show with a fraction of the wit and creativity. Radnor has a knack for recruiting solid performers and for getting the best from them. It’s too bad his script for Liberal Arts isn’t has deep as he imagines it to be.

That’s bad for a movie about higher learning.


Radnor plays a 35-year=old New York admissions official named Jesse Fisher, whose career and life seem stalled. His relationship with his girlfriend has died from indifference, but before Jesse can mope, his old professor from college in Ohio calls. Prof. Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) is finally retiring, and he wants the morose Jesse to come back to share the moment, even though the old teacher doesn’t really want to quit.

While there, Jesse meets a bright young freshman named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and the two quickly hit it off. After a long series of letters, Jesse heads back to Ohio, even though she’s almost young enough to be his daughter. She doesn’t care much for men her own age.

If their discussions had been as deep as the characters thought they were, it might have been more engaging to listen to them blather. It’s not as if there is a pressing need to rush to theater so that I can hear two people argue about the merits of the Twilight saga. That sort of discussion doesn’t merit the ticket price. Hang around a bookstore or library, and you’ll hear this banal verbiage for free.

Curiously, some of the most engaging moments come from the supporting cast. Jenkins is typically interesting as a fellow who doesn’t want to go gently into the good night but may not have a choice. Similarly, Allison Janney is a riot as a Romantic Literature professor who lost her passion for her subject decades ago. While some of her students are eagerly admiring John Keats’ verse, she seems to have more fun kicking would-be lovers out of her bed once they get boring. Her tolerance is low.

A surprisingly offbeat Zac Efron and John Magaro are amusing and poignant as a couple of young men with some odd issues. The former play a man who spends a lot of time on campus without actually being a student, and the latter is a morose fellow who only confides in Jesse.

For a 97-minute movie, Liberal Arts drags. Perhaps Radnor might have come up with something livelier if he’d focused on the aging academics or the offbeat lads instead of the admissions officer trying to regain his fading youth. Their hopelessness and eccentricity are curiously more edifying than Jesse’s hope.

I’d be curious to see anything else Radnor has to offer. While he’s a good performer, he might do well to focus the film on characters he can’t play. The results could be promising. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/21/12)

Haiku
Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor goes
back to college and leave us
with a dull lesson.


Tom & Harry: The Boss and the President
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Terence O’Malley’s DIY documentaries are pretty straightforward, but they provide an essential explanation for how Kansas City became the way it is. His previous film Blackhand Strawman was a chilling reminder that no history of this can be made without acknowledging organized crime. His latest, Tom & Harry: The Boss and the President digs into an uncomfortable fact that President Harry Truman owed his political career to local Democratic Party boss Tom Pendergast.


For decades, T.J. (as he preferred to be called) Pendergast and his family and cronies handpicked the candidates who ran on the Democratic ticket in KC. Without his financial and vocal support, a candidate had no chance on election day. Actually, anyone that Pendergast didn’t like shouldn’t have bothered running anyway.

Through a wide variety of means, elections until the 1940s would swing to the Goats (or Pendergast’s faction in the party) by number that would make a math teacher cry. Many Kansas City elections were won with more votes than the city had registered voters. One could accuse O’Malley of reciting dry numbers, but thanks to dead voters rising on Election Day and other statistical miracles, Pendergast’s dominance of the city seems darkly comical.

It’s not often a political documentary leads viewers to relentless giggling, but Tom & Harry is full of moments where this city’s governance seems like something out of Monty Python or Jonathan Swift. O’Malley collects reams of political cartoons that reveal more about this town’s fathers than the editorials of the day.

Pendergast’s power was so great that the state house in Jefferson City was dubbed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Many of the officials who got his blessing made Pendergast obscenely wealthy by making sure public contracts to rebuild the city went straight into the coffers of Pendergast’s construction firms.

What makes Truman’s relationship with Pendergast intriguing is that he couldn’t have made it to judge, much less the presidency, without Pendergast’s backing. Truman’s business ventures, like a hat store, failed even when they were solidly run. At the same time, Truman wasn’t part of the machine. Once upon a time, the Pendergast family gained their power and used to help disenfranchised Irish Catholics who made up the base of the Goat faction.

Much of the appeal of Truman to the local electorate was that, while he was a loyal Goat, he was raised a Baptist and remained one till he died. Because the relationship between the men was somewhat ambiguous, Truman’s reputation didn’t suffer much from the association. As a municipal judge, Truman gave preference to Goat-backed contractors, but if a competitor offered a better bid, he’d accept it, much to Pendergast’s chagrin. At the same time, as Senator and later Vice President, Truman tried to get FDR to pardon the political boss, which led the president to offer a profane refusal. Truman was also a shrewd enough politician to survive when the Goat machine collapsed.

