movie reviews November 2012

Chicken with plumschinese take-away flightskyfall • the sessionsLincolnThe Twilight Saga: Brreaking Dawn - part 2A Late Quartet Red DawnLife of piRise of the guardianssilver linings playbooka royal affair

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A Royal Affair
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Sometimes falling in love can really change the world or at least the fate of a nation. In A Royal Affair, Danish director Nikolaj Arcel recounts how a real-life 18th century relationship involving Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander) of Denmark wound up being as dramatic as the one Shakespeare thought up for the Danish Court.


The Queen, in this case, is a newcomer to the court. She’s actually an English girl who has been sent to Copenhagen to marry King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). Anyone who gets excited about royal weddings probably doesn’t know much about royal marriages. Even though Caroline is intelligent and can even play piano well, all she’s asked to do is squeeze out a prince. It’s also doesn’t help that Christian, while royal, isn’t terribly noble.

He frequents brothels and obviously has mental issues. Now that the future king is both born and healthy, there isn’t much point in maintaining appearances. The whole world knows the King is a lousy husband.

Some of the other Royals worry that Christian’s instability could endanger the throne and could be the product of a deeper medical issue. Schack Carl Rantzau (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) and Enevold Brandt (Cyron Melville), a pair of ostracized nobles, convince a country doctor from Germany named Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) to serve as the King’s personal physician.

The King, who has previously spent his reign acting like a spoiled child, takes an instant liking to Johann. Not only does the good doctor know his way around literature (he’s written some anonymous texts that the aggressive Danish censors would ban), but he manages to make Christian VII genuinely interested in ruling and passing reforms that could help his subjects.

The ruling council, who’ve simply used the King as a rubber stamp, rejects his ideas like cleaning up the streets of Copenhagen or abolishing torture or censorship. The King corrects this issue by replacing the council with Johann.

Christian’s more enlightened policies may not last long. The long neglected Queen gradually comes to admire Johann for more than his taste in literature and politics. Needless to say, things don’t go well because nobody at court can keep a secret, and the Church, which is big on punishing people but short on any sense of Christian charity, doesn’t plan on giving up power to Enlightenment thinkers like Johann.

A Royal Affair plays like a soap opera, but a rather engrossing one. Because there is more than simply bed-hopping involved here, it’s easy to wish that Johann and the Queen could just run off together or continue their covert rule indefinitely. It also doesn’t hurt that the brooding Mikkelsen is a compelling performer whose mere shrugs suggests volumes.

As the King, Følsgaard goes from being contemptible to oddly sympathetic. He obviously didn’t ask for the job but grows into a more capable sovereign, although his mental issues aren’t going away anytime soon.

The opulent production is certainly another great touch. The palaces glitter and the landscapes are awe-inspiring. There’s not a dull shot in the whole film. Viewers really do get a sense that a nation’s future hangs in the balance.

A Royal Affair is Denmark’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars. The Danes are justly proud of being able to share a slice of their history and have managed to deliver a tale that’s still gripping even with subtitles. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/21/12)

Haiku
A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair
is a movie that is fit
for the royalty.


Silver Linings Playbook
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Much of the charm of Silver Linings Playbook is that it’s a film that shouldn’t work but consistently manages to do with remarkable finesse. Loaded with pleasant surprises, a terrific cast and assured handling from screenwriter-director David O. Russell, this adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel combines romantic comedy, dysfunctional family woes and a sense of danger without ever losing its way.

As he demonstrated in The Hangover and Limitless, Bradley Cooper is an attractive guy who has a knack for playing unhinged or even deeply disturbed characters. His latest role, Pat Solitano, Jr., certainly qualifies. In an act of rage, Pat brutally assaults his wife’s lover and winds up going to a mental institution. His marriage, it’s safe to say, dies at that point. He also winds up losing his home and his teaching career.


After eight months, he’s released on a plea deal and moves in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver). From a few days with them, it’s obvious Pat’s bipolar disorder might have been inherited. His dad has lost his pension and now keeps a roof over his head by bookmaking, particularly on Philadelphia Eagles games. It’s too bad that he places huge bets with his own money while he’s at it.

If Pat has a redeeming trait, it’s his desire for self-improvement. He constantly jogs and has managed to lose dozens of pounds. Unfortunately, his primary goal is to earn back his marriage. With a restraining order involved, that’s probably not going to happen. It also doesn’t help that Pat is reluctant to take his meds, even though it’s obvious he needs them.

