reel reviews
movie reviews
December '09
Sherlock Holmes  •  The Young Victoria  •  Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel  •  It's Complicated
Avatar  •  Me and Orson Welles  •  Up in the Air  •  La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
The Princess and the Frog  •  Red Cliff  •  The Private Lives of Pippa Lee Invictus  •  Crude

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

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Sherlock Holmes
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

No fictional character has been depicted more times in movies than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Because viewers already feel they know the character before the movie even starts, creating a new adaptation that seems fresh and engaging is a formidable challenge.

For the most part, quirky British filmmaker Guy Ritchie has managed to take the character out of mothballs without desecrating Conan Doyle’s original vision.

While Robert Downey, Jr. plays the role without donning the trademark Deerstalker hat (which came from movies and illustrations but not Conan Doyle’s pen), Ritchie and four credited screenwriters (Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg and Lionel Wigram) have actually revisited Doyle’s stories and extracted some juicy ideas that previous filmmakers have overlooked.

For one thing, it’s refreshing to see series narrator Dr. John Watson depicted as something other than Holmes’ bumbling foil. In both the short stories and the new film, Watson (Jude Law) is both an MD and a war veteran who helps get the occasionally overconfident and frequently endangered detective out of trouble.

As a result, the banter between the Holmes and Watson becomes more lively than the banal, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Ritchie depicts them almost like a bickering but affectionate married couple even though Watson is about to tie the knot with a woman named Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly).

Downey plays Holmes as something of a disheveled geek whose ability to solve a case from tiny, seemingly insignificant details is contrasted with his underdeveloped social skills. With his stagnant romantic life and his brusque manner, Holmes may be losing his only friend once Watson moves in with Mary.

Holmes has eyes for one woman, a slippery American divorcée named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). She needs his help to find a missing person. But Holmes seems to be magnetically drawn to her, not for love, but because she’s one of the few people who can outsmart him.

He’ll need all the help he can get because his antagonist on this case is Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a satanic high priest whom Holmes has previously busted for murder. Blackwood’s mastery of the dark arts puts Holmes’ reason to the test.

Merely by walking in front of the camera, Strong, who stole the show in Body of Lies and Ritchie’s RocknRolla, projects an unshakable confidence that makes Blackwood appropriately intimidating.

Ritchie and the writers take viewers inside Holmes’ head throughout the film, which can be fun, because we can now figure out why he can defeat thugs twice his size or how he can seemingly pull case-solving facts out of thin air. This subjective presentation helps compensate for how the case gets convoluted and how the explanations defy some of the logic that drives Holmes.

All fiction requires suspension of disbelief, but it would have been preferable for a film about the great deducer not to take audience credulity for granted.

On the plus side, Ritchie, whose films are normally low-budget affairs, handles the larger production nicely. The film is handsomely shot by Philippe Rousselot (Dangerous Liaisons and A River Runs Through It), and Hans Zimmer’s Celtic-influenced score gives the film a constant sense of tension.

Ritchie’s take on the venerable character may not be definitive, but at least he reminds viewers why filmmakers still bother to dig into Conan Doyle’s stories for inspiration. (PG-13) Rating 3.5 (Posted on 12/24/09)


The Young Victoria
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The challenge of crafting a historical drama is to create a timeless tale, a story that will be as relevant in the 21st century as it was in, say, the 19th century. That’s what director Jean-Marc Vallée has achieved with The Young Victoria.

Screenwriter Julian Fellowes has managed to make this story a coming-of-age tale first. It just so happens that the main character eventually becomes queen. But The Young Victoria dramatizes Victoria’s struggles for independence and her transformation from girlhood to womanhood in a way that makes the story relevant for modern audiences.

The story begins before Victoria (Emily Blunt) comes of age, while her uncle, William (played with flourish by Jim Broadbent) is still king. In the opening scene she explains (in a voiceover) that even a palace can be a prison. It turns out that she resides in an emotional prison and a social one. Her mother (Miranda Richardson as the Duchess of Kent) shelters her from the world and tries to keep her dependent.

Victoria’s mother demands that someone hold the girl’s hand each time she climbs or descends stairs. The Duchess also denies Victoria the pleasure of reading modern novels.

The plan (hatched by her mother’s lover) is to render Victoria incapable of handling the throne if her uncle, King William, dies before Victoria turns 18.

But the strong-willed Victoria still manages to develop a mind of her own despite the challenges of her upbringing.

The other element of the story is Victoria’s acquaintance and eventual romance and marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). Albert’s uncle encourages Albert to woo Victoria for the purpose of marrying her and gaining political power. But Albert falls for her, and she falls right back, but not in that syrupy sweet Hollywood way.

Victoria and Albert grow together and sometimes seem to be growing apart as they each struggle with their evolving roles in life.

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend create believable characters, characters born in a distant past, but still relevant, still fresh. Theirs is a timeless affair of the heart with the complications that come with an ordinary man falling for a woman of means and power. She could be Oprah. He could be Stedman. She could be Whitney. He could be … well, maybe not.

