reel reviews
movie reviews
November '09
The Road  •  Ninja Assassin  •  Paris  •  The Messenger  •  Old Dogs  •  Fantastic Mr. Fox
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire  •  The Blind Side  •  The Twilight Saga: New Moon  •  An Education
2012  •  The Damned United  •  The Men Who Stare at Goats  •  Disney’s A Christmas Carol  •  The Fourth Kind

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

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The Road
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Movies like 2012 wreck the world in front of our eyes through long pageants of explosions. The Road, however, deals with cataclysmic ruin in a far different and much more compelling manner. It follows the people who somehow survived the destruction of the cities demolished by overwhelming forces.

Working from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), The Road never bothers to explain why a once content Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are heading down a road on foot pushing a shopping cart with their belongings. Neither is ever named, and their only goal is to find the ocean.

Whatever happened destroyed modern communication. There’s no way of knowing if the devastation is local or global. The land is now infertile. Wherever the two go, they encounter dead trees and no visible animal life. The only edible food appears to be whatever was canned before the disaster hit.

The Man and his Son are not exactly on their own. Any encounter they have with others could be dangerous. With nourishment scarce, gangs of cannibals are roaming all other the place.

McCarthy and playwright-screenwriter Joe Penhall create a convincing post-Doomsday scenario. Unlike a lot of recent films set in a dying world, there aren’t any working cell phones (both 2012 and The Sum of All Fears), and the Son has a tricky time opening a Coke can because he’s never seen one before. The scene is oddly touching because the now mundane act of drinking a soda seems like an exotic experience to the lad.

Australian director John Hillcoat is an ideal choice for The Road. As with his previous film The Proposition, he has an appropriately grim tone, and his gritty approach to scenery is just right. Just as he made colonial Australia look grungy and almost uninhabitable in his previous film, he knows how to make the world he depicts in this film look both decayed and strangely beautiful.

Mortensen has been almost cursed with the fact that his appealing features and buff build have made some viewers confuse the gifted actor with a matinee idol. That doesn’t happen here. Except for the pre-Armageddon flashback scenes that he shares with Charlize Theron, Mortensen always looks as if he’s been missing a meal or two and that bathing is a rare luxury.

More importantly, he effortlessly runs through just about every possible emotion and still has enough screen presence to carry the film. Young Smit-McPhee manages to hold his own with the more seasoned thespian, and the two have a believable chemistry.

As they make their way to the sea, the Man and his Son have profound disagreements about what to do. The Son tries to help some of their fellow travelers, including an aging man named Eli (played with typical finesse by Robert Duvall). His father, however, looks on all strangers with understandable contempt. Considering that others might think that he and his child are potential meals, he may not be merely cynical.

Whereas 2012 featured long passages where the characters bellow on about ethics during end of the world scenarios, the makers of The Road figure it might make for a better movie if the characters actually lived through the dilemmas instead pontificating on them. Throughout the film, the question arises whether morality can exist when basic concepts like home and community no longer exist. Can someone consider himself above his peers if he kills or robs from them but doesn’t eat the bodies?

Hillcoat and Penhall spend little time having the characters mull over those ideas. The protagonists are simply trying to stay alive. By leaving the thinking and the issues about principles for the audience to chew on, the makers of The Road have created a film about the end that makes gloom unusually satisfying. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/25/09)


Ninja Assassin
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If the projector had broken down right after the prologue, I probably would have found Ninja Assassin to be a gruesomely tacky delight.

A group of arrogant young yakuza (who speak perfect English) gathered in an Osaka bar getting tattoos. They’re hassling the poor tattoo artist until an envelope filled only with black sand arrives. While they laugh at the thought, they’ve been marked for death by ninjas. Before they can get their first chuckles in, body parts and blood start flying.

Thanks to a single ninja, all of the well-armed gangsters watch helplessly as an invisible force turns them into butcher’s meat. Sure, they fire their guns repeatedly, but it’s hard to hit a killer who moves so quickly he can’t be seen.

After that the story becomes routine and convoluted. A couple of Berlin-based investigators for Europol named Mika (Naomie Harris) and Maslow (Ben Miles) discover that a series of mysterious deaths have been happening around the world, and there are also some bizarre transactions that match the amount of money ninjas would have received for their services (the market value for several pounds of gold).

Ninjas pride themselves on being able to keep their deeds and identities secret, so naturally Mika and Malsow wind up on their hit list. Fortunately, a former ninja named Raizo (Korean singer-actor-dancer Rain) has agreed to help and protect them. The catch is that Raizo is alone in going after his old clan and his former master Ozuno (Japanese martial arts legend Sho Kosugi) is on his trail.

The plot’s pretty basic, but it’s surprisingly hard to follow. Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) is a protégé of Larry and Andrew Wachowski (the team behind The Matrix and who served as producers on this project) and apparently shares the brothers’ fascination with Asian culture.

It’s too bad he didn’t follow the example of Asian filmmakers as well. Because ninjas can usually sneak up on their targets without being detected, it’s understandable that McTeigue shows them only through shadows or shoots their activities with moving cameras and edits the shots together in rapid order.

But when two ninjas fight in well-lit situations, McTeigue continues to render the fights as a blur. Most Hong Kong directors, for example, keep the camera still so that viewers can see the agility of the on-screen combatants. It’s more thrilling to watch Raizo prepare for a showdown than to see him in one.

As a result, battles that might have looked promising in the script are rendered indifferently. Ninjas fighting to the death in frantic Berlin traffic could have been as exciting as it is ludicrous, but the quick, sloppy cutting renders what might have been a gripping battle oddly dull.

