movie reviews November 2011

HugoMelancholiaThe DescendantsArthur ChristmasThe MuppetsMy Week with Marilyn Like CrazyThe Skin I live InHappy Feet TwoThe Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Pt. 1J. Edgar A Very Harold & Kumar 3D ChristmasTake ShelterAnonymousTower Heist

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

  Visit the Reel Reviews ArchivesVisit the Video/DVD Reviews



For more reviews,
go to

iloveblackmovies.com

Hugo
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

Hugo may be based on Brian Selznick’s enchanting book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but it winds up playing more like a heartfelt thank you letter that director Martin Scorsese has written to his predecessors in the field. Thankfully what he’s made on his own is worthy of the artists he wants to celebrate. It’s also full of fun and wonder.

 

 

Set in the railroad station of Paris in 1931, Hugo follows a lad who could easily be mistaken for the copious machinery there. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is only about 10 or 12, but he’s responsible for keeping all the clocks in the station in working order.

 

Technically, his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) is supposed to do that, but Hugo is an orphan and has no place else to go. While Claude spends his days making sure that Paris’ whiskey flasks are properly emptied, Hugo, his uncompensated apprentice, slips in and out of clocks and has to steal for food and parts for a mysterious device he keeps in his home.

 

The device is an automaton, a windup man who can write once he’s activated. Hugo’s father (played in flashbacks by Jude Law) was repairing the machine before his death. Hugo believes the device could have a message from his dad, so he’s scrambling to find any loose gear or other part that might be used to fix the automaton.

 

He makes the mistake of robbing a toy merchant named Papa Georges (Sir Ben Kingsley). The old man wakes from his slumber and forces Hugo to empty his pockets. Georges then confiscates a notebook from Hugo’s father, threatening to burn it. There’s something in those sketches that he doesn’t like.

 

With the help of Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), he’s able to convince the old man to let him repair his toys. After spending all day maintaining the clocks, repairing windup mice is easy. The two men form an uneasy friendship. The old man teaches Hugo a series of impressive magic tricks, but he gets agitated whenever Isabelle or Hugo start bringing up some sketches they’ve discovered by him or whenever they bring up the past, or movies.

Hugo discovers that toys, magic and movies are all connected to Georges, but he can’t figure out how. He also helps Isabelle sneak into a film so that she can discover what she’s missing.

 

At least working for Georges keeps Hugo from the clutches of the determined Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Stuck with a wounded leg, he patrols the station with zeal and thinks nothing of forcing a starving urchin into an orphanage.

 

If, like me, you’re so in love with the movies that you will readily watch something, silent, black-and-white or subtitled, it probably won’t take you long to figure out who Georges really is. If however, you are not a film scholar or a fan of the period, Scorsese will skillfully turn you into one without you even knowing it.

 

Without beating viewers over the head, Scorsese populates Hugo with copious reminders of the period. Blink for a second, and you’ll miss a shot of James Joyce or Django Reinhardt. Screenwriter John Logan (Scorsese’s The Aviator) wisely avoids pointing out to the audience who any of the luminaries of post World War I France are. Nobody says, “Hey, aren’t you Django Reinhardt?” Logan and Scorsese correctly figure that viewers would rather follow the story and take in the consistently breathtaking visuals.

 

Hugo is Scorsese’s first film in 3D, and he uses it with a subtlety and finesse that has been missing from the shamefully overpriced movies that have treated the technology simply as a gimmick. Scorsese hides objects behind steam, smoke or snow and draws viewers into discovering clues to the story. With his regular collaborators production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Robert Richardson, it’s guaranteed that Hugo would be great to look at. It doesn’t hurt that Selznick’s original book was told by alternating between images and text. It’s almost as if Selznick had storyboarded the movie before a production deal had even been struck.

 

Like the filmmakers they’re celebrating, Scorsese and his collaborators are trying to push the limits of what movie technology can do and what sort of subject matter can grace the big screen. There’s a lot of content in Hugo that might go over the heads of children, but that’s much of its charm. The Station Inspector attempts to impress people by using and misusing lots of words that aren’t likely to make an elementary school vocabulary test. Then again, kids sometimes love it if they can figure out something that baffles grownups.

 

When asked if a film is good for children, it’s occasionally difficult to come up with a definitive answer because youngsters can react unpredictably to what’s on screen and each one is different. It’s easy to empathize with frustrated video store clerk Randal in Clerks when a nervous parent queries, “Is this movie good for a six year old autistic child?”

 

While I’m unable to answer that question, I can say that Logan and Scorsese do several things I wish more filmmakers would do in movies aimed at kids. Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector initially seems like a buffoonish villain, but Logan and Baron Cohen also give him a dignity that other filmmakers might not.

 

He’s a wounded veteran of the Great War, and he’s earnestly trying to win the heart of a pretty flower vender (Emily Mortimer). By having a dynamic antagonist, Logan and Scorsese advise kids not to assume people who disagree with them are necessarily bad. It’s a given that Baron Cohen’s antics will be funny, but it’s also great that viewers aren’t asked to wish for the Station Inspector’s ruin in the process.

 

This warmth runs throughout Hugo and is a pleasant reminder of how Scorsese and a lot of others have fallen in love with movies and will probably continue to do so. (PG) Rating: 5

 

Melancholia
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s unfortunate that Danish writer-director Lars von Trier (Antichrist) is now best known for his bizarre remarks about Hitler at Cannes this year.

“I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. ... He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews,” he said during a press conference that got him permanently banned from the festival.

Sadly his strange, if not foolish or even offensive remarks detracted from one of his more intriguing movies. Melancholia is loaded with the same striking visuals and grim themes that have dominated von Trier’s other movies, but his protagonists are more sympathetic, in part, because they’re not begging for their own demise.

The film begins with an eight-minute montage of beautiful but disconcerting sights, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” If you’re looking for Nazi comparisons, you can stop here. There aren’t any more.

We see shots of an ominous looking cosmos contrasted with images that initially look serene, but we can see birds falling like leaves during autumn. Apparently, something really dreadful and even apocalyptic has been happening. If I ever become ravaged by some horrible disfiguring ailment, I want cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro to photograph me because I think he’d make me look like a young Gary Cooper.