Curiously, Pendergast himself was dominated by the mob. He was a racetrack’s ideal customer, a frequent bettor who almost never won. As a result, he’d let local crime lords operate with impunity. That was pretty much the only way to play gambling debts so enormous that they seem horrifying even when they are adjusted for inflation. KC’s jazz scene thrived, but our crime and corruption made Chicago look squeaky clean in comparison.

O’Malley does just about everything in this film (writing, shooting, edition and narrating), and he’s come into a trove of photos from Pendergast’s relatives that reveal what familiar landmarks once looked like. He’s also recruited a solid group of actors to recite the words of local officials of the era. Jeff East (Superman: The Movie) has an intimidating sound as the Boss, and the actor who recorded Truman’s words is a dead ringer for the late president.

O’Malley doesn’t do anything flashy with Tom & Harry, and he doesn’t need to. Our city’s somewhat sordid history doesn’t need any embellishment. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/21/12)

Haiku
Tom & Harry

Truman owed his job
to a guy who bet too much
on losing ponies.


Alex Cross
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Charged with adapting James Patterson’s twelfth Alex Cross novel, Cross, writers Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson have simplified plot, characters, and action, reducing the story and to a mere caricature of psychological thriller. Director Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious) adds his own peculiar fondness for violent burlesque to this mess. Alex Cross turns farcical in its failed attempt to be taken seriously.


With partner Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), Detroit homicide detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) pursues a psychotic yet methodical assassin (Matthew Fox) whose final target seems to be modern-day French industrialist Leon Mercier (Jean Reno). Using his Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction, Cross stays one step ahead of the bad guy, known as Picasso for the abstract charcoal drawings he leaves at the scenes of his crimes. But when Cross flaunts his psychological prowess, he pushes the usually dispassionate Picasso into making a personal hit, which forces both Kane and Cross to go rogue.

Before the eponymous Alex Cross over emoted in this wreck of a movie, he was a haunted FBI profiler played skillfully by Morgan Freeman in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.” Neither movie is remembered as particularly remarkable, except for Freeman’s understated, somber performances. But it takes either talent, in Freeman’s case, or a good director to make an actor sit on his hands.

Perry’s version of Cross is shallow. You can almost see the cues flit across his face as he attempts to act happy or sad or angry. But mostly, Cross is smug, which is more the fault of the writers and director than Perry’s obvious lack of skill and versatility. Although the tight, prissy facial hair doesn’t help matters either.

The purpose of many of the early scenes is to set up Cross as some sort of psychological genius who’s slumming as a detective. In fact, he’s entertaining an offer from the FBI, though it seems the main attraction of that position would be shorter hours and benefits, not an actual interest in the work. Yet, his wife, the chief of police (John C. McGinley), and even Edward Burns as his partner — a role that isn’t going to help the career free fall he’s been in for more than a decade — are mere agents of imparting that genius to the audience. The screenplay is full of dull, expository dialog and laughable, implausible leaps in logic. Even when Cross’ big mouth finally gets him into trouble, there are no complications or complexity.

Cohen sticks with a fast, choppy directing style here. But what works for a heist movie certainly doesn’t make a good psychological thriller. With shorn head, the striking Fox twitches and spasms his way through his portrayal of the killer — an unlikely combination of cool mercenary and crazy sadist. Both actor and director have taken the term “psychotic break” literally, resulting in tics reminiscent of the 1980’s icon Max Headroom. It’s an over-the-top performance that quickly becomes tedious.

Also, Cohen blatantly uses shaky camera action in the final showdown between Picasso and Cross to mask Perry’s bumbling hand-to-hand combat skills. Considering we’d seen Picasso’s work in the ring, it seems unlikely he can’t quickly dispatch the tubby detective. Also, this final scene may seem familiar to fans of the brilliant, ambivalent British television series Luther, starring Idris Elba. That series began where this film ends, with the good guy trying to decide if he’s going to stay the good guy while hanging onto the bad guy. No such thinking here. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 10/21/12)


Sinister
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Director Scott Derrickson’s latest horror movie, which he co-wrote with C. Robert Cargil, is sufficiently moody and contains a buzz-worthy jump tailor made for the digital age, but Sinister stubbornly refuses to add up to anything. Despite flirting with the argument of meaningful work versus money-grubbing popularity, the film goes for the latter for its own trajectory.

