reel reviews
movie reviews
January '09

TAKENNEW IN TOWN UNINVITED
I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
INKHEART
THE WRESTLER DEFIANCE REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
LAST CHANCE HARVEY CHANDI CHOWK TO CHINA NOTORIOUS PAUL BLART: MALL COP
GRAN TORINONOT EASILY BROKEN BRIDE WARS
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN THE READER

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

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Taken
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

The tagline for Taken is “Die Zeit für Rache ist gekommen,” which is German for “Watch Qui-Gon Jinn kick some ass”…ok, it really means, “The time for revenge has come”. Still, seeing Liam Neeson try and kung fu some bad-guys does make you wish he had a light-saber to whip out, although he does pretty well without one.

This is a fast and slick action flick, a classic case of some really evil dudes who finally screw with the wrong guy, and get some much-deserved payback.

Neeson plays ex-spy (he calls himself a “Preventer,” whatever that means) Bryan Mills, a man whose service to his country has cost him his family. His estranged wife Lenore (played by Famke Janssen) has remarried, and as a result Mills finds his attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter Kim thwarted time and again. His own paranoid nature triggers when Kim asks for his permission to go to Paris to “check out museums” (what parent would possibly believe that?), but pressed, he finally relents and agrees…

And guess what happens next? Yup — approximately 8 minutes after landing Kim is kidnapped by Albanian gangsters intent on hooking her on drugs and selling her virginity to the highest bidder. Still, Kim isn’t all that stupid: As her friend is grabbed in their hotel, she gets a last-second phone call off to her dad, who manages to listen in, and even gets one of the baddies to talk back to him. After quietly explaining that he is a man not to be $#@%ed with, Mills hears as simple reply: “Good luck.” Man-o-man, is that guy gonna wish he had just hung up…

The rest is a straight-forward chase flick, with Mills climbing up the bad-guy ladder with a variety of techniques, ranging from clever to just out-and-out violent (in one scene, Neeson prepares to torture a baddie, while quietly conversing that “We generally out-source this type of work these days…). Bit by bit he takes the entire Albanian mob down, while his now-retired French contact quietly tries to keep him from smashing half of Paris.

There is of course a final big chase and fight scene on board the Big Baddie’s boat, where Mills…well, you can guess the rest.

While the biggest weakness here is in some of the early hand-to-hand fights (Neeson is obviously better with a sword), this is one of the cooler vengeance-flicks so far this year. Director Pierre Morel uses his experience from films like Transporter and Unleashed to excellent effect, pacing the film with a relentlessness that mirrors Mills own actions perfectly — once this thing gets going, there is hardly a dull moment.

One warning though: this is pretty violent for a PG-13 flick, with a main character who is both sympathetic and unapologetically lethal, and that works damn well. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 01/30/09)

 


New in Town
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Bridget Jones and Leatherheads’ Lexie Littleton meet in New in Town’s protagonist Lucy Hill (played by Renee Zelleweger). Zelleweger is in turns maddeningly mannered and incredibly natural in this role.

Much of the credit for the maddening part goes to the screenwriters, who gave us a Miami girl wearing high heels and spring clothes to Minnesota during winter. These same folks gave us Lucy who’s supposed to be a savvy business executive (CEO material). Yet she’s naïve enough to close down a production plant early on a moment’s notice for some bogus local holiday. She’s clumsy enough to shoot her love interest (Harry Connick, Jr. as Ted) in the butt and (on a separate occasion) to tumble over a balcony while Ted’s unlocking her front door.

On top of that, every character in this movie represents a stereotype: the country lady who cooks when stressed, chats up strangers about Jesus, and has no clue about big city ways; the bearded and opinionated slob who’s actually a prince underneath his hairy façade; and the Grinch-like businessmen bent on downsizing the town into oblivion.

Lucy goes to the Minnesota town to prove to her bosses that she’s clever enough and ruthless enough to execute the automation of the plant. But as the conventions of Valentine’s season dictate romance flicks, she starts to like the town’s bumpkins and one male bumpkin in particular.

Unfortunately, the male bumpkin, Ted, isn’t as sexy as you might expect a love interest to be. The reason: the scruffy mountain man beard on which he dribbles his beer. The potential object of his affection, Lucy, isn’t much better. Her problem: She seems to be all image and no substance.

What’s supposed to happen is that these two misfits evolve before our eyes and then fall for each other. Unfortunately neither evolves very much, and there’s not much onscreen development of a relationship.