When the film actually kicks into gear, it follows a newlywed named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her likable, if not terribly perceptive husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). Their stretched limo gets stuck on the way to the palatial home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her smug, short-tempered brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Perhaps the hapless chauffeur was doing the couple a favor.

While the reception is lavish (John continually reminds Claire and Justine how much it’s costing him), Justine is miserable. While some brides might dream of holding a wedding in a mansion surrounded by a golf course, Claire senses all is not well.

It doesn’t take long to discover why. Claire’s father (John Hurt) is something of an alcoholic dolt, and her mother (Charlotte Rampling) tells anyone who will listen to her loud outbursts that she thinks marriage should be avoided at all costs. She might be the worst wedding guest in history, but at least she has integrity.

The best man is Jack (Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander’s real-life dad), Justine’s boss. He runs the ad firm where she churns out seductive copy. He’s so obsessed with work that he promotes her during the reception and forces an uneducated lad named Tim (Brady Corbet) to work for him, promoting shoddy merchandise.

It’s no wonder she looks at her coming life with dread. All that money comes from dealing with loathsome people and intolerable moral compromises. There’s also a scary looking star off in the distance that indicates the worst is yet to come.

The film abruptly switches to Claire’s point of view. If John seems like an oaf as a brother-in-law, imagine having him for your smug, abrasive husband. We also gradually learn that the object that was visible in the sky on the night of Justine’s wedding is actually an out of orbit planet named Melancholia that’s now visible to the naked eye during the daytime. At times, it appears bigger than the moon. Claire has a difficult time explaining to her son Leo (Cameron Spurr) how, despite John’s fatuous assurances, this can be a good thing.

In a lot of his earlier movies, von Trier seemed to have an animosity toward women. Horrible things happened to them, or they lead foolish males to their mutual doom. In Melancholia, however, the women seem to be the only ones who have a clue about the enormity of the coming doom, even if they don’t have data to back up their intuitions yet.

Claire and Justine may get on each other’s nerves, and Justine does a lot of rash, strange things. But both, unlike their men, know you can be materially rich and still have crummy lives. Both also understand there are a lot of things human beings have done during our time on this planet that could use a good liquidation.

Dunst and Gainsbourg are terrific and play off each other well, even if one begins to wonder why one sister sounds American and the other sounds British. von Trier may be doing this odd but successful casting on purpose. To keep the film from becoming relentlessly morose, von Trier chooses the eternally creepy Udo Kier as a well-meaning but befuddled wedding planner. One look at his face indicates the nuptials are doomed, but who knew he had such a wonderful sense of humor?

Despite the modest budget, Melancholia is breathtaking to look at, and the stellar collisions would make Michael Bay or James Cameron proud even if von Trier actually has something worthwhile to say as he’s endangering the planet.

Melancholia moves at a measured but steady pace and remains gripping despite its two-and-a-half hour running time. Perhaps it’s because von Trier is saying that if we can’t avoid doom from the cosmos, it would be best to make a world whose loss is worth mourning. If only he had said something like that at the press conference, we’d be celebrating his film instead of chiding his errant tongue (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/23/11)

 

The Descendants
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

George Clooney became a star because he projects a sense of authority. Simply by standing in front of a camera, he commands attention. What makes his latest vehicle The Descendants so fascinating is that co-writer director Alexander Payne (Sideways) features the actor playing someone who’s not really in charge of anything.

 

 

At the beginning of The Descendants, Matt King (Clooney) has a successful career as an attorney, a nice home in Honolulu and a potential landfall coming from a patch of land his family owns on the island of Kaua’i. Because he’s the trustee, he has an unusual amount of control of the deal.

 

For all of his legal gymnastics, Matt has spent far too much time at the office. His wife Elizabeth is in a coma following a boating accident. Prior to the accident, the couple had been drifting apart, and Matt had left raising their two daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) to her.

 

As Matt discovers, this was a mistake. The 17-year-old Alexandra and the 10-year-old Scottie need all the attention they can get. The firstborn child is in sort of a reform school, and the younger daughter sends hateful, profane text messages to her classmates. While Matt was filing cases, Elizabeth wasn’t doing much in the parenting department, either.

 

Matt feels overwhelmed by his new responsibility, but he gradually learns that his daughters aren’t mere brats. Alexandra became furious with Elizabeth before the accident because she caught her mother cheating on Matt.

 

In trying to find the man who cuckolded him, Matt finally begins connecting with his offspring in a way he hasn’t before. He doesn’t have much choice in the matter because Elizabeth isn’t going to get any better.

 

The storyline for The Descendants sounds rather glum, but Payne manages to squeeze quite a bit of humor out of the scenario. For one thing, Matt discovers he can’t spend much time with Alexandra without also dealing with her pal Sid (Nick Krause), who has a knack for uttering things that guarantee he’ll be punched before he’s asked to leave.

 

Scottie also has a knack for committing acts that are unthinkable. They’re not unthinkably immoral. They’re just, well, unthinkable. She leaps into the family pool wearing her sister’s underwear and does things with sand that have to be seen to be believed.

 

Payne manages to keep the delicate balance between these antics and the somber nature of what’s happening in Matt’s life. Matt feels a sense of loss at never having the opportunity to make up for his failings as a workaholic husband, and Clooney coveys it effortlessly. As The Descendants unfolds, he comes off like a child learning to walk when Matt learns that he owes as much to his children and to his ancestors as he does his clients.

Payne, working from the novel Kaui Hart Hemmings, also creates some vivid supporting characters, including Elizabeth’s abrasive father (Robert Forster) and a glib real estate agent (Matthew Lillard), who loses his ingratiating veneer when confronted with his moral failings.

 

Hawaii, the actual location of the film, looks expectedly great, and Payne includes dozens of regional songs on the soundtrack. Both establish the setting without slowing down the story.

 

The subplot involving the land deal gets a bit didactic, but Payne makes a convincing case that having it made doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be happy about it. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/25/11)

 

Arthur Christmas
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

Believing in Santa Claus can be a tough challenge for a youngster, especially if he or she ever thinks much about logistics. Arthur Christmas gets off to a terrific start by letting inquisitive viewers know how the guy in the red suit manages to get all those toys to two billion kids on a single evening. Made by the droll crew at Brighton, England’s Aardman Animations (the team behind Wallace & Gromit), the film’s strongest moments come when director Sarah Smith and her co-screenwriter Peter Baynham figure out how to make Santa’s annual mission as plausible as it is anticipated.

