reel reviews
movie reviews
November '08

AUSTRALIA
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORKBOLTTWILIGHT

QUANTUM OF SOLACEMADAGASCAR 2: ESCAPE TO AFRICASOUL MENROLE MODELSCHANGELING

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

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Australia
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

The “sexiest man alive” (Hugh Jackman, in case you haven’t stood in a grocery store checkout line recently staring at the magazine covers.) made the rounds on Conan and Leno. And paired with co-star Nicole Kidman, the two wooed Oprah. But no matter how hard Kidman and Jackman talked it up, Australia is too long, too scattered, too cliché heavy to be anything more than a somewhat interesting.

Director Baz Luhrmann’s $130 million epic isn’t really about Australia, the nation. It’s one part western set in Australia, another part “opposites attract” love story, a bit of social commentary about Australian racism directed toward native Aborigines, a little bit about War World II as the evil Japanese set to invade Darwin in northern Australia, and woven throughout the film — in both song and narrative — is an overwrought and eventually tiresome connection to a faux magical “There’s no place like home” homage found in the Wizard of Oz movie. The only explanation for that is the year 1939 — the year Oz was released and when the story of Australia begins.

What feels authentic about this production are the Aboriginal actors, especially Nullah, the mixed-race young boy played by Brandon Walters. “Half-caste, creamy,” he describes himself more than once in the film. Nullah brings out the maternal sentiments in Kidman’s Lady Sarah Ashley. Equally intriguing is Nullah’s grandfather King George, a shaman played by David Gulpilil, who has Nullah believing he can be “invisible” to avoid the “coppers” out to capture aboriginal children for indoctrination at church missions into the Western Christian culture.

Together with David Ngoombujarra as Magarri, all the native Australian actors give the film a human texture beyond the superficial romance novel nature of the overall story. Yet their contributions and that of Australia as a mysterious, dreamy, hard-scrabbled country filled with danger, misfits and opportunity are subordinate to the love story between Lady Sarah, a British aristocrat, and “Drover” (the only name Jackman is given in the film), a hard-drinking, horse-loving, cynical back-country brawler who once fell in love with an Aboriginal woman and scorned by Darwin’s white society because of it. Of course, this aspect isn’t really explored in the film nor the sufferings of the Aboriginal people at the hands of the whites. No, Drover is just the beefcake who wins the heart of the fair lady as he discovers he can love and commit again.

To heighten the tension, Australia has the obligatory greedy cattle baron (Bryan Brown) out to get the Lady’s ranch, Faraway Downs, and his murderous son Fletcher (David Wenham). And as if that’s not enough, the Imperial Japanese Air Force terrorize the locals as an invasion of Australia looms right after Pearl Harbor.

Kidman, as always, demonstrates her considerable acting talents, making the transition from prim and proper Lady Ashley to tough but vulnerable cattle baroness and replacement mother for Nullah believable. Jackman looks and acts Hollywood throughout — never quite too dirty, never quite too clean but always appealing. The romantic chemistry between Kidman and Jackman works, communicating a lustful tenderness despite the sometimes forced encounters and cheesy dialogue.

As with the Aborigines, the photography and period look to the film helps hold it together. The frequent boom and aerial camera shots convey a beauty and a limitless expansiveness to the Australian landscape missing from the narrative.

Australia could have been a much better film if it hadn’t tried to do too much while burdened with a time-tested approach to a love story. This film should have been unique and mystical in its storytelling, like the land where it was filmed. Unfortunately, it is much too ordinary. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 11/26/08)


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

British writer-director Mark Herman may have taken on an impossible assignment when he adapted the John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Herman has the unenviable task of presenting a challenging and delicate topic like the Holocaust honestly, while at the same time delivering his tale in a kid-friendly way.

He deserves credit for being partially successful. The film may be told from a child’s point of view, but The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can occasionally make both adults and children disturbed for the right reasons.

Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) abruptly has to leave his elegant home in Berlin because his father (David Thewlis) has been assigned to a new military post in the country. His mother (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) won’t let him play in the new backyard and refuses to tell him why some of their servants have shaved heads and wear numbered outfits that look like striped pajamas.

It turns out that Bruno’s dad, despite his boasting of how he’s making the world a better place, is actually running a Nazi labor camp. Bruno gradually befriends an inmate named Schmuel (Jack Scanlon), who is his own age and forces him to see beyond the propaganda his family has been fed.