Unbeknown to his wife, true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has moved his family of four into a crime scene for inspiration writing his next nonfiction book. When storing boxes in the attic, he finds a projector and Super 8 films that he realizes, when watching them that night in the privacy of his office, reveal the crime he’s investigating — the mass hanging of the family that used to live in the house — as well as footage of several other family murders by the same killer. More clues left in the attic and information supplied by a cooperative deputy lead Oswalt to see a pattern in the murders and the abductions of one child from each family, despite the crimes spanning decades and across the country.

However, living in the house begins to wear on the family. Oswalt’s son, Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), starts sleepwalking and having night terrors again. His daughter Ashley’s (Clare Foley) drawings take a dark turn. His hapless wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), becomes more distraught the more she learns about the case, and she doesn’t even know half of what Oswalt knows. Finally, even Oswalt is too freaked out to stay in the house, so he decides to move them back home. But, of course, it might just be too late.

The filmmakers set a claustrophobic mood for the film. The majority of the action takes place in the dark in the locked office of a whiskey-guzzling protagonist staring at a small luminescent screen. He’s never not accompanied by cell phone, computer screen, television or vintage projector shining out to a sheet on the wall. The scenes are also buffeted by wall-to-wall carpeting and cork bulletin boards and an unrelenting score that incorporates the ratcheting of the film as it moves through the projector.

There are a few moments of stunning photography with Oswalt illuminated. This also increases the suspense. There’s not a moment to relax when either Oswalt or the occult specialist fittingly played by Vincent D'Onofrio video chat. In the dark with shadows behind, they both seem like sitting ducks. It’s an interesting take on the digital “revolution.” But one is left to wonder how a true crime writer can write without interviewing townspeople or taking one trip into town, especially for the library newspaper archives.

The film borrows heavily from popular predecessors. It pulls imagery and ideas from the likes such classics such as The Shining and The Amityville Horror as well as relatively recent fare including The Ring, Saw, and Secret Window. It could be argued that Sinister is more pastiche than derivative, but to be believed as homage, Hawke as Oswalt would have to have pushed through to a possession beyond just hitting the bottle and guzzling every time he sees a disturbing image. There’s nothing to fear from him, or, ultimately, from the demon lurking behind the images either. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/13/12)

Seven Psychopaths
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) much anticipated return to movie theaters is a surprisingly meta adventure that risks it all by taking the piss out of its own subsistence. In a brilliant move that both honors and marks the end of an era dominated by pastiche artists Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, Seven Psychopaths is at once both the ultra gangster shootout movie and the anti-gangster shootout movie.

For its entire first act, Seven Psychopaths plays entirely to what it is not. It sets up a scheme in which the protagonists, screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who spends more time holding a bottle than he does pen and paper, and best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), actor and part-time dog kidnapper who places an ad for psychopaths to help Marty find his seven muses, land at the top of tough guy Charlie Costello’s (Woody Harrelson) hit list. Charlie just wants his Shih Tzu Bonny (Bonny) back, but he might also be seeking revenge on the grifters who took him, including Billy’s boss Hans (Christopher Walken) and Hans’ cancer-fighting wife, Myra (Linda Bright Clay).

Once the opening scene — which delightfully yet cruelly panders to expectations — concludes, the remaining scenes of this first part seem to meander without building up to anything. There are lots of different stories being told, and sometimes even repeated. Christopher Walken’s character has a storied past, illustrated in a brief cameo by Harry Dean Stanton. Billy’s true nature is revealed. There’s an ongoing dream/non-dream sequence involving a Buddhist killer (Long Nguyen). In response to Billy’s ad, a white rabbit-carrying Tom Waits shows up as a pseudo psychopath who confesses to a Dexter-like career of serial killing serial killers.

But soon, McDonagh, through his proxy Marty, takes control of the story. He’s had it with psychopaths real and from his imagination. (Hans confirms the truth. In real life, dealing with psychopaths is boring.) At a campsite in Joshua Tree National Park (the perfect place for a final shootout, according to Billy), he picks up the narrative, hoping to craft something entirely different. “No shooting, just people talking,” he says. Still, as he and Hans brainstorm alternative endings, Billy pushes for the ultimate showdown, hoping for all the clichés.