 

 

No, Jolly old Saint Nick (voiced by Jim Broadbent) doesn’t personally slide down chimneys to hand out goodies or eat the cookies and milk. His older son and potential heir Steve (Hugh Laurie) supervises the operation from a hidden air traffic control center on the North Pole. Legions of elves, who operate like commandos, slip in and out of houses delivering the right gifts to the right children. It’s not like the portly Santa himself could do it. They’re the only ones small enough to pull it off.

 

Thanks to Steve’s arsenal of gizmos, the system has worked flawlessly for decades. Having only one glitch in two billion deliveries is a record any courier would envy, but it would sure be unpleasant to be young Gwen (Ramona Marquez) in Cornwall on Christmas morning.

 

Despite all the tools and the quick thinking, her pink bicycle is still at the shop on the North Pole. Steve’s earnest but bumbling younger brother Arthur (played to sweet-hearted perfection by James McAvoy) discovers the bike and begs Steve and Santa to deliver it before the girl wakes up disappointed. Santa, however, is sleeping, and Steven isn’t going to risk having his stealth flying fortress being discovered to get a present to a single girl.

 

Fortunately, Arthur’s grandfather (Bill Nighy) shares his own zero tolerance policy for undelivered presents. Angry at having been passed over, he convinces Arthur to join him and the long retired reindeer for one last unauthorized run. While simple in concept, the journey winds up being hair-raising because Grandpa hasn’t flown the sleigh since 1962 (it wasn’t pretty).

 

If you can imagine what Fred Claus would have been like if Vince Vaughn were charming instead of obnoxious, then you might get an idea of what makes Arthur Christmas work. Smith stages lots of jaw dropping flight scenes and finds several creative ways for the trip to go into disastrous side turns. The characters are generally appealing, including Imelda Stanton as Mrs. Claus and Ashley Jenson as Bryony, an elf who can do with wrapping paper what McGuyver can do with everything else.

 

Sadly, the movie loses some momentum toward the end and feels padded. A good ten minutes could be lost without being missed. Do they really have to take that many wrong turns?

Nonetheless, the appeal of Arthur Christmas is that the folks who made it have acknowledged that believing in Santa Claus requires a good deal of imagination. These folks deserve credit for admitting that being smart enough to question the discrepancies in Santa’s trip is a great way to make the journey more entertaining. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 11/25/11)

 

The Muppets
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The late puppeteer-producer Jim Henson is still mourned because of his remarkable ability to make viewers care about felt-skinned characters whose eyes never closed. Thankfully his successors have managed to retain the charm of Henson’s creations and have done nothing to disgrace the memories of those of us who have grown up with them.

The Muppets manages to sneak the characters back on the screen by reintroducing them from someone else’s point of view. Walter and Gary are two brothers who are very close even though the two bear little resemblance. Gary (played by Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller) is a tall, baby-faced fellow, and Walter (operated by Peter Linz) is, well, a cloths-skinned puppet, who hasn’t grown since age seven.

It’s not surprising that Walter would develop a fondness for the Muppets during their heyday in the ‘80s, after all he’s practically one of them. It’s a no brainer that he’ll join Gary and Gary’s perky girlfriend Mary (who else but Amy Adams?) on their trip to Los Angeles and the Muppets Studio.

Mary is dismayed because the two siblings are inseparable, even though she and Gary have been a couple for a decade. Walter, however, is horrified to discover that the studio is now barely a tourist attraction. An aged tour guide (Alan Arkin) is the only occupant on the lot. Worse, an oil magnate named Tex Richman (KC’s own Chris Cooper) wants to tear down the facility and drill for more Texas T.

Gary, Walter and Mary team up in an urgent quest to reunite the Muppets so they can put on a show to save the studio. While the performers are all capable of performing at peak form again (puppets generally don’t age), Walter may be part of a diminishing fan base.

Actually, if you’ve been anywhere near an Ipad or a computer, that’s not very likely. Still, all of that saturation would get pretty annoying if the characters hadn’t retained their earnest charm. As with the TV show and the movies that followed, there are a lot of cracks in the fourth wall, oodles of in jokes and tons of celebrity cameos. Thankfully, most of these are quite funny, and having Adams burst into song (and fix cars and other machines) is another plus.

While Henson isn’t around to do Kermit or the heckler from the balcony, and Frank Oz has quit doing Miss Piggy for directing films, the puppeteers manage to get a lot of emotional mileage out of characters that never blink and have limited facial expressions. They somehow manage to give the characters an expressive body language that compensates for the unyielding faces.

While Segel, Stoller and rookie director James Bobin paint the humor in broad strokes, there’s still an endearing sweetness that permeates The Muppets. All involved seem enthusiastic about the project, and it shows, even if Cooper has to settle for a “meta” version of a maniacal laugh.

The absence of snark is actually rather welcome. If only Walter looked up to these little folks, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. Thankfully, younger viewers can finally understand why their parents keep singing “Mahna Mahna.” (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/23/11)

 

My Week with Marilyn

Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

 

Based on a book written by Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn shows the iconic Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) in England filming The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957, just before her fame rose even higher with the release of Some Like it Hot. Partnered with an older (and somewhat disillusioned) Sir Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), and married at the time to what this movie portrays as "the world's biggest asshole" Arthur Miller, Marilyn is a fractured, pill-popping mess who turns to our young Colin for some comfort, mostly while she's nude.

 

 

If you've kept up with the buzz on this flick reviewers are pretty much eating this thing up. Period piece about early filmmaking? Check. Current actors portraying famous deceased ones? Double-check. Portraying the beautiful and famous, as flawed people with no fault of there own to blame? Super-triple check!

 

Sure- as directed by Simon Curtis, William's performance is perfect: She nails the way Curtis has picked Monroe to look, speak and act. We see her as the flirty sexpot, the struggling method actress, and the abandoned child who can never get enough attention to fill that emotional hole. It should be compelling ... but it's just not.

 

As the filming goes on, Marilyn is often late, doesn't know her lines (or even her "line"), and is as dependent on others as she is manipulative and, frankly, kinda stupid. Branagh's Olivier quickly grows to both admire and hate her, talking of her "natural talent,” which he quietly realizes is more below her neck than above it.