Dramatically, the film is a washout despite being co-written by J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5 and the screenwriter behind Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. The only performer who makes an impression is Kosugi. As a cruel ninja master, he makes the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket seem sweet and merciful.

Ninja movies don’t require thick Elmore Leonard plots or vivid characters. All that’s needed and most of what’s missing in Ninja Assassin is the ability to watch martial artists do what they do best. As with real ninjas, these folks don’t need any embellishment. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 11/25/09)


Paris
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

With an ironically picturesque locale, a cast full of top-tier performers and a proven director, Paris is guaranteed to be engaging and worthwhile. Despite some wonderful performances and memorable situations, writer-director Cédric Klapisch (L'Auberge Espagnole) fails to recapture the warmth of his previous ensemble dramas.

It’s comparable to being given a whirlwind tour of France’s capital, you’re guaranteed to see something special, but you’re also going to miss some important landmarks along the way.

Much of the film is told from the point of view of Pierre (Romain Duris, The Beat My Heart Skipped), a man whose failing heart needs a transplant. From looking at his thin, frail physique and from watching him wheezing as he climbs a staircase, it’s now hard to believe he once had a successful career as a dancer.

To help him through the wait for his new heart, his sister Élise (Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche) moves in with her three kids. Despite an aching beauty and a winning personality, she has difficulty with all the men in her life except for Pierre. Getting older only makes her feel more insecure. She also has a high-stress job as a social worker.

Roland Verneuil (Fabrice Luchini, Intimate Strangers), on the other hand, has a dream job. He’s a popular history professor who’s started hosting a television series about his hometown. He can rattle off fascinating bits of Parisian history off the top of his head, but his personal life is getting difficult.

He’s having trouble dealing with the death of his father, and he can’t get his mind off of a young student in his class named Laetitia (Mélanie Laurent). Because he’s shy when he’s not lecturing, Roland starts sending her suggestive text messages. Making matters even more complicated, Laetitia actually returns his affections.

These are only a couple of storylines that run through Paris, but these are the most compelling. Luchini and Binoche are such accomplished and charismatic performers that anything they do seems worth filming. Binoche has a sequence late in the film where she performs what could be called striptease, if any skin other than that of her jubilant face were exposed. The playful way she can remove a coat or a jacket is more captivating and arousing than prolonged nudity. Similarly, you can’t go wrong watching Luchini comically boogieing to his favorite American soul classics.

Klapisch’s volume approach of storytelling actually undermines Paris because many promising subplots are abandoned before they become properly developed. There’s a young woman of North African descent named Khadija (Sabrina Ouazani) who’s working in a bakery despite having a degree in economics. Her career may be stuck in neutral, but she unknowingly wins over her fussy, bigoted boss (Karin Viard). Instead of merely having the owner mention what a good worker Khadija is, it might have been more dramatically satisfying to have viewers learn for themselves.

Klapisch’s affection for his characters is still evident in Paris, but it’s not distributed quite as richly as it was in L'Auberge Espagnole. After that movie, it was hard not to want hug all the characters after the film. This time around, a firm handshake seems more in order (N/A) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 11/27/09)


The Messenger
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

No matter how you package it, bad news is bad news. And delivering it repeatedly can take a steep toll. That’s what happens to a pair of soldiers in Israeli-born director Oren Moverman’s sobering but powerful debut.

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson play SSgt. Will Montgomery and Lt. Tony Stone, two members of a casualty notification team. While it’s considered an honor to take on this duty, the task is as sensitive as it is unpleasant.

Montgomery and Stone show up at the doors of military families to inform them that their loved ones have died. The two are required to follow a script to the letter, make no physical contact with the people they encounter and to leave quickly once they deliver their message.

While both men valiantly try to stop squirming as they go through their task, the two couldn’t be more different. Montgomery has returned from Iraq with both medals and wounds on his leg and his eye. The latter is useful because it prevents him from crying while he’s on duty. Despite his decorations, Montgomery doesn’t feel much like a hero. He’s still smitten with a young woman (Jena Malone) who still wants to see him but is getting married to someone else because Montgomery’s job might get him killed.

Stone is a recovering alcoholic whose combat experience was in the brief Desert Storm campaign. After some failed relationships, he’s become an unrepentant womanizer. While he runs their tasks by the book, he has trouble understanding Montgomery because his duties have been light compared to those of his subordinate’s.

Because Montgomery is essentially on his own in dealing with his post-combat demons, it may explain why he’s spending time with a young widow named Olivia (Samantha Morton), whom he personally notified of her late husband’s death.

Moverman and his Italian-born co-screenwriter Alessandro Camon thankfully avoid taking their story into obvious directions. Montgomery’s relationship with Olivia could potentially prevent him from receiving an honorable discharge, and he’s clearly craving something other than carnal affection.

Because of the nature of its subject matter, The Messenger is emotionally charged, but Moverman and his able cast prevent it from feeling phony or manipulative. When Montgomery and Stone go through their duties, people yell and cry, but it looks spontaneous enough to be convincing. Moverman and Camon also work hard to get their details right. Both writers speak English with accents, but their dialogue sounds thoroughly American, and the two have studied their protocol well enough to avoid “yeah, right” moments.

Before the Vietnam War, death messages were sent by telegram or letter. The current system is obviously an improvement, but The Messenger is haunting because bad news is sometimes as difficult to deliver, as it is to hear it. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/27/09)


Old Dogs
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Based on the quality of its script, Old Dogs should have been put to sleep before the cameras started rolling. Devoid of wit, originality or style, the allegedly new comedy insults viewers from its opening frames.