Still, both Zelleweger and Connick are charismatic enough to create a bit of cinematic flavor for viewers who can stand the clichés and stereotypes of New in Town’s cinematic universe. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/30/09)


Uninvited
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

One of the more important rules in movie reviews is to describe the plot without “spoiling” any big twists along the way- — for instance, mentioning that Bruce Willis is a ghost or that girl is really a guy can ruin a good film in just a few words…

However, there are times (hopefully few and far between) when a movie is just so, so…so freaking BAD that it is necessary for a critic’s duty — nay his very soul — to let you know all you need to so that you can avoid that stinker like the plague.

Uninvited is yet another remake of an Asian (in this case Korean) horror film called A Tale of Two Sisters, which is undoubtedly better by the sheer fact the nothing could be worse than this steaming pile of dog excrement. There are no actors here, other than David Strathairn as the father, but rather a small cast of teenage underwear models.

In fact, if you happen to be a pedophile you’ll just love this film because the two sisters (not gonna name them — not worth the effort to type their names) often writhe around in their skimpy underwear, showing off the healthy fact that all girls should weigh 47 lbs.

The plot is such: younger sister, fresh out of the asylum after her attempted suicide, returns home only to be haunted by the spirit of her dead mother who died in a mysterious fire. You see, beloved mom had been terminally ill, so she had been moved out into their island-side boathouse, and given a bell to ring if she needed help because…

Okay — your family’s wife and mother is dying SO YOU STICK HER IN THE BOATHOUSE AND GIVE HER A BELL TO RING FOR HELP!?!?!!?!

Alright, fine, whatever. There is of course an evil Step-mom figure that the sisters quickly determine killed their mom to get to their dad, all of which is revealed with a magnificent lack of plot, skill or acting. Even the way this abortion is filmed is wrong: why all the close-ups of the girl’s emo-tastic completions? Did they forget that movies are projected on a big screen? Did they think audiences like to look up noses?

Anyway, this leads to a final confrontation between the girls and their blonde nemesis, when it is finally revealed that (SPOILER ALERT!!) none of what you have been watching ever happened! That’s right! You see, the younger sister is just really crazy and made up almost everything that happened! She is the one that started the fire, her sister was killed as well, and step-mom was innocent!

Isn’t that great, they way these filmmakers looked out to their audience and gave them the big finger? I’m surprised they weren’t waiting at the exit to laugh and spit in everybody’s face!

If it was not for a slow movie month (Paul Blart: Mall Cop is #1 right now — you do the math) this would have gone straight to DVD, and been the bane of Blockbuster employees dealing with customers demanding their money back. (PG-13) Rating: 0 (Posted 01/30/09)


I’ve Loved You So Long
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

I’ve Loved You So Long, the directorial debut from Writer/Director Philippe Claudel, is as much a work of literature as it is a work of film — an exploration of heart-breaking despair and quiet redemption, making it one of the most intelligent and thoughtful films of the year.

That being said, it comes as little surprise that this is a quintessentially French film, from it’s subtitles right down to the characters’ love of wine, companionship and, most importantly, family.

Juliette (Kristen Scott Thomas in a stunning and more than Oscar worthy performance) has just been released from prison after a 15-year sentence. With more than a little trepidation her younger sister Lea (whom was told as a child to forget she even has a sister by their parents) picks up Juliette and moves her into her own rural French homestead, much to the consternation of her husband Luc, who worries about the safety of their two adopted young girls. The reason for his concern, being it Juliette’s crime, would worry anyone. Juliette was in prison for murder.

Luckily, Lea’s home is filled with light and love, from her adopted Vietnamese girls to her husband’s aged father who has lost the ability to speak after a stroke. In his rumpled sweaters he sits reading in the study all day — a perfect, open soul for Juliette. Jean-Claude Arnaud is so perfect in this role they should give him his own Oscar in the category of “Most Charming Old Guy Ever”… and he does it without saying a single word.

While most filmmakers would jump on the pathos of Juliette’s situation with all the subtly of a pit bull in lipstick, Claudel unravels the true story behind her crime with a wonderfully paced script, pealing back each layer through some amazing sequences of dialog, bit by bit. Her slowly emerging relationship with Lea’s colleague Michel (Laurent Gervill) is neither gratuitous nor childish, but instead, wonderfully more the bittersweet even as it grows.

In the end, of course, Juliette finally allows Luc and Lea’s quirky and lively family and friends to peel back the layers of pain and sorrow behind her actions. No, I’m not going to be more specific here: The final revelation elicits no cheap gasps or trite emotions. It simply seems to fit, which is good because it doesn’t quite solve all the questions. But that’s not really what this film is about. In the end, it simply reveals how two sisters found a way to become family again. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/23/09)


Inkheart
Reviewed by Deborah Young

At the beginning of Inkheart, Mo (Brendan Fraser) reads a version of the Red Riding Hood story to his baby daughter while his wife sits listening. The camera moves to the outside of Mo’s house where lush red cloth has appeared and is just hanging in the air. The voiceover explains that there are powerful storytellers known as Silvertongues and that some of them are unaware of their powers.