 

One would expect a book written from someone who actually knew the real person to have some insight — but here she's almost more of a cartoon version, more a Jessica Rabbit than a famous and complex icon. While it's true that Michelle nails her character, she's just not a very interesting one. She looks like Marilyn, talks like her, even moves just right, but in the end it's a lot of effort for little return.

 

While I'm probably in the minority here, unless you happen to be a huge Marilyn Monroe fan, My Week with Marilyn is about five days too long. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 11/11/11)

 

Like Crazy
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Like Crazy captures the rush of being young and in love and the inevitable glumness that arises when desire can’t overcome real world obstacles. Director Drake Doremus may have collaborated with Ben York Jones on the script, but much of the dialogue is improvised. As a result, it’s easy to believe that American graduate student Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and British undergrad Anna (Felicity Jones) are gradually falling for each other. Jacob even makes custom furniture for the object of his affection.

Because both are overwhelmed with passion and hormones, neither pays attention to the restrictions on Anna’s visa. While the United States is a wonderful place to live, it’s pretty damn tough to emigrate here legally. When she attempts to return to the States after having spent too long in Los Angeles before returning to England, Anna is detained at LAX and is unceremoniously deported.

Jacob goes to great lengths to be with her despite the distance, the expense and the time difference. Marrying Anna can potentially expedite her return, but immigration officials, afraid of attracting undesirables, treat Anna as one.

The strength and the weakness of Like Crazy is that it acknowledges that even the most all consuming love can vanish or even fade away once barriers arise. Both Anna and Jacob’s eyes start to roam when returning to Los Angeles is no longer an option. Jacob even has an affair with an employee at his handmade furniture company named Sam (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone). Naturally, Jacob gets torn apart by the situation, and no one involved benefits.

By acknowledging that romance can falter under the burden of international paperwork, Like Crazy becomes easier to believe, but there’s also a powerful sense of disappointment because the characters continue to botch the process. It would seem obvious that taking the Department of Homeland Security lightly is not a smart move, making Anna and Jacob seem unsympathetic at times. That said, finding a rational person deeply in love is as practical as unicorn hunting.

Furthermore, many of the restrictions that Anna and Jake face seem pretty arbitrary. Anna might be rash, but she could become a welcome addition. The Underwear Bomber had no problems with immigration authorities, and it’s safe to say he should have.

Like Crazy has a nagging sense that once the spell is broken, there isn’t much left. Is the struggle that Anna and Jacob have waged really worth it? Because both are young, they might eventually regain their bearings and move on. The two might have been more sympathetic if they were older or had been in a longer relationship, where it would have been harder to start over.

Throughout it all, Yelchin and Jones are convincing as enamored, if misguided, youths. There’s something to be said for the feeling of being unable to look away from another’s eyes. Doremus captures it, but I’m not sure I want to thank him for revealing that it goes away. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 11/18/11)

The Skin I Live In
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar has had a knack for finding world-class thespians in his native land (like Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem) and for getting the best out of them when they come back home. Such is the case with his latest teaming with frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas.

Because Banderas has made most of his income trading on his handsome features, it’s easy to forget how much talent he really has. Listen to his droll delivery as the animated feline in Puss in Boots, and you’ll hear how unfortunate it is that many of his other English language roles pale compared to a dashing cartoon cat. In Spain, however, Almodóvar successfully cast him as just about anything. He was an escaped loon in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, a regular Joe in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and jealous gay man in Law of Desire.

In The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar molds Banderas into Robert Ledgard, a gifted plastic surgeon who’s on the verge of a breakthrough. He has a patient named Vera (Elena Anaya), who lives in comfortable but creepy room where the doctor and his maid (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes, High Heels) can watch her at all times. Vera spends most of her days lounging and doing yoga exorcizes in a flesh-colored leotard. She has some clothes she can wear over it, but for some reason she’s not able to or maybe doesn’t want to.

Apparently, Vera is sporting a new type of prosthetic skin. It’s resistant to mosquito bites and is potentially tougher than the real thing while looking completely natural. This potentially lifesaving discovery isn’t sitting well with Robert’s peers. While seeing the promise, they’re skeptical of its commercial possibilities, and they’re also confused on how to ethically develop the concept.

As we gradually discover, Robert has wasted little time bothering with ethical issues. His wife died shortly after a terrible car wreck and might have been saved if his invention had been available earlier. Further, their daughter has also suffered misfortunes of her own, and Vera has become both Robert’s lover and his guinea pig.

If all of this sounds sordid, The Skin I Live In actually has two more acts to go. Almodóvar, working from Thierry Jonquet’s novel, has some jolting revelations saved up that make the previous act seem almost like a Disney film.

Almodóvar’s previous films are loaded with kinky content, and it says something for his skill as a filmmaker that he can still jolt viewers after three and a half decades in the business. His tone and handling are unusually low-key. The glaring colors of his earlier films are muted, but the restraint may be his attempt to maximize the shock value. If the whole movie looked gaudy, the plot twists wouldn’t alarm.

Reconnecting with Banderas is another smart move. When we discover how low Robert has sunk as a scientist and a human being, if anybody but Banderas was playing the role, viewers would dash through the exists long before the ending. Banderas manages to make Robert both a tragic and a menacing figure that is capable of obsessive love and appalling recklessness.

Once Penélope Cruz started working with Almodóvar again, her English language roles finally became as interesting as the ones she had back in Spain. Here’s hoping Banderas has similar luck. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/18/11)

Happy Feet Two
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Australian writer-producer-director George Miller, who has given us the Mad Max and Babe movies, won his only Oscar for a cartoon about singing and tap dancing penguins. Admittedly, Happy Feet was pretty entertaining. It’s just too bad that the inspiration that ran though the previous movie has melted like the Antarctic glaciers that crumble at the beginning of Happy Feet Two.

While the singing and dancing are still a lot of fun, Miller seems to have spent more time thinking of set pieces than storylines. That results in a lot of dead time between musical numbers. There’s also the potential issue that Mumble Happy Feet (voiced by Elijah Wood), the only penguin in Antarctica who seems incapable of singing to woo a mate, now has a mate and is all grown up. The issues that bother him here simply aren’t as interesting. Having a successful marriage to Gloria (singer P!nk) is actually a letdown for the story.