Seven Psychopaths requires having faith in filmmaker McDonagh. It’s tempting to give in to frustration during the early parts of the movie. Not only is he thwarting expectations built around his first film, he’s subverting an entire genre. So, trusting in the story to take you where it needs to go is ultimately the lesson. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/13/12)


Here Comes the Boom
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Kevin James is an appealing performer who’d probably be even more likable if he could pick out better scripts.

With writing partner Rock Reuben, James can come up with some potentially setups, but he and Reuben appear incapable of creating 90 minutes of consistently delightful silliness. With Here Comes the Boom, James plays an unmotivated biology teacher named Scott Voss. A decade or two ago, Scott had been a teacher of the year. Now, he can’t manage to wake up on time, much less get through a lesson plan. His propensity for tardiness is so pronounced that he has to sneak through the window of his own classroom.

Watching James go from panic over his lateness to indifference once he’s in the classroom is pretty funny, especially because his portly frame makes it impossible for him to slide in and out of rooms without attracting attention.

Scott has a rude awakening when he discovers that his school is going through budget cuts, and that his pal Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), the music teacher, will get the ax. Unlike Scott, Marty lives for his job and loves his kids and what music can do for them. Determined to keep the one thing his school does right (pay Marty), he starts on a mad quest to raise the $60,000 needed to keep Marty employed.

Scott’s already low salary is not only slightly augmented by teaching immigrants at night school how to pass a citizenship test. One of his pupils is a former mixed martial artist named Nico (ably played by real-life MMA fighter Bas Rutten). Nico notices that Scott can watch an MMA match and, with stunning accuracy, predict the winner within a second or two. Scott was a capable wrestler 20 years and fifty pounds ago, so determining who will win a match is easy for him.

If James and Reuben were aiming to minimize suspension of disbelief, they’d have Scott become a type of bookie. Instead, the potbellied Scott goes into the ring himself, knowing he can make thousands simply by taking kicks and punches, regardless of the fact that he has lost.

Watching James enter the ring with people like Krzysztof Soszynski, a real MMA fighter with a formidable record, is occasionally funny because the former’s soft belly is no match for the speed, power and agility of people who do this professionally. It’s obvious that only dumb luck can save Scott from permanent injury or death, so any victory could produce some chuckles.

The sad thing is once the wins start coming, Here Comes the Boom, isn’t as funny. Now that suspension of disbelief has been maxed out, the sheer impossibility of what’s happening on screen is hard to ignore. James and Reuben start coasting and never get back into full gear. At least with Paul Blart: Mall Cop, watching James trying in vain to imitate the slimmer Bruce Willis’ Die Hard moves was consistently funny.

Also, Here Comes the Boom doesn’t have the mean-spiritedness that dominates some of James’ mentor Adam Sandler’s movies. It is nice to see Scott grow into a better teacher by taking blows to the head.

Throughout Here Comes the Boom, James is likable. If only someone in Hollywood could do him a kindness and hand him some better material or give him enough tough love to make him write better screenplays. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/13/12)

Haiku
Here Comes the Boom

MMA is more
fun to watch than golf, but this
this movie is not.


Searching for Sugar Man
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

If it’s already not too late, try to avoid any coverage of writer/director Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man that reveals the answer to the documentary’s mystery. Premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film — and its subject — has been receiving much-deserved critical and popular acclaim. However, Bendjelloul’s first effort, a must-see thrilling and bittersweet lesson in serendipity, is best served cold. (This reviewer promises no spoilers.)


At this early stage in his career, it’s difficult to tell if Bendjelloul has proven himself a virtuoso of storytelling or if the magic was inherent in this particular story. At any rate, the search for information about the tragic, Sphinx-like singer/songwriter named Rodriguez whose music became hugely popular in Apartheid-era South Africa sparked something within the Swedish filmmaker’s imagination, and he turned it into a poetic journey across time and space, as if through this film he’d invented a time machine to transport the audience to a land of remorse and melancholy. And though the film employs standard documentary fare, such as archive footage, interviews, staged sequences, and animation, the sum of its parts is elevated to a fervor of poignancy through the accompaniment of Rodriguez’s music, which to this day remains both beautiful and stirring.

Without giving away too much, the basic story is this: Discovered in a dive bar in Detroit in the late '60s by the celebrated producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, the inscrutable Rodriguez was set to become one of the greatest recording artists of the era. Critically acclaimed, the album didn’t sell. Rodriguez went on to record several more albums with the same result. Popularity eluded him.