Then the story flashes forward a few years. Mo and his teenage daughter, Meggie (Elizabeth Hope Bennett) are on a road trip together. They wind up at a secondhand bookstore, where the adventure begins.

A mysterious man with a scar is chasing Mo, begging Mo to help him. Mo refuses to help the man. It has something to do with Mo’s wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory) who’s been missing for nine years.

The father and daughter retreat to a spacious mansion owned by Meggie’s cantankerous great aunt, Elinor (Helen Mirren). Once there they are accosted by characters from a novel called “Inkheart” and taken to a castle.

Bottom line: Father and daughter need to escape the bad men of the castle and get Meggie’s mother back.

It’s a very circuitous story. Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s novel of the same name has the protagonists traveling from the great aunt’s mansion to an Italian castle in the mountains and then the hometown of the novel’s author.

The beauty of the scenery holds the enterprise together. Director Iain Softley (Skeleton Key, 2005) chose to shoot much of the story in Liguria, Italy, the setting of Funke’s novel. Cinematographer Roger Pratt brought the lush Italian landscape to life with shots of such as winding roads with blue water framing the shots and the greenest of green meadows.

Although the script was nothing to write home about, the actors were charming (including 19-year-old Rafi Gavron, who plays Farid, a character from 1001 Arabian Nights). But the photography is what makes this movie grand and worth a look. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 01/23/09)


The Wrestler
Reviewed by Deborah Young

“What do you want to do tonight?”

It sounds like a simple, harmless question, but in The Wrestler it’s always a prelude to pain, especially for a veteran with more matches behind him than in front of him.

Before the matches the wrestlers meet with their opponents and plan their routines. For example, “I’ll hit you with a chair, then you’ll chase me, etc.”

In the film’s first 30 minutes, it becomes clear (even to the uninitiated) that wrestling can be predictable for the fighters. The matches also bring (sometimes painful) surprises.

For aging wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) life is about to get as unpredictable and painful as the most grueling wrestling match. After suffering a heart attack, Randy’s doctor says that he can no longer wrestle. It would be too dangerous.

Unfortunately, Randy’s whole life revolves around wrestling. He’s estranged from his grown daughter, and he has no intimate witnesses to his existence.

With the grit and uncomplaining resolve of a 21st Century Rocky Balboa, Randy gets a regular job as a deli butcher. He tries to patch things with his daughter and build a relationship with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper that he regularly patronizes.

Cassidy like Randy struggles to adapt to changes in her life. As she’s aged, the strip club’s patrons have become less interested in her services. Also she struggles with the idea of dating. She likes Randy but hides behind the line she’s drawn between herself and customers.

Writer Robert Siegel’s spare script relies on visuals to create the clues the audience needs to understand these characters’ loneliness and disappointments. The look in Cassidy’s eyes when patrons turn down a lap dance is more telling and more moving than a gripe would be. Randy’s soft acquiescence when a young neighbor boy has to stop playing Nintendo and go home reveals loneliness beyond the reach of words.

Add to that director Darren Aronofsky’s knack for pulling audiences into characters’ lives and you’ve got a motion picture likely to ignite viewers’ emotions and stimulate their minds.

The Wrestler is more accessible than the three other films Aronofsky has directed (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain). That’s because the lead character, Randy, is more accessible. He’s just a simple man who’s lost without his routine.

Mickey Rourke gives Randy a persona that is moving, believable and heartbreaking. So when he greets his opponent for the movie’s final match and his opponent asks, “What do you want to do tonight?” many audience members will be drawn in. By that time (thanks to a sharp script and appropriately understated performances by Rourke and Tomei), they will have realized that the question transcends wrestling. By that time they will know that the answer to that simple question will determine this character’s future. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 01/16/09)


Defiance
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

For all of its flaws, Defiance presents a fresh and engaging view of World War II that’s all the more startling because it’s based on the actions of a real Belarusian family.

Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski (played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell) are a trio of Jewish brothers who survive the Holocaust by doing something unusual: They fought back. After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and killed their parents, Tuvia and Zus went after the soldiers and collaborators who did it and scared others out of helping the German advance.

While Tuvia and Zus were both formidable guerilla fighters, the two constantly argued on the best way to keep their rebellion going. Tuvia rescues fellow Jews from ghettos and creates makeshift communities in the forest where he and the others can hide and fight another day, if they must. Zus, however, thinks taking on the burdens of others is too tall an order and joins the Red Army.