His offspring Erik (Ava Acres) doesn’t share his love of dancing, and is prone to leave the rest of the penguin flock to hang out with the flamboyant Ramon (Robin Williams). There’s also a new strange penguin with a Swedish accent named The Might Swen (Hank Azaria). He’s got a colorful bill and, unlike the rest of the birds on the South Pole, he can fly.

The crises that arise aren’t all that involving. The performers give it their all. Williams seems to love hamming it up as two of the penguins, and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are a riot as a pair of bickering krill who get bored with their lives as whale food. The former plays a crustacean that believes he can simply will himself into being a predator despite nature’s inflexible design. Good luck with that.

It’s understandable why Brittany Murphy couldn’t reprise her role as Mumble’s wife (she’s sadly passed on), but neither Nicole Kidman nor Hugh Jackman have returned to play Mumble’s parents, and they were two of the more interesting characters in the first movie. While the feisty krill do their part, the rest of the birds and beasts are sketchily created and not that engaging. Sofia Vergara might play a defiant penguin named Carmen, but she’s not on the soundtrack enough to register.

Like pretty much all of the big budget films these days, Happy Feet Two is in 3D, pointless, annoying 3D, that really doesn’t do anything to improve the storytelling. Once the plot takes a break, the dancing begins, and the film comes to life. The soundtrack is loaded with an engaging hodgepodge of pop and hip-hop (Common is one of the penguins). When the DVD comes out, it will be fun to skip past the story and go straight to the musical numbers.

Miller can coast a bit because baby penguins are hopelessly cute, but a filmmaker of his considerable gifts is wasting his time and ours by using his imagination and that of others so sparingly. (PG)  Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/18/11)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Pt. 1
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you’re already a fan of the Twilight series, go ahead and spend your money and the 117 minutes of your life on The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1. Nothing I say will prevent you from doing so, and the Constitution gives you the right to spend your cinematic dollar as you see fit.

If you’re on either Team Edward or Team Jacob, however, nothing in Breaking Dawn will win you over. Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) attempts to give the proceedings some vitality, but he’s hamstrung by novelist Stephanie Meyer’s torpid plotline. He’s also unable to solve the issue that has made the previous films so unbearable: The lead characters are relentlessly dull and unappealing.

It’s impossible to believe that vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) would fight tooth and nail for the hand of the sullen, mouth-breathing, passive and personality-free Bella (Kristen Stewart). To be fair, she doesn’t have much of a choice either. Edward is a whiny stalker, and Jacob has anger issues. Neither has anything to offer except for well-developed pecs. If love means more to you than watching dead-eyed automatons unconvincingly spouting tired clichés about being devoted forever, stay away from this shallow, mindless, emotionally barren drivel.

If you can get past Stewart’s open mouth gaze and relentless lip biting, there’s still the problem that neither Pattinson nor Lautner is much of an actor. The charisma-free Pattinson has only two skills as a performer: his ability to shed his native British accent and his ability to grow his hair in directions that defy gravity. Lautner has more of a screen presence, but about the only emotion he seems to be able to convey is anger, and even that’s a little shaky. Condon lets Lautner keep his shirt on more this time, but the performer’s chiseled torso is frankly more impressive than his line delivery.

In Eclipse, screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg seemed to be starting to have fun with all the morose nonsense. Occasionally, she’d throw in a wisecrack that would break the glum tedium. For the 20-minute wedding between Bella and Edward, there’s a joy that’s been missing from the first three films. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (an Oscar-winner for Pan’s Labyrinth) creates a lush, florid environment that many couples may try imitating.

Once Bella and Edward tie the knot, the story gets more complicated, but curiously never comes to life. Bella decides to stay human for their honeymoon but winds up with some type of affliction. Because the being is not necessarily human or vampire, it’s not quite compatible with her system. From looking at Stewart during these scenes, she appears to be either pregnant or afflicted with a ravenous tapeworm.

For reasons that aren’t explained, having two new blood suckers irritates the werewolves of Forks and ends up violating the longstanding truce. Despite the possibility of an all out battle between vampires and CGI werewolves the size of trucks, there’s a curious lack of tension that runs throughout Breaking Dawn—Part 1. It doesn’t help that Condon adds a lot of odd, multicolor montages that repeat footage from previous scenes in the movie without adding anything useful or interesting.

The special effects in Breaking Dawn-Part 1 are the best of the series, but that’s like saying that you’ve found your favorite member of the Manson Family. The CGI wolves look less tacky than they have in the previous films, but Condon doesn’t seem to have a clue on how to build a sense of danger or to stage action scenes. During a conference between the giant canines, we can hear their voices but can’t see their mouths moving. That device worked in A Boy and His Dog, but here the visual and sonic cacophony results in a sequence that’s confusing and unintentionally hilarious. Carter Burwell’s score gets louder and louder when the sequences are supposed to be dramatic, but the film gets more laughable because the sonic frenzy only advertizes how empty the film is.

Condon and everyone else are simply making a film for the fans. That’s fine, but for those of us who have been dragged by friends and significant others could use a little love, too. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/18/11)

 

J. Edgar
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

I have to admire director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar-winner for Milk) for even trying to make a credible biopic of longtime F.B.I. chief John Edgar Hoover. With his nearly 50-year career, Hoover (played by Leonard DiCaprio) outlasted the presidents and the legislators who were supposed to be his bosses, and as a result he wielded a considerable amount of power over them.



 

While he was justifiably one of the most feared men in Washington, he was also one of the most mysterious. Hoover had few close friends and took most of his secrets to his grave. As a result, any film that covers his life is going to have to deal with large gaps that can only be filled with speculation.

 

Because Hoover is both complex and enigmatic, it’s no wonder that that J. Edgar is only fitfully engaging. Black, who did such a marvelous job of depicting Harvey Milk in his previous film, stumbles in fleshing out Hoover. Milk’s political career, tragically, was far shorter than Hoover’s, and he was an outgoing individual whom several people remember well.

 

Furthermore, Milk’s rise as the first openly gay politician in America is undeniably a good thing. Too many politicians have embarrassed themselves and their offices by pretending to be something they aren’t. With Hoover, however, his legacy is mixed at best. While he was a bureaucratic bully who tragically went on left-wing witch-hunts and ignored the menace of organized crime, he also modernized the F.B.I. and made it a formidable force against crime of all kinds.