Director Walt Becker, who made his debut with the smug, laugh-free Van Wilder, can’t decide if he’s making another gross out film or a kid-flick. As with the previous effort, there are several scenes involving body functions. He gives fans of both urine and feces ample opportunities to see people or animals to excrete waste.

If watching a decrepit dog peeing uncontrollably on an office floor is your idea of comedy gold, buy your tickets now.

Others, however, will discover that Becker squanders the talents of an appallingly long list of name actors. It’s hard to tell whether to feel contempt or pity for the performers involved. Involvement in this film is a low point for all their careers, but any money the performers made from this debacle is too much.

About the only idea that works in the film is the casting of John Travolta and Robin Williams as Charlie and Dan, a pair of sports agents who’ve been business partners and friends for three decades. Because both performers came to prominence in sitcoms during the 1970s, it’s easy to buy them as old friends.

Too bad it’s not any fun.

Charlie and Dan are both seemingly confirmed bachelors. Charlie is proud of his swinger image, and Dan’s romantic fumbles are fodder for raunchy stories Charlie tells clients before sealing deals. Neither is comfortable with children.

So how do screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman indicate that Dan is awkward with youngsters? They have him kick a soccer ball so hard that it knocks a six-year-old to the ground.

It would have been much funnier and less sadistic to have the kid best Dan in an argument, but there’s an unwelcome mean streak that runs throughout Old Dogs. In another sequence, Dan accidentally slams the door of his car’s trunk on a hand model’s fingers and then injures her face opening the trunk. It’s an injury that could end her career and would certainly be painful, so the gag is more cruel than amusing.

The minimal plot concerns Dan’s discovery that a fling with a woman he once loved and would like to reunite with has led to seven-year-old twins (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta, the star’s daughter) that he’s unaware he’s fathered. When the tots’ mother (Kelly Preston, Travolta’s off-screen wife) has to go to jail for two weeks (don’t ask why, it’s too phony to be real), Dan and Charlie have to hone their long dormant parenting skills.

In the hands of a Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) or a Todd Phillips (The Hangover) this tired setup might have worked. Both directors have a way of making viewers identify with boorish characters who eventually become caring and responsible. Charlie and Dan, on the other hand, don’t really seem to grow during the film, and the storyline plays like a bunch of clumsy set pieces with an unconvincing happy ending tacked on.

Becker squanders some prominent actors throughout the film, and not all of them have the last name of Travolta (John’s brother Sam and sister Margaret also pick up paychecks). Blink, and you’ll miss Ann-Margaret, Justin Long, Matt Dillon or Rita Wilson attempting liven up a horrid situation. As Charlie and Dan’s assistant, Seth Green lands the film’s only funny scene. It involves a gorilla, and it’s in the trailer. I’ve just saved you $10.

Williams and Green are both capable improvisational comics, but neither has any room to work. There’s an astonishingly tedious sequence where Williams agrees to play king for his daughter while a puppeteer played by the late Bernie Mac controls him. It’s sad to think that the normally explosively funny Mac has this as the last credit on his résumé.

After enduring this painful waste of talent, I finally understood how a dog feels after it has been left in a dark, cold kennel for two days (PG) Rating: 1 (Posted on 11/25/09)


Fantastic Mr. Fox
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Writer-director Wes Anderson’s movies like Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited are often loaded with cartoonish characters and situations. So, it would only make sense that his most enjoyable movie to date is an actual cartoon.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a lovingly rendered stop-motion animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) book. The new film captures Dahl’s droll, sardonic wit, while Anderson’s typically quirky approach is just about right for the material.

It’s almost as if Dahl had written his story with Anderson in mind. The film’s hero is a wannabe adventurer whose ego and reputation occasionally exceed his actual accomplishments.

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is legendary in the wood for the way he can brazenly make off with poultry. While many of his fellow critters admire his finesse and agility at making fools of local farmers, his wife Mrs. Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep) doesn’t want to raise their brood knowing that meat producers might capture or kill him at any moment.

For 12 fox years (the title cards are amusingly specific about whether we are seeing things in fox or human time), Mr. Fox toils writing a newspaper column that no one apparently reads (apparently Anderson is resorting to tragic realism here). He lives a quiet, tranquil life trying to make his misfit son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) live up to his own image. Having his overachieving nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director’s younger brother) around doesn’t help.

Mr. Fox remembers his vow to his spouse, but he’s bored out of his mind. When three mega-farms complete with massive supplies of chicken and hard apple cider are located close to the tree where he lives, the temptation is just too great.

He teams with a bumbling opossum name Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) and makes off with the bounty of all three farms. Their proprietors are so angered at how Mr. Fox and Kylie have circumvented their security systems that they take draconian measures to catch him. The apple farmer Franklin Bean (Sir Michael Gambon), in particular, takes the theft personally and decimates most of the forest to get to Mr. Fox.

When the rest of the woodland creatures find their homes destroyed, they turn to Mr. Fox, the animal who started the feud, because he seems to be the only one who can get revenge on the farmers.

Anderson and his co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) approach the fairy tale as if they were telling it to adults. When Mr. Fox demands that his attorney Badger (Bill Murray) purchase a tree so that he can move out of his warren, the solicitor warns him the points on the mortgage might be too steep. Mr. Fox and his fellow animals even use words like “existential” in ordinary conversation.