The point is that The Young Victoria is a moving portrayal of a sheltered girl who grows up and falls in love. And it’s a beauty to behold. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 12/24/09)


Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

There’s no question that Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is one of the finest films ever made  — that’s a sequel to a movie about chipmunks that sing novelty songs, anyway.

That “praise” being said, this is a fairly dopey and harmless kid’s film. There is an overall moral about staying true to one’s self and sticking by your friends and family, some bullies to be defeated and of course a singing contest to be won at the end, and that’s about it.

For those who don’t know, The Chipmunks are a trio of, well, chipmunks that sing with ultra high-pitched voices, which, if you are ten years old might seem kinda funny. While that might not sound like a formula for very interesting entertainment to most of us, the first film still made enough money that we are now suitably rewarded with a (sigh…) “squeakquel.”

You might ask yourself “Hmmm…How can I top three singing chipmunks?” Well, the answer to that question would be to add three MORE singing chipmunks, which are also girls! This also helps cover up the fact that Dave (Jason Lee, late of My Name is Earl fame) disappears about three minutes into the movie. This, despite the fact his character is almost half the act. Instead, we get Zachary Levi as Dave’s replacement, Toby, who seems to have made the acting choice that his character is completely stoned the whole time.

Toby, as we all would, decides that the Chipmunks should start going to school. There, the three get picked on and such until they finally win the whole school over. Meanwhile, Ian, an evil record producer (redundant phrase, really) is plotting to use his new discovery, the Chippettes, to make his way back to the big leagues of producers who use small animals to make gold records. It’s kind of sad to see Ian played by David Cross, who was so brilliantly funny in both Mr. Show and Arrested Development. He does his best to forge through this sugarcoated treacle, but it’s still a badly miscast role for him. Anywho, before you can say, “Why would talking chipmunks wear shirts but no pants?” the two groups collide in the big school singing contest.

Bada-bing, one Chipmunks movie, quick and easy, and nobody gets hurt.

While we can all be thankful that none of the songs here are more than a minute long, the best I can say about this movie is that it’s obviously only for the younger kiddies. The singing CGI rodents do look pretty good, although why the three Chippettes are voiced by no less than Anna Faris, Amy Poehler and Christina Applegate is beyond me: You certainly can’t tell it’s them. Still, if this one makes money, I’ll be awaiting Alvin and the Chipmunks III: The Return of the Squeakquel with baited, helium-tainted breath. (PG)Rating: 1.5 (Posted 12/24/09)


It’s Complicated
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

I’m not sure I’d want to download a podcast of Meryl Streep or Alec Baldwin reading the instructions to a 1040 form, but I’d imagine both could make the material become more pleasantly vibrant. The script for It’s Complicated isn’t quite as much of a chore to read, but it’s dialogue probably wouldn’t sound as good coming from any other performers’ mouths.

With What Women Want and Something’s Got to Give, writer-director Nancy Meyers has created a niche for herself by making movies where women over 30 (and sometimes over 50) can not only find romantic satisfaction but even have two eligible men competing for their affection.

Because her heroines have paid both their own bills and their dues, this genre is appealing because it implies that women and men who’ve managed to stay around for a while can still have something to offer and can enjoy life even if their bodies don’t look like they used to.

From watching and listening to Jane Adler (Streep) and Jake Adler, you’d swear the two were still married. They can complete each other’s sentences as if they were a set of speakers on a high-end stereo system. Actually, the two have been divorced for a decade, and Jake has been married to the much younger Agness (Lake Bell).

But when both Jane and Jake attend their 20-something son’s college graduation, the two find that each other’s charms have not diminished even if they aren’t as lithe as they used to be.

To say the attraction is inconvenient would be an understatement. Jake and Agness are trying in vain to have a child to accompany his eccentric stepson. Meanwhile, Jane is becoming attracted to Adam (Steve Martin), the architect redesigning her massive kitchen. Adam was hurt badly in a divorce a couple of years ago, so he might not take well to being dumped again.

It’s Complicated is far simpler and easy to guess than its title implies. Because Jake is played by an inspired Alec Baldwin, it doesn’t take terribly deep analysis to figure out who will eventually wind up in Jane’s arms. As the glee returns to his lovemaking, it’s easy to see why Jane returns his intensifying adoration even though he’s becoming both more amorous and enthusiastic.

It doesn’t hurt that Streep’s Jane is a serious catch. As with Julie and Julia, Streep projects warmth and an offbeat appeal younger women would kill to have. She radiates a non-threatening intelligence that draws worthy suitors. While Jane might cover herself immediately after sex because she’s no longer in her 40s, she gives off a radiance that indicates why men don’t seem to care.

Having written or co-written several scripts, it’s a given that Meyers can type out plenty of engaging banter. Still, It’s Complicated plays like a one-joke movie. Jane and Jake bicker and then leap into bed together with a regularity that borders on monotonous.

