reel reviews
movie reviews
February '09

CHEFANBOYS
MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH
FIRED UP!
THE INTERNATIONAL
FRIDAY THE 13TH CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC
HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU
PINK PANTHER 2 PUSH

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

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Che
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If anyone deserves a four-hour movie, it’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Thanks to an iconic 1960 photograph by Alberto Korda, where El Che stares unflinchingly above the viewer’s sightline, he’s on more T-shirts than most rock bands or rappers.

Because of his uncompromising belief in armed struggle against what he saw as the oppressive influence of American capitalism, Guevara has become a symbol of rebellion. He’s also justly despised for killing those who opposed him during his guerilla campaigns, including fellow insurgents he considered disloyal. He also oversaw executions at La Cabaña prison in Cuba.

Thankfully, director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen have devoted their lengthy opus to a more nuanced depiction of Guevara’s brief but eventful life, even if they have to split it into two films: Che: “Part One: The Argentine” and Che: “Part Two: Guerilla.”

Che also features a typically mesmerizing performance by Benicio Del Toro, who effortlessly captures the revolutionary’s commendable and contemptible traits. In the hands of a less charismatic performer, the title character might have been an abrasively egotistical bore, but Del Toro makes Guevara’s outcome compelling even when destiny is simply giving him what he deserves.

In the first and stronger segment, Soderbergh and Del Toro present Guevara as an effective if unlikely leader in the Cuban Revolution. Most armies wouldn’t have admitted him as a soldier because of his occasionally debilitating asthma. Further, his training as a doctor is too valuable to be lost in a battle.

Yet, Guevara, who hails from Argentina, gradually builds a following in Cuba. He fights in the front lines despite being a commander. Guevara even takes on dictator Fulgencio Bastista’s army when his own arm is broken. He also gives many poor villagers their first real medical care and stresses the value of education.

While Part One chronicles Guevara’s rise, what makes it intriguing is that a careful viewer can spot the signs of his ruin. He can snap at subordinates and seems fatally in love with the spotlight.

In addition, Guevara’s narrow view of the revolution and its goals wouldn’t have gained much support if it weren’t tempered by the pragmatism of Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir). Bichir effectively imitates Castro’s mannerism but also projects a paternal tone that makes it believable that he could reign in his determined lieutenant.

Soderbergh also toys with the chronology, juggling the Revolution’s origins in Mexico, Guevara’s eloquent defense of Cuba in front of the United Nations in 1965 and the long path to victory. Because the outcome of the story is preordained to anyone who has at least glanced at the cover of a history book or surfed Wikipedia, this approach gives the narrative some momentum it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Part Two covers the final period of Guevara’s life in the order it happened, so the story feels more burdened by its predetermined conclusion. In this segment, he takes his movement to Bolivia in hopes of leading his native continent away from imperialism the way Simon Bolivar did more than a century before.

No such luck.

While rural Bolivians suffer severe poverty, they aren’t eager to embrace him and the small band of outsiders he’s brought with him. Even the head of the Bolivian Communist Party (played by an unrecognizable Lou Diamond Philips) would prefer that Guevara would just go home.

Worse, his old nemesis the CIA has seen through his assumed names and occasionally clever disguises and is happy to help the Bolivian government take him down.

Because of the impending doom, Part Two could have used a shorter running time and suffers from a distracting cameo from Matt Damon as a priest. While Damon doesn’t embarrass himself, his recognizable face and voice (even when he’s speaking Spanish) take viewers out of the movie.

Soderbergh presents both segments a documentary-like style. He also shot both films (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). By using handheld cameras, he gives the battle sequences an appropriate energy but thankfully doesn’t shake the screen as if his equipment was resting on Jell-O.