However, a woman visiting her boyfriend in a South Africa closed off by Apartheid smuggled a bootleg cassette recording into the country and over the next two decades, generations of South African teenagers, fueled by rumors of the misunderstood and overlooked Rodriguez killing himself in various grisly ways, became fans of the music, which matched their rising political protest much the same way Dylan got to the heart of the hippies in America.

Wanting to solve the mystery surrounding the singer, Bob “Sugar” Segerman, a record store owner in Cape Town whose nickname comes from a Rodriguez song, included a query in the liner notes of the 1996 South African CD release of Rodriguez’s album Coming From Reality. This launched the official hunt for Rodriguez, which in itself remains compelling. However, it’s the questions surrounding regret, justice, and fatalism that will break your heart. (PG-13) Rating: 5 (Posted on 10/13/12)


Argo
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Ten years ago if you asked me how long I could wait to see the next Ben Affleck movie, I would probably have said “indefinitely.” I still get Vietnam flashbacks from Gigli. Now that Affleck taken up directing and chosen his acting roles more carefully, the wait between his films seems intolerably long.

Argo, his latest, is actually two films in one, and Affleck handles both with an assured, careful hand. The first is a nail-biting thriller that comes from the files of the Central Intelligence Agency. When student radicals take over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November of 1979, six diplomats manage to escape by sneaking out on a side street during the chaos.

The Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), at great risk to himself and his staff, hides the six in his home. In some ways, they are as captive as the other diplomats taken hostage in the embassy. They can’t leave for fear of being captured and executed, and it’s only a matter of time before the radicals figure out that six of the hostages are missing. The aggressors are fanatics, but they aren’t stupid.

The CIA realizes the six have to be taken from Tehran soon, but the task seems impossible because getting anything in or out of the city of four million people is impossible, and it’s 300 miles from the border.

One agent, Tony Mendez (Affleck), comes up with an idea that’s so outrageous that it ironically becomes the only viable strategy. He pretends to be a producer of a Canadian science fiction film titled “Argo” that requires locations similar to those in Iran. By passing off the diplomats as filmmakers, he hopes to get them to the airport before the authorities see through the ruse.

Despite how outlandish the mission sounds, Affleck manages to keep Argo tense but realistic. Unlike a Taken movie, Mendez can’t shoot or punch his way out of any crisis. If he or the people he’s rescuing make any mistakes all of them will die.

Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio (Heights) cram a lot of information into a small space without losing the audience. They also explain the foreign policy disasters that led to the Islamic Revolution in Iran and explain why so many people were angry. By explaining a little about the Shah’s tyranny and how American complicity only made it worse, it’s easier to understand what followed.

When we first meet Mendez, he’s awakening in a strange room next to a beer can. It’s quickly obvious that his constant travelling and tight-lipped nature make him great at his job, but that work is destroying his marriage. In what could have taken pages of dialogue, Affleck and Terrio need only a few images and Affleck’s appropriately haggard appearance to establish.

While The Town established that Affleck could handle thrillers, Argo proves he has a surgically sharp sense of humor. As established earlier, the Iranians aren’t stupid. With a large exile community in Los Angeles, Mendez has to make his fictional movie look like a real one, or the authorities in Tehran will become suspicious.

With the help of a legendary makeup artist (John Goodman) and a veteran producer (Alan Arkin), the three hold events across La-La Land to pass of a rescue mission as a film. Listening to Goodman and Arkin showing Affleck the ropes is side splitting.

Affleck and Terrio gleefully poke fun and the egotism and mendacity rampant in Hollywood, which provides an effective counterpoint to the real life mission. Both DC and LA are loaded with self-important incompetents, but Mendez has to deal with them both in order to save lives.

Affleck is obviously a fan of ‘70s movies. The Warner Bros. logo is of “Me Decade” vintage at the beginning of the film. If he’s learned anything from The Day of the Jackal, it’s that waiting for something bad to happen can be nerve racking as actually seeing apocalyptic images on the screen.

It’s sort of like dealing with the absence of another directing effort from Affleck himself. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 10/13/12)

Haiku
Argo

This film about a
phony flick has more thrills than
most real movies do.


Taken 2
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Screenwriter-producer Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Transporter) must have been so busy counting the money he made from Taken that he and his regular writing partner Robert Mark Kamen didn’t have time to give the sequel much thought. Like his American peers, the French action specialist doesn’t know what stories are worth sequels and which ones are not.