The boys’ friendship is affecting, and the film slowly demonstrates how living a lie takes its toll on Bruno’s family. While the British accents are distracting in a tale about Germany, the cast is generally solid. Thewlis and Farmiga are both convincing as parents who may not see the nightmare around them as clearly as their son.

Herman’s previous movies have been comedies like Brassed Off and Little Voice, and there are times when he has difficulty reaching the right tone for his current film. There are several scenes where Herman attempts at humor that seems out of sync with the weighty subject matter, particularly during Bruno’s scenes with a Jewish doctor reduced to working as a household servant.

Both Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa and Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants do a better job of balancing the horrors of the Holocaust and a child’s perspective. But as Darfur and Congo have proven lately, genocide didn’t end with World War II. Even a flawed movie about the Holocaust can encourage a new generation of moviegoers not to be silent when similar evils are prevalent. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/21/08)


Synecdoche, NY
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Given that writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s most popular works are Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it should come as no surprise that his latest film (and directorial debut), Synecdoche, NY, is more than a little weird.

Even the title is a trope of sorts (just check out the spelling), a little hint that what we see on-screen here is really about how it’s the little things we do, not the great ones, that add up to define our lives.

All that said, just even trying to define this convoluted plot is a major task: Caden Cotard (the always mesmerizing Philip Seymore Hoffman) has just received a Macarthur Genius grant for his acclaimed work on a production of Death of a Salesman, while his own home life is going quietly down the drain. Before you can blink he’s abandoned by his wife Adele (Catherine Keener, in full hippie-artist mode) who along with their young daughter Olive moves to Germany after finding critical success there with her absurdly tiny portraits. He’s also burdened by mysterious medical ailments that remain undefined, and so emotionally frail he seems more like a in-patient at a mental clinic than a successful director.

In an attempt to realize his greatest artistic vision, Caden takes his grant money and begins an unnamed “theatrical production” in an old warehouse, creating a fake New York building by building. He then populates it with “actors” who attempt to live out as “real” a life as those people in the city outside, all while following Caden’s random and discombobulated directions.

As the years roll by, Caden falls for his assistant Hazel (an underused Samantha Morton), then later the actress that plays Hazel (Emily Watson). Plus the actor he has hired to play himself (the always creepy Tom Noonan), a man that shows up one day announcing that he has been “watching” Caden for the last twenty years so he should be “perfect” to play him, commits suicide in the same way Caden had once tried to, but failed. Along the way Caden also tries to reconnect with his daughter Olive, who goes from a charming four year old to a really beat-up German hoochie girl in like half an hour, all the while taking advice from a bizarrely disconnected therapist (Hope Davis) who seems to have some kind of hygiene problem with her feet.

Over the decades (yes, decades) the set/city expands around them, ever growing as hints wander by that the real New York outside is falling apart. Then there’s the late appearance of an actress (Diane Weist) who takes over Caden’s role in more ways than one.

There are, of course, a few problems for all this metaphysical verisimilitude: is Caden really dead, as numerous bits of dialog and such indicate might be? Is Caden’s obsession with “truth” really him leaving behind a real world he can’t control for a completely self-created one? How did they get a blimp in that warehouse, and just how much was that genius grant worth?

No doubt many critics will stumble over a nice pat definition here, and they should: This isn’t a simple or easy film to define, and if that’s what Kaufman and his cast were going for, then they’ve done it in spades, no matter how you spell the title. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 11/21/08)


Bolt
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s hard to review the new animated film Bolt without having had the pleasure of catching it in 3D. While it might have been fun to see the images jumping out of the screen, the movie does have an enormous advantage over most 3D flicks: a first-rate script.

The title character, voiced by John Travolta, is brilliant at playing a canine superhero. That’s probably because Bolt has no idea he’s acting. The producers of his hit television series, which bears no small resemblance to The Truman Show, go to extraordinary lengths to convince the dog that he has high tech powers that enable him to save his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) from everything from military helicopters to time bombs with short settings.

When an accident gets him shipped from Hollywood to New York by mistake, Bolt gradually discovers that only his courage is real. Fortunately, he gets some help from a cynical alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and a boisterous hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton). The little rodent’s personality is so big that his force-of-will almost matches the powers Bolt has on TV.