 

Another challenge Black faces is that the only people who were close to Hoover died before or soon after he did. Even if they had outlived Hoover by a considerable margin, one gets the feeling that his domineering mother (Dame Judi Dench), his loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) or his live-in best friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, The Social Network) would not say much about him if asked.

 

Some of the conversations these characters have with Hoover ring false. When Tolson or Gandy question Hoover’s paranoia about communism, which was a formidable threat during his early career, it sounds as if history, not flesh-and-blood people, is questioning him. Tolson and Hoover might have been lovers and kept the exact nature of their relationship secret because homosexuality was obviously shunned back then.

 

Black and Eastwood thankfully don’t sensationalize their relationship. The temptation to do so is formidable. In Nixon, Oliver Stone implies the worst thing Hoover could have done was feel attracted other men. The last time I checked, using his public office as an extortion racket was a far, far greater offense.

 

Black also frames the story, which jumps back and forth in time, around Hoover dictating his memoir. It’s an old trope, and Black doesn’t use it well. It’s hard to imagine junior F.B.I. agents questioning him about his lies and exaggerations when most would have been too young to recall the events he’s discussing.

 

Five decades is a lot to cram into a two-and-a-half hour movie, and the compression of major historical events does hurt the film. The kidnapping of Charles Lindberg’s baby son, Hoover’s war on bank robbers in the 1930s, the Union Station Massacre and the influence of Martin Luther King could all make terrific movies in themselves. In J. Edgar, they are reduced to sound bites (although Josh Lucas is terrific given what little he has been given to do as Charles Lindberg).

 

The time factor also takes a toll on the performances. DiCaprio and Hammer appear buried under their prosthetics as the film progresses. While Watts’ makeup artists do a fine job of taking her from Gandy’s youth to her final years in Hoover’s office, the makeup for the leading me is occasionally unconvincing and ends up distracting from their performances.

 

Eastwood’s subtlety is there for people who are willing to pay attention. After Hoover compliments Bobby Kennedy (clumsily played by Jeffrey Donovan) on his fireplace, watch the background in Hoover’s office. Without a lot of speeches or needless emoting, you’ll discover how Hoover’s vanity has gotten out of control.

 

Hoover’s legacy is one we can ill afford to forget, so it’s commendable that Black and Eastwood tried to get it right even though doing so appears to be elusive. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/11/11)

 

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today

Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

 

Consisting of various black and white footage from WWII, interspaced with footage taken at the actual Nuremberg trials, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today is a dispassionate account of the rise of the Nazi party, from the early book-burning days, through the trumped-up reasons to invade most of Europe, and of course on to defeat and the bitter end.

 

 

Presented much like the trial itself, this documentary is filled with dry lawyer-esque timelines as Hitler's advance dominates country after country, often dwelling on various pacts and treaties he's broken, as if such agreements hold more strength than the paper they're written on. The United States and Russia are presented as noble defenders forced from a peaceful nature into reluctant heroes (no mention about Stalin's murder of something like 50 million of his own people, or Roosevelt's hesitation to get involved until after the attack on Pearl Harbor).

 

During the actual trial it was the photos of the concentration camp victims that caused the greatest stir, and seen once again, they are as horrific as they are disturbing. You can feel the absolute ruthlessness; indeed, the joy Hitler's government had in tossing all pretensions to humanity aside is favor of what seems like utter madness. Like most, I hate comparing ANY others with Nazis, but ... let's just say most of the leaders on trial said just because they were in charge, they had no idea of the atrocities occurring right outside their window. Remind you of anyone?

 

There's no doubt that seeing the earlier footage of marching storm troopers, heads and arms held high, superimposed with starving children and the elderly digging helplessly through the rubble of their once-mighty country is a compelling example of the folly of man.

 

Unfortunately, it's also kinda boring. While the restoration of the original photos and films is of utmost importance, it's hard to see anyone other than historians going out of there way to watch this, or, of course, the next generation of high school students. (No Rating) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 11/12/11)

 

Jack and Jill

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

 

In Jack and Jill, Adam Sandler takes on dual roles to play fraternal but look-alike twins. In the role of the female counterpart, Sandler creates a disparaging drag act that is crude and unkind. He relies on clichéd gags about masculine women for cheap laughs and risks nothing of himself or an actual feminine side to make the character believable. Notwithstanding the veiled misogyny and labored gags; however, Sandler's softer side — laid bare by Al Pacino, of all people — gives the film heart, despite its best efforts to remain rude and vulgar.

 

 

Lonely Bronx native Jill Sadelstein (Adam Sandler) is visiting her brother, commercial director Jack Sadelsein (also Adam Sandler), and his family in Los Angeles for the holidays. Although Jack criticizes his twin sister as homely, shrill and annoying, she gets along well with his wife Erin (Katie Holmes) and two children, a daughter who dresses her doll in identical outfits and son, adopted from India with a fetish for Scotch Tape. She even charms the family's landscaper.

 

It infuriates Jack that Jill keeps extending her visit in order to take part in various L.A. adventures, but when Al Pacino (playing himself), whom Jack needs to convince to star in a Dunkin' Donuts commercial, takes a liking to Jill, Jack asks her to go on the family's New Year's Eve cruise to Europe so that he can pimp his sister out. When Jill refuses to meet with Pacino, Jack steals some of her clothes to go on the date himself. On the date, Pacino convinces Jack — disguised as his sister — that Jill is a loving and worthy person. However, when Jack returns to the boat hoping to make amends with Jill, he finds she has hurriedly returned to the Bronx after learning of her brother's betrayal.

 

Jack and Jill was created by several veterans of Saturday Night Live and its background in sketch comedy shows. Director Dennis Dugan and writers Steve Koren and Robert Smigel don't miss a single opportunity for easy slapstick or crass jokes. In addition, the main narrative is often interrupted or put on hold; sacrificed to CGI sight gags, needlessly quirky asides or physical abuse disguised as comedy. Jack's family is mere window dressing and plays no part in the larger story. As Jack's wife, Holmes offers vacant smiles in place of alarm at disturbing events or censure at her husband's ill treatment of his sister.