With Taken, it would immediately depress viewers if former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) simply had to rescue his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) again from even meaner Albanian human traffickers. From seeing what happens with Taken 2, it’s safe to say that premise is smarter than the one director Olivier Megaton (The Transporter 3) used. Perhaps, he can blame his boss, Mr. Besson.


In what will probably be the last film of the franchise, Bryan picks up a few extra bucks protecting some Arab tycoons in Istanbul. Just as he’s finishing up his work, his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and Kim surprise him. Considering Kim’s previous record with foreign travel, what could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, the patriarch of the Albanian crime family that Bryan decimated a few years ago is still a bit miffed. Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija) is out for revenge because his own son was one of the casualties of Bryan’s rampage in Paris, so he brings along his best hired thugs to kidnap and murder, not Kim, but all three of them.

Megaton easily meets his quota of car chases, gunplay and explosions. It’s too bad that Besson and Kamen haven’t thought up much to get Brian and his family from one crisis to another. Having seen the previous film, it’s safe to assume that Bryan can make short work of the bad guys. There’s little suspense because Bryan always has something up his sleeve, and what he’s got isn’t all the surprising. But it sure is loud.

The 60-year-old Neeson still looks and sounds imposing, and unlike other performers who’ve made their living as action heroes, he can actually act. Veteran Croatian actor Rade Serbedzija (Before the Rain) is suitably intimidating and cruel, but neither he nor Neeson are asked to do much other than look angry or concerned. Apparently, Megaton and Besson figure storytelling gets in the way of blasts. They’re certainly right about that, but without a little character development, it’s impossible to care about the outcome of a car chase. Megaton (what a cool stage name!) has a good eye for action scenes and makes Bryan’s fight for survival look suitably dangerous, even if it’s too silly to be believed.

To Besson’s credit, Istanbul is an ideal setting. In addition to the stately architecture, its cramped streets are great for foot chases. Simply getting from place to place is challenging, even without homicidal Albanians on your heels.

In interviews, Besson has declared that he won’t make a “Taken 3.” That’s nice of him. If he didn’t want to be as sadistic as his villains, he’d have been kind enough not to make this one either. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/06/12)

Haiku
Taken 2

Liam Neeson needs
a new travel agent or
just a new agent.


The Oranges
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

For a movie that deals with a sordid love affair, The Oranges feels strangely lifeless and unappealing. Director Julian Farino (Entourage) wastes a solid cast on an astonishingly shallow tale. The actors occasionally get to have outbursts, but it’s hard to share their passion or their decibels.

The title comes from the fact that the story is set in West Orange, NJ. So far so good. That’s where Thomas Edison once lived. Sadly, he’s not in the film.
Instead, we get to hear the navel gazing observations of Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat), who spends most of the opening voiceover whining about how her career as a furniture designer hasn’t really taken off (she’s selling them retail instead of creating them for herself). That’s probably why she’s still living with her parents David and Paige (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener). Vanessa’s parents aren’t getting along that well, and her brother Toby (Adam Brody) is often gone for trade missions.


They’re all close friends with their neighbors across the street, the Ostroffs. Terry and Carol (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) seem more content, but they’ve had trouble keeping in touch with their daughter Nina (Leighton Meester). She’s been away at college for nearly five years but doesn’t seem anywhere near getting a degree. (Boy, her student loans will be steep.)

Nina has angered her folks by getting engaged to a fellow student named Ethan (Sam Rosen) and threatens to run off with him when Terry and Carol raise objections. That plan falls apart when she discovers that she and Ethan have different ideas about monogamy.

Returning home hurt and humbled, Nina wastes little time getting herself into trouble again. The sympathetic David is happy to listen to her problems, and it’s not long before the two of them become romantically entangled. Soon the normally tranquil suburban streets catch fire.

Actually, they don’t.

For all the belly aching and kissing, little of consequence happens, and when characters do something dramatic, it’s usually the sort of antic that leads to institutionalization instead of Oscars. Nina is neither a wanton home wrecker or a misunderstood 20-something woman trying to find herself. Either option would be more interesting than what’s on screen.

The script by relative novices Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss feels a bit sloppy. For example, Vanessa narrates the story, but she really doesn’t do much except yell at her philandering dad. Nina may be sexually careless, but Vanessa isn’t all that charming, either. It’s sort of like taking sides during a gang war. Neither option is a winning move. This haphazard story telling also contributes to the leaden pace. The Oranges is 91 minutes long but feels much more lengthy. Here’s hoping that Farino resists the urge to offer an extended director’s cut.