The filmmakers also present Guevara’s less savory traits, even if they choose not to dwell on them. The film acknowledges that Guevara leaped into his guerilla struggles without a thought to either of the two women he married or their children. He even berates fellow revolutionaries who want to leave and take care of their families, feeling their commitment is inferior to his own. Guevara and other characters also briefly discuss the atrocities of the Cuban justice system under Fidel Castro, even if the deaths remain off-camera.

Soderbergh and his colleagues might be faulted for trying a viewer’s patience with the length of Che, but Guevara is too fascinating an individual to be confined to a story that can fit on a bumper sticker. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted 02/27/09)

 


Fanboys
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Fanboys is a good example of why the mainstream movie system just can’t get it right with the SF/Fantasy geek-audience (that goes for critics, as well) no matter how hard they try.

See, Hollywood makes comic book or fan-fiction-based movies with about as much love and thoughtfulness as a five-dollar prostitute and quietly takes the millions and millions of dollars of profit. Then completely ignoring them come awards time (Heath Ledger does NOT count — he got it for OD’ing after partying all night — sorry, sorry, for “passing in a tragic and untimely manor”). That’s why all those geeks, freaks, fanboys and such completely ignore mainstream critics and get their info from more knowledgeable online sources while flaming each other on various blogs.

Indeed, Roger Ebert dissed Fanboys hard, which is fine because it’s not a very good movie, but then he went on to slam fanboys themselves, basically calling them losers … and guess what happened? Yup, Ebert got flamed like no tomorrow and quickly issued an apology. Let me repeat: One of the most powerful critics in America apologized for his opinion and that just don’t happen often.

Like many geeks, I heard and saw most of Fanboys months ago, as the makers have been showing it at various conventions for a while now. Based around the highly anticipated release of the first Star Wars prequel, it centers on four friends who venture off on a road trip to sneak into the Skywalker Ranch and watch the film before it comes out. There’s plenty of geeking on trivia, and some clever cameos, but much of the movie still falls as flat as Jar-Jar Binks.

Really, the worst scenes involve Seth Rogan. He shows up a couple of times, acting stupid and wearing fake teeth. It’s like he thinks he’s Jerry Lewis or something. Kirsten Bell, the supposed-female geek in the group falls for Windows (just a guess, but I think that nick-name comes from John Carpenter’s The Thing), the goofiest nerd in the bunch, which is both hackneyed and unlikely.

There’s another subplot involving terminal cancer (Yes, you read it right.), which is just unnecessary and the whole thing often devolves into a bunch a hit and miss skits. A good example is a big nerd fight between Star Wars and Star Trek fans, which is funny, but completely misses the geek fact that such fans fight amongst themselves far more than with each other, something that goes against this film’s own supposed “geek” creds.

Maybe if they had tried less to make this movie mainstream and just let it fully wave its freak flag, it might be more entertaining.

Now, just for my own geek-cred: I was the only reviewer in the audience who recognized that Security Guard #2 was Ray Park, a k a Darth Maul, and by the way — don’t you ever called Han Solo a bitch. Ever. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/27/09)


Must Read After My Death
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Some critics have described Director Morgan Dews’ film as a domestic horror film. The movie also documents the common need to have witnesses to our existence, even if that existence is dreadful, painful or sad.

Dews’ grandmother, Allis, saved hundreds of written transcripts and home movies, plus audio diaries and Dictaphone letters documenting her family’s life during the 1960s.

Allis’s husband Charlie had a job that required him to spend four months a year in Australia. So Allis and Charlie used Dictaphone recordings and later other audio devices to communicate during his absences.

Dews used these recordings along with hundreds of pages of transcripts and hundreds of home movies to piece together a haunting story of a troubled family, which included four children (three sons and a daughter).

The recordings document affairs, fights in the family, and Allis’s sometimes shocking attitudes about her children and family life. At one point, she says that she understands why people kill their children.

Then there’s Charlie who speaks freely of his affairs with other women and of his hope that Allis is also having a bit of fun while he’s away.