While Meyers bravely plays up the ages of her performers instead of trying to conceal them, It’s Complicated at times seems as separated from reality as a Star Trek movie. Nearly every character in the film is loaded. Jane runs a successful café, and Jake is a powerhouse attorney. Despite working demanding careers, the two appear to have unlimited free time. They also live in palatial estates that would make Bill Gates or Warren Buffet envious.

It might have been easier to identify with Jane and Jake if they had a few setbacks their viewers could relate to. When Jane sneaks into her own bakery after hours to make Adam a chocolate croissant, it’s hard to wonder why the place was nearly vacant a few hours ago because the customers are cutting back on their carbs or are saving what’s left of their pennies. Because everything but love is settled in this world, the pursuit of happiness doesn’t seem as urgent as it should. A few of us might not mind living alone if we could always pay our bills.

Perhaps Meyers can address issues like these in future films. By wrestling adolescent passion away from teenagers, she may have conquered a sufficient number of obstacles for the time being. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/24/09)


Avatar
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

When James Cameron boasts about his latest macro-budgeted movie pushes the limits of cinema, he sounds like a politician bragging about a pork barrel project. Unlike elected officials, Cameron actually delivers.

Avatar is the writer-director’s first dramatic film in almost 12 years, and he creates a computer-generated world that looks as real as our own but a good deal more exciting.

To be technical, the aptly named Pandora is actually a moon to a planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri. Military, scientific and corporate teams have come to the distant world from Earth because it’s the only source of a rare mineral called unobtanium. The moniker for these rocks is more than a joke because the distance between Earth and Pandora isn’t the only obstacle to acquiring it.

The unobtanium lies below a land that is already inhabited by ferocious meat-eating creatures that look like either dinosaurs or rhinos. There are also hostile animals in the air and large, blue-skinned people called Na’vi who resent outsiders trying to mine in their land without permission. They may use bows and arrows, but their size and their ability to ride flying beasts of burden enable them to take out attack helicopters that venture into their territory.

To interact with the Na’vi and possibly learn some of their secrets a scientist named Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has devised an elaborate program called “Avatar,” which enables humans to operate Na’vi bodies by remote control. Imagine going into Second Life but operating a real body instead of a digital one.

One member of the team is a paraplegic former marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation). He’s being sent by the trigger-happy Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to learn about the Na’vi so that the corporation trying to colonize the planet can defeat them. To be fair to Quaritch, he’s only acting on orders from the corporation’s local supervisor (Giovanni Ribisi), who makes the colonel seem compassionate in comparison.

Jake masters his Avatar body with surprising ease, but he gets separated from his group when the jungle animals start to get hungry. A Na’vi woman named Neytiri (played by Zoë Saldana of Star Trek through motion capture) rescues him and takes him to her tribe. As Jake starts to learn their culture and language, he begins to question the validity of his mission.

Battles and exotic words are nothing new for Cameron, but he and his legions of technicians make the rainforest-like Pandora seem vivid and convincing. They’ve created intimidating-looking attack vehicles, flying rocks and glowing trees.

I guess I should also mention that it’s been rendered in the most immersive and breathtaking 3D I have seen yet. Unlike a lot of films where the 3D seems to be an afterthought, many of the shots are clearly designed to exploit the technology. Watch how tiny bubbles rise as Jake emerges from six years of suspended animation or how projectiles hit or miss their targets. Cameron handles the images so subtly that a viewer almost takes them for granted.

Cameron has also managed to get around some of the issues with motion-capture performances that have plagued other filmmakers. In many motion capture films, the people look as if they’re animated mannequins instead of humans because their eyes look lifeless. With Avatar, the eyes look in habited, and the characters’ faces are remarkably expressive, even if they are blue and striped like tigers.

As a screenwriter and a director, Cameron has always had a good eye for pacing and narrative structure (which is essential if you’re going to make a 2-hour, 42-minute movie), but with Avatar he’s managed to pen dialogue that while far from Noel Coward doesn’t sound as clunky as his previous efforts (try listening to the dialogue in the outtakes to Titanic, and you’ll hear what I mean). Apparently, all this extra time has helped him figure out how people, human and Na’vi, talk.

My one major quibble is a factor that’s probably beyond Cameron’s control. The 3D glasses at the IMAX screening I attended were painful to wear. The polarized process that Cameron prefers prevents the eyestrain and the headaches that the old two-color lenses inflicted on a viewer. But the plastic glasses we wore at the screening I attended were not shaped with ergonomics in mind. After a few minutes, I felt as my temples had been placed in a vice grip, and my nose was covered in sweat.

Thankfully, Cameron’s story is good enough to work in 2D. Despite all the money he’s gone through, he realizes that any cash spent on an inferior script is wasted. I won’t speculate on whether Avatar will be profitable, but I will say that he has handled his expenses with more care and diligence the guards at Fort Knox. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/18/09)


Me and Orson Welles
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Today, Orson Welles is best remembered for:

• Scaring thousands of American radio listeners into believing that Martians were invading the East Coast in 1938
• co-writing, directing, producing and starring in Citizen Kane, a 1941 movie that redefined what cinema could do and that still amazes nearly 70 years after it was made, and
• appearing in 1970s and ‘80s commercials for peas and wine, looking as if he’d enjoyed too much of both.