Occasionally Helfer and Reiss come up with a decent wisecrack, but 20 or 30 minutes is too long to wait. The Oranges offers neither enough wit to make a decent black comedy or enough passion to make a convincing affair. Essentially, the movie feels like a one-night-stand that’s overstayed its welcome. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/06/12)

Haiku
The Oranges

Please take these over-ripe
clichés back to the store. I
want my money back.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Adapted from his best-selling YA novel, writer/director Stephen Chbosky’s film version of The Perks of Being a Wallfower is deeply flawed. Yet, its blend of nostalgia, youthful energy, and earnestness to uncover traumatic secrets is somewhat irresistible.


Charlie (Logan Lerman) is something of a mystery. Hints of a troubled previous school year find him, ostracized and friendless, apprehensive to beginning his time as a freshman at a suburban Pittsburgh high school. The only connection he makes on the first day is with his English teacher (Paul Rudd), but eventually Charlie cozies up to an outspoken misfit Patrick (Ezra Miller), his stepsister Sam, (Emma Watson) and their band of outsiders, all seniors at the school, including a Buddhist punk Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) and Goth girl Alice (Erin Wilhemi).

Finally accepted by friends, Charlie then blunders negotiations between his unrequited feelings for Sam and Mary Elizabeth’s overtures toward him. In his isolation, his memories of traumatic events begin to surface and with no one to share them with, he experiences violent blackouts, which in a surprising turn of events ultimately reconciles him with his friends again. Still, the bittersweetness of their imminent departures for college, particularly Sam’s sendoff, trigger more flashbacks and threaten Charlie’s sanity.

The film’s hyper first act merely dances around the main themes, dumping all dramatic tension on the back half of the movie. A voiceover narration simultaneously provides not enough and too much background, and lots of the dialog is either expository or full of shallow pop psychology and certainly anachronistic to teens in the film’s time period. There’s an obsessive focus on a contrived set-piece and coy flashbacks. The final scenes are fraught with big ideas and big discoveries and should in fact be where the movie begins and not ends.

Despite all this, The Perks of Being a Wallfower is charming. The film exudes the feel of a bona fide independent film that cares deeply for the story it longs to tell and its characters, and cleverly takes advantage of its nostalgic appeal to both adults of a certain age as well as its younger fans. It blends a very dark sensibility deriving from its serious subject matter with the effervescence of a teen movie. The story carefully crafts individual desires for the members of its talented ensemble cast so that when it exposes their defects it also makes them more likable. And the casting is nothing short of impeccable.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if when asked to list his main influences for the film Chbosky would cite works as varied but companionable as Ordinary People, Metropolitan, and Donnie Darko. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/06/12)


V/H/S
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Perhaps it’s time to put the “POV, found footage” horror subgenre out to pasture, the way the western faded into obscurity. What seemed fresh and interesting in The Blair Witch Project and the original Paranormal Activity no seems like watching endless VHS duplications of the same cheap, if once effective idea.

This is especially true with the new anthology V/H/S, where we stumble onto footage of wild teens taping themselves doing such noteworthy feats as vandalizing an abandoned trailer home and confining a young couple so they can expose the girl’s breasts.

It’s moments like these that make me appreciate Sam Peckinpah even more. In The Wild Bunch, he made viewers empathize with a gang of hardened killers and thieves. This bunch of hoodlums in V/H/S are as annoying as they are harmful. It’s tempting to wish for mass infertility after seeing these guys tape themselves misbehaving.

A pawnshop owner has asked them to locate a VHS tape in the rundown home of an old man. They break in to find out that he is not only old, but recently deceased and that there are several tapes in his home, so the lads end up watching a few to see if they’ve found the right one. Unlike the tape in The Ring, there isn’t much suspense about what could possibly be on these potential supernatural snuff videos.

The first tape we see (“Amateur Night,” actually directed by David Bruckner) features a trio of lads who want to make a covert porno. One of them wears glasses that make him look like singer Ben Folds. These enable him to ensure that witnesses see the same erotic delights he will. After all, women who might object to being filmed are usually okay with being leered at, right?

Perhaps they should be wary of the young lass who keeps repeating, “I like you.” She’s got eyes as big as an Anime girl. Oh, well. It’s not like hormones haven’t misled the young before.

After waiting for the young would be lechers to not get laid (it’s more enjoyable to watch Beavis and Butt-Head swing and miss), there are some effective gore effects, but these guys are just as repellent as the ones in the framing story. To be fair, there is some fun to be had with them discovering the dangers of one-night stands.