Life in the Bielski’s camp was a complicated affair, and director Edward Zwick and his co-screenwriter Clayton Frohman can be forgiven if they have difficulty deciding where to focus. Despite shortages of basic materials, thousands of people survived the war by following the Bielski’s lead. In order to give a wider view of the Bielski’s achievements, the film seems to meander and slip into redundancies. The movie’s two hour and 17 minute running time feels a little more oppressive than it should.

Fortunately, Zwick also manages to get a lot right. Having helmed The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, Zwick is an old hand at battle scenes and stages them beautifully. There’s been a recent flood of World War II films like Valkyrie where the cast consists of British and American actors speaking in their native accents. As a result, viewers have to suspend disbelief watching Tom Cruise in a Nazi uniform.

With Defiance, it’s refreshing to see a movie set in continental Europe where the actors actually sound as if they might live there. Craig can do accents beautifully (he was totally convincing, as In Cold Blood as Perry Smith), and it’s easier to believe that Craig and Bell, who are Brits, are related to Schreiber, who’s American, if they all sound the same.

Zwick doesn’t shortchange the hardships that the Bielskis and the residents of their camp faced and acknowledges that the siblings had to resort to banditry to survive. Nonetheless, their courage and ingenuity should not be forgotten.

At the end of the film, we learn the Bielskis immigrated to New York and ran a trucking firm. Imagining how veterans of guerilla warfare adapted to life in the Big Apple could make an interesting movie in itself. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/16/09)


Revolutionary Road
Reviewed by Deborah Young

I know I won’t be the first or the only, but let me add to the list of inevitable comparisons that link 1997’s Titanic with Revolutionary Road. Both movies feature Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as lovers, and the stories create cinematic bookends.

The first tale becomes a beautiful romantic fantasy because of its big tragedy: the two lovers never get a chance to realize their dream of living happily ever after, together. The second story, Revolutionary Road, becomes a tragedy because the two protagonists get a shot at their fantasy.

We meet the hopeful protagonists April and Frank as they spy each other across a crowded room. He goes to her, and they begin the flirtation dance. “What do you do?” He asks. “I’m an actress,” she says. “What interests you?” She asks. “I don’t know,” he says.

The next thing we know they’re stuck in suburbia. He goes to a lackluster job in the city. She stays home, tends the kids and tries to amuse herself with hobbies such as painting.

Then she comes up with the idea that they should move to Paris. She’ll get a good paying job with the government, and he can stay home and figure out what he wants to do with his life.

That’s when their lives become a bit wonky. Things start to fall apart.

Based on Richard Yates’s 1961 novel of the same name, Revolutionary Road is a solemn look inside 1950s America. These characters lead drab lives against a lush green backdrop. The only realistic character in the bunch is the “crazy” guy (Michael Shannon as John Givings), who calls things just as he sees them, to the dismay of his mother and neighbors.

Kathy Bates turns in an interesting performance as a real estate agent and John Givings’ mother. But mostly the movie belongs to DiCaprio and Winslet, who don’t have much to do here but act miserable.

Still Revolutionary Road resonates, particularly in this age where the American dream appears to be crumbling like a cupcake. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/16/09)


Last Chance Harvey
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Some of this year’s “Oscar season” pics were thoughtful but melancholy, well acted but humorless. Into that mix comes this charming little flick about romance late in life.

Dustin Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a jingle writer who’s at risk of losing his job to younger colleagues. He goes to London for his daughter’s wedding. There, he meets Kate, an airline survey-taker.

His first glimpse of her is right after he exits the plane. He’s in a hurry. She approaches him about taking a survey. He only glances at her before brushing her off and moving on. Then he’s off to his daughter’s wedding, where he feels upstaged by his wife’s current husband, Brian (James Brolin). Brian seems to have usurped Harvey’s place in Harvey’s daughter’s life.

Screenwriter/director Joel Hopkins accomplishes much with little dialogue here. Little incidents stack together the case that Harvey’s a bit of a hothead in contrast to the easygoing Brian.

In a telling scene, Harvey’s ex-wife (Kathy Baker as Jean) confronts Harvey as he sits in a bar drinking, trying to wash away hurt feelings with booze. She implores him not to embarrass himself or his daughter.

Then comes the comparison with Brian. Harvey wants to know what she sees in Brian, and of course she sees stability. What did she see in Harvey? He was fun.

Harvey decides to leave London before his daughter’s reception. He heads for the airport, but his plans change suddenly, leading to an inevitable overnight stay in London, and then he encounters Kate again.

