movie reviews November 2010

127 Hours  •  Faster  •  Love & Other Drugs  •  Tangled  •  Vision  •  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
The Next Three Days  •  Fair Game  •  Unstoppable
Inside Job  •  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest  •  Morning Glory
Nowhere Boy  •  Megaman  •  Due Date

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

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127 Hours
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Oscar-winner Danny Boyle’s latest movie 127 Hours leaves viewers hanging in suspense despite the fact that many in the audience already know how the film is going to end. Reteaming with Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, Boyle recounts how mountain climber Aron Ralston biked and crawled through a massive canyon near Moab, Utah. Ralston (played by James Franco) may have understood the challenges involved with his fondness for nature and risk, but for 127 hours, he came close to never leaving the rocks or the water alive.

At the beginning of the film, Ralston’s Spartan apartment indicates he probably spends little time there. When he is home, Ralston blithely ignores voicemails from his mother and an ex-girlfriend because he’s got something else on his mind. It only takes a minute or two to determine what that is. Boyle begins the film with rapid montage of frenzied but mundane images of urban life. For one long weekend, Ralston is elated to leave it behind.

Arriving at the canyon, Ralston leaps on his dirt bike and pedals up and down hill. A fall that would make another person crawl back to civilization with a whimper only seems to energize him. He runs into two young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) who don’t know the canyon as well as he does and gives them a wild impromptu tour.

Off on his own again, Ralston stumbles into a clearing where a rock lands on his arm. He’s now the only person for miles, and the crevice he’s trapped in is so deep that no one can hear him cry for help. Thanks to an impressive areal shot, it becomes obvious that he’s on his own in a hole that’s hundreds of feet deep. Nothing he does can dislodge the rock that’s crushing his arm.

Boyle and Beaufoy manage to put the audience into Ralston’s worn hiking shoes without feeling as if the film itself is 127 hours long. The two intersperse Ralston’s desperate attempts to free himself with flashbacks that obliquely explain why he’d run off to a canyon when most people would settle for an afternoon at the park and why he’s become so distant to the other people in his life. This helps break the tedium of seeing a fellow stuck in a stone crack, but Boyle and company thankfully leave the audience to figure out what makes Ralston an adrenaline junkie.

As Ralston’s situation gets more dire, we learn that he’s got a background in engineering and under ordinary circumstances could probably get out of the mess. Unfortunately, his tools are inadequate, and he’s made the potentially fatal mistake of not telling anyone he’s in the canyon. By the time help might arrive he’ll be dead.

Boyle never sugarcoats the stakes, and easily startled viewers might have a tough time getting through the film. That said, good sound effects and pacing prove to be more frightening than an occasional flash of appropriate gore.

Obviously, if Ralston failed, he couldn’t have written the book that Boyle and Beaufoy have adapted. Another key factor in preventing 127 Hours from becoming an exercise in the obvious is Franco’s performance. He covers all the emotions from A to Z and even adds some that haven’t previously been documented. Because his turn is so dynamic, the film feels claustrophobic but never dull.

In order to make a story about a character stuck in one place engaging, it’s best to have filmmakers who are as adventurous, intelligent and even as potentially foolhardy as Ralston himself. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/22/10)


Faster
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In its single-minded, earnest pursuit of vengeance disguised as justice, Faster squashes any compelling moral ambiguity and drains the excitement out of this urban shoot-em-up. Director George A. Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Notorious) has crafted a torturous morality play that takes itself too seriously, imparting hackneyed lessons about hate and forgiveness.

Upon release from a ten-year stint in prison, Driver (Dwayne Johnson) immediately seeks revenge on a motley gang of informants. Armed with a revolver, a vintage Chevelle SS, and a list of names bullied from a private investigator (Mike Epps), he plans to pick off the people responsible for ambushing his old bank heist crew, stealing the money from a final job, killing Driver’s brother, and leaving Driver for dead. Hot on his trail are Cop (Billy Bob Thornton), a drug-addicted detective close to retirement who poaches the case from another detective (Carla Gugino), and Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a software millionaire turned hired assassin still overcompensating for a childhood disability.

Driver dispatches his targets with Terminator-like precision and lack of affect. Unfortunately, it's also how Johnson as Driver delivers his lines. He fails at playing it straight. Directed to tone down the charm that makes him so popular for children's movies, Johnson makes leaden his sarcastic remarks. As a result, his one-line zingers are ruined. When he asks the warden Tom Berenger in a bit part) “Where’s the exit?” you can see the slight hint of a smirk but no sign of a soul.

Through overly generous exposition, the film strives to give its main players ample backstory and motivation. It's overkill and unnecessarily simplifies the characters while giving them contradictions. Killer's wife (Maggie Grace), for example, simultaneously gets off on the danger and the guns while begging him to quit the job. Far from making her a more interesting character, this dissonance is annoying. Instead of one cartoonish stereotype to live up to, she has two, which seem to surface randomly.