The second tape involves a couple on a long road trip who wonder why a strange young woman is following them. The stories get less interesting from here.

Apparently, there are a lot of young people who like to go to remote places to party and windup being killed by serial murderers or supernatural forces. Instead of feeling fright, it seemed like natural selection in action. Perhaps these young people are doing an enormous favor to the rest of the world by eliminating themselves from the gene pool.

There really isn’t anything done here that hasn’t been done better before. Shaky, grainy footage is simply blurry and stomach churning if it doesn’t serve a narrative purpose. You can tell that directors Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, Glenn McQuaid, Adam Wingard, Ti West and the team known as “Radio Silence” all wanted to make their own versions of Friday the 13th. Essentially, these offerings have as many suicidal stupid young people as Jason and his mother killed in the previous films, only the footage is out-of-focus and shaky. Mediocre horror is still mediocre horror. Perhaps these folks should aim a little higher. The Jason films suck and were ideal fodder for satire in the first Scream movie.

The fascination with VHS is baffling. Whereas audiophiles may have a point with their obsession with vinyl and its warmer sound, no AV geek ever says, “I miss the grainy blur of VHS.” There isn’t much to miss by skipping this film either. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 10/06/12)

Haiku
V/H/S

Why couldn’t this film
go in the same landfill as
most VHS tapes?


Frankenweenie
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Having let us down with Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, Tim Burton more than redeems himself by resurrecting something he made nearly 30 years ago. Imagine what would have happened if Frankenstein’s monster had not been scary or feared, and you can get an idea of what it’s like to sit through Frankenweenie again.

In both the half hour live action half hour version from 1984 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EE10-Mforlo), which is delightful in its own right, and in its new stop-motion incarnation, Burton wonders what would happen if Victor Frankenstein had trouble getting over the death of his adorable dog.


Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is obsessed with science and his pooch, so he gets some odd ideas in his science class. His instructor Mr. Rzykruski (voiced with delightful relish by Martin Landau) demonstrates how electricity can cause even dead tissue to move.

Taking his new knowledge of biochemistry and electrical currents, Victor digs up Sparky (Frank Welker) and discovers that the pooch is alive, even if he has bolts coming out of his head and has a body that resembles a patchwork quilt. Victor tries to keep his development a secret from his frequently oblivious parents (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) and his neighbors, but privacy is non-existent even in the pre-digital New Holland. Because there’s a science fair coming up, the other elementary school kids, like Edgar 'E' Gore (Atticus Shaffer), Nassor (Short doing his best Boris Karloff), Bob (Robert Capron), Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao) and Weird Girl (O'Hara), all try to imitate Victor’s success with expectedly Burtonesque results.

Burton and screenwriter John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) borrow heavily from the first film, which despite being consistently entertaining, got shelved by Disney because executives thought children would find it too scary. Now that Burton’s a household name and has gotten over any grudges he holds against Disney, it seems odd the original or this Disney-backed remake were every considered controversial.

Some sequences in the new film are shot-for-shot from the original, but Burton and August expand on Leonard Ripps’ original script. Because we’re in a cartoon world, the stakes are higher than one re-animated dog. Burton and August ask what might happen if Sea Monkeys actually looked like the pictures on the box. Let’s just say you really wish they didn’t.

August does find humor in fecal matter, but his references to bodily functions are actually hilarious. He also comes up with some wonderful bits of dialogue that raise questions that adults should ponder before playing with scientific toys.

Like the original, Frankenweenie is in black-and-white to imitate the look of the 1931 Frankenstein. In 3D, the level of detail is astonishing. Every millimeter of the town of New Holland had to be crafted by hand, and the labor is obvious. One nice touch is that all of the technology presented in Frankenweenie is roughly the same vintage as the 1984 original. The kids listen to records, and cell phones are nowhere to be found. The retro look is just about right, and if you read the signs carefully, you’ll notice that a dead turtle is named “Shelley” after Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. There are a lot of tiny gags like this one that reward careful viewers.

Still, for all the stylishness involved, Frankenweenie is as heartwarming as it is dark and creepy. It’s hard not to share Victor’s love for Sparky, and Burton has a strong instinct for knowing how to keep schmaltz in check. You’ll definitely want to pet a dog after the film’s through, even if it has been recently re-animated. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 10/06/12)

Haiku
Frankenweenie

Tim Burton digging
through his closet is more fun
than most folks’ new stuff.


 




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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