For all of his flaws, Welles has still left such a formidable legacy that only fools or those who shared Welles’ overwhelming talent might try to capture it on film. Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Before Sunset) is neither a fool, nor a genius, but he’s at least wise enough to understand that making a movie about Welles is not a venture that should be taken lightly.

Linklater was smart enough to cast rookie British screen actor Christian McKay as the legendary performer-director. With his sonorous voice and imposing manner, Welles was such a distinctive presence that he’s tough to imitate. For example, it took two actors (Vincent D'Onofrio for the body, Maurice LaMarche for the voice) to play him successfully in Ed Wood.

McKay, who has starred in a one-man stage presentation on Welles’ life, is either his clone or has channeled him. More importantly, McKay moves beyond an impersonation into a full performance. Viewers can see the insecurity, generosity and the cruelty beyond Welles’ godlike oration.

Linklater and freshman screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo (adapting the novel by Robert Kaplow) have also picked an ideal time to examine Welles’ life. In 1937, he hadn’t yet made the cover of Time or directed his infamous production of The War of Worlds. But to any fan of theater or radio, he was more than a name. Only 22, he was set to direct a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that featured an entire cast in fascist regalia. It was a powerful indictment of what was going on in Europe at a time when Americans had little sense of the potential danger across the ocean.

Stumbling into the production is a teenager named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron of High School Musical fame). Welles literally picks him up off the street to play the minor role of Lucius (who sings a lullaby to Welles’ Brutus at the end of the play). Initially, the star-struck youngster thinks that he’s been handed the chance of a lifetime, Richard soon discovers that he might have been better off not skipping high school to chase down his dream.

Welles paid for the Mercury Theatre that he and producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) had founded by acting in just about any radio gig he could land. While doing so has made him rich enough to finance the Mercury, it means the micromanaging Welles is often out working many jobs a day (sneaking from role to role in an ambulance to get through traffic). When he’s needed for the demanding Shakespeare production starting in a few days, he’s often unavailable.

When the producer-director-star does show up, he can be either supportive and bullying in the blink of an eye, and Richard learns he’s landed his debut performance because his predecessor “had a personality conflict with Orson. He had a personality.”

With that as a prerequisite, Efron is a reasonable choice to play an earnest lad learning how tasty theatrical sausage is made. His fictional character provides an adequate frame for a much more interesting portrait of Welles and his era. Richard falls in love with the company’s icy secretary (well-played by Claire Danes) who only opens up to him but also is more interested in landing work in Hollywood than in landing romantic attachments.

While the invented portions of Me and Orson Welles make for decent backstage drama, the movie really comes to life when Linklater and his company (working from a microscopic budget in the UK) recreate Welles’ Caesar.

Being somewhat more than a casual admirer of Welles and his work (my mp3 player is loaded with Welles’ radio productions), it’s amazing to see the play reenacted in remarkably minute and accurate detail. The Palmos not only recount the chaos of the play’s creation but even how Welles’ personal issues would give him trouble in later life (pay close attention to the standard Orson Welles’ meal).

It’s not an insult to say that Me and Orson Welles lacks the audacity that Welles brought to movies, radio and the stage. By merely reminding viewers of Welles and his achievements, it’s not hard to imagine his silky baritone bellowing with approval (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/18/09)


Up in the Air
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Perhaps only George Clooney could make getting fired sound like a positive development. With his rumbling baritone voice and his suave, authoritative manner, he can make dismissal sound better than praise.

In Jason Reitman’s new film Up in the Air, Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a fellow who makes his living by ending the careers of others.

Essentially, Ryan flies across the country to downsize employees for companies whose HR departments are too cowardly to do the task themselves. With an extensive collection of well-phrased bromides and an acute sense of how to read people, he can let people go without causing them to do harm to others or themselves.

For his trouble and skill, Ryan and his company are well compensated. Thanks to a sinking economy, business is booming.

Reitman went for the jugular with his hilariously vicious Thank You For Smoking, but with Up in the Air, which he co-wrote with Sheldon Tuner from Walter Kirn’s novel, is more than a simple satire.

At the same moment, a viewer can look on Ryan with pity, scorn and admiration. Part of the reason Ryan is so good at his job is that he senses how bad the news he’s delivering is.

When his boss (Jason Bateman, Reitman’s Juno) and a naïvely young efficiency expert named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) propose that Ryan’s job could be done more cheaply and efficiently by teleconferences, Ryan balks. In order to keep his own job, he still has to escort Natalie around the country during some of his rounds in order to teach how to deliver the news no employee wants to hear.