So how did the children at my screening react to all the big words and adult anxieties running through Fantastic Mr. Fox?

The tots sitting next to me cheered and laughed throughout. Anderson and Baumbach understand that whimsy and wit will get you farther with youngsters and their parents than condescension. Much of the fun comes from Anderson and Baumbach’s amusingly unusual solution for getting around profanity. You’ll have to hear it to believe it.

Visually, the film is a consistent treat. The jerky but concrete world of stop motion animation makes the offbeat nature of the tale seem more convincing. Seeing the fuzzy critters (whose fur waives in the wind) doing human and even superhuman feats becomes easier to believe, and the detail in the film is astonishing. Anderson and his crew have gone for a retro look that’s consistent throughout. The animals all wear vintage clothes, and the gadgets they use look pre-microchip.

Stop-motion is a technique as old as cinema itself. Because it’s labor-intensive and slow, these types of films aren’t made often. Thankfully filmmakers like Henry Selick (Coraline) and Anderson have demonstrated that the technique and the stories told though it is indeed ageless. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/25/09).

 

 

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The title character in Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire has such a crushing string of misfortunes that a typical Thomas Hardy character seems lucky.

Claireece Precious Jones (astonishing newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is an overweight 16-year-old who has given birth to a child with Down’s Syndrome and is about to deliver another. She’s been shuffled through the New York school system and can barely read or write. With a life this bleak, it’s no wonder she spends most of her time fantasizing about being some type of star.

While these setbacks might be overwhelming for some, young Precious has even less to be thankful for. Her mother Mary (terrifyingly played by moonlighting comic Mo’Nique) lives off of welfare and subjects her daughter and even her granddaughter to verbal and physical abuse. Because Mary treats her cat with more affection than she gives to her own daughter, one wonders how Precious acquired her middle name.

As for her father, he’s almost never in. That’s actually a good thing. The only things he’s given Precious are her two children.

Just one of these woes could make a compelling movie, but screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and director Lee Daniels manage to pile on the misfortunes without making the film maudlin or dour. They have an uncanny instinct for how far to develop the story’s dark nature without sacrificing credibility.

Merely getting through the day seems like a major achievement for Precious, so it’s easy to revel in any sign of hope that comes along. Precious is assigned to a special school where her instructor Blue Rain (Paula Patton) has the right amount of firmness and warmth to make the previously unmotivated student learn. She also gets some help from a supportive social worker (Mariah Carey).

Daniels, who previously worked as a producer on films like Monsters Ball, has an unerring eye for casting. In addition to filling the cast with convincing rookies, he also recruits established performers and moonlighting musicians. None of these stars take the viewer out of the film because they are almost unrecognizable.

Carey, for example, looks and dresses differently than she does on stage, and even diehard fans might have trouble spotting her. She blends with the other drones in the cubicles. Similarly, talk show host Sherri Shepard and rocker Lenny Kravitz look and act like garden-variety New Yorkers. That’s essential for a movie about poor residents of the Big Apple.

Despite the talent around her, Mo’Nique easily steals the show. Mary could have been simply a monster, but Mo’Nique adds some fascinating shadings. When social workers come around, she instantly becomes sweet and ingratiating. She can make her visitors believe she’s eagerly searching for a job and diligently taking care of her family when she actually spends her days doing nothing but watching TV. She can’t even bother to leave the apartment to buy lottery tickets, cigarettes or food. She outsources those tasks to her beleaguered daughter. But in other moments Mo’Nique almost makes viewers fell sorry for what may be the worst screen mother since Shelly Winters in A Patch of Blue.

With situations as dire as the ones depicted in the film, Daniels thankfully never promises a clean or happy outcome. Curiously, Precious is uplifting simply because living through these ordeals is an achievement in itself. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/23/09)


The Blind Side
Reviewed by Deborah Young

It must be pretty spectacular to have your life story told on the big screen when you’re only 23. Michael Oher, the Baltimore Ravens’ right tackle, has had this fortunate experience. Viewers of writer/director John Lee Hancock’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book can experience some of the joy of Oher’s rise from misfortune to the limelight.

The movie doesn’t show us much of Oher’s early life. All we get are a few nightmarish flashbacks from the protagonist’s point of view and some revealing dialogue. Hancock focuses on the relationship between Oher and the Tuohy family, who takes him in.

Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Ann Tuohy, a pretty and tough mother of two. Leigh Ann’s young son, S. J., befriends Oher in the schoolyard. Soon after Leigh Ann realizes the Oher, whom everyone refers to as “Big Mike,” doesn’t have a place to stay. So she offers the shelter of her home, just for one night.

One night turns into many, and Oher eventually becomes a member of the Tuohy family. He also becomes a member of the football team at a Christian high school.

The Tuohys and Oher struggle big in the process. Oher struggles to get his grades to a 1.0 and beyond. Leigh Ann faces the disapproval of narrow-minded friends who think that adding a large black boy to a family with a teenage daughter is just a bad idea.

Yes, it’s all a bit cliché, and it’s been done to death. But doggone it Bullock shines like a 7-carat diamond. Watching her in action almost caused me forget that this movie is clichéd and sometimes over the top.

Likewise Quentin Aaron’s portrayal of Oher elevated this material. During The Blind Side’s first half Oher rarely speaks, and Aaron capably conveys emotions from distress to apprehension to depression through his eyes and facial expressions. Then he turns on the charm with that wide smile of him.