Both of them appear to have given up on the prospect of love. Kate spends much of her time answering her mother’s paranoid phone calls about a suspicious neighbor. Harvey consumes a lot of time trying to keep his job.

But both parties find time to hang out a bit. At first they verbally spar, flirting a bit, and then they just start to talk honestly. It’s refreshing to watch two people developing emotional intimacy.

The humorous thing about the relationship is that Hoffman and Thompson seem a bit mismatched. He’s 71. She’s 49. He’s short. She’s not. These differences make the connection between their characters’ odd and lonely souls even more plausible. Kate is always taking off her shoes to stand next to Harvey, and that’s the kind of girl Harvey likes. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/16/09)


Chandni Chowk to China
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Bollywood has long been known for producing an almost prodigal amount of films every year, most of which are lengthy extravaganzas filled with lavish costumes, musical numbers and slapstick comedy. Watching one of these movies from an American standpoint can be a little discombobulating, to say the least. It is quite common to have characters suddenly burst into a musical numbers, complete with choreography and back-up dancers, often reflecting some concept of Indian origins that means nothing to us and yet, in a weird way, sometimes resonates across those cultural barriers despite the differences.

Chandni Chowk to China is Bollywood and director Nikhil Advani’s answer to the classic Kung Fu epic. The title refers to…well, some poor inner-city Delhi streets, wherein dwells our hero, Sidhu (Akshay Kumar, who looks like George Clooney with a funky tan and a Salvador Dali mustache), a bumbling goof who chops vegetables for his Dada’s restaurant. Belittled by others and obsessed with his own apparently endless bad luck — after winning the lottery, he’s so thrilled he bows at a candle-lit shrine then sets the ticket on fire. Sidhu is a classic loser.

Meanwhile, at the foot of the Great Wall, a small Chinese village is being terrorized by the evil Hojo (who kills people by throwing his Bowler hat and cutting their throats, ala Oddjob) and his gang. Desperate for help, the villagers track down the reincarnated spirit of a great Chinese warrior…who, for no good reason, is Sidhu, overlooking the fact he is not Chinese. Misled by his half-Chinese conman friend Chopstick (yeah, a little racist, but then who knows how it translates?), he’s soon off to China, hence the title. Along the way, he joins up with “Ms Tele Shopper Media”(Deepika Padukone), an incredibly hot girl who’s also off to China to search for her long-lost father and twin sister.

While in China Sidhu chases the girl, bumbles through encounters with Hojo’s gang, finds Ms. TSM’s lost police chief/kung fu master father and missing twin sister (who is, of course, a member of Hojo’s gang as well), does a few musical numbers and has his Dada killed by-you guessed it — Hojo and his hat.

Finally, after your standard 5-minute montage where the kung fu master teaches Sidhu how to kick ass, he goes off to face the dreaded Hojo in final battle.

The mix of all this stuff is a bit much, but then again it’s hard not to like this movie. The music is quite catchy (and frankly better than most American musical scores), the fighting scenes are done well, if a bit heavy on the wirework, and all the characters are appealing and attractive. If only they could find a way to make it, well, shorter — less then the 154-minute running time — and fix some of the bizarre subtitle translations. That done, this could be one of the more entertaining films of the year — but then I suspect Bollywood will do just fine without all that. (NR) Rating: 3 (Posted 01/16/09)


Notorious
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Given that the Brooklyn rapper known as Notorious B.I.G. was murdered over ten years ago, it seems a little ghoulish to make a biopic of his rise to fame in the rap world so long afterwards. Certainly Tupac Shakur’s untimely death was mercilessly mined for cash, so much so that Dave Chappelle wrote a pretty funny piece about it for his old show.

Motivations aside, director George Tillman and writers Reggie Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker have created quite an ambitious and thoughtful film that truly rises above its basic material without glorifying the violence.

The movie starts with a young, studious Christopher (played well by B.I.G.’s own son, Christopher Wallace II) and his upright and honest mom Violetta (Angela Bassett), through his days as a young drug dealer and on to his eventual partnership with Puffy’s label.

Although B.I.G. (played as an adult by rapper Jamal Woolard, who does a good job for a newcomer) does his best to deal with his growing fame, his personal life is a mess. His relationships with his wife Faith Evans is ever on the rocks, as is his with on and off girlfriend Lil’ Kim (who has already released an angry reply denouncing Ms. Wallace, who is a producer here along with Sean Combs).

As the money flows and the fame grows, Wallace struggles to maintain some equilibrium between the hard-core B.I.G… and the slowly emerging man with two young children.

Indeed, several times a male character talks about the lack of a father in their life. In an early scene, Christopher’s own father shows up, offering money to Violette, who replies, “Is that what your son’s worth? A hundred dollars?”