Pat’s old friends are torn between trying to help him recover and fearing his next dangerous outburst. The fact that Pat’s social skills have deteriorated in the hospital doesn’t help. His old pals Ronnie and Veronica (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) try to cheer him up by inviting him to dinner with Veronica’s widowed sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games).

Tiffany has as many issues as Pat, and like him, she has a problem with the word no. Yes, she’s had a problem with promiscuity, but more importantly she also refuses to leave Pat alone, forcing him to do something other than pitying himself. She pushes him into joining her in a dance competition by promising to help him reconnect with his ex.

The idea of “loons in love” could have come off as phony or exploitative, but Russell keeps sentimentality from getting in the way. It also doesn’t hurt that Cooper and Lawrence have formidable chemistry. Cooper makes Pat just likable enough to care if he gets out of his rut but projects a menace that indicates any recovery is going to be hard won. As for Lawrence, she demonstrates an astonishing knack for comedy and projects enough intelligence and restraint to hold her own against her older, more established costar.

The supporting cast is deep, and even the unfamiliar faces get a chance to shine. In the case of Chris Tucker from the Rush Hour movies, his face is familiar, but he’s never been more appealing than he is here. Playing one of Pat’s fellow patients, he has a genial charm that’s been missing in his previous appearances.

The film is not titled Silver Linings Playbook because it’s downbeat or ironic. Somehow Russell, who like his characters has had anger management issues of his own, has managed to make despair or resignation seem as dim if not dimmer than happy endings. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/21/12)

Haiku
Silver Linings Playbook

Russell demonstrates
romantic comedies aren’t
for the faint of heart.


Rise of the Guardians
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

The boy hasn’t left Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine). Mischievous and playful, Jack brings the cold and snow to the world, especially delighting in giving kids snow days away from school. Trouble is, none of the kids believe in Jack Frost, making him invisible to the kids he so enjoys hanging around with. This leaves Jack asking why did the Man in the Moon pick him to be Jack Frost.

Thus the main storyline has been set for Rise of Guardians from DreamWorks Animation in 3-D. With a screenplay crafted by David Lindsay-Abaire and William Joyce, Rise of the Guardians tells the tale of Jack finding out why he is what he is while helping North or Santa Claus (voiced by Alex Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (voiced by Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and Sandman (mute) battle Pitch  (voiced by Jude Law) — the Bogeyman — to prevent fear from overtaking the innocence of children worldwide.

As North tells Jack among the assembled Guardians at the North Pole,  “It is our job to protect the children of the world. For as long as they believe in us, we will guard them with our lives.”

But Pitch is formidable opponent. First he steals all the teeth from the Tooth Fairy and with them their childhood memories, including Jack’s, and clips the wings of the Tooth Fairy’s fairy helpers. Kids stop getting their teeth taken in exchange for coins or candy, and belief in the Tooth Fairy fades. The Guardians counterattack and for a while win back the children’s innocence.

Next Pitch eliminates Sandman then wrecks Easter for the Bunny. It’s looking dim. Belief in the Guardians continues to diminish. Pitch entices Jack over to his side by telling him he can tell what he was before the Man in the Moon picked him as Jack Frost. The confrontation leaves Jack confused and demoralized. With the help of “Baby Tooth,” the only fairy helper able to fly, Jack finds out who he was before being Jack Frost.

With one remaining child in the world that believes, the Guardians make a final stand against Pitch. Who wins?

Well, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Sandman and Jack Frost are still around, aren’t they?

Rise of Guardians is fun film with very good 3-D animation and a storyline with more depth than one would expect. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/21/12)


Life of Pi
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

The quest — or need — to explain God seems so embedded into the human psych that arguments have been made that such a search springs from a God gene within each of us. With no definitive answer at hand, one must conclude that finding God will always remain quite the utmost human spiritual endeavor, repeated until humans are no more.

Artists, writers, musicians, ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances create or respond to such a path of discovery. Author Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi. Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Ride with the Devil) brings the story to the screen in 3-D magnificence.

Martel has been quoted as saying the book was written at a time when he was looking for something that would “direct” his life. Critics and others have termed the book a “religious allegory” with themes that “concern religion and human faith in God.” Martel appears not to dispute such analysis.

One could assume Lee embraces such an assessment of the story. His Life of Pi is visually beautiful, enhancing an adventure story of near preposterous predicaments. Lee’s Life of Pi presents an otherworldliness befitting the tale, making a magical story even more magical, a fantasy that can be believed.