As viewers gradually discover, Ryan not only has a strong sense of ethics for a hatchet man, he also is oddly in love with the commuting process. He has refined the security check-in process to where he can get through in seconds and lives for the day when he’ll accumulate 10 million flight miles.

He spends so much time on the road that he rarely sees his sisters, and his official residence is a Spartan hotel room in Omaha. With so few attachments, he can fire people without repercussions.

Far from feeling lonely, Ryan even gives motivational speeches advocating his rootless lifestyle. Consequently, his closest friend is a woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga) whom he repeatedly meets on the road and who, like him, spends more time in planes and hotels than in any sort of home.

Up in the Air gradually puts cracks in Ryan’s merry traveler façade, but Reitman carefully makes sure that viewers don’t see them emerging right away. He views Ryan and the people he fires compassionately. In fact, many of the downsizees you’ll spot in the film aren’t actors, but residents of St. Louis and Detroit (where the film was partially shot) who are reluctantly back on the job market. On a side note, that’s not the only Missouri connection. Watch closely, and you’ll spot Kansas City-based actress and singer Erin McGrane from Alacartoona as Ryan’s neighbor.

Because Clooney has movie star charisma as well as genuine acting chops, he can make Ryan’s crisis of faith seem oddly diverting. As Ryan starts aching for some type of commitment, the chances of achieving that connection become more remote.

Kendrick and Farmiga provide able support. As Natalie, Kendrick projects vulnerability and an intelligence that complements her character’s foolish confidence. Similarly, Farmiga comes off as warm and friendly, but Alex’s caginess indicates there’s a reason she’s as hard to peg as Ryan.

Up in the Air doesn’t fit neatly into any particular genre. While it’s often funny, it deals with sobering material that’s not initially comic. The term character study seems inadequate to describe the richly fascinating characters and situations that arise in the film. Instead, Reitman’s refusal to shoehorn the tale into any artificial category is probably why the film is able to fly as high as it does. (R) Rating: 4.5. (Posted on 12/18/09)


La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Frederick Wiseman has made a lot of dangerous assumptions about his audience. He directs documentaries without voiceovers or interviews. Apparently, Wiseman trusts viewers to reach their own conclusions about what he presents them and believes that it’s not his business to comment on or instigate the action while he’s shooting. While his films are edited and arranged with an eventual point-of-view, he figures that the people watching his films don’t need to be spoon-fed.

The fact that the 79-year-old Wiseman is still making movies after his debut in the mid-1960s demonstrates that there’s still a market for his work, and if he continues to make first rate documentaries like La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, that market will remain.

Wiseman, who’s responsible for the groundbreaking documentaries High School (1968) and The Hospital (1970), follows the Paris Opera as they prepare for a new season. The director and his crew feature no conversations where either the dancers or the choreographers discuss their work directly the camera.

From watching the extensive rehearsal footage and the performance clips that follow, it’s obvious what’s happening, so the subtitles informing us what the choreographers are telling the dancers are optional. If you’re looking for sadistic bosses trashing their underlings, you won’t find them here. Even when the choreographers guide the dancers sternly, they realize they’re talking to able professionals not mindless sheep.

In fact, much of the charm of La Danse is that Wiseman and his crew consistently find quiet, telling moments instead of earth-shattering revelations. For example, a choreographer working on an adaptation of the Greek tragedy Medea, tells the dancers playing the not-so-heroic mythic hero Jason and the witch he marries named Madea, that their roles are like the gifted but flawed  Edward Scissorhands or the X-Men.

That’s actually not a bad comparison, and the remark shows that both pop and high culture can have a place in the arts. When Wiseman presents the final performance, where Madea murders her children to spite the unfaithful Jason, it’s beautifully danced but appropriately terrifying. Apparently knowing how to relate to comic books leads to dancing that seems more visceral and captivating.

Wiseman could have settled for merely covering the performers, but he manages to shoot and record just about every aspect of the company, from its grand Palais Garnier performance hall to the food service (at last, cafeteria meals that look mouth watering) to labor issues to business deals to costume making. He even shoots the lighting technicians (who conduct their business in English) making adjustments for a performance.

The director usually shoots for hundreds of hours and selects the most interesting footage. As a result, we learn that the Palais Garnier requires a good deal of upkeep. A workman has to paint the walls and fill in holes in the ceiling for one hallway. As the film progresses, the Ballet’s director Brigitte Lefèvre demonstrates some impressive footwork of her own. She nimbly juggles investors, visiting diplomats, choreographers and the best interests of the company. Wiseman follows her as she reassures a ballerina that she’ll do fine through a demanding schedule even though she’s not as young as she used to be. It’s also eye-popping to hear her talk about the support the company is expecting to receive from Lehman Brothers. Apparently, Wiseman shot that footage before the storied firm collapsed last year during the sub-prime crisis.

Wiseman concentrates on the dancers and their work. Even watching them work out or rehearse can be impressive because these folks seem intent on reducing the laws of physics into mere suggestions.