Speaking of random, the camera shots seem to tilt, slow down and speed up, and go into close-ups for no apparent aesthetic or narrative reason. This leads to unmemorable fight scenes and car chases — the money shots of this particular genre. The battle between a wicked knife and a borrowed ice pick is over in the blink of an eye. The best driving is wasted in flashback and reverse. Instead, the camera lingers on static face shots of Driver and one of his prey arguing theology beside a reservoir for what feels like hours. The preachy scene is interrupted only by a jumping fish and a possible lost allusion to Hamlet, the only two interesting bits in the movie. R Rating: 0 (Posted 11/24/10)


Love & Other Drugs
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Love & Other Drugs plays less like a single film and more like three or four different films grafted together as some sort of experiment. While each of the “filmlets” has potential, you can spot where radically different tales have been spliced together. There are some jarring shifts in tone that occasionally make Love & Other Drugs feel less like entertainment and more like a side effect. About the only thing the stories seem to have in common is that they’re all set in the mid-1990s.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, a fellow who has a knack for selling just about any product, be it overpriced audio equipment or pharmaceuticals. He jumps into the latter racket because his family finds him to be a charming underachiever. His clan includes doctors and a dotcom millionaire brother (Josh Gad), whose IPO involved a medical web site. They’re also dismayed at how Jamie’s lecherous ways frequently derail his stillborn career.

After passing his training with flying colors, Jamie finds himself stuck in rural Ohio peddling antidepressants in an already saturated market. Despite having an ambitious mentor (Oliver Platt), Jamie has to crawl and scrape to make a sale because there are already established salesmen who ruthlessly crush their competitors. They have such strong ties with the doctors, so they can prevent the physicians from prescribing rival meds, even if they might be better for the patients.

Jamie worms his way into the office of the top doctor (Hank Azaria) in the region by first charming and then bedding his secretaries. He even joins the doctor as he treats a comely young patient named Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) when she asks the MD if there’s a problem with her breasts. Upon learning that Jamie is a mere salesman, she confronts him in the parking lot. As is often the case in Hollywood movies, love gradually blooms as logic takes a two-hour nap.

Maggie’s free spirit immediately captivates Jamie, but commitment to her comes with a price. Working at a coffee shop and selling an occasional painting don’t pay nearly as much as her bus rides to Canada helping seniors get cheaper Canadian meds. Furthermore, she’s slowly developing Parkinson’s disease and worries that Jake’s affection is based on pity instead of love.

Although she’s introduced relatively late in the film, Hathaway easily dominates it. She’s able to make Maggie sympathetic while maintaining her dignity. With her feisty spirit, it’s easy to see what makes her an obsession for Jamie. Perhaps there’s also the fact that like Jamie, she likes to run around naked.

About halfway through, a schizophrenic story that had previously been about warring salesmen (think Tin Men) and transformative, if heavily erotic, love, takes another turn. Jamie’s company introduces a new drug called Viagra to the market, and he becomes unexpectedly prosperous. While the film had previously been bawdy, it understandably becomes even raunchier. At this point, the laughs start to come rather cheaply.

Director Edward Zwick has done comedies in the past like About Last Night…, but having come off of serious action films like The Last Samurai and Defiance, he seems to have lost some of his comic chops. His cast, which includes the late Jill Clayburgh, is certainly game, but it’s hard to laugh or cry when the filmmakers haven’t made up their minds either.

Thanks to Hathaway, it’s possible to overlook Zwick’s indecisiveness. She can treat the symptoms, but Zwick’s misdiagnosis for how to best film Jamie Reidy’s memoir Hard Medicine needs additional treatment. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 11/24/10)


Tangled
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Possibly the most charming trait about, Tangled, the latest Disney animated movie to purloin a fairy tale, is that the team behind it have approached the tale with a refreshing lack of ambition.

True, a lot of people have worked very hard and spent a good deal of money and time on the film. But Tangled treats the old Brothers Grimm tale Rapunzel in a straightforward manner. There are Alan Menken (name any Disney score, and he probably wrote it) songs, and there are animals who steal the show from their human costars, but there’s a noticeable lack of snark in Tangled that seems innovative.

In this variation on the story, Rapunzel (nicely voiced by Mandy Moore) is actually a princess who doesn’t know that she’s royalty. As a child, she was kidnapped by a witch named Gothel (Donna Murphy) and has no idea that she belongs in a palace instead of in a foreboding tower. In addition to having hair that’s long enough to act as a rope for anyone wanting to enter the tower, Rapunzel’s locks contain the healing properties of a lost flower that could even cure age. Gothel keeps Rapunzel in the tower because letting her free would enable the world to discover how old the crafty witch really is.

Rapunzel’s isolation doesn’t last long. A dashing but not exactly suave bandit named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) agrees to be her guide to the outside world. He’s smitten enough with her to offer her a square deal, but the authorities and his old partners in crime might do him in before he takes her to see the floating lanterns that she’s only been able to see from her window.

While this does play fast and loose with the original Grimm tale, directors Byron P. Howard (Bolt) and Nathan Greno approach the story as if romance and adventure were not subjects to be satirized. There’s a sense of wonder that seems missing from other recent animated films. The action scenes would probably be impressive in 2D, but the 3D effects are awe-inspiring this time. When the floating lanterns glide through the air, it’s tempting to try to grab one.

The animals in Tangled act like people, but screenwriter Dan Fogelman has wisely decided not to make them talk. Thanks to some expressive animation, both Pascal the chameleon (Rapunzel’s best friend) and Maximilian the horse (who’s a better detective than the men who ride him) come across as smarter than their two-legged counterparts without having to resort to annoyingly inappropriate celebrity voices.