While the making of this film had its controversies (original director Chris Sanders of Lilo & Stitch fame was fired during production), Bolt is consistently entertaining because its characters are so endearing. Directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard manage to make even the caustic-tongued Mittens have a heart of gold under her mangy, hard bitten fur. While Travolta and Cyrus handle themselves well, Essman and Walton, who normally works in the Disney animation department, consistently and delightfully upstage them.

Even without the 3D effects, the visuals are solid. The backgrounds have a soft-focused look to them, and the characters have suitably expressive faces.

Still, the material is the star of this film. There are dozens of inside Tinseltown jokes that are actually funny (listen to the LA pigeons, who sound a lot like struggling screenwriters), and the way that Bolt and his companions manage to navigate across America has to be seen to be believed. It also doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers chose Inside the Actors Studio guru James Lipton to voice the show’s fanatical director.

Despite poor sound at the screening I attended, Bolt remained consistently charming. Like its namesake the film doesn’t need the extra gismos to win over its viewers. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/21/08)


Twilight
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The fans of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels are so fervent that they’d probably pay full price to watch an adaptation of the books that consisted of flip cards of stick figures representing the characters as gravel-voiced comic Gilbert Gottfried narrated and read all of the roles.

Curiously, that sounds more entertaining that the movie that actually got made.

Despite being adapted by Melissa Rosenberg of Dexter fame and being helmed by director Catherine Hardwicke, who demonstrated a knack for honest and compelling teen stories like Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, Twilight has little of the candor or style these women have demonstrated in their other projects.

Admittedly, Meyer’s central theme is loaded with possibility. Imagine falling hopelessly with someone who could literally devour you if he or she chose. That’s the dilemma that teenage Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) finds herself in when she abruptly moves to Forks, WA. Her biology lab partner Edward (British actor Robert Pattinson) is a pale loner, who never eats in the cafeteria, aces his classes, runs like antelope and disappears on bright, sunny days.

As you’ve probably already figured out from these clues, he’s really a vampire. For a story like this to work, you’d have to believe the young lovers were so drawn to each other they’d risk death to be in each other’s arms.

Sadly, it’s hard to believe anything in Twilight. Pattinson and Stewart have no chemistry to speak of, and the pale pseudo-Goth makeup that Edward and his ilk wear make them look more like unemployed mimes than bloodsuckers.

The film progresses in a manner that’s more comatose than undead. After lots of exposition and voiceover narrative that informs viewers of details they’ve already learned visually, the payoffs never come. There’s never a hint of romantic passion or danger. Whenever the vampires decide to duke it, the battles are so quick and fleeting it’s hard to care who wins. It’s tempting to blame the PG-13 rating, but good filmmakers know how to elicit chills without gore.

The inept special effects don’t help. The speeded up motion makes the nosferatu look as if they’re auditioning for The Six Million Dollar Man.

Twilight would have admirers outside its fan base if the film didn’t come off as both cheaply and indifferently made. If the filmmakers had put as much enthusiasm into their work as readers have placed into Meyer’s books, Twilight might have had something to offer that hasn’t been seen before and better in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Near Dark. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 11/21/08)


Quantum of Solace
Reviewed by Deborah Young

James Bond’s allure lies in his persona’s contradictions. At times he’s equal parts brute and sophisticate. In his latest incarnation, he’s mostly a brute.

Grieving the loss and betrayal of his girlfriend, he sets out for revenge, and he’s killing almost everyone he encounters. The rashness of his killing even prompts his boss M (Judi Dench) to chide him for killing the bad guys before they can be questioned.

As usual, Bond (played again by Daniel Craig) will not be stopped until he achieves his goal, which is to thwart Quantum, a powerful secret organization determined to gain control of the world’s water.

This time around most of Bond’s charms have turned to grit. We get less of the tuxedoed lady’s man and more of the bloodied hooligan as Bond traipses from country to country fighting and killing.

Along the way he meets another lost soul (Olga Kurylenko as Camille) who’s also out to avenge the loss of loved ones. Bond and Camille join forces but without the smoldering romance Bond aficionados might anticipate. Instead, they share only a dull soul ache and a thirst for revenge.

Quantum of Solace features so much random and emotionless killing, and so little humor and meaningful dialogue that an hour of action becomes as tiring as two hours of inaction. Craig exudes charm and a mysterious duplicity. Unfortunately, the script and scatterbrained pacing of this flick fail to buoy his performance.