On many occasions Allis expresses that she doesn’t find her family life normal, which makes her determination to document her story even more remarkable. Early in the movie there is a recording of her telling Charlie that she will not dispose of these telltale recordings. So when the camera zooms in on an envelope with the words “Must read after my death” written in red marker, it is clear that she thought of her story as important. And she wanted it to outlive her.

Woven into the family’s story is a tale the mental health profession of that era. Allis tells of these professionals’ opinions of her family’s dynamics. She perceives that they blame her for all the family’s ills. But there is a hint that maybe it’s Charlie.

We get a taste of each family member’s story, each person’s truth. Then we are left to puzzle about what was really going on in this troubled household.

Dews has done an amazing job of bringing this family to life with these old recordings and home movies. He has created a memoir, a mystery and yes, a horror story that in less than an hour and a half tells a chilling, interesting tale.

Must Read opens today in theatres in New York and Los Angeles. People in other cities can view the film via the Internet for $2.99 for a three-day unlimited viewing ticket. For more information, visit www.giganticdigital.com. (Posted 02/20/09)


Fired Up!
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you happen to be near a theater that’s playing Fired Up! this weekend, don’t be surprised if you see cheerleaders leaving the building yelling:

S-U-C-K! What does this movie do? It sucks! O-M-F-G! It sucks!

Cheerleaders would have the right be offended by this witless comedy. So would anyone who gets bored with the endless repetition of a university’s initials that resemble a popular expletive (It’s in the title, get it?).

Fired Up! is the sort of movie that is made for adolescents by biological but not emotional adults who have forgotten the truth about their younger years and who have little idea what those groovy cats are digging these days.

The first sign that the filmmakers have failed can be seen in the casting. Leading men Nicholas D'Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen are both around 30 and look like they’d be more at home in the teacher’s lounge. When the two of them inevitably start making out with their numerous female co-stars, it looks like a lobotomized version of Lolita.

Any spirit a viewer might have had sinks as the setup unfolds. Shawn (D'Agosto) and Nick (Olson) are two able football players who are tired of merely scoring touchdowns. Having made most of the young women in their class swoon with pickup lines less witty than the graffiti on their desks, the two decide to ditch football camp to help their school’s struggling cheerleader squad. The two figure they can conquer a new world of scantily clad babes who have never shoveled the duo’s manure before.

It takes little imagination to guess that the sensitive Shawn will get into cheering and fall for Carly (Sarah Roemer), the only girl at their school smart enough to see through the lads’ ruses. It also took very little imagination for freshman screenwriter Freedom Jones to come up with one-note stereotypical characters. There are gay and lesbian cheerleaders who seem to have learned their mannerisms from watching someone else imitating straight actors playing gay characters in sitcoms.

That would fit because novice director Will Gluck has written or produced a long series of TV comedies like Andy Richter Controls the Universe but seems to have forgotten everything he learned on the small screen. Perhaps the recent switch to HD has shut down what’s left of his funny bone.

There are lots of jiggling bodies, which is certainly why the movie was made. But if that’s the case, why bother with a plot or characters at all? They only make viewers wait for the weak payoff. The routines are sloppily shot and edited. Viewers who aren’t in the mood for the athleticism can’t even take in the attractiveness of the performers.

It’s a sign the filmmakers are in trouble when they constantly refer to other, better films. The characters watch Bring It On, an entertaining movie that actually treated cheerleading with respect. You also get to endure lame references to Animal House, Meet the Parents and Hamlet 2, which featured Gluck in a small role.

Reminding viewers of the other movies is a cruel thing to do because they are forced to realize that they could have picked up all of these films at a RedBox for a fraction of the money they paid at the box office.

Even clips of On the Waterfront play in the background during Fired Up!. There were more intentional laughs watching Marlon Brando wrestling with his conscience on the mob-ruled docks than there are in the current release. (PG-13). Rating: 1 (Posted 02/20/09)


The International
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Considering how badly some prominent bankers have behaved lately, it doesn’t take much imagination to turn them into villains.