The film follows much of the structure of the novel. The older Pi (Irrfan Khan) lives in Canada and is visited by a young writer who had heard of his fantastic saga of survival. The writer (Rafe Spall), his creativity stymied, is searching for a story of meaning to write.

The story unfolds after the older Pi tests the writer’s openness. The power of the narrative by Khan enhances the visual presence in the film brought about by cinematographer Claudio Miranda (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and supervising art director Dan Webster (Tropic Thunder).

Pi tells of his relatively comfortable life in Pondicherry, a former French colony in India, and of his family’s zoo at a public Botanical Garden. The stunning opening shots by Lee of various animals at the zoo, many critically endangered, announces that this film carries the spiritual realm to the lives of animals as well as to human existence.

Named after a French swimming pool, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) explores his surroundings and at 14, the Hindu boy seeks out an understanding of God by introducing himself to Christianity and Islam. He “just wants to love God,” Martel writes in his novel

Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) decides to relocate the family in Canada bringing along some of the animals from their zoo on the ship. While crossing the Pacific, a violent storm pounds the ship and it sinks. Pi manages to reach a lifeboat also occupied by a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, soon an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

In some harrowing scenes in which Pi fears for his life, the hyena kills the zebra and orangutan and, in turn, is killed by Richard Parker. Alone with the tiger, Pi decides that in order to save himself, he also must soon feed the tiger. A relationship of fanciful and spiritual dimensions unfolds as both the boy and the tiger succumb to the hardships of being adrift in the ocean only interrupted briefly by the discovery of a floating island of edible algae populated by meerkats.

After 227 days, the boat lands on the Mexican shore. Both boy and tiger fall from the boat. Pi gets a fleeting glimpse of Richard Parker going into the jungle, leaving him haunted later by the fact neither he nor the tiger said goodbye.

Life of Pi is a film to return to, best seen on the big screen and when delivered in 3-D, establishes a reality of its own. It reaffirms the immense imaginative energy of humans and affirms what Pi believed in that animals have souls and God tests one so one can find God. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/21/12)


Red Dawn
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Ahh…to be a young boy of 12 again.

At that age, I would have gathered all my friends around me in the school hallway during the break between classes and repeated excitedly how neat and cool and awesome Red Dawn was with the fights, the explosions, the machine guns, the rocket launchers as the bad-guy Koreans get their butts kicked because they were stupid and not as smart American teenagers. Yeah!

But I’m not 12 (sigh) yet Red Dawn made me remember what it’s like to be 12 and be consumed with the action of war and weapons without any understanding of the terror or the consequences of killing. If maturity or conscience or wisdom holds any preference in your life, Red Dawn is not for you. If you just like to be a kid again (likely a boy) and revel in the fantasy of war and winning, the film will prove satisfying — as long as you don’t think too much about it. Just don’t embarrass yourself by speculating that the film has Oscar potential

A brooding Chris Hemsworth plays Jed Eckert, an Afghan/Iraq war veteran waiting to ship out again when the North Koreans parachute into Spokane, WA one day. Despite being at odds with his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck), quarterback for the local high school football team The Wolverines, Jed hustles Matt and some other teens out of town and into the surrounding hills before the “People’s Liberation Army” can capture them.

While hold up, the expected personality conflicts arise coupled with the beginning of some longing eyes of want from Toni (Adrianne Palicki) toward Jed. Meanwhile, Matt pines over the loss of his girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas) now in detention by the bad guys.

Faced with hiding, running or fighting, the teens — after some defections — decide to fight. Jed whips them into a Special Forces combat ready force in a matter of days after they easily raid and steal weapons from the perpetually clueless and inept Koreans.

Battles ensue, turncoats eliminated, the Koreans counterattack and bring in Russian counterinsurgency specialists, and the group, having adopted the name Wolverines, hook up with some grizzly retired veterans for the final battle to steal the magic box/suitcase that brought down the power grid allowing for the North Korean takeover of America.

Naturally, the good guys win. Jed and Matt reconcile. America is saved and as a 12 year old might say, “Man, Red Dawn is sick.” However, peace-lovers and intelligent types stay clear. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 11/21/12)


A Late Quartet
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

With a cast that includes two Oscar-winners, a nominee and a fellow who’s been overdue for a nomination, it’s a given that A Late Quartet will be watchable movie. What prevents the film from reaching its potential is that the makers have actually tried a little too hard.