Admittedly The Blind Side suffers from Fame syndrome sometimes. Fame is the ‘80s TV show that often put its cast out in the street for huge dance numbers. Inspirational films are infamous for this type of hokum in which everyone in the world seems to root for the protagonist. If only real life were so accommodating.

Still, The Blind Side will move many viewers to laughter and spread some pure joy. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 11/20/09)


The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) should really change her taste in men.

In the first Twilight movie, she fell in love with a young-looking, whiny 109-year-old vampire named Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). In the latest installment, she has a thing for a fellow with abs of steel named Jacob (Taylor Lautner). In addition to fixing motorcycles and avoiding shirts, Jacob can turn into a wolf the size of an SUV when he gets angry.

Because of this new, but thoroughly chaste love triangle, The Twilight Saga: New Moon is inept and annoying in a different way than its predecessor. Novelist Stephenie Meyer’s antiseptic attitudes toward romance and danger remain intact and even make less sense this time around.

The “vegetarian vampires” (they don’t feed on people) whom Bella hooks up with are hesitant to make her one of their own because doing so means she’ll lose her soul. This begs the question if Edward and his clan have no souls, how can he fall in love or act in a moral or altruistic way?

Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg is back, and the rush to get the sequel out shows up repeatedly in the final film. Characters who are supposed to be close friends of the protagonists show up and barely register. If you don’t keep all of the Twilight novels handy while you’re watching, you might have trouble telling who’s who and why they’ve mysteriously shown up or departed.

After getting farther into the tale on screen, some of the characters become less compelling. Bella becomes morose to the point of catatonia after Edward and the rest of the Cullens abruptly leave Forks, WA because the locals notice they seem a little weird and don’t get older.

Maybe those eerie bronze-ish contact lenses, the mime makeup and their sparkly skins gave them away.

Bella’s malaise becomes so oppressive that she starts engaging in behavior that normally results in interventions. In a town where blood suckers and wild canines that look like they escaped from an arcade game are running wild, it seems really dumb for Bella to voluntarily agree to ride with a creepy middle-age biker.

But whenever she starts to get near danger, a ghostlike vision of Edward shows up, warning her not to follow her suicidal instincts. It’s hard to tell which is more unintentionally amusing — the site of Edward glimmering in a CGI dazzle or the spirit of Edward whining, I mean warning Bella of some new peril.

Thanks to a larger budget, the new installment looks a bit more stylish, but the special effects still need work. When Edward has to meet with the Vampire council or the Volturi, the film benefits from real Italian locations and the all-too-brief appearances of Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning as the only bloodsuckers in the film that are remotely threatening.

Previous director Catherine Hardwicke relied on outdated visuals that made Twilight look cheap and shoddy. Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) relies on bad computer-generated wolves (are they from Castlevania?) and combat scenes that are so ineptly staged that it’s hard to tell who’s fighting whom even after the battle is won. The speeded up motion of the attack only makes them seem less believable.

Pattinson is still blandly glum, and the impassive Lautner has a laid-back charm that makes him slightly more tolerable than his romantic rival. Neither is served well by the clumsy material that’s funny when it’s supposed to frightening and groan inducing when it’s supposed to be amusing. At my screening, there was collective eye rolling when Bella’s friend Jessica (Anna Kendrick) broke into Valley Girl-speak during a shopping trip. That’s so totally ‘80s.

As for the romance, it’s hard to tell what the characters see in each other besides hot bods, and Bella seems less in love and more in need of therapy, or at least a good drink.

If you are in the Twilight cult, New Moon will probably still satisfy you. For outsiders, however, it’s hard to think of a film that makes vampirism look less interesting (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 11/20/09)


An Education>
by Dan Lybarger

An Education could have been like its male protagonist David Goldman (suavely played by Peter Sarsgaard), a sly seducer whose honeyed tongue and slick manner leave a trail of heartbreak and ruin.

Thankfully the latest effort from Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) more closely resembles its teenage heroine Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan) who is as intelligent as she is romantic. And as the film develops she also becomes wiser and more compassionate.

The storyline, which comes from Lynn Barber’s memoir of the same name, is routine, but Scherfig and freshman screenwriter Nick Hornby (who’s best known for writing the novels About a Boy and High Fidelity) deliver the tale with such a well-honed eye for detail that it never feels pat or hackneyed.

Jenny meets David when she’s stuck in the rain after a cello lesson, just a few blocks from her suburban London home. Because David drives an expensive roadster, the temptation to get in is formidable. Despite having the upper hand, the 30-something David only gradually coaxes her in. He has a unique way of making people believe that meeting his goals is their own idea.

Because An Education is set in the early 1960s, David’s relentless pursuit of Jenny is problematic, but not sordid. The age of consent was somewhat lower than it is today. He wins over her parents Jack and Marjorie (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) even more easily than he did her.

If Jack and Marjorie have any misgivings about their daughter’s eager suitor, they keep their mouths silent because David appears to be loaded. He takes Jenny to classical concerts and swank dinners. He also seems eager to pop the question even though Jenny has another year of high school and is a strong candidate for an Oxford degree.

It’s obvious that David isn’t the white knight he pretends to be. Only Jenny seems remotely curious about how David gets the money to jaunt to Paris on a whim, and some of his lines seem more worn to a contemporary ear than they would have in 1960.

What makes An Education satisfying is that it’s the story of how Jenny matures in instead of what a cad David is. Hornby vividly recalls many of the evils of the past without denigrating the people who failed to spot them. Thanks to Sarsgaard’s effortless performance and Hornby’s spot-on depiction of the cultural biases of the day, it’s easy to see why a bright girl like Jenny might fall into David’s clutches.