 

Much as Jill is portrayed as a train wreck, Jack is much worse. He's a whiny, greedy bully. The mistreatment of Jill only makes Jack seem petty and heartless. Yet, he receives no comeuppance for his bad behavior, unless you count the shame of forfeiting manliness to dress up as a woman as punishment. For this role, Sandler should have taken notes from Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie or even Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire. These actors gave humanity and dignity to their female correlates and even learned a thing or two in the process. Even David Spade, in a cameo cross-dressing role, seems to take more delight in the transformation than does Sandler. Why does it take Al Pacino to make him see that? (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 11/12/11)

 

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Once an intoxicant wears off, there’s usually a major headache and an overwhelming feeling of shame about having disgraced one’s self under the influence. Before that, it’s rather fun.

The same could be said for watching an installment in the Harold & Kumar series. Watching these two stoners attempt to deal with their munchies and other issues induces more giggles than a freshly lit bong. If you are as high as the protagonists, you can laugh at the sophomoric gags and pretty colors. If you’re sober, you can howl at how others misbehave when they’re baked. Either, way, there’s a good deal of guilt coming your way once you realize what made you chuckle.

For A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who wrote the other two installments, come up with just enough alterations on the formula to keep the tastelessness palatable. For one thing, they acknowledge that the characters are now just a little too old to be spending their lives wasted.

Just before Christmas, Harold (John Cho) is getting ready to host his wife Maria’s (Paula Garcés) enormous family for the holiday. His prosperous work is actually getting him down. While he works on Wall Street, he’s not terribly proud as he walks by protesters eager to pelt him with eggs.

Life at home isn’t much better. While Maria clearly loves him, Harold’s father-in-law Carlos (Danny Trejo from Machete) isn’t impressed with Maria’s taste in men. It should also be noted that he especially despises Koreans.

Surprisingly, Harold has actually given up his beloved weed, but his estranged pal Kumar (Kal Penn) hasn’t. If Harold’s life has been upwardly mobile, Kumar’s has gone the other direction. Living with a different roommate (Amir Blumenfeld) and spending almost all his considerable free time high, it’s no wonder that his place looks more dilapidated than a crack house. When his girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Ackles) announces that she’s pregnant, his solution is to light his bong.

Before Kumar can sulk or smoke too much, a package without a return address arrives for Harold. Kumar takes it to his old buddy and inadvertently winds up leading to night of egging, explosions, an angry Ukrainian gangster (Elias Koteas), Christmas carols, flying orange barrels and Neil Patrick Harris playing himself.

As with the other two films, Harris steals the show by depicting himself as such a repellent jerk that the character he portrays in How I Met Your Mother seems like a Nobel Peace Prize candidate in comparison. Naturally, it’s a treat to hear him sing Christmas Carols and dance in kinky 3D Busby Berkeley-inspired numbers.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg have ably followed Mel Brooks’ formula for politically incorrect humor. Namely, the only time it’s OK to trash ethnic and religious groups is if every conceivable faction is ridiculed with equal ruthlessness. They and director Todd Strauss-Schulson manage to make subjects like child endangerment and driving while intoxicated amusing, which is no small feat. It probably helps that Harold’s pal Todd (Tom Lennon from Reno 911!) isn’t intentionally exposing his two-year-old daughter to a hilariously outrageous variety of hazards.

Strauss-Schulson seems to be having a ball hurtling a bizarre cornucopia of objects at the viewer. It’s not the most sophisticated use of 3D, but it’s certainly amusing. The script is loaded with vulgar snark, but there’s still a hint that the filmmakers probably understand that it’s impossible to stay high for the rest of one’s life.

Then again, it would be fun to know what Hurwitz and Schlossberg were smoking when they wrote this stuff. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/04/10)

Take Shelter
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Probably the only thing scarier than a catastrophic storm might be a nagging sense that you’re losing a grip on reality. Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter follows a man who can’t tell if his nightmares are omens of a coming apocalypse or his own failing mind.

It’s not as if a struggling ditch drill operator named Curtis (Michael Shannon, Boardwalk Empire) doesn’t have a lot to worry about anyway. He and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain from The Help and The Debt) have been saving his meager wages to buy a cochlear implant for their deaf daughter Hannah (Tovah Stewart). It also doesn’t help that digging around and laying pipe gets old pretty quickly.

Curtis has trouble concentrating on his responsibilities because he keeps having dreams that make him reluctant to sleep. Birds migrate in ominous formations, storm clouds tear up every building in sight, and the family’s large but friendly dog becomes a ferocious monster.

When he’s not crushing what’s left of his soul at work, Curtis is either trying to seek mental help, which is difficult to find his small town or is acting on what he sees in the dreams. Because he can’t tell if he’s really losing his mind, Curtis starts radically expanding his storm cellar, even though the cost is prohibitively high. He’s also bothered by the fact that his mother (Kathy Baker) has suffered from mental illness, which makes him question his resolve at every turn.

While Take Shelter, has a consistently gloomy feel, the sense of uncertainty keeps the film from becoming monotonous. Shannon has specialized in playing tormented characters like Curtis, so it’s easy to believe that he can’t tell whether he should commit himself or take his storm preparations even farther. His protruding eyes give a sense that he’s unable to relax and might be a troubled soul even if his dreams were pleasant.

Because it’s not clear if Curtis is crazy, the film moves at a slow but gripping pace. It’s hard for viewers to tell if he is a prophet in the wilderness or needs to be modeling the new fall line of straightjackets. Neither fate is enviable, but for what’s left of his dignity, it would almost be redeeming if he really were sensing something his complacent neighbors have been ignoring.

Similarly, Samantha is torn between her eagerness to help Curtis and her disgust with his instability. Chastain effortlessly switches between spousal affection and tough love.

In turn, writer-director Nichols manages to come up with enough chilling imagery to keep the simple setup from getting stale. Despite the modest budget, his visions of doom are as jaw dropping as they unsettling.

Not knowing where Take Shelter is going is a significant part of its appeal. When the story does eventually end, the conclusion seems arbitrary and forced. By ending the way it does, the film loses some of its force because it’s oddly seductive to share Curtis’ torment. Having to determine for ourselves is Curtis is mad or reacting appropriate alarm paints Take Shelter into a corner.