While there are several familiar voices in the cast, it’s refreshing that the leads like Moore and Murphy have apparently been picked not because of their fame but because they genuinely fit the roles. Both are established singers (Murphy has had a long career on Broadway), so it’s great to hear Menken’s tunes belted by performers who can do them properly. Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater keep their tongues out of their cheeks. The songs may not be as witty as the ones Menken wrote with Howard Ashman, but at least the melodies can now be sung with the proper clarity.

Tangled is a hybrid between Pixar’s 3D computer techniques and 2D animation. Glen Keane who animated many of the leading characters in Disney’s 2D efforts has had a hand in the visuals, and it shows. The characters resemble the stylized ones who populated Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, but still work in a 3D environment.

The advertising campaign for Tangled is misleading because, while occasionally funny, it’s not a jokey film. Who knew that sincerity could be as entertaining as pizzazz? (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/24/10)

Vision
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Veteran German writer-director Margarethe von Trotta has made movies about iconic figures such as the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Thankfully, she avoids treating her subjects like saints.

This approach even applies to her new film Vision about the 12th century German nun Hildegard von Bingen (played by von Trotta regular Barbara Sukowa). Pope Benedict XVI has cited her in recent homilies, and she’s also been an important figure for feminists. She was writing plays, composing music and performing medical botany experiments at a time when few women were able to perform activities like these. Despite the limited role women played in European society of her day, heads of state even consulted with her because she was considered a wise counsel.

Because of her accomplishments von Bingen is a fascinating subject to study, but von Trotta and Sukowa have managed to make her seem more like flesh-and-blood instead of an object of reverence. The director actually consulted some of the nun’s letters, which give us a hint of what her personality might have been like. The film naturally features many of her achievements, but it also focuses on her ambivalent relationship with Church authorities.

The leaders depicted in the film tolerate von Bingen because the visions she sees indicates the Almighty may be speaking through her. That doesn’t mean they like her. Her opposition to aestheticism rubs many of them the wrong way, and they don’t like it when she asks for separate facilities for her fellow nuns. Wayward nuns in the era were ostracized while the priests in the region misbehaved with impunity.

She also develops a close relationship with a fellow nun named Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung) that devolves into jealousy. When the latter is promoted to run her own abbey, von Bingen behaves in a manner that seems possessive for a Benedictine.

Sukowa projects a warmth and intelligence that make it easy to believe that she’s been touched by the divine and that make it easier to tolerate von Bingen’s weaknesses. It also doesn’t hurt that Sukowa is an accomplished singer and performs von Bingen’s songs beautifully.

Visually, the film looks intriguing simply by dealing with the realities of 12th century convents. There wasn’t much indoor lighting available during the era, so the buildings look drably creepy. The exteriors, however, practically explode with color and indicate why von Bingen was so enamored with nature.

Although a skeptic, von Trotta wisely treats von Bingen’s visions in a straightforward manner. The film never questions the validity of her visions because they were a vital part of her life and work. Sadly, the only vision von Trotta actually includes in the film looks like cheesy CGI of the CBS logo. It’s a let down to think that divine images wouldn’t be more impressive.

Nonetheless, the mark of a good biopic is if it is more interesting than an encyclopedia entry on the same person. By presenting von Bingen’s life including her flaws, von Trotta in some ways makes us admire her more. Anyone who could accomplish all von Bingen did despite the formidable hurdles of flesh and blood is worthy of respect. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/26/10)

 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Much of the joy from the Harry Potter series is that the installments have grown up with their viewers. The trio who play the lead characters Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) have gone from cute kids into performers with genuine range and finesse. Similarly, the material has become richer and more engaging, throwing in real world neuroses with all the magical spells.

In this installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Harry and his two close friends aren’t even returning for another term at Hogwarts. With the death of the school’s headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and the return of Harry’s nemesis and would-be assassin Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the three have to stay underground.

This is hard to do when your pursuers have magical powers to go with their bloodlust. Furthermore, Harry will eventually have to face Voldemort because the dark lord and his followers are turning the Ministry of Magic into a Fascist organization. Wizards and Witches who don’t submit to the new regime face oppressive penalties, and Voldemort is itching to finally realize his plan for exterminating muggles. For those of you who are new to the series, that’s a word for folks like us who aren’t magical.

Scottish novelist J.K. Rowling and American screenwriter Steve Kloves may have given Harry superhuman powers and a larger-than-life responsibility, but it’s refreshing to see Harry handle his situation in a manner that’s thoroughly human. Under the strain he lashes out at friends and even with his noble heart and quick mind, he can make costly mistakes. Because his heart is flesh-and-blood, it’s easy to root for him to end Voldemort’s tyranny.

Naturally, there are a lot of spells but Peter Yates, who has been handling most of the recent films, has a good sense of when to turn on the spectacle and when to let the story take over. The opening chase is expectedly spectacular, but Harry and his allies also have to use their wits when their wands malfunction or Voldemort has the upper hand.

As with the previous movies, the cast is loaded with distinguished British talent (and a few folks from Ireland and the rest of Europe). Some truly capable thespians like Peter Mullan and Timothy Spall make fine impressions in small roles, but it’s a shame they don’t get to do more. Rowling’s universe is so dense that some intriguing characters can get lost in the crowd.