Many of the people in Jenny’s world seem like shallow, limited materialists, while others are appallingly racist. Jenny’s headmistress, flawlessly played by Emma Thompson, resents David because he’s a Jew. She seems less annoyed that that’s he’s a con artist with a taste for barely legal girlfriends. Compared to the others around Jenny, David’s devil-may-care life seems refreshing.

Hornby and Scherfig thankfully avoid letting the supporting cast slip into caricature. Jack and Marjorie at first appear to be a petty, middle-class couple that only want Jenny to excel at school or find a rich husband. As we get to know them, we discover that they might be gullible, but they aren’t stupid. They’re simply trying in their clumsy manner to make sure that Jenny can provide for herself once they’re gone.

At the center of the film is Mulligan’s vibrant and assured performance. She projects enough wit to captivate viewers even as she makes naïve decisions. It’s also a pleasure to watch her grow emotionally and intellectually right before our eyes.

Scherfig and Hornby have a winningly droll sense of humor, but the main reason to see An Education is because they treat viewers as if they were as intelligent as Jenny (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/20/09)


2012
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s pointless to fault 2012 for being silly or perpetuating scientific and historic baloney. Instead, the new movie’s unforgivable transgression is that it fails to make any of the apocalyptic destruction fun.

With a résumé that includes 10,000 B.C., Independence Day and The Day after Tomorrow, German director Roland Emmerich has specialized in remarkably detailed computer simulations of worlds that don’t exist or that are spectacularly falling apart.

When Emmerich destroys cities or nations, he refuses to depict quiet devastation. With the current film budgeted at $200 million, the lethal eye candy is to be expected. The cities and landmarks collapsing on themselves are rendered in remarkable detail.

But Emmerich, who also co-wrote the script, is unable to involve viewers in any of the death and ruin he depicts. Chronic pyromaniacs might find some satisfaction from 2012, but even they might balk at watching any film that makes them wait 45 minutes for anything to crash or explode.

For a two-hour and 37-minute movie, 2012 is loaded with as much pompously obvious moralizing as effects. It doesn’t help that Emmerich destroys some of the same landmarks he trashed in Independence Day. There are apparently only so many ways you can demolish New York or the White House. Pretty soon, all the world’s great cities look like Legos falling into each other.

Featuring an ensemble cast of talented performers who look as if they signed their contracts before reading the script, the film’s nominal hero is a scientist named Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Inside Man) who spends a good deal of the film moping and pontificating because he knows that unprecedented solar flares are causing the Earth’s core to heat up.

In Emmerich’s convoluted mythology, this somehow ties in with the fact the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012. While the Mayans’ date recording methods were superior to the ones Europeans were using at the same time, they weren’t predicting doom; they simply left a spot to begin their next calendar (www.nytimes.com/2009/11/08/movies/08gray.html?pagewanted=2&8dpc).

Despite the fact that the world could end in 2012, or any date for that matter, this myth isn’t that interesting. The film follows suit.

As Helmsley trots across the globe collecting sobering data wherever he goes, the President (Danny Glover) and his Chief of Staff (Oliver Platt) team up to find some sort of plan to preserve a little bit of the human race. While Helmsley delivers lots of somber speeches, he and his grim-looking cohorts don’t do much to maximize the number of people who could potentially live after such a cataclysm.

Sadly, the few who last throughout the film appear to be the 20 or so human beings who are the least appealing. John Cusack goes through the motions as a struggling science fiction writer who’s reduced to being a limo driver for a boorish Russian oligarch (Zlatko Buriç). He’s also still pining for his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and trying in vain to keep up his part in raising their kids.

Emmerich is attempting to recycle the domestic dysfunctions that ran throughout Independence Day, and it’s fascinating that his characters seem less real and less compelling with each film. As each seemingly unrelated character meets up, the plot stops as they bloviate about the enormity of what is to come or what alert viewers (if any) have already seen.

Because the story isn’t any good, it’s easier for lay people to spot impossibilities. If the film worked, these issues wouldn’t arise. Who knew that cell phones would work perfectly even when all the towers to accommodate them have been destroyed by Mother Nature?

Emmerich attempts to leaven some of the misery with humor, but his idea of wit is featuring a governor of California with a heavy Austrian accent. While former action star Arnold Schwarzenegger might find running California a difficult task, he may be having the last laugh because his current gig saves him from appearing in schlock like this. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 11/13/09)


The Damned United
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Damned United is a soccer movie that’s really about a man’s struggle with his most dangerous opponent — his own ego.

As a result, the new film from screenwriter Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen (the talented duo behind Frost/Nixon and The Queen) is consistently entertaining even if you can’t name a single British football club and find regional English accents impenetrable.

As with his previous turns as history-making Englishmen, the Welsh-born Sheen manages to not only resemble the man he’s playing, but he expertly knocks his character of a pedestal. With soccer manager Brian Clough (Sheen), it’s a pretty high pedestal indeed.

In the period depicted in the film (from 1968 to 1974), Clough takes a bush league team named Derby County and transforms them into national champions. This is nothing shy of a miracle. Derby County began in the cellar of the Third Division and rapidly took the national title of the First Division. Imagine a Royals farm club repeatedly defeating the Yankees in New York, and you get an idea of Clough’s achievement.

His loyal assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) has a radar for locating formidable talent who are wrongly viewed as either over-the-hill or too wet-behind-the-ears. As a result, Derby County clobbers better-financed teams. Clough also convinces the team’s tight-fisted chairman (the always enjoyable Jim Broadbent) to support him when he makes deals behind the board’s back.