In the end, Violetta sees the man in the boy finally begin to emerge only to have him shot down during a visit to the West Coast to promote his second album.

There are still numerous questions about who started what: that Christopher Wallace a.k.a. B.I.G., his producer Sean “Puffy” Combs and their Bad Boy Records had a violent feud with West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur, his producer Suge Knight and Death Row Records is not questioned. Here, however, the blame is dumped entirely on Tupac, while B.I.G. is completely absolved of any responsibility, which seems a little unfair since the dude is dead and incapable of defending himself.

Still, the basic message of redemption through struggle and faith remains intact and the characters are interesting and engaging. If only the same could be said of the sad, sad truth. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 01/16/09)


Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Watching portly comic Kevin James cruising on a Segway the way Peter Fonda used to ride Harleys is guaranteed to elicit a few chuckles. Apparently director Steve Carr (the mind behind Rebound and Daddy Day Care) thought that’s all it would take to make a feature comedy. Sadly, most of us would like a little more.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop is a parody of the Die Hard series that takes a little too long deciding what sort of film it wants to be. By the time it finally kicks into gear, it’s hard to get involved again.

As the title character, James plays a wannabe New Jersey state trooper who is stuck working as a mall security guard. His excessive fondness for peanut butter and his hypoglycemia lead him to fail the trooper test every time he takes it.

As a result, Paul pursues the job he has with a diligence that annoys his coworkers and does little to subdue unruly customers.

His plight changes radically when a gang of skateboarding thieves takes over the mall shortly before closing time. With a hostage situation inside the mall and the cops stuck helplessly outside, Paul and his trusty Segway become the only force capable of resolving the crisis. With a combination of improvised booby traps and dumb luck, he may just spoil the robbers’ plans.

Because Bruce Willis is muscular but modestly proportioned, it’s relatively easy to believe he can slip in and out of danger zones before the bad guys know what hit them. The much larger James is unlikely to fit into ventilation systems and slip away from the villains.

There’s some formidable comic potential here. James wrote the script with The King of Queens screenwriter Nick Bakay, but neither knows how to maximize the comic’s talent. While it is funny watching James move his body into contortions that seem to defy his girth (his running and his dance moves have to be seen to be believed), it’s a shame that his material really doesn’t do much else for him.

There’s an undercooked romance with a pretty hair extensions clerk (Jayma Mays). If she had been more fully conceived, the match would make more sense. Instead, she seems like little more than a straight girl for James’ pratfalls.

With only some scattershot scenes of physical humor, Paul Blart: Mall Cop does little to keep viewers safe from boredom. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/16/09)


Gran Torino
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Gran Torino begins like an after-school special. A cranky Korean War veteran, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), grouses about everything from the flaws of his children and grandchildren to the physical decline of his neighborhood since Asians and other minorities moved in.

In the opening scene, family and acquaintances gather at Walt’s house after his wife’s death. The camera captures his disapproving eyes as they scan the room and stop on his granddaughter’s exposed belly and navel ring. His grown children whisper about his constant disapproval of their actions, including his son’s choice of a Toyota rather than an “American-made” car.

At first, Walt is a stereotypical curmudgeon and bigot. He sits on his porch and glances with disdain upon the Hmong grandmother (Chee Thao), who lives next door. He pushes everyone away, including the young Catholic priest (Christopher Carley as Father Janovich) who insists upon trying to form a relationship with Walt. His only friend appears to be his dog, Daisy.

Then one evening the neighbor boy, Thao (Bee Vang), urged on by gang members, tries to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino, which prompts Walt to take a stand against the gang. He then becomes a hero to his Hmong neighbors and later becomes a mentor to Thao.

This storyline charted by first-time feature screenwriter Nick Schenk follows a familiar formula. But the great chemistry between the three lead actors (Eastwood, Vang and Ahney Her as Sue), along with the individual charisma of each, gives the familiar story authenticity.

It’s easy to imagine Eastwood as a gun-toting curmudgeon, but the veteran actor achieves more here than a weak echo of former performances. He adds warmth, humor and irony to the role.

There’s also a minor character in Gran Torino who’s worth watching: Chee Thao’s Hmong grandma. In several scenes grandma and Kowalski sit on their respective porches. They cast disapproving glances at each other. Sometimes she utters something in her language and he makes a disparaging comment in English. It’s the kind of low-key, organic humor that adds depth to this movie.

Be warned. Walt has a mouth on him, so the F-bomb explodes with great frequency and racial slurs often follow the expletives. But in the end what appeared to be an after-school special turns out to be a hopeful story about the positive power of opening one’s heart to good folks who at first glance appear strange. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/09/09)


Not Easily Broken
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Not Easily Broken is an adaptation of mega-church pastor T.D. Jakes’ novel that has enough decent performances to keep outsiders to the flock entertained.