In The International, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York prosecutor Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) are worried about banking practices that are more troublesome than credit default swaps.

For years, Louis has been trying to shut down the Luxembourg-based International Bank of Business and Credit. Despite its quaint setting, IBBC launders money for gangers and finances arms deals for Third World countries. They even have the audacity to do business with both sides of a war, using the debt as a way to control the outcome of the conflict.

With that many criminal activities under one roof, Louis and Eleanor can’t simply call in regulators to close the place. Whenever they get close to witnesses who can tie IBBC to its crimes, the potential informants wind up dead before they can talk.

The International alternates between a real, if somewhat cerebral, threat and over-the-top gunplay. Screenwriter Eric Warren Singer modeled IBBC after the real-life Pakistani lending institution BCCI, whose collapse ended up tainting politicians here in the States.

If the danger of a crooked bank is all too genuine, the film lapses in its credibility. Victims die of covert poisons at one minute and showers of bullets the next. To his credit, German director Tom Tykwer sets an appropriately feverish tone throughout the film.

As he demonstrated in The Princess and the Warrior and Run, Lola, Run, Tykwer can pull off some amazing camera work and editing touches. With The International, he shows he can also stage flashy action scenes that still allow viewers to take in the energy and the bloodshed.

Owen and Watts looks appropriately haggard and exhausted throughout, giving the impression they really are working themselves to death trying to stop the bank’s dirty business. They get some able support from Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine) as a former East-German intelligence agent who now finds himself deeply embedded in capitalist corruption. In 1980, Mueller-Stahl actually defected from the East, so his monologues take on a weight that another actor might not be able to give.

Singer comes up with several potent scenarios. The pre-title sequence, unlike the rest of the movie, has the right balance between jolts and believability. The rest of the film struggles between low-key tension and torrents of flying lead. Admittedly, the gunfire is jaw dropping, but it’s hard to be scared or even a bit uneasy when you can easily pick out which characters are on their way to the cemetery. Considering how convoluted some of the banking jargon gets, The International manages the unique feat of being both occasionally confusing and predictable.

Louis has a tainted history, and Owen even gives him a hint of paranoia. The International might have been tenser if the filmmakers had given Louis some difficulty in telling fact from fiction. If that were the case, both he and the viewers could have shared an uncertainty that would have made the story more rewarding.

With its exotic locales (Milan, Istanbul), The International makes for satisfyingly eerie eye candy. Still, if you’re going to make a movie about homicidal bankers, you don’t get extra dividends for exaggerated body counts. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 02/13/09)


Friday the 13th
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Since this is the umpteenth Friday the 13th movie, we all pretty much know what to expect (Remember the television series? Well I do and would like too sue somebody for all those lost brain cells). Stupid teenagers get killed one-by-one, in ever-sillier ways, by Jason Voorhees, who really does not like teenagers. The newest chapter here is yet another attempt at a re-launch of this way-tired franchise, and while it has far better production values than the others…its still Friday the 13th. ‘Nuff said.

However, since my editor prefers my reviews to be somewhat longer than three sentences, I would like to share with you all some special and unique wisdom: “Things I have learned from the Friday the 13th franchise”:

1) Nobody needs any reason, skill or equipment to go camping. You just get your friends and wander off into the trees.

2) The first thing you should do when you go camping is get drunk, wait until night and then run willy-nilly into the dark, with nothing except a tiny flashlight with bad batteries.

3) In any rural area, there is only one police officer that does not have a gun.

4) If you are the lone African-American in a group of white kids, you will die.

5) If you are the lone Asian in a group of white kids, you will die.

6) If you are a girl who takes off her top, you will defiantly die (often while still topless).

7) Machetes can stab through anything especially people — who are apparently made out of some kind of pudding.

8) All teenagers are complete morons with the survival skills of blind, drunk lemmings.

9) You can watch all of these movies with the volume turned completely off. In fact, they are better that way.