Despite having a dream job and a career that any coach would envy, Clough almost wrecks his legacy with his obsession with England’s top team Leeds United and their beloved, if ruthless, manager Don Revie (drolly played by Colm Meaney). Clough repeatedly trashes the dirty-playing Leeds in the press and is still smarting from having been slighted by his more famous rival.

Clough’s hatred of the other club is so pronounced that he often makes decisions solely to get revenge, even if it might hurt his own team’s chances in other games. Needless to say, it’s a shock when Clough agrees to take over Leeds United when Revie becomes coach of the English team. That doesn’t stop the younger coach from railing against his new players in a jaw-dropping television interview just days before meeting them.

Morgan and director Tom Hooper (working from David Peace’s novel) make The Damned United work because they treat Clough less like a coach and more like the protagonist in a Shakespearian tragedy. Like King Lear, Clough manages to destroy everything around him because he refuses to see past his own disastrous agenda. It’s mesmerizing to watch Sheen bravely leap into Clough’s often hilarious bouts of vanity and hubris. At times, the coach’s confidence and enthusiasm is so contagious that it seems he’ll succeed even when the scoreboard says otherwise.

Morgan and Peace tweak the chronology, which makes the tale tricky to follow at first. Gradually, The Damned United pulls viewers in by making them curious about how Clough went from being an enthusiastic leader to a raving megalomaniac at the beginning of the film.

Sheen also has decent form with a soccer ball, and Hooper nails the eerily tacky clothing and hairstyles from the era. Clough’s family has taken issue with the unflattering way that Peace and Morgan have portrayed the late manager. Nonetheless, his fictional counterpart is so compelling that it makes even those who are ignorant of British soccer eager to learn more about the coach and the game. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/13/09)


The Men Who Stare at Goats
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Once upon a time, the Pentagon spent millions on a series of bizarre New Age-inspired weapons and spying programs that sounded laughably bizarre and were usually ineffective. They trained soldiers to be able to “see” into rooms that were oceans away, to walk through walls or to kill animals merely by staring at them.

While all of these boondoggles sound like something out of the pages of The Onion, British writer Jon Ronson discovered that real tax money was spent on fantasy defense projects during the 1970s and ‘80s as he was researching his book The Men Who Stare at Goats.

The current film adaptation Ronson’s story works best when it recounts the exploits of the New Earth Army, an actual defense program that tried to create psychic soldiers and spies (they preferred to be called “remote viewers”). Because conventional military thinking had been counterproductive in Vietnam, the White House and the Pentagon were eager to try any sort of idea that might neutralize an enemy. If psychic techniques could have stopped combatants from returning fire or if an opponent could have been stopped without ammunition being fired, it might not have been crazy to pursue these projects.

The fictional story starts as a disillusioned reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) heads to Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the hope that a big story might make up for his failed marriage and career difficulties. Stuck in a Kuwaiti hotel waiting for clearance, Bob discovers an enigmatic military contractor named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Lyn is a haggard-looking fellow who seems to be onto something or on something.

He regales Bob with stories of how he and others were part of the New Earth Army and that they refined superpowers that could make conventional warfare useless. Under the guidance of an eccentric Vietnam-era officer named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), Lyn and others try to harness their psychic gifts to locate hostages or fugitives. You could politely describe their success rate as “mixed.”

When The Men Who Stare at Goats focuses on the absurd melding of New Age philosophy and military culture, the results are often achingly funny. The uptight Lyn evolves into a hippie soldier who cuts loose on the dance floor, while many of the New Earth Army troops discover that their extrasensory gifts don’t work as well as advertised.

Unfortunately, most of the film is told not in the context of the ‘70s and ‘80s but in America’s current wars. The contemporary framing device simply isn’t as amusing, and most of the observations about Iraq are banal. When Lyn attempts to rescue a former hostage of the insurgents, he yells to the escapee, “We’re Americans. We’re here to help!” Needless to say, he then proceeds to sideswipe the poor man with his vehicle. In most situations, Bob would probably abandon Lyn quickly because the latter appears to be an utter loon.

With the exception of Lyn, most of the characters are sadly one-note. It’s a waste to cast a versatile performer like Kevin Spacey as Lyn’s obnoxious psychic rival.

Grant Heslov, a veteran character actor who served as Clooney’s writing partner on Good Night and Good Luck, directed the film. In making his feature-directing debut, Heslov demonstrates an undeveloped sense of pacing. Because the contemporary scenes are already a bit dull, his lethargic approach only makes the return to a ‘80s flashback seem all the more welcome.

After the movie, I watched the trailer online and was struck by how much better edited it was than the actual film. Jokes that fell flat on the big screen were hysterical on my tiny computer monitor.

With a better-developed script and execution, The Men Who Stare at Goats could have been more consistent than the quacks it ridicules. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/06/09)


Disney’s A Christmas Carol
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Writer-director Robert Zemeckis follows Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, so closely that he even makes the same error the author made with the first edition of the book.

Knowing that he’d crafted an entertaining but relevant story that would likely fly off the shelves, Dickens published the book himself in an expensive, illustrated edition with a gilded edge on the cover. While the book sold expectedly well, his elaborate packaging almost destroyed his profit margin at a time when Dickens needed cash.