Although the first half of Deathly Hallows is both nail-biting and even moving in places, the conclusion feels flat because Yates and his collaborators know they have us on the hook for the final chapter. While splitting the book in half has given the tale room to breathe, it’s a shame we have to wait till next summer for Harry’s tumultuous education to come to an end. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 11/18/10)

The Next Three Days
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Next Three Days, a remake of the 2007 French movie Pour Elle, features an intriguing central character and a messy plot. Oscar winning writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) has difficulty deciding if he wants to ruminate on loyalty and morality or if he wants to wreck cars and fire guns.

Having collaborated on some of Clint Eastwood’s best directing efforts (Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima) and the James Bond hit Casino Royale, Haggis has demonstrated that he can write or direct movies that are both thoughtful and visceral. With his newest offering, Haggis takes some mental and ethical shortcuts, which make some well-staged chases less thrilling.

Thanks to a nicely shaded performance by Russell Crowe, The Next Three Days gets off to a promising start and stays interesting even as its credibility wanes. Crowe plays a literature professor named John Brennan whose placid, if not ideal, life is in for major upheaval. After listening to his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) get into a curiously heated argument at a fancy restaurant, the two barely get through their breakfast the next morning when the Pittsburg Police show up to arrest Lara for murder.

Two years later, John firmly believes in Lara’s innocence, but he’s the only person who does. Even her attorney (Daniel Stern) won’t file another appeal because he believes the evidence against her is too strong. She becomes so morose over her ordeal that she attempts to kill herself. Even though she survives, John becomes convinced that the only way he can get Lara out of prison or even keep her alive is to bust her out and leave the country.

John’s plan is as elaborate as it is risky. He gets some good advice from an ex-con (a drolly effective Liam Neeson) who has broken out of the big house several times. John has some great ideas of his own, but he may not be the right person to carry them out. Because he is new to criminal enterprises, John has a manner that advertises his intentions. Thanks to Crowe’s expressive face, John’s fatal earnestness comes through. This trait could doom his quest, but it makes his efforts sympathetic because his motives are selfless.

Haggis raises some thorny moral issues as the film progresses but either drops them when they become inconvenient or wraps them up in neat little bows. The film asks if it’s worth becoming a criminal to save an innocent person’s life or if John is risking everything for a woman guilty of homicide. Either Haggis or his producers must have decided that foot and vehicle chases were more exciting than ethical quandaries. They may be right, but by short changing these concerns the conclusion isn’t nearly as thrilling as intended.

Because these questions are brushed off, it’s easier to spot logic gaps. If you’re on the lam, do you want to be using a cell phone or a GPS, which could be used to give away your position? For every clever idea Haggis has, there’s a clunker like this one.

John Brennan is a fascinating character because he’s a bright but dangerously naïve criminal. It’s too bad the people behind The Next Three Days have made the same kind of mistakes he would. (PG-13) Rating 2.5 (Posted on 11/17/10)

Fair Game
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Despite its politically charged source material, Fair Game fails to excite much civic outrage. Instead of a political thriller based on the events that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the film merely relies on public knowledge for its skimpy political story and saves its inventions to offer a banal portrait of a marriage under stress.

still from Fair Game

Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), a non-official covert operative (NOC) for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), struggle to balance their work and home lives in a post-Clinton Washington, D.C. Retired from foreign service, Wilson is trying to launch a consulting business. Plame, promoted to chief of operations for the Iraqi branch of the Counterproliferation Division, travels the world recruiting the cooperation of friendly Iraqis. To their friends and family, Plame is a reserved venture capitalist and Wilson a blowhard politico, but their marriage is one of domestic bliss.

In February 2002, on the recommendation of a colleague, Plame signs off on her husband for a fact-finding mission in Niger. Finding no evidence of the purchase of uranium yellowcake for the Iraqi weapons program, Wilson writes his report and returns to his consulting work. Despite the intelligence that the weapons program in Iraq has been long dismantled, including the insistence of Plame's informants, the U.S. invades Iraq in early 2003, citing the heightened threat of weapons of mass destruction. In response, Wilson publishes an op-ed piece, “What I Didn't Find in Africa,” in The New York Times. The next week, Plame's position at the CIA is disclosed in the Washington Post, effectively ending Plame's career and endangering her contacts.

Surprisingly, director Doug Liman, known for slick espionage films (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity), focuses on the personal relationship between Plame and Wilson instead of the White House and media conspiracy to discredit Wilson by outing Plame. Although the Plame-Wilson dynamics, particularly Plame's steely non-partisan resolve in the face of her husband's bombastic indignant outrage, are an integral part of the story, they pale in comparison what is so obviously missing from a script written by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. But Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre) and Lewis "Scooter" Libby (David Andrews) are cartoonish bit parts. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, practically free from implication, is present only in news footage. In addition, columnist Robert Novak and reporter Judith Miller are absent altogether.

As a result, the extreme pressure under which the couple find themselves is minimized. A lack of specific details means this could be any couple, separating over a variety of mundane reasons. As Plame, Watts gives a wooden performance, falling for a manufactured speech on democracy by her preachy husband who comes off as petty, egotistical and jealous. Plame's pained expressions, reacting to the news of the fate of her informants, particularly a contrived story of a doctor and her family, read as shallow and makeshift. The only real acting comes when after a dinner of take-out Chinese; Plame eats a spoonful at the sink. She is human after all. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/19/2010)


Unstoppable
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Nineteen years ago in a publication that no longer exists, I trashed British director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2) for not being more like his more acclaimed older brother Sir Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Alien, Blade Runner). At the time, I didn’t even know that the two were siblings (youthful ignorance and no IMDB access were to blame). Nonetheless, the younger Scott’s The Last Boy Scout not only lacked the artistry of his older brother’s better movies, it was a forgettable bore.