For those who aren’t as familiar with the world of ballet, it might have been useful for some title cards to indicate which ballets the performers are dancing. The closing titles include this information, but the portions included in the film might have been more meaningful if viewers had more of an idea where the story was headed.

Nonetheless, Wiseman and his crew accomplish something few recently made dance films have. When the dancers are going to work, he and the crew wisely shoot them in long, wide, stationary shots. He seems to be one of the few directors around who understands that we want to see the dancers darting about, not the camera (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/18/09)


The Princess and the Frog
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Princess and the Frog is the first Disney cartoon in five years to feature 2D animation, where artists with pencils draw the characters on pieces of paper instead of bringing them to life solely on computers. It’s a step backward in technology, but it’s not a step down in entertainment.

By taking the classic fairy tale and resetting it in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the early 20th century, Ron Clements and John Musker, the duo behind the ‘80s and ‘90s hits The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules, have created a rich visual gumbo that proves that mediocre storytelling, not computer technology, almost doomed 2D animation at Disney.

Does anybody want to remember Treasure Planet, which Clements and Musker also directed? “Outdated” animation styles were the least of that film’s problems.

The two seem at their best when they take a simple, classic story and Disney-fy it. As with The Little Mermaid, E.D. Baker’s retooling of the fairy tale (The Frog Princess) is more of a point of departure than a source. The film opens with an African-American cleaning woman named Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) reading the story of the Frog Prince to her own daughter Tiana and Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), the spoiled but likable offspring of her boss “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman).

After the story ends, Eudora and her daughter have to take a ride in the back of the bus to their home in the poorer section of the Crescent City. The family’s limited means belie their ambitions. Eudora’s husband James (Terrence Howard) wants to start an upscale restaurant for his exceptionally tasty gumbo, but his heroic (and off-screen) death in a war stops his plans. As an adult, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls) waits tables and works triple shifts in the hope of opening the eatery her dad wanted to run.

Her own plans take a sharp detour when she helps Charlotte host a costume party. A talking frog, seeing her fancy gown, mistakes her for a debutante and asks her to kiss him.

Even in the cartoon world this is a little weird.

The critter is actually the penniless Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Brazilian actor Bruno Campos), who has made the mistake of making a deal with voodoo priest and con artist Dr. Facilier (voiced with appropriate menace and relish by Keith David). It seems the “green” Dr. Facilier promised had nothing to do with cash. He tells Tiana that he’ll help her meet her goals if she’ll merely kiss him. She consents, but instead she becomes a frog as well.

The two then wind up on a journey through the bayou with a scrappy but sweet-hearted Cajun firefly named Ray (Disney veteran Jim Cummings) and an easily frightened, trumpet-playing gator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley). All of them are searching for a 197-year-old voodoo priestess who can turn Naveen and Tiana back into humans before Dr. Facilier and his supernatural “friends on the other side” can capture or kill them.

The story that Clements, Musker and Rob Edwards come up with is boilerplate. By becoming frogs, the workaholic Tiana learns to loosen up, and Naveen, who has squandered his fortune but not his birthright, begins acting like a genuine noble. Of course, the two little amphibians fall in love.

Instead, the magic for The Princess and the Frog comes with Clements and Musker’s presentation and characters. The Louisiana setting is not a mere backdrop. The landscape and architecture of New Orleans are rendered with astonishing care, and the culture that infuses the film is handled more like an immersion than a casual dip.

The city’s famous graveyards are given equal weight to the French Quarter, and soundtrack composer Randy Newman (Toy Story) manages to include just about every genre associated with the city from Dixieland to zydeco to folk ballads to jazz. To perform the tunes that aren’t performed by the cast, Newman enlists performers like Dr. John, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

All of these performers are from New Orleans so the music is refreshingly authentic and catchy. The only false step is a love ballad from Ne-Yo that plays through the closing credits. It seems out of place with the rest of the tunes, as if the movie had abruptly moved to Los Angeles.

The movie even tackles some of the racism that has plagued the city. The white bankers Tiana consults for her loan for the restaurant go back on their deal saying they doubt anyone of “her background” could run the establishment. Clements and Musker thankfully handle these themes subtly, enough subtlety to prevent the film from becoming a sermon.

The Princess and the Frog isn’t in 3D, and the computer technology used is of the same vintage as Disney used in Beauty and the Beast. Nonetheless, it’s easier to enjoy the eye candy if the characters and the situations are interesting to begin with. (G) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/11/09)


Red Cliff
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Director John Woo, who practically invented Hong Kong’s ultra-violent gangster-noir film genre by himself, has taken on one whopper of a task in attempting to bring to life China’s turbulent Three Kingdoms era. Filled with great warriors and cunning battles, that time to the Chinese is something like our tales of the ole’ Wild West, except that theirs happened several thousand years ago (208 A.D. is the time Red Cliff depicts).