A Late Quartet concerns a popular string quartet called The Fugue, who’ve been playing together for nearly a quarter century. That relationship may be coming to an abrupt halt because the group’s leader, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), is falling prey to Parkinson’s. Having lost his wife almost a year ago, Peter takes the news surprisingly well but is resigned to the fact that his playing days are probably over.


The rest of the ensemble aren’t handling the news very well. Viola player Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) refuses to think of the Fugue without Peter, and her husband Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) thinks that this is the ideal time to ask if he can play first violin for a change instead of simply playing accompaniment. He winds up alienating the group’s gifted first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) in the process.

Even if the world of classical music seems insular, it would be possible to make a potentially intriguing movie just about Peter’s struggles and how the rest of the band suffers and feuds as a result. It’s amazing how people can stumble when they let their egos get in the way of their eyes.

Apparently, director Yaron Zilberman (who’s responsible for the documentary Watermarks) and his co-screenwriter Seth Grossman (The Elephant King) love classical music but didn’t think that others would want to watch a film just about people struggling to play Beethoven’s Opus 131. Included in the mix are not one but two affairs that serve little narrative purpose and wind up stretching credibility. It’s a sorry situation when a sex subplot is the least interesting aspect of a film.

It’s hardly worth commenting on the quality of the performances, though. They’re expectedly first-rate. Hoffman, Walken and Keener are all old pros, so it’s a given that they’ll do fine work. Ivanir is not as well known here in the states as his cast mates, and that’s a shame. He was terrific in the Israeli comedy-drama The Human Resources Manager, and he’s quite good as a proficient but vain musician. Steven Spielberg has worked with him repeatedly, and it’s easy to see why.

Zilberman cleverly stages the music numbers so that it really looks as if the actors are playing. It addition, there are appropriately sour notes when characters aren’t playing at their peak, and when the story calls for musical improvement, we can hear it. Angelo Badalamenti (David Lynch’s favorite score composer) comes up with a score that ingeniously meshes with Beethoven’s work and the story itself. When the dialogue veers away from the soap opera plot, there’s a lot of wonderful stuff to hear.

A Late Quartet is still a fine movie, but with Beethoven and a unique ensemble of performers, it’s shame it’s not a classic. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 11/17/12)

Haiku
A Late Quartet

The music is up
to the work of the masters.
the story isn’t.


The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Unless your sole reason for living is to see wooden thespian Taylor Lautner show off his well-developed abs or Robert Pattinson’s gravity defying hair, then The Twilight Saga has nothing to offer. While I’m not in the target market for Stephenie Meyer’s novels, it’s been amazing to see that anyone could get worked up about a love triangle involving a young woman whose personality resembles that of a doormat, a whiny stalker who sucks only animal blood and an anger management case who changes into a giant wolf.

For most of The Twilight Saga viewers who weren’t mopy teenage girls have had to suffer from a convoluted drawn out experience that alternated between tedium and irritation. Thanks to the unappealing leads, dialogue that manages to be both stilted and mumbled, lousy special effects and content that was disturbing for all the wrong reasons (Edward and Bella’s relationship meets all the prerequisites of an abusive one), there wasn’t any reason to sit through these films

.

The characters took a break from brooding in Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn — Part 2 features some action and love scenes that provide much needed entertainment through their unintentional hilarity. Director Bill Condon, who has made more substantial and engaging films like Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (Dexter) both seem to think that Stephenie Meyer’s sulking could use a boost.

As a result, the new installment features an all out sensory assault. No opportunity for a special effect is wasted, and my moments that would have played better unaltered get some sort of CGI accompaniment. Now that Bella (Kristen Stewart, who only bit her lip a dozen times this installment) is a vampire, she can’t simply walk across the room.

She now has to zip like a cartoon character. She can now leap like she’s auditioning for Cirque de Soleil, even in formal wear. We’re also introduced to a whole menagerie of vampires who’ve never been in the story before and leave little impression save for the fact that they have powers, none of which are that impressive.

One positive development is that Bella occasionally does things without having to consult her whimpering husband Edward (Robert Pattinson, letting his hair do the acting for him). Another is that Jacob (Lautner) is now imprinting on their rapidly growing young daughter Renesmee (played in the film by half a dozen young performers). Is it just I or does having the adult Jacob doing whatever imprinting is on a minor seem creepy, in the wrong way?