With Unstoppable, however, Tony has a lot to teach his relative. More importantly, he’s crafted an action movie that’s consistently nail biting and rarely takes a viewer’s intelligence for granted.

The new movie follows an eventful and potentially catastrophic morning in Pennsylvania where a negligent railroad engineer’s (Ethan Suplee) mistake puts thousands of lives in danger. This Rhodes scholar manages to send a driverless locomotive away from the depot at full throttle. If thousands of tons of speeding metal running down the tracks weren’t dangerous enough, the train has seven cars full of a flammable toxin and is heading near high population areas.

On the other side of the state, another locomotive is nearing the runaway’s path. On board are a no-nonsense veteran engineer named Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and a rookie conductor named Will Colson (Chris Pine). Dealing with the runaway is a challenge, but simply getting along is difficult for the two.

While Frank is good at keeping his resentment to himself, he’s understandably upset because the company that employs both of them has been laying off the very workers who could have prevented the crisis. Frank and his pals dislike Will because he’s young and got his job through family and union connections.

Despite their formidable differences, Frank and Will are in a position to end the emergency. They’ve got helpful traffic controller (Rosario Dawson), who wisely ignores what her corporate overlords tell her. Screenwriter Mark Bomback and an able cast manage to make the people just interesting enough so that we care about whether they die in a toxic bonfire. Their workplace issues and personalities seem real enough to both cause and correct the issues raised in the film.

In one nice touch, Bomback doesn’t dumb down the terminology the railroad workers use. Because speeding trains speak for themselves, it doesn’t matter if a little bit of jargon goes over viewers╒ heads for a second or two. After seeing the film, I read the original report that described the 2001 incident, which took place in Ohio. While the characters in the film are all fictitious, the outline of the screenplay is fairly close to what happened (http://kohlin.com/CSX8888/z-final-report.htm.) As exhilarating as the final film is, Unstoppable offers a stern warning about how everyday technologies can rapidly endanger large numbers of people under the right conditions.

Scott’s frantic pacing is another plus. While the trains may be moving, the people inside them are in a static position, so in the wrong hands Unstoppable could have been tedious. In many of his recent films, Scott’s quick cutting and acrobatic camerawork have been distractions, but here he puts viewers in the train and makes them feel both the speed and the narrow track.

Unlike his older brother whose last film Robin Hood squandered two and a half hours, Scott keeps Unstoppable at a lean 98 minutes. Not a second is wasted. Scott and Bomback find the right balance between photogenic property destruction and character development so that the conversations seem real but don’t get in the way of payoff.

Unstoppable works like a good NASCAR race. The thrill comes not by having vehicles crash but by causing viewers to be aware of how close the danger of an accident is. Perhaps the biggest lesson that Tony could offer Sir Ridley is that it’s OK to make a movie that’s fun. Entertainment value, craftsmanship and intelligence can reside in the same space, even if it’s a runaway train. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/12/10).



Inside Job
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In his latest documentary, director Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight) tackles the subject of the systematic deregulation of the U.S. financial sector and how it led to the current global economic crisis. Inside Job provides a thorough and damning portrait of greed that in its indictment leaves no one who wrote the laws or made the deals — too often the same players — unscathed.

For decades, the proponents of deregulation participated in a widespread conspiracy to dismantle government oversight of the financial industry. As a result, the leading financial institutions bloated and speculation ran unchecked, leading to false bubbles, which Wall Street, as well as some in government and academia touted as evidence of the success of the free market. In 2000, Congress passed a bill prohibiting the regulation of derivatives despite warnings from a government agency enlisted to study the risk of the financial instrument. In essence, the financial industry's growth was self-perpetuating but unsustainable.

Derivatives minimized the risk for lenders providing home loans, which led to the overuse and abuse of subprime mortgages. The holders of these loans then bundled them and with the help of ratings agencies passed them off AAA-rated investments: as reliable as government securities. The firms then sold them to unsuspecting investors and also simultaneously bet on them to fail. Despite warnings about the risk to the global economy from prominent economists, including Raghuram Rajan, who as the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) presented a paper in 2005 that foretold of a “catastrophic meltdown,” speculation increased until the industry announced its failures in 2008. The bank heads had in fact been gutting their companies, running them into the ground, and then rewarding themselves for the effort with huge bonuses. And even now, after the bailouts, the many proponents of deregulation have weakened the current administration's attempts at reform — from the inside.

For the film, Ferguson has done his research. The narration, voiced by Matt Damon, provides a concentrated timeline of events, which is backed up by news footage and original graphics. More detailed analyses is provided in interviews with prominent economists, academics and government officials, including IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French Minister of Finance Christine Lagarde, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. That several of the leading proponents of deregulation, including Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Henry Paulsen, declined to participate does not detract from authenticity or sense of balance. Members of both major U.S. political parties are equally culpable.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the topic, Ferguson maintains a sense of irony. He allows Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former New York governor who also spent years rooting out crime on Wall Street, a wink and a nod in a conversation about prostitution. He also tacitly expresses the viewers' frustrations with resistant interviewees. At catching one of the talking heads in a contradiction, Ferguson lets himself be heard snapping, "You can't be serious.” At least we know he knows the foxes are guarding the henhouse. Ferguson provides an education and a way to vent, but it's still entertainment.