10) Wearing 3D glasses does not make a movie 3D.

So, there you have it. Hey, lets go camping! But you go first. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 02/13/09)


Confessions of a Shopaholic
Reviewed by Deborah Young

One of the greatest lessons of romantic movies is that opposites attract. And it helps if one or both of these folks are loopy, weird, annoying or in some way completely off the beam.

Enter Isla Fisher as Confessions of a Shopaholic’s main character Rebecca Bloomwood. This woman shops compulsively with little thought of how she’ll pay the bills. She lies to get merchandise she can’t pay for (after her cards are declined).

But she’s cute and perky, which usually is the saving grace of wackadoo romantic comedy protagonists (think Julia Roberts’ character in My Best Friend’s Wedding). Not coincidently My Best Friend’s Wedding and Shopaholic have director P. J. Hogan in common.

Both films feature contemptible, self-centered female protagonists. Somehow both women manage to have a levelheaded friend to provide the voice of reason. In the case of Shopaholic, Krysten Ritter (as Suze) provides the reasonable voice although her friend and roommate Rebecca doesn’t usually listen.

But Ritter, along with Hugh Dancy as Rebecca’s boss and potential love interest, has little to do here. She and Dancy (as editor Luke Brandon) serve as contrasts to the out-of-control Rebecca and potential reasons for the perky protagonist to straighten herself out.

That’s one of the big problems with this film: It gives us little to focus on except an extremely unlikable character who happens to be an addict (and as shallow as Ben Kingsley’s alcoholic hit man Frank in the 2007 unromantic comedy You Kill Me).

The beauty of a great romantic comedy, such as As Good As It Gets, is that the characters have depth and evolve. Early on we’re shown the kernel of goodness beneath the surface of an otherwise lost and off-putting character.

Unfortunately, this cinematic take on Sophie Kinsella’s books (Confessions of a Shopaholic and Shopaholic Takes Manhattan) fails to show the main character’s grain of goodness. So any change Rebecca makes seems contrived.

Fisher and Dancy both have natural appeal but not enough to elevate this pretty but inconsequential cinematic cotton candy. (PG) Rating: 1 (Posted 02/13/09)


He’s Just Not That Into You
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

People often do stupid things for love. That doesn’t mean it’s worth making a movie about these acts of folly.

He’s Just Not That Into You is based on the popular advice book by standup comic Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, but the final film has nothing of consequence to say about modern relationships and lingers like the blind date you can’t wait to get away from.

Behrendt and Tuccillo’s book is structured around a series of letters where Behrendt tells readers why they should be suspicious of their consistently troubled partners. It doesn’t have a narrative structure that lends itself to a film. Neither did the sociological text that inspired Mean Girls, but that movie had an occasionally witty script by Tina Fey.

This one doesn’t.

The film gets off to a weak start when Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin, Big Love) has a lackluster date with real estate agent Conor (Kevin Connolly) and wonders when he’ll call again. That’s not likely because he’s really pining for a yoga instructor named Anna (Scarlett Johansson), who in turn is wooing the married Ben (Bradley Cooper).

Gigi’s friends have similar romantic hang-ups and appear to be as clueless as she is. Beth (Jennifer Aniston) is peeved that her longtime beau Neil (Ben Affleck) refuses to marry her despite seven years of happiness, and Janine (Jennifer Connelly) wonders if her husband is straying even though the couple are having their new home built around them.

All of these folks wind up meeting and unknowingly encountering each other, but incidents that surprise the characters aren’t all that unexpected to the alert or even conscious viewer. When screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (Never Been Kissed) attempt to surprise the audience with a plot development, it’s almost as if they are trying to catch up to them instead of leading. The obviousness of the predicaments the characters put themselves through makes it difficult care if they ever find the perfect mates. As a result, the film’s 129-minute running time progresses with the speed of frozen molasses.