The film is made from an explicitly Christian perspective. The characters are regular churchgoers, and the local bishop, played by Apocalypse Now’s Albert Hall, does a remarkable job of solving his congregation’s problems. Nonetheless, the movie’s sincerity helps keep viewers from feeling like they’ve been proselytized.

Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) star as Dave Johnson and Clarice Clark, a well-off African-American couple in their 30s whose honeymoon has long passed. Dave’s once-promising baseball career ended with an injury during his rookie season, while Clarice has become a workaholic real estate broker. He’s content running a modest remodeling firm, while she spends almost as much as she earns keeping up appearances.

The relationship is further strained when Clarice is injured in an auto accident and her intrusive mother (Jenifer Lewis) moves in to take care of her. Having to share his home with his disapproving mother-in-law leads Dave to spend more time out of the house coaching his little league team and to gradually becoming friends with his wife’s white physical therapist (Maeve Quinlan). While Dave is too upright to pursue a physical affair with her, his emotional intimacy with her is a potential death knell to his marriage.

Screenwriter Brian Bird and Jakes have created a fairly believable scenario because the strains that tear apart Dave and Clarice’s marriage are credibly realized. Disagreements about money and in-laws who assume their offspring are on their way to the same failed relationships they had are potential deal breakers in any union.

Chestnut and Henson are sufficiently likable to make viewers care if they can ever patch up, but it’s easier to sympathize with Dave’s more modest goals than Clarice’s more towering ambitions.

If the crisis the couple endures seems real, the resolution needs a little more work to be convincing. In Not Easily Broken, major crises can be averted by spouting a few platitudes. Because the problems the couple encounters seem genuine, it would be nice if the resolutions were executed with equal care. The story also has some peripheral characters, like the truculent father of one of Dave’s little leaguers, whose presence detracts from instead of enhancing the main tale.

Nonetheless, considering how religion is either exploited or ignored in most mainstream films, it is refreshing to see it handled in a more thoughtful manner. A decently crafted sermon doesn’t have to be reserved for Sunday. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 01/09/09)


Bride Wars
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Hollywood has always loved a good wedding. You got drama, costumes, music and romance all rolled into one big cummerbund-wrapped package, not to mention plenty of opportunities for wacky mix-ups and goofy relatives. Humor and tears are soon to follow, right?

Not according to this movie, buddy. Right from the start Bride Wars makes clear that BFF’s Liv (Kate Hudson) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) are waiting their wedding days with an obsession bordering on the psychotic. Both are willing to accept nothing less than a June wedding at the Plaza (no, not our Plaza, the hotel). We know Liv is a big-time corporate lawyer (must stop laughing!) who is either too controlling, or not controlling enough, or something like that. Emma is a teacher who is not loose enough, or too loose…

So as soon as you can say “chick flick,” they both become engaged, go through a whirlwind binge of shopping, buying and really obsessing over how perfect their special day must be.

Until, of course, the unthinkable happens: both must have to have their weddings on the same day! Luckily, they come to their senses, work together and have a great time, right? (I’m not even going to mention the massive plot-hole at the center of all this).

Hah! In fact, they immediately toss their decades-long friendship away, commit fraud and generally trash each other’s pre-wedding preparations in every way they can think of. Sounds hilarious, huh?

Well, if you were thinking, “Gee, that doesn’t sound very funny” you’re smarter than the writers of this misfiring mess. Oh, they wrap it up with a last-moment reconciliation, helped by Emma dumping her underwear-model fiancé at the altar for Liv’s underwear-model brother. Wow.

It is hard to understand how both Hudson and Hathaway, whom have proved in the past to have some decent comedic chops, could be so poorly used here. They simply are not funny or even very appealing. In fact the few laughs that are present come from an admirable supporting cast (Kristen Johnson, mostly known from Third Rock from the Sun, ranks highest as Emma’s dysfunctional teaching colleague), but those moments are far too few to really count.

On top of everything else, their wedding planner (Candice Bergen) provides one of the most pointless voice-overs ever, patiently explaining to the audience how important a woman’s “special day” is to her … over and over and over again.

Still, both leads try their best to wring some life out of this treacle despite their character’s shallow attitudes. But in the end, it just ain’t enough. Better hope they have an open bar. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/09/09)


Let the Right One In
Reviewed by Deborah Young

‘Tis the season for vampire love, or so it seems.

Less than two months ago we saw the release of the benign vampire flick Twilight. It features a romance between a high school girl and a teen “vegetarian vampire” (i.e., he quells his desire to feast on human blood and dines only on the blood of animals).