The movie encompasses humanity beyond talking suits by including the stories of the victims of predatory lenders and brief snapshots of areas brought to disaster through poverty. However, the director shows great restraint in not dwelling on those that must live with the effects of the global meltdown. Perhaps this comes from the unexpected sense of optimism that entreats viewers at the end of the film that it's not too late to stop the monolithic takeover by Wall Street. But having just watched the film, this is hard to believe. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/12/10)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As a fan of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it pains me to report that the final film adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy brings the once thrilling saga to a lethargic halt. It’s hard to tell if the blame should be assigned to screenwriter Ulf Ryberg or director Daniel Alfredson, who lacks original director Niels Arden Oplev’s wonderful sense of pacing. Perhaps Larsson himself is responsible because his poor health prevented him from seeing his vision through.

Regardless of who deserves the criticism, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest suffers from a critical mistake. Larsson introduced one of the most fascinating characters in Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a tough, pint-sized bisexual Swedish computer hacker who can take down the mighty with her speedy typing fingers or a well-placed punch or kick. In the first two films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth went through hell, but was easy to cheer for because she gave a far worse punishment to anyone who was foolish enough to wrong her. In the new film, however, Lisbeth has been reduced to a bystander in her own tale.

The new installment begins with Lisbeth lying in a hospital bed recovering from a fight to the death with her monster of a father (Georgi Staykov). She’s also still got a murder charge hanging over her head and a rogue branch of Swedish intelligence trying to stop her from revealing their misdeeds.

Meanwhile, intrepid reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is driving his staff crazy trying to clear Lisbeth’s name and to expose the taxpayer funded malfeasance. Despite a growing body count, Blomkvist’s investigation unfolds in a pretentious instead of a portentous manner. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest starts as a tedious journalistic procedure drama and concludes as a tedious courtroom drama.

In attempting to wrap up all the loose ends in Larsson’s story, Alfredson has wound up creating a cinematic first. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest may be the only movie that has ditched plot in favor of exposition. The back-story is so thick that the main story is smothered by it. While the mysteries of the first two films are resolved in the latest installment, reaching the conclusion isn’t that involving.

Lisbeth and Blomkvist’s investigative work is more engaging when the two are working together. He’s a workaholic, old-school reporter, and her gothed-out cyber sleuthing not only caught the bad guys but also was interesting to watch because Nyqvist and Rapace have great onscreen chemistry.

Because everyone else is either saving or endangering Lisbeth this time, the story never kicks into gear. Lisbeth is an instigator, not a target. It’s not any fun to watch other people act on her behalf. If she were directing her defense or surreptitiously bringing down her antagonists with her hacking skills, the film wouldn’t have seemed so stillborn.

The first movie was also two and a half hours long, but its complicated storyline and brisk progression made the running time seem much shorter. The final film’s simpler plot makes the length seem even more protracted.

If all you ask of a film is to resolve a few plot points, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest might satisfy you. Nonetheless, there’s no sense in making a sequel (besides financial gain) if all you accomplish is reminding viewers how much more enjoyable the first film was. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/12/10)

Morning Glory
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Minus any realistic details and a dedicated position on its own subject matter, Morning Glory fails to surpass expectations of being anything more than a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Director Roger Michell (Venus, Enduring Love) abandons all attempts to include his usual subversive touch of grittiness and in doing so also tones down hints of the charming mean streak previously exhibited by writer Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), creating a film based on overreaching caricatures and labored stunts.

Fueled by aspirations to work on The Today Show, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) accepts the seemingly doomed position of executive producer for the low-rated "Daybreak" morning news show. Saddled with a disgruntled staff and small budget, the ambitious naïf finds a loophole in the contract of award-winning former nightly news anchor Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), which requires him to accept a contract with her show or lose millions of dollars but does not oblige him to participate in the usual morning show banter or buffoonery. Contrary to Fuller's expectations, the legendary newsman's stodgy appearances drive the show's ratings down further and cause more malcontent among the extant staff members, particularly co-anchor Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton).

Threatened with cancellation by network executive Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum), Fuller sacrifices her new romance with Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), a producer on a primetime news show, to spend more time devising ways for her morning show staff, particularly hapless weatherman Ernie Appleby (Matt Malloy), to exploit themselves for ratings. Still failing to save the show, Fuller is surprised by an apparent change of heart in Pomeroy, who is only pretending but then isn't. Finally, the show and the romance are saved.

Practically lost under her bangs, Rachel McAdams as Fuller is over-caffeinated, overly talkative, and overplayed. Her hyper dialog is intended to come off as quirky and cute — think Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell — but more often is merely irritating and a bit clammy. So it comes as a surprise when she actually takes the helm of "Daybreak" to make snappy decisions and comes up with the clever idea to enlist Pomeroy. However, that's the extent of her smarts. She spends the rest of the movie making dubious decisions and running after her male co-stars, none of whom (including Ford doing his best to imitate the gravelly voice of either Clint Eastwood or Christian Bale as Batman) makes a proper foil for her. The result is a series of frantic chases played for cheap laughs followed by even cheaper sentiment.