There is one scene that recalls some of Bond’s former glory. Bond is on a balcony during a performance of the opera Tosca. He’s listening through an earpiece to what’s supposed to be a secret meeting of Quantum leaders.

Then he reveals that he’s listening to the opera, and chasing and shooting begins. The camera intersperses scenes of the treachery onstage with Bond’s treacherous interactions with Quantum members. At some point, the music crescendos and the opera singers’ melodious voices ring out, creating a contrast between the opera’s artistic beauty and the ugliness of the untamed violence.

But the scene is too little too late.

As M put it in Casino Royale, “Any thug can kill.”

But Bond’s audiences want him to be more than a thug. It’s just not as much fun to watch a thug as it is to observe a suave government operative that’s licensed to kill for the greater good.

Director Martin Campbell gave Casino Royale artistic flavor with soft touches such as the glorious black and white opening sequence. Unfortunately, director Marc Forster (The Kite Runner, 2007) abandoned Campbell’s playbook for a less refined approach. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 11/17/08)


Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Whereas most sequels are pale comparisons to the first film, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, the writer/directors behind Madagascar and Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa deserve credit for delivering a new animated film that has all the strengths of the original.

It also has all of the weaknesses.

The Central Park Zoo animals from the first film, Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), attempt to escape from the island where they were stuck but wind up in the middle of the African savannah. This sometimes happens when the plane carrying you is being flown by enthusiastic but bumbling penguins.

The critters find themselves in their natural habitat, but life in captivity has made living in "the real world" difficult. Alex soon learns there's more to be being a lion in the wild than theatrically strutting about, and Gloria finds herself romanced by the hippo version of a lothario (will.i.am doing an impressive Barry White impersonation).

Like the first movie, Madagascar 2 has a weakness more movies should have: too many good ideas. For example, the hypochondriac Melman winds up being recruited by his fellow giraffes to be their doctor. There are some really funny bits, but the humor is only explored sporadically. While the movie is amusing, it might have been even funnier if gags like this had been explored more fully.

Visually, Madagascar 2 puts its 2005 predecessor to shame. Thanks to improved technology and greater user know-how, the simulated African scenery is breathtaking. Panoramic shots of the grasslands are almost as breathtaking as the real thing. The characters are also well rendered. When they get older, you can spot lions with receding manes and middle age spreads.

The voice casting is typically solid. Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is hysterically funny is his sadly brief sequences as Julien, the lemur king. The late Bernie Mac affectionately plays Alex's frustrated father. If you must see one of the comic's final big-screen offerings (the other is the wretched Soul Men), this is the one to catch. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 11/07/08)


Soul Men
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The only rewarding moments in Soul Men come as the closing credits are rolling. Not only has the witless and torpid comedy has come to an end but the filmmakers wisely included some interview and standup footage of the late comic Bernie Mac.

In these sequences, you can see how much he loved performing and why his passing is a tragedy. With his bulging eyes (that made him look as if he were auditioning for an Exorcist sequel) and spooky voice, he could elicit laughs from the stalest of material.

There’s plenty of humor that’s run past its sell-through date here. Mac and Samuel L. Jackson play a couple of retired ‘60s-‘70s soul singers whose mutual animosity has to be put on hold so they can play a reunion gig in New York.

The cross-country journey that’s supposed to drive the movie winds up being little more than a platform for reissued gags involving Viagra and other sequences that poke mean-spirited fun at seniors. If you’ve seen one gag involving an older man unable to fit into the clothes he used to wear, you’ve seen them all. Did I mention there’s a rectal exam scene?

Director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man) has little sense of pacing, so there’s a long wait between gags involving bodily functions.

Jackson and Mac make a valiant effort. They can actually sing and imitate the dance moves of performers like Sam and Dave. Still, it’s not as thrilling to hear the actors cover Stax Records songs like “Hold On, I’m A-Comin’” as it is to listen to the original recordings.

The soundtrack is blessed with some all-too-brief contributions from real musicians like John Legend and Isaac Hayes, who died a few days after Mac.

Lee and screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone should have incorporated anecdotes from real-life soul musicians. For example, the stories in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown are funnier that anything here. Sadly, the filmmakers chose to go too often to the well, I mean the toilet, for inspiration.