Let the Right One In brings a similar story, but with two major differences. The film’s protagonists are from the ‘tween set, and the story is darker, bloodier and richer.

This film adaptation of Swedish author John Lindqvist’s first novel tells the story of an angry twelve-year-old boy, Oskar, who forms a friendship with a vampire named Eli. Eli is also twelve, but she’s been twelve, as she puts it, for a long time.

In the movie’s initial scenes Oskar is alone in his bedroom. He takes out a small knife in a leather holder. He unsheathes it, and then addresses an invisible enemy: “Squeal like a pig,” he says, brandishing the knife.

Throughout the movie Oskar repeats this ritual in various settings, his solitary “play” an indication of his repressed anger. He lives alone with his mother, appears to have no friends, a regularly gets picked on by schoolyard bullies.

One night he meets Eli in the snowy courtyard of the apartment complex where he lives. She’s perched atop a jungle gym. He doesn’t notice her at first as he carries out his monologue, but she addresses him and then makes it clear that they can’t be friends.

But after more nights in the courtyard and some short but revealing conversations, they do become friends. Then Eli’s need to feed becomes overwhelming, and Oskar discovers her dark tendencies.

One thing that makes Right One so compelling is the childlike candidness of these two characters. For instance, on their initial meeting, Oskar gets close to Eli. He gives her a routine look and then quickly looks away. “You smell funny,” he says without inflection or a hint of judgment.

Later, she returns to him after having a blood feast. “Do I smell better now?” she asks.

Director Tomas Alfredson has managed to meld the internal and external elements of this story to create a chilling, beautiful and intelligent piece of cinema. The outdoor scenes feature the snow and ice of Sweden in winter, which mirrors the coldness and isolation of these two characters.

Lindqvist’s screenplay is light on dialogue but reveals the characters’ strength, weaknesses and needs through their actions and reactions to situations. The script also draws comparisons between human cruelties and the innate cruelties of vampirism.

Also, the two child actors (Kare Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli) give credible, understated performances that seem more like being than acting.

Let the Right One In also contains scenes that recall ancient vampire lore (notably a scene in which a pack of cats attack a woman who has been bitten by a vampire). This film marries the blood and gore of a traditional horror film with the visual and intellectual artistry of an old-fashioned art-house flick. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 01/02/09)


The Reader
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Wrestling with a series of weighty subjects, director Stephen Daldry’s reworking of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 German novel The Reader delivers gravitas from its opening frames. While the story includes illicit romance, war crimes and how contemporary Europeans deal with the guilt of World War II, the movie isn’t as engrossing as it should be because it’s consistently clinical and glum.

At times the characters seem more metaphorical than flesh-and-blood. It’s easier to become concerned about the fates of protagonists if they are more than ideological personifications.

The everyman-like character is a sickly, maladjusted lad named Michael Berg (German actor David Kross). The 15-year-old’s chance encounter with an enigmatic but seemingly compassionate woman in her mid-30s named Hannah (Kate Winslet) leads to a torrid affair. Their trysts happen on an almost daily basis, but Michael never learns anything significant about her. Even her name remains a mystery until late in the relationship.

A decade later, Michael is studying at law school and is assigned by his professor (Bruno Ganz) to watch a trial in progress. The suspects are a group of women who guarded a concentration camp twenty years before. All are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Jewish women in their care. Hannah, who has not had contact with Michael in ages, is charged with being their leader.

Needless to say, Michael is conflicted about seeing the woman he once loved on trial for an unspeakable act. He still has feelings for her (his relationships with women his own age are fumbling at best), but her previously unknown past fills him with remorse for ever having been involved with her.

That The Reader is never dull can be attributed to watching Michael struggle with his uncertainty about how to deal his country’s and his own past. In the portions of the film set in the 1980s and 1990s, Ralph Fiennes takes over the role. While he looks nothing like Kross, he excels at playing characters that are tormented by thoughts they can’t express easily. As he demonstrated in The Duchess, Fiennes can do more with a brooding sigh than some actors can reciting an entire script.

Hannah is supposed to be a mystery woman, but her affair with Michael might have seemed more passionate and believable if Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (who teamed up for The Hours) had provided more clues to why she was ever attracted to him. Despite being well played by Winslet, it’s difficult to feel outrage or sympathy for Hannah because she’s more of a plot device than a person. At times, the dalliances appear to be more carnal fantasies than a lifelong obsession.

The Reader does provide some chilling questions that can keep a viewer’s head spinning for a long time. It’s too bad that this love story does little for the audience’s hearts as well. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 01/02/09)


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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