The pricey new film that Zemeckis has made has a similar issue with packaging. All of the lines you remember from the book (if you’ve had the pleasure of reading it) and all the major characters are here. But Zemeckis can’t decide if he’s retelling A Christmas Carol orputting on an ornate light show. As with Beowulf and The Polar Express, Zemeckis delivers his story, not with live actors, but with computerized motion-capture technology.

The actors do play their roles but instead of playing for the camera, they wear motion sensors. Computer animators take the performers’ movements and apply them to the CGI characters on the screen. This enables Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright-Penn and others to play multiple characters. Carrey, for example, can now portray Ebenezer Scrooge throughout his life and all three ghosts of Christmas — in theory.

In practice, the 3D digital images are more annoying than enthralling. It’s odd to report that the normally manic Carrey is the subtlest aspect of the film. Carrey thankfully keeps his vocal and facial gestures in check but Zemeckis might have made a better movie if the Scrooge had been holding the purse strings.

Under the miser’s control, it’s doubtful that Zemeckis would have filmed a seemingly endless scene involving rampaging horses and a sequence where Scrooge dashes through a drain pipe and finds himself miniaturized. He even gets a tiny “chipmunk” voice to match his new size. It’s hard not to wonder how many million were spent to create this unimpressive effect. It also doesn’t help that some of these indulgences scared the children in my audience.

Thanks to these pointlessly extravagant scenes like these, Dickens’ tale of how the two-pence-pinching Scrooge learns the error of a lifetime of greed from a trio of spirits and the ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley (Oldman) gets lost. Even though Zemeckis takes the dialogue straight from Dickens’ page, his cluttered, mannered visual style makes the familiar story hard to follow. He sends his camera darting through the simulated streets of London as if it were tied to a delirious bird.

The motion-capture technology still has a way to go. While Scrooge and his hapless employee Bob Cratchit (Oldman) look closer to human than the people in The Polar Express and Beowulf, all of the other characters have the same stiff, rubbery skin and lifeless eyes. They resemble the humans in the Shrek movies. In those films, the design choice worked because it made the more expressive ogres and animals seem more sympathetic than their plastic costars. In Zemeckis’ recent movies, the human visages are weak substitutes for a capable actor’s face.

Why Zemeckis chose to waste the talents of thespians like Colin Firth and Cary Elwes on cheesy electronic avatars is hard to say. Instead of lamenting how Zemeckis has desecrated Dickens’ legacy, I’ll recommend these wonderful adaptations that are readily available for home viewing and listening:

• The 1951 British movie with Alastair Sim as Scrooge,

• The 1984 television version of the tale with George C. Scott, and

• The audio CD of Patrick Stewart reciting the book.

All of these versions capture the magic of Dickens’ original tale without going overboard with digital scenery. It takes a special kind of filmmaker to render a magnificent story into humbug (PG). Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/06/09)


The Fourth Kind
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

As if the economy wasn’t scary enough, along comes The Fourth Kind, a genuinely unnerving film about alien abductions in Nome, Alaska.

Milla Jovovich leaves her Resident Evil moniker behind and settles in as Dr. Abigail Tyler, a psychologist carrying on her deceased husband’s research. A handful of Nome residents are suffering sleep disorders that are as disturbing, as they are near identical, as the patients describe the appearance of a white owl outside their windows and waking at precisely the same time each night.

The film was written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, his first, and presented as a reenactment of actual events in Nome. Osunsanmi employs an effective split-screen, dual character story-telling device where the supposedly real patients and actors portraying the patients are on screen together when they are interviewed by Tyler and hypnotized into remembering what happened to them during the night. Osunsanmi also interviews the supposedly real Dr. Tyler in a sit-down setting, adding to the documentary feel of the film. She also appears with her patients in supposedly actual videotaped sessions, along with the actors in reenacted scenes, which enhances the emotional power and mystery surrounding the growing madness afflicting the patients.

The “real” Dr. Tyler seems to embody an alien look herself and tells of her experiences  — including her own abduction and disappearance of her daughter — in decidedly calm yet spooky manner that’s either great acting or indicates that this woman was nearly frightened out of her mind. At times, Jovovich’s portrayal of Tyler seems almost redundant yet it does reinforce the trauma experienced by the doctor and her patients. It’s a solid acting performance and may lead to more film roles outside of the sci-fi genre Jovovich has attached herself to.

Elias Koteas plays a protégé of Jovovich and Will Patton is the local law enforcement official trying to explain why Nome residents keep disappearing without a trace. Both Koteas and Patton fill in the roles as skeptics, questioning Jovovich’s evolving explanation that aliens are experimenting on and kidnapping people. Corey Johnson and Enzo Cilenti play two of Tyler’s patients with realistic effect.

The abduction theory really takes hold with the introduction of Hakeem Kae-Kazim as a renowned scholar of the ancient Sumerian culture. He deciphers the language Jovovich accidentally caught on tape during her abduction. Some UFO researchers believe that some artifacts and remnants of that Mesopotamian society prove that Sumerians encountered aliens and depicted their spacecraft in their art.

The Fourth Kind has received criticism, especially in Alaska. Though there have been a number of disappearances in and around Nome, the Anchorage Daily News questioned the validity of the film’s premise. An Alaskan blogger criticized the film, claiming state records have never listed a Dr. Abigail Tyler as a registered psychologist in Alaska and ridiculed an early scene in the film where Jovovich is shown flying into a mountainous, lush, green Nome when the real Nome sits in a treeless plain on Alaska’s southwest coast.

Based on a true story or not, The Fourth Kind can have one leaving on a nightlight and being on the lookout for white owls. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/6/09)


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

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