I’m constantly being told what a chaste alternative The Twilight Saga is to conventional horror or bodice-ripping romance, but this and many other factors draw that assertion into question. Instead, Breaking Dawn — Part 2 provides a substitute quality storytelling. Because the legions of new characters are so non-descript, it’s impossible to care if they live or die.

It also doesn’t help that the film’s entire plot hinges on a misunderstanding about Renesmee. She really doesn’t do anything but grow rapidly and touch people’s cheeks. While that makes things easy on the child actors on the crew, it makes it impossible to feel sympathy for her when the vampire ruling body the Volturi, led by Aro (Michael Sheen), come to kill her. They seem to think that she’s a child version of a vampire and might expose the whole blood sucking race to human scrutiny.

This miscommunication could be cleared up with a letter or a phone call or even a text message. Hell, some of these vampires are telepathic. Lots of werewolf fur flies, and vampire blood is spilled because these undead dolts have such a lousy emergency system. Condon and Rosenberg throw in a few decapitations to try to keep the film lively, but it’s astonishing how the whole saga seems like a waste.

If you’re such a devoted fan that you’ll clap as the least consequential characters’ names flash by during the closing credits, do yourself a favor and ignore this review.

If however, you appreciate movies that don’t insult your intelligence and aren’t short on creativity or suspense, go see Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, the original Fright Night or any episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you’ve had a chance to live as well as watch a few movies, you’ll realize how inept and contemptible Meyer’s creation is. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/17/12)

Haiku
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2

Now, it’s all over.
There are many better things
you could be watching.


Lincoln
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Instead of the epic biopic implied by the title and lengthy running time, Tony Kushner’s screenplay for Lincoln, inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, mercifully crops the endeavor to one sharp moment in the political career of the Great Emancipator. But leave it to schmaltz peddler Stephen Spielberg to direct the film into soft, hackneyed corners.


In early 1865, the Civil War continues to drag on with heavy casualties on both sides. President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation but seeks to widen and make permanent the spirit of the document — an Executive Order issued during wartime — in order to bring about a quicker end to the war. Already through the Senate, the amendment must be ratified by a divided House of Representatives.

Charged with winning over persuadable Democratic representatives, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn) and his three coarse proto-lobbyists (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader) must also try to corral the passions of Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), whose belief in equality for all is as rabid as his wig looks. Also threatening the outcome of the vote is the northern approach of a trio from the Confederate States of America, led by its Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), who may be persuaded to agree to a treaty in order to prevent the amendment passing to the ruin of their slave-based economy.

In this respect, Lincoln is a political thriller. Kushner and Spielberg dare to expose the shady arrangements, pacts, and logrolling not usually associated with Honest Abe. Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski captures well the muffle of smoke- and velvet-filled rooms (and carriages). In a standout role, Spader as W. N. Bilbo, a purple brocade waistcoat stretched over his thick middle, revels in the excitement of making deals and satisfying appetites. Sticking out like a lone spindly tree on a prairie, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, with that signature melancholy revealed through sad eyes and disheveled hair and clothes, is exhausted and resigned by these small stakes. He’s a persuasive speaker, but can go no further than reason and reasonableness allows.

Still, Lincoln without Lincoln wouldn’t be missing much. Day-Lewis gets caught up in the act of acting, pitching his voice, taking mincing steps down the hallway. Day-Lewis is making an effort to portray an icon — the idea of Lincoln rather than Lincoln — and in doing so gives away too much of his craft.

Additional glimpses behind the curtain appear with wife Mary, played by Sally Field in a clumsy casting move. Granted, she’s a dead ringer, but her very Sally Field-ness distracts from the movie magic when you stop to figure the age difference. Also, does the mere presence of a hoop skirt always demand a collapse into it? A tacked-on subplot about son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), John Williams’ swelling, dated score, and a reductionist revelation regarding Stevens’ true motive all diminishes the impact of the political scheme. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/17/12)

The Sessions
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is an agreeable film that manages to avoid becoming a sort of disease-of-the-week by doing something simple but rare. It features believable characters in intriguing situations. Because we get to know the late journalist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) as a person, The Sessions becomes more than an excuse for pitying him because he lived a large portion of his life trapped in an iron lung.