Fleeing from a defeat at the hands of Cao Cao, an evil warlord who has conquered most of the north, Lui Bei leads his surviving soldiers south to seek out an alliance with a brash young king so that together they can stop the northern invasion and live in peace. Cao Cao uses his power to force the Emperor of China to name Lui and his allies as rebels so he can justify attacking them (to some making him the Dick Cheney of ancient China). The rest is two and a half hours of political machinations, heroic speeches and frenetic martial arts battles as both sides battle for the upper hand.

Now, with all these characters based on beloved semi-mythical Chinese legends, it doesn’t take long for somebody who doesn’t know the history here to become pretty freakin’ lost. There are at least ten major characters, and they spend most of their time wearing identical gray armor and running around waving various weapons. Think of a Chinese version of the Alamo: we don’t know who Lui Bei is anymore than they would know who Jim Bowie or Daniel Boone is, either.

While Woo keeps an even hand through most of the film’s various dramatic scenes, he excels in the action stuff, which often involves thousands of soldiers performing intricately choreographed maneuvers in perfect precision. There are numerous references to other action flicks, from Conan (chopping off a charging horse’s legs to knock off the rider) to Braveheart (insane charges against overwhelming forces) and even the Iliad (Cao Cao is apparently invading the south because he wants the pretty young wife of one of the opposing generals).

While there’s more than enough action for any martial arts fan, the real fun here is the brilliant tactics that the southern forces use to defeat the much larger northern force. Woo makes liberal use of CGI to flesh out the shear size of the battles, which is somewhat hit and miss, and a night-time attack with fire-ships looks fantastic, but some long shots of the immense armies look pretty fakey.

While few American moviegoers know anything about Chinese history, the simple dichotomy of a few good guys fighting against a horde of evildoers is more than universal, and with John Woo at the helm it’s a heck of a fun ride. (R)Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/11/09)


The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Perhaps The Private Lives of Pippa Lee might have been a stronger film had it focused on a single private life instead of a cornucopia of them. In adapting her own novel, writer-director Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity: Three Portraits) has a lot of potentially engaging ideas to explore.

Her title character (played as a teen by Blake Lively of Gossip Girl fame and as an adult by Robin Wright Penn) has lived in the shadow of her domineering mother Suky Sarkissian (Maria Bello) and her husband, publisher Herb Lee (Alan Arkin). As viewers quickly discover, dealing with Herb and Suky’s neuroses has left Pippa with a few of her own.

As a young woman, she copied her mothers’ habit of popping speed with disastrous results. She spends her 40s taking care of the 70-something Herb, which makes her feel isolated. Herb’s uneasy retirement makes her believe she’s more like a nursemaid than a wife.

She also wakes up to find that food has been raided from the refrigerator and dumped on the floor and that someone has left cigarette butts in her car even though neither she nor her ailing husband smoke. Naturally, she dreads the thought of the furiously active Herb spending his last days falling into senility.

Her best friend Sandra (Winona Ryder) is having a type of breakdown, and she finds herself feeling attracted to the wayward middle-aged son (Keanu Reeves) of one the residents in Herb’s retirement home.

Miller delivers the tale out of sequence and in a strangely disjointed manner. The tone varies widely from scene to scene, but subtlety is hard find. Broad comic sequences follow sober, dramatic ones as if they were cut and pasted from other films. Pippa is born with a coat of fur, as if Miller was going for magical realism, but the story jarringly switches to more mundane afflictions at the blink of an eye.

There’s a good chance this story probably worked better in print. Seemingly major characters stroll in front of the camera and then never return. In the novel, they probably had detailed back-stories but on screen they’re practically phantoms. Pippa’s children with Herb register only fleetingly, and viewers never get a sense of how the troubled but stable Pippa became close to the volatile Sandra. We also hear in the voiceover about how Herb provided protection and support for Pippa, but it would be a lot more satisfying to actually see it in action.

If Miller has trouble deciding what to remove and what to keep from her book, she at least demonstrates that she’s a more than capable director. She coaxes terrific work from Wright Penn and Bello, and the latter manages to keep the tormented Suky from becoming a caricature.

Because there’s so much dramatic material here, perhaps Miller might have made a more focused and compelling movie if she had concentrated on a single phase of Pippa’s life. It would have been more satisfying than a Reader’s Digest condensation that leaves potentially engrossing material seem empty or undercooked. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 12/11/09)


Invictus
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Creators of inspirational movies based on true stories have quite a challenge on their hands. They need to pull out the inspiring aspects of the story while not slipping into some alternate reality where the protagonists become more divine than human.

In this case director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham set out to tell the story of a new leader (Nelson Mandela), a country divided by race, and an underdog rugby team (the Springboks).

The country’s black population hated the team because, for them, it symbolized the country’s old system of oppression. But the country’s white minority loved the team.

Mandela’s goal was to unite the country. In this story, rugby was the method. If the Springboks had a chance of winning the World Cup, and the black population could be motivated to cheer for them, perhaps the entire nation would unite to root for the team.

Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) solicits the help of the Springboks’ captain, Francois (Matt Damon). The new leader has a grandfatherly talk with the team captain. During the chat Mandela hinted that the Springboks could be motivated to win the World Cup and that Francois should serve as their leader and example.