As it stands, Soul Men winds up being an insult to the great tunesmiths of the past and to its own dearly departed stars. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 11/07/08)


Role Models
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

When it comes to Role Models, thinking too hard about it will dampen any entertainment value that the film tries to deliver. But if you’re between the ages of 18 to 21, the film will definitely rock you; from 22 to 30, still kinda fun; 31 to 45 — and male — you’re there for the nudity and abundance of sex talk. Above 45, the heavy bombardment of the F-word will, at the very least, irritate like a someone’s car alarm going off in a restaurant parking lot during dinner.

Paul Rudd — a talented actor in need of a new agent – plays 35-year-old Danny Donahue, a pitchman for an energy drink called Minotaur. With his sidekick Wheeler, played by the perennially typecast hunky doffus Seann William Scott, the pair visit schools warning students of the dangers of drugs while urging the young minions to down Minotaur. Danny is depressed, seeing his life wasting away even while living with sexy-but-smart lawyer girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks). Wheeler digs the job because its an avenue to meet hot young teachers and doesn’t require him to think too much, if at all.

One day Danny breaks down during a high school assembly then goes ballistic when the Minotaur monster SUV almost gets towed away. The SUV winds up on top of a statue in front of the school. The pair face jail time unless they complete 150 hours of community service under the supervision of Gayle Sweeney (Jane Lynch), a former coke head who behaves like she’s now hooked on meth. Gayle runs a Big Brother type nonprofit with kids in need of adult role models.

Wheeler gets Ronnie, played by 12-year-old Bobb’e J. Thompson. Calling the kid foul-mouthed and angry is a severe understatement. Danny is stuck with Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a terribly shy and sensitive teen who has withdrawn into the world of medieval role playing. (Rudd and Thompson have Kansas City connections — Thompson was born in KCMO and Rudd grew up in Overland Park.) Through the course of the film, Ronnie and Wheeler bond because of a mutual appreciation for women’s breasts, and Augie finds his courage when Danny realizes that the kid has it tougher than he does.

Along the way the four become the band Kiss to battle the Beowulf hordes, reveal the meaning of the “whispering eye” and deliver a happy ending for all. Some laughs are there; deep meaning not. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 11/07/08)


Changeling
Reviewed by Deborah Young

From the moment Changeling commences with a Clover Dairy truck scooting down a quiet street, it is clear that director Clint Eastwood has carefully planned his audience’s journey into another time. It’s a time during which the Red Pacific electric trains make regular trips through the streets of Los Angeles.

The cinematic journey is both maddening and captivating.

The first stop: the home of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie). She has just awakened, and as she arises from bed we see that her hair held its waves while she slept, her ruby red lipstick hasn’t smeared or worn off.

She wakes her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whom she lovingly calls “sport,” and feeds him breakfast. Then she’s off to her job as a manager for the telephone company, where she glides to her operators’ assistance on roller skates strapped to high heels.

After journalist turned screenwriter J. Michael Stracynski establishes Collins as a 1920s era superwoman, something happens that darkens her world. She gets called into work on Saturday, March 10, 1928, and leaves Walter at home. When she returns he’s gone.

Weeks later the L.A.P.D. claims to have found him, but the boy they bring to her is not her son. Moving forward, she many indignities at the hands of Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who’s determined to keep the truth from the public because the L.A.P.D. needs to retain the positive press it got after returning the missing boy.

Stracynski uncovered this story in public records and later decided to create a script that would tell Christine’s story. According to Universal’s production notes, Stracynski pulled quotes directly from case files and public records, and incorporated them into the script.

He also incorporated sarcasm in the dialogue, jabbing comments that constantly remind viewers of the ridiculousness of the L.A.P.D.’s claims and of the great injustices inflicted on Christine.

Jolie enlivened Christine with understated charm and intensity. The settings and costumes recreated the late 1920s. Even the child actors involved project believable characters.

Both to its credit and misfortune Changeling rings true. As we were leaving the screening a fellow movie critic commented: Who wants to relive someone else’s nightmare?

Indeed, this film is so well done that many viewers will relive Christine’s nightmare and experience quite a bit of tension in the process. But those who miss it will miss Oscar-caliber performances, although those performances are, at times, wrapped in heavy melodrama. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/31/08)


Michel Simpson can be contacted at michaelthemovieman@gmail.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at dkayyoung@hotmail.com.

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