As the film’s opening explains, O’Brien lost his mobility and almost lost his life when polio struck him at age six. That didn’t stop him from getting through college or from making a living. His new assignment, however, has him stuck.
His outlet has asked him to profile other people with disabilities and how they make love. In his mid-30s, O’Brien is still a virgin despite the fact that polio has managed to spare his manhood. He’s still capable of physically loving a woman even if he can’t move his arms or legs.


To learn how to get in touch with the ways of the flesh, O’Brien, though some of the people he’s covered, hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to teach him the ropes. There’s an enormous distinction between Cheryl and a common prostitute. The Boston-raised Cheryl is married and converting to Judaism, and her very specialized services end after six sessions.

One charming aspect of The Sessions is that O’Brien, a devout Roman Catholic, wrestles with the morality of what he’s doing. He refuses to proceed without approval from his parish priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Surprisingly, the good Father is supportive, figuring Jesus would understand O’Brien’s unique challenges. Macy’s priest is the supportive person we’d all like to have behind the altar. He also cares for O’Brien without condescending to him.

Naturally, it doesn’t take O’Brien long to fall for Cheryl, especially since Hunt’s diet and exercise program is so obviously successful. The Sessions in addition, to featuring a good deal of nudity (it is a movie about sex, after all), bravely wades into the ethical questions O’Brien’s quest for love raises.

There is an emotional cost to what Cheryl does, and it eventually provides an obstacle for both her and O’Brien. What is it like to come home after dealing with someone like O’Brien and then come home to a husband (Adam Arkin)?

In addition, it’s astonishing to learn that the idea of simultaneous orgasms was a foreign concept to many folks back in the 1980s.

Hawkes projects an amiable charm that comes in handy considering that he’s confined to gurney for all of the film. His O’Brien also does some questionable things. His disabilities don’t entitle him to sainthood.

By acknowledging that sex can be complicated and messy even for able bodied people, Lewin makes O’Brien’s search for physical and emotional gratification all the more poignant. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/17/12)

Haiku
The Sessions

People in iron lungs
have good love stories to tell
as all of us do.


Skyfall
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Despite the passage of 50 years and a small ensemble of leading men and legions of available women, James Bond is still ready to do the Queen’s dirty work, and audiences are still eager to see him do it.

With his new adventure Skyfall, the anticipation for 007’s latest outing is worth it. Daniel Craig and his appropriately blunt, abrasive manner are back, and everyone else appears to be defending the Crown as if their lives or even ours depended on it.

Sam Mendes, the director behind American Beauty and Road to Perdition, throws in lots of nods to previous incidents in the Bond series while staging some jaw dropping sequences of his own.

Working with ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men), Mendes makes the most of several exotic locations: Istanbul, Shanghai, Macau and even Bond’s native Scotland. After the disappointment of Craig’s last outing as 007, Quantum of Solace, it’s refreshing to see that Mendes, unlike his predecessor Marc Forster, is an art-house director who knows how to present gunplay and property destruction in the most exciting way possible.

Deakins not only knows how to make the action breathtaking to look at, but his careful shifts of focus and lighting help build the suspense, making viewers wonder, for just a few seconds, if 007 is going to be on the wrong end of a gun barrel.

In Skyfall, Bond and his fussy superior M (Dame Judi Dench) are dealing with a rogue MI6 agent named Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva has acquired a list of MI6’s agents all over the world and is slowly leaking their names on YouTube. This means that any agent in the field or anyone who’s had contact with them now has a target on his or her forehead.

Bond would seem the natural choice to neutralize Silva, but he’s understandably sore about how his last mission went. Because of the rough nature of the assignment, Bond may be going after Silva before he’s ready. His physical and emotional scars may doom his chances.

It doesn’t help that M may be forced into retirement by a bureaucrat (Ralph Fiennes) who’s bothered by the consequences of recent espionage disasters. Fortunately, Bond is getting some help from a tech geek named Q (Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas), a feisty fellow agent named Eve (Naomie Harris) and a mysterious woman (Bérénice Marlohe) who’s one of Silva’s minions.

The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan has plenty of outlandish action. This is a Bond film, after all. Nonetheless, the action appears as lethal as it does over the top.

Speaking of over the top, Bardem make a virtue of abandoning subtlety. His Silva is tall, flamboyant and certainly intimidating. Bardem projects a predatory intelligence that makes him seem impossible to outwit, and his droll delivery make him sound all too happy to take a life or two.

In his third outing, Craig is at his most at home in the role. His cold blue eyes indicate a resolve that enemies should fear and audiences anticipate.