What follows will be very familiar to viewers of this kind of film. It’s basically a cinematic collage of the team becoming a part of the black community, running sports clinics with neighborhood children, traveling through parts of the country they had been unfamiliar with. We also see Mandela falling in love with rugby and the Springboks, whom he admittedly rooted against as a child.

The characters are likeable, the dialogue uplifting, and the actors at the least serviceable (and in the case of Damon quite believable). It’s a good movie that could have been great, but there’s something missing: the struggle.

The filmmakers chose to reveal some of South Africa’s problems at the time through newspaper headlines and bits of dialogue. But Invictus would have been much more moving if we could have seen evidence of Mandela’s internal struggles or Francois’s struggles physically and emotionally as he stepped up his game and defied his team’s instincts.

Instead these two characters seem almost superhuman in their resolution and restraint. And unfortunately, the ending sunk to the typical emotional string pulling common in this genre (such as the infusion of message songs, including one that recites at least part of the poem “Invictus”, which ends with the inspirational lines: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

I must admit all the schmaltz definitely warmed my heart, and I think many viewers will leave theatres with their emotional batteries charged. And, even better, some viewers may be inspired to read the book on which this movie is based (John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation).

Unfortunately, there was a bit of overkill in the sentimentality department.  (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/11/09)


Crude
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

A subtitled documentary on pollution in the Amazon River probably brings to mind something you might have slept through while you were channel surfing. Crude, thankfully, brings insight and urgency to an issue that has until recently been ignored.

Joe Berlinger, who co-directed Paradise Lost and Metallica: Some King of Monster, vividly captures the devastation that has occurred through decades of pollution in Ecuador and the legal struggles of the local Cofán tribes. They claim that Texaco, which was later acquired by Chevron in the 1990s, carelessly dumped oceans of toxic chemicals in the river.

As a result, the tribe’s children are born with large, debilitating boils and teenagers routinely die of cancer. It’s safe to conclude that none of the people there got sick eating the fish in the area. The sludge killed all of them. If they want to eat any fish, they now have to settle for canned tuna.

The devastation is actually far greater than that of the Exxon Valdez disaster. The damage involves a section of eastern Ecuador that’s roughly the size of Rhode Island and has been dubbed the “Amazon Chernobyl.”

Despite the unfamiliar setting, Crude manages to make the struggle personal and the stakes clear. There are still stretches the basin that has retained its natural beauty, but they’re marred by deep pits of toxins that look deadly even to the naked eye.

While the damage is obvious, assigning blame has been a formidable task. After 30 years of petroleum development, Texaco left the area in the hands of a consortium called PetroEcuador, whose own environmental record could politely be called dreadful. In addition, the case has been bouncing around courts in the United States and Ecuador for nearly 20 years.

Fortunately for the film, Berlinger has stumbled across the court battle during its most compelling phase. The plaintiffs’ lead attorney in Ecuador is Pablo Fajardo, a member of the tribe, who once worked in the oil fields. While he’s relatively young and grew up in poverty, he easily holds his own against Chevron’s seasoned and cleverly persuasive counsel Adolfo Callejas. Because of his modest origins and street smarts, Fajardo rightfully gets on the nerves of Chevron’s formidable legal team.

Fajardo has a powerful ally in his American counterpart Steven Donziger. While Fajardo is clearly fighting for his home and his people, Donziger works for a firm who hope, despite the difficulty of the case, to make a profit.

Berlinger avoids voiceover narration and obvious editorializing, so he doesn’t lionize the lead attorneys. Because Fajardo’s quest is so personal, it’s easy to identify with him, but Donziger’s involvement raises intriguing question about the case: Should a law firm like Donziger’s make money capitalizing on the misery in Fajardo’s homeland?

In addition, Donziger isn’t afraid of stepping on peoples’ toes to win a case. When members of the Cofán describe their situation, Donziger bluntly teaches them how to frame their statements for the benefit of the jury. When British environmental activist Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting, fields reporters’ questions about the situation in Ecuador, Donziger curtly tells her to drop Texaco’s name more often. It seems horribly condescending for him to be coaching a media-savvy person like Styler, but he wouldn’t be doing anyone else a favor if he lost the case by failing to point out information that could sway juries.

Berlinger includes stockholder videos and representatives from Chevron as well as YouTube videos from the company’s detractors. He also lands a jaw-dropping interview with Ricardo Reis Vega, the managing counsel of Chevron Latin America. Reis Vega makes some amusingly head-scratching verbal slips, so it’s not surprising that he’s now facing legal trouble of his own in Ecuador.

While the legal battle and its combatants in Crude are inherently engrossing, Berlinger saves his most chilling shot for the end. He reveals all the paperwork involved in the case. It takes up enough space to fill one, maybe two rooms. While the film catches Fajardo and Donziger during a thrilling battle, the war isn’t going to end any time soon. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/04/09)


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

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