That said, getting to the corner is a grim but bracing experience. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/04/11)

Anonymous

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

 

In Anonymous, screenwriter John Orloff presents the theory that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare. Yet, this speculation, as thin as it is on which to hang an entire movie, is the least outrageous of Orloff's claims, which include over-the-top political intrigue, including illegitimate heirs to the English throne, unknowing incest and a creative rivalry.

 

 

After Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is arrested for sedition by Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), the hunchbacked son of Queen Elizabeth's main advisor, William Cecil (David Thewlis), the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), approaches Jonson with the proposition to produce de Vere's plays under Jonson's name. It is de Vere's desire to influence the choice of Queen Elizabeth's successor to the throne through his plays' ability to sway public opinion. Jonson balks at the plan on account of his own creative needs, and enlists oafish William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to be the name and face of de Vere's numerous plays and poems. Illiterate and oafish, Shakespeare is still able to follow Jonson to de Vere's home to extort the earl, cutting out Jonson as middleman.

 

Meanwhile, the Cecils are trying to persuade Queen Elizabeth to name James VI of Scotland as her successor. However, encouraged by de Vere, two young noblemen, the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) and the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), rumored to be the queen's illegitimate son and rightful heir, lead an attempted rebellion against this course, which is quickly thwarted by the younger Cecil, with information given to him by a jealous Jonson. A personal entreaty by de Vere to the queen also fails.

 

Under the weight of Orloff's dark script, director Roland Emmerich, known for effects-laden Hollywood action movies, has little room to play. As if on a mission to prove Orloff's original point, Emmerich resorts to multiple and confusing frames. Classical actor Derek Jacobi is charged with introducing the Oxfordian viewpoint on a modern-day stage, which only returns at the very end and seems to serve little purpose other than reiterating (or giving legitimacy to) the main thesis. In addition, Edward de Vere is portrayed at three different ages by three different actors, so there is little sense of continuity for this character. We're supposed to believe that somehow in adulthood wispy Jamie Campbell Bower transforms into Goth Rhys Ifans.

 

Queen Elizabeth also comes in two iterations, played equally well by Joely Richardson and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave. In her performance as the aged queen, Redgrave is among the few bright spots of the movie. She manages to add humanity to the matriarch by bringing her own characteristic quirkiness to the film. She's Queen Elizabeth, a little disappointed at her own aged face, and also still Redgrave in the way she dresses or sits dejectedly at the base of her throne. Despite a very CGI-originated London, the wonderfully detailed costume and sets add to this contrast between pageantry and humanity.

 

As Shakespeare, Spall is also a highlight of the movie. He provides much-needed comedic relief. Had the filmmakers intended to replicate the popularity of Shakespeare in Love, they would have made Shakespeare, and the ridiculous circumstance he has lucked into, the central character of the film. Instead, its focus relies chiefly on the melancholy shoulders of tragic figure de Vere, who is Mozart to Jonson's Salieri. Yet, that relationship is too burdened with de Vere's didactic speeches on the power of words to change the course of history, which, ironically, don't seem to change anything, as Cecil remains the main advisor to the throne. Perhaps Orloff should have concentrated more on showing than telling. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 11/04/11)

 

Tower Heist
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

A great sign that a movie isn’t working is if you start to imagine how much each scene cost. Tower Heist must have kept the accountants busy. It features an ensemble of high-dollar talent and, unlike a good number of films set in New York, was clearly shot in the Big Apple. The sets and the effects are totally convincing, and big players like producer Brian Grazer are involved.

While I’m sure it probably looks impressive in the press kit that some of the film was shot in the Trump Tower, the film isn’t that involving. While production designer Kristi Zea (Goodfellas) has created an enviable living space, the characters that occupy the high rise aren’t nearly as interesting or as well thought out.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, the pedantic, multi-tasking manager of the building in question. The Tower is so upscale that staff are forbidden to accept gratuities and carefully monitor the residents’ personal lives to ensure they’ll want to stay in their multimillion-dollar units.

The resident whose unit occupies the entire top floor is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a fellow who has made several fortunes running hedge funds. Actually, Shaw has squandered several fortunes with a Ponzi scheme that unravels just days before Thanksgiving. A member of the Tower’s board, Shaw convinced the building’s employees to invest all of their retirement in his scheme. Needless to say, they’re out of luck.

On bail but under house arrest, Shaw is stuck on the top floor both guarded and protected by an FBI agent (Téa Leoni). Hidden in his penthouse lair is a rainy day stash worth hundreds of millions. When Josh loses his job confronting Shaw about his crimes, he teams with an evicted tenant (Matthew Broderick), a bumbling concierge (Casey Affleck), a coworker (Michael Peña), who lost his job on the second day of work, a safe cracking Jamaican maid (Gabourey Sidibe, Precious) and a childhood acquaintance (Eddie Murphy), who is now a career criminal. With this motley team, Josh hopes to return the cash to his coworkers’ retirement plans.

Naturally countless obstacles get in the way of our thieves and what should have been their retirement cash. What’s troubling about Tower Heist is that little of the pursuit is that fun. Portions of the film were shot through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade so it’s obvious that some serious coin was spent. Logically, it almost makes sense. With a big event like that distracting the cops, it’s easier to get away with the theft.

That said, there isn’t nearly enough chaos or energy to make Tower Heist more than a boilerplate thriller. The people in the film are essentially one-note characters, so the cast involved is grossly overqualified. Murphy has played criminals before and has appeared to have more fun doing it. For a couple of seconds, it’s fun to watch him imitate a white collar salesman, but neither Murphy nor Stiller get much of a chance to stretch out their comic gifts. It’s almost as if the stars were placed on a time limit and told to stop before their antics became too funny. Only Sidibe and Alda approach their work with any sense of enthusiasm.

Only rarely does Tower Heist offer anything more than a modest chuckle. Because the characters don’t grow or change, it’s hard to care if Shaw gets his deserved outcome. Mind you, it is difficult to make a Wall Street thief sympathetic when so many are walking free after fleecing their clients. Still, with a performer of Alda’s range and finesse, it would be more fun if he had more to do. If Shaw were as crafty as he was crooked, our heroes would have a more formidable obstacle to their revenge. Instead, he seems more like an eventuality instead of an opponent.

Director Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour movies) some moderately interesting eye candy, but he’s far too stingy on the fun (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 11/04/11)

 

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player



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.


Click here to buy movie posters!
Click here to buy movie posters!