Whether the world needs 50 more years of Ian Fleming’s creation is up for debate, but Skyfall is a happy reminder of why 007 has been so enduring. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/09/12)

Haiku
Skyfall

Craig and Bardem
should do all the Bond movies
after this new one.


Flight
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With an eye toward awards’ season, director Robert Zemeckis returns to live action with Flight, a technically ambitious film populated with an all-star cast. Although Zemeckis' realistic effects add a claustrophobic emotional intensity to the flight scene, screenwriter John Gatins fails to add dimension for the talented ensemble to fill out the rest of the film.

Charged with what should be a routine morning flight from Orlando, FL, to Atlanta, a mechanical failure forces pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) to make an emergency landing just outside of the destination city. Despite a hangover treated with cocaine and three mini bottles of vodka stolen from the drinks cart — or possibly even because of it — Whitaker, using an unorthodox maneuver, successfully brings the plane down in an empty field, saving all on board except for two passengers and two crew members.

Hailed as a hero by the media and public, Whitaker remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), led by Ellen Block (Melissa Leo). His only chance at defense lies with the pilots' union, headed by Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), who has hired high-powered attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to save the airline from responsibility and keep the union's contract. To wait out the time until the hearing, Whitaker holes up “Leaving Las Vegas”-style in his grandfather's farmhouse with recovering heroin addict Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), whom he met in the hospital serendipitously or possibly by larger design.

With a script based loosely on events recorded during an actual plane crash, Flight excels in the details of the fictionalized distressed flight and its aftermath. Anyone familiar with the procedures of NTSB's forensic investigations, popularized by essayists Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Jonathan Harr in the 1996 article “The Crash Detectives” published by The New Yorker, will be satisfied with Gatins' handling of the subject matter. In particular, the flight sequence, convincingly brought to the screen by visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie and special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri, provides the tensest moments. But unfortunately, once the plane crashes, so does the film.

Much fuss has been made over Washington's recent descent into playing morally ambiguous or even completely bankrupt characters. Yet, as Whitaker, his acting chops aren't really challenged any further than flashing his charming half smile. Brought to the brink, Whitaker's truly bad behavior comes with cues to minimize its severity, such as intrusive, literal pop songs, slo-mo cool guy walks down hotel hallways and John Goodman as a somewhat effeminate drug-dealing hippie as a sidekick. This creates an uneven tone, bordering on schizophrenia.

As shallow as he's drawn, Whitaker is the fullest character in the film. Greenwood, Cheadle and Leo, especially, are limited to the narrow purpose of their roles. They move the plot along, and that's it. Most problematic is love interest Nicole. With a forced Georgia accent, Reilly tries her best to create a mystical pathos for her wounded redheaded pixie dream girl. But there's just not enough in the script, which is more procedural than dramatic. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/03/12)


Chinese Take-Away
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Chinese Take-Away begins with a sequence that’s so broad and bizarre that it seems as if it could never happen. A young Chinese man sits in a boat with his beloved, ready to pop the question. Before he can, an event seemingly out of a Monty Python sketch ruins the moment and both their lives.

Bizarrely enough, this incident was not simply Argentinean writer-director Sebastian Borensztein being silly. As Chinese Take-Away progresses, we learn that absurdity may be the norm from this point on.

Borensztein’s tone is actually low key and warm, and the tale itself becomes real as the film progresses. Ricardo Darin (Nine Queens, The Secret in Their Eyes) plays Roberto, a glum, anal-retentive hardware store owner whose insistence on exact counts in his merchandise almost drives customers and suppliers insane. If the count for a box of 500 screws is off by just six, he makes a federal case.

It’s not surprising that he’s single.

His friends even try to set Robert up with the friendly Mari (Muriel Santa Ana). She's certainly a keeper, but Roberto, despite his desire, can't quite act on his urge for companionship.

Robeto's isolation in the middle of Buenos Aires ends when he discovers a Chinese man being beaten by a disgruntled cab driver. Roberto can provide temporary shelter for the fellow, but little else. That's because Jun (Ignacio Huang) speaks no Spanish, and Roberto obviously doesn't know Mandarin Chinese. Simply taking Jun to the Chinese embassy or the local Chinatown doesn't help because many of the Asians in the city don't speak Jun's dialect and have no idea who his family is or why he's wound up in a foreign country.

Eventually, the answers do come, and the two form an unlikely but convincing friendship. Borensztein knows that in order for this film to work, Roberto has to be more than a straight man. As the film progresses, we learn as much about him as we do about Jun, and the journey is fascinating.