There was probably a better film left in the editing room because there are hints of it in this frantic yet bland version. As a pill-crunching former beauty queen, Diane Keaton is woefully underused. Ty Burrell (Modern Family) puts in a brief but inspired performance as pervy predecessor anchor Paul McVee. In addition, the film sends such an innate mixed message about the state of the entertainment news industrial complex by ramping up the exploitation antics. A message that’s neither daring nor original, but when being saved by hard-hitting news, practically forces viewers to sift through the debris looking for a larger meaning. Unfortunately, all this version gives us in the end is a stupid girl in a Taylor Swift-inspired dress with egg on her face. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 11/12/10)

Nowhere Boy
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Because of his accomplishments as a musician and a peace activist and his senseless death, it’s easy to put John Lennon on a pedestal. The truth is that Lennon couldn’t have written or co-written such captivating songs if his personal life wasn’t occasionally torrid. Opening on the 70th anniversary of the singer’s birth and the 30th anniversary of his murder, Nowhere Boy proves the flesh-and-blood Lennon is infinitely more fascinating than the saint.

The new film covers Lennon’s life at the infancy of his musical career. As a teenager in Liverpool, he was more of a hooligan than a tunesmith. As depicted in the film, Lennon (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) is practically on his way to prison instead of rock-n-roll glory.

He rides on top of busses to avoid fees and pilfers American music from lax shopkeepers. When he does manage to sit with other passengers, he makes the mistake of showing them the pictures from his new porno mag. Lennon might be considered just another rowdy lad, but he has the gall to ask for his magazine back after his school’s headmaster punishes him for the offense.

While the lad’s home life isn’t solely to blame for his misbehavior, it’s certainly a contributing factor. His father, a merchant seaman, could best be described as absentee, and his fun-loving mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) lacks the discipline to raise a headstrong teen like John. Instead, most of John’s parenting has been left to his loving but straight-laced aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas). She’s almost overbearing in her demand that her nephew wear his much hated glasses, but she may be the only adult in his life with his best interests at heart and in mind.

That gradually changes as Julia’s long dormant maternal instincts start kicking in. She and her sister start competing for Lennon’s attention, and the rivalry starts getting fiercer when she starts teaching him banjo chords and skiffle songs.

This battle for the young man’s love might not have been terribly interesting if Johnson lacked the emotional range to make viewers care if Lennon behaves himself. He projects just enough sensitivity and intelligence to indicate what could have been lost if Lennon hadn’t discovered music. He also gets able support from Scott Thomas who thankfully prevents Mimi from becoming a stiff caricature.

Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (Control) closely follows Lennon’s early life but still manages to establish characters that are vivid enough to be intriguing. He and rookie director Sam Taylor-Wood catch some small but significant details that some Lennon and Beatles biopics conveniently ignore. For example, when a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) asks to join Lennon’s skiffle band, it’s refreshing to see that the filmmakers remembered that the future Sir Paul is left-handed.

Matt Greenhalgh and Taylor-Wood also take the time to show that even gifted musicians like McCartney and Lennon didn’t develop their chops overnight. You can hear them botch a chord or miss a beat as they’re struggling to learn songs. Taylor-Wood, who has a remarkable eye for composition, sets up a scene where Lennon, playing in real time, is surrounded by a world moving at warp speed. It’s a clever way of letting the audience know even the best had to work at it.

Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono has endorsed Nowhere Boy, but thankfully it’s not because the filmmakers have sugarcoated his life. His songs like “Mother,” which plays during the end, seem more poignant after knowing the pain that inspired them. (R) Rating 4.5 (Posted on 10/29/10)


Megaman
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The folks behind Megamind probably thought they had a great idea when they started developing the film a few years ago. Imagine what would happen if Lex Luthor or Brainiac actually succeeded in neutralizing or even killing Superman. Yes, the Man of Steel actually did die in the comic books during the 1990s, but movies have always been behind the stories in the print versions. Unfortunately, Megamind is also a few months behind the similar and much more entertaining cartoon Despicable Me.

It certainly doesn’t help that both films have characters with the name “Minion.”

The earlier film didn’t feature any superheroes for the title villain to subdue, but it also had a tighter storyline and more likable characters. Not only has Megamind showed up late for the box office battle, but it has also brought a knife to an atomic death ray fight.

As with the previous movie, the new film is actually told from the bad guy’s point of view. Having landed on earth to flee a dying planet (just like Superman or General Zod), the bald, blue-skinned Megamind (Will Ferrell) goes through a rough upbringing. He’s practically raised in prison, when he’s not being shown up at school by the vain, muscle-bound fellow who will grown into his enemy, Metro Man (Brad Pitt).

Despite being able to create a series of lethal inventions, Megamind has a streak that matches the one the Washington Generals have had against the Harlem Globetrotters. But he’s not trying to lose. When he accidentally discovers Metro Man’s weakness and sends him into superhero heaven, the victory feels oddly dull.

Even though the caped hero humiliated him with every defeat, being able to rule Metro City without opposition isn’t any fun. Worse, he finds that the television reporter who Metro Man kept saving, Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), wasn’t that attracted to her overworked rescuer. Because Megamind himself has a torch for the comely journalist, maybe being the bad guy has ruined his chances at love.

To stave off the crushing boredom, Megamind and his reluctant assistant Minion (a super smart fish voiced by David Cross) collect some of the late Metro Man’s DNA and inject it into Roxanne’s socially inept cameraman Hal (who else but Jonah Hill?). While Hal does indeed develop superpowers, Megamind discovers that Metro Man did believe Stan Lee’s adage that with great power comes great responsibility. Hal doesn’t. He turns into a superbully and dubs himself “Tighten” because he can’t spell “Titan.”

Megamind has several charming moments, most of which come courtesy of Farrell. Megamind speaks in a pseudo-sophisticate drawl that has to be heard to be believed. In his attempts to sound cultured, he mispronounces words like “school,” causing him to sound even more like a loser. Farrell is appropriately over-the-top, but he handles Megamind’s hysteria with a surprising about of emotional depth and finesse. In his own misguided way, the blue guy becomes lovable.

While Pitt has fun poking fun at Metro Man’s occasional self-absorption, Fey is sadly underutilized as Roxanne. Essentially, she’s a bland Lois Lane. That’s a waste of the actress-writer’s formidable talents. At least they could have given Roxanne a Sarah Palin accent. The former Alaska governor used to be journalist, so it might have worked.

Much of the humor in Despicable Me worked because the film dared to ask questions that other movies don’t ask of bad guys. For example, it may be the first film to explain how über-villains get the money for their bizarre, high-tech schemes. Most of the gags came from the story, so Despicable Me moves a lot faster than its predecessor.

A majority of the jokes in the new film are asides, which are frequently clever. Having Megamind disguise himself as a Marlon Brando lookalike is a cute reminder of Superman movies, but gags like this detract from the story and bring it to a halt instead of pushing it forward. The 3D visuals do work, but they lack the deft touch of the makers of Despicable Me.

In the end, Megamind does work, but it’s like watching a weak, badly duplicated bootleg of that other supervillain movie. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/05/10)


Due Date
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Because Due Date features the same director, Todd Philips, and star, Zach Galifianakis, behind The Hangover, it’s hardly surprising that the new film features the same emphasis on raunch. If you haven’t met your quota for bodily emissions, the same minds that gave us tasering in sensitive areas and naked Asian gangsters leaping out of car trucks have found new amusingly sick things in which to revel.

What was abundant before but is now missing in Philips’ latest outing is a small but essential element that helped leaven the vulgarity: surprise. In The Hangover, the film was loaded with gags that were so outlandish that their feasibility wasn’t much of an obstacle. Philips put viewers in the same sort of daze his characters suffered, so that the laughs came as much from unpredictability as shock value. The Hangover worked because it was as creative as it was vile.

Due Date, however, is bound too tightly to its familiar setup. If you’ve seen Planes, Trains & Automobiles, you’ve seen the new film, albeit better executed. Robert Downey, Jr. plays a tightly wound Los Angeles architect named Peter Highman, who has taken a routine business trip to Atlanta.

Peter’s wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) is due to deliver their first child, so he’s eager to be home. The normally simple return journey soon turns into a nightmarish odyssey when he accidentally bumps into an obnoxious bumbler named Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis). Their baggage gets mixed up, and the straight-laced Peter winds up getting kicked off the plane because he’s carrying Ethan’s marijuana pipe.

Worse, Peter winds up being put on a no-fly list, and his wallet gets lost in the melee. With no money or identification, Peter has little choice but to accept a ride from Ethan in his rental car. To say the trip is rough is difficult is an understatement. Ethan is an aspiring actor with little discernable talent. Claiming that he has glaucoma, Ethan spends as much time trying to score weed as he does getting the two of them to L.A. He’s even got a small French bulldog who manages to irritate Peter in ways that Ethan can’t, if that’s possible.

The script by Philips and three other writers bends over backwards to keep Peter and Ethan together. As a result, you can almost imagine a the writers room meeting where Philips and his co-writer Adam Sztykiel, who revised Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland’s script, strained to find credible ways to keep the incompatible men together. Apparently, they must have given up and settled for the easiest options. As a result, it takes no effort to guess what trouble the two will encounter, diminishing the potential shock value and the humor.

The fact that the film generates any laughs at all can easily be attributed to Downey and Galifianakis, and a deep supporting cast (Danny McBride, Jamie Foxx and Juliette Lewis all have hilarious cameos). It’s inherently amusing to see Downey, whose past issues with substance abuse have sadly been public knowledge, playing a stranger to vice, and he has enough charisma to make viewers tolerate some truly despicable behavior from Peter. When forced to watch some bratty kids, Peter pounds one in the rib cage. In the lands of a lesser performer, this gag would have netted more disgust than laughs.

While Galifianakis can still come up with bizarre asides that are as funny as they are creepy, he’s doling little more than rehashing his performance in The HangoverWhereas Peter could easily exist in the real world, Ethan can’t pass as anything but a comic contrivance. As a result, some of his antics aren’t as funny as they could be because you can see Galifianakis and the filmmakers straining to be funny.

Occasionally, the vulgar chuckles still emerge, but they’re not as effective if they are even more predictable than the birth date of a child. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 11/05/10)


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


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