Roberto is a veteran of the Falklands War and has powerful reasons for his antisocial behavior. Darin, who has starred in everything from Nine Queens to the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes, makes the grumpy fellow enormously sympathetic. Jun winds up doing as much good for Roberto as Roberto does for him.

Borensztein treats the Chinese characters in Chinese Take-Away with a remarkable amount of dignity. In fish out of water tales like this one, it's tempting for filmmakers to idealize or stereotype minorities, but thankfully Borensztein effortlessly manages to circumvent that.

By the way, if you think the film's opening sequence seems a bit unlikely or forced, think again. Borensztein includes news footage of the incident that inspired him. Perhaps the greater but more welcome absurdity is that he was able to make a movie about two dissimilar individuals becoming friends without it seeming sappy or clichéd. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 11/03/12)

Haiku
Chinese Take-Away

Darin becoming
a better man is as fun
as the falling cow.


Chicken with Plums
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Iranian-born French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi’s child-like drawings frequently convey complex ideas and emotions. From her pens and pencils, she’s been able to explore the Iranian Revolution, complicated sexual relationships and situations that can’t be described in a simple sound bite. From reading her books (Persepolis, Embroideries and Chicken with Plums) and watching her films, outsiders can gain a firmer grasp on Persian culture than most newcasts provide, and all the while she never ceases to entertain.


Chicken with Plums is the second movie that she’s adapted from one of her books with French filmmaker Vincent Paronnaud (her collaborator on the animated version of Persepolis), but it’s also the first feature movie the two have made with live actors. Thanks to some great casting and Satrapi’s assured story, her vision moves to the big screen seamlessly.

The film concerns a once-world renowned violinist named Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). He’s trying to find a new violin, and no hunk of wood with catgut strings seems adequate anymore. While he’s living in 1950s Tehran, a bustling city, there doesn’t seem to be a suitable violin anywhere in the world anymore.

He’s already glum and in a loveless marriage to Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), but something has set him into a deeper malaise. His son Cyrus’ (Mathis Bour) bizarre behavior would drive any parent to depression or complete insanity.

Perhaps that’s why Nasser-Ali has decided to stop eating altogether. Faringuisse even makes his favorite dish, the Iranian delicacy chicken with plums, but he won’t eat.

As we gradually learn, Nasser-Ali isn’t suicidal because he’s picky about his fiddles. Much of the power of the film comes from Satrapi and Paronnaud’s ability to make seemingly obnoxious characters sympathetic. As we learn more about Nasser-Ali, his tale becomes more engrossing. He’s not merely being cruel to his wife and family. As an audience, we gradually learn things that those around him never do.

Amalric handles the wide dynamics of the role effortlessly. In the hands of a lesser performer, Nasser-Ali’s demise would seem rather welcome. Learning what makes him tick helps make the glum nature of the tale easier to stomach. De Medeiros is terrific as the bewildered Faringuisse who feels powerless to break her husband’s ennui, even if neither is that fond of each other.

It also doesn’t hurt that Satrapi’s quirky humor leavens the film without distracting from the primary tale. Satrapi and Paronnaud present Chicken with Plums in a stylized manner that’s not too dissimilar from their previous cartoon. There’s also a sense of enchantment that makes the tale more resonant.

There are a couple of animated segments, but even with live actors, the film looks like a somewhat more colorful version of the graphic novel. The world Satrapi has depicted exists no more and isn’t likely to return, so this intentionally artificial approach is just about right. The casting of European actors like Amalric, de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini might be off-putting, but a movie like Chicken with Plums is just about impossible to make in today’s Iran.

Golshifteh Farahani is the only lead performer who’s Persian, and she’s a fascinating choice because both she and Satrapi have been vocal critics of the current regime in Iran. The fact that she can steal a viewer’s heart just by staring at the camera seems almost incidental.

It seems odd that Satrapi’s cartoons and fairy tales present a vision of life in Iran that is far more grown up that what passes for news on cable. Just as Stephen Colbert’s parody of right-wing cable mouthpieces is infinitely more entertaining and informative than the real thing, Satrapi’s stories present a more vivid and accurate picture of a world that has passed than a history or geography book might. (PG-13) Rating: 5 (Posted on 11/03/12)

Haiku
Chicken with Plums

Satrapi’s cartoons
say more than most scholars have
on life in Iran.



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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