For example, Gigi’s obsessiveness quickly becomes grating. As she reads subtexts that aren’t there and waits like a spider hoping to corner a beau who isn’t likely to show up, it’s hard not to think she’s likely to boil rabbits in the near future. Her confidant Alex (Justin Long, who’s better in the Macintosh computer ads) is so cynical and proudly manipulative that it’s almost as if the two were competing to determine who could be less appealing.

Director Ken Kwapis (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) has assembled an A-list cast, but neither he nor the screenwriters know what to do with them. Producer Drew Barrymore has little to do but whine in a forgettable cameo role, and Kris Kristofferson’s gruff charm is wasted on his all-too-brief turn as Beth’s dad.

When the characters eventually wind up in each other’s arms in the end, it has less to do with true love than with plot contrivance. It’s easy to withhold the urge to applaud when the filmmakers haven’t earned the right to play Cupid with characters whose next stop is probably divorce court. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 02/06/09)


Pink Panther 2
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

There are plenty of useful warning signs of a bad movie: If it is a sequel does it have a cool secondary title like, The Wrath of Khan, or just a number? Does it look like the best scene is in the trailer? Are there some foul-mouthed children who know karate?

Well, Pink Panther 2 has all that crap in it but somehow still manages to elicit a few chuckles from its clichéd plot and tired slapstick comedy. Steve Martin is back in his roll as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau (a roll he has yet to own, but then the late Peter Sellers is a hard act to follow), and John Cleese reprises his bit as the much-put-upon Chief Inspector Dreyfus.

The plot is simple, and frankly pointless. Someone is stealing the world’s most famous artifacts, like the, uh, Shroud of Turin (wasn’t that discredited like 10 years ago?) and other stuff. The reaction is as stunningly incompetent as anything the Bush administration did: The formation of a special taskforce, which consists of a stuffy British dude (Alfred Molina), an Italian lothario (Andy Garcia) and an Asian guy (Yuki Matsuzaki) who happens to be good with computers. They all pretty much do nothing. Wow.

Before you can say, “How come nobody is Paris except the one chick has a French accent?” the infamous Pink Panther (the big diamond, not the cartoon cat) is also stolen, and Clouseau is off to break a lot of stuff trying to find it. The rest is a mismatch of dorky slapstick and goofy plot revelations that rely entirely on Martin’s frenetic energy to carry through this mess, mostly by endlessly mugging for the camera.

Still, the audience found enough of this funny (or at least made them forget about the economy for a little while) to giggle from time to time, and Cleese even pulls off a pretty good joke at the end, although he’s mostly just wasted here.

Martin took a big risk remaking such an iconic character, and so far he’s struggled mightily to bring some of that classic mix of lowbrow humor and physical comedy that made the original series so great. There are times here when it seems like he’s almost got it, and if anybody can pull that off, it’s him. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 02/06/09)


Push
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Super-powered humans, hunted by a shadowy government organization bent on eventual world conquest, fight a valiant but almost impossible war against those who would use their powers for evil.

Huumm. Even trying to pep up the mess that is Push with my own thirty-years plus experience reading and writing comics and science fiction is pretty darn tough. Looking at the past efforts of writer David Bourla, who has such credits as Cosmic Shock and Frankenthumb, it’s not hard to see the problem here.

Our hero, a “pusher” named Nick (Chris Evans) is on the run from the Division, hiding in an urban Chinese underworld. Joined by a young “watcher” named Cassie (Dakota Fanning), the two set off to find Nick’s old love Kira (Camilla Belle) who has possession of a super-drug she stole from that same evil Division.

The rest is a mix of video-game-like puzzles to be solved with the occasional CGI/wirework action, usually resulting in Nick getting his ass kicked. Dakota Fanning is a real scene-stealer as the future-seeing Cassie (although- what exactly is wrong with her teeth?), and Camilla Belle does well as both pretty and hunted.

Still, there are a few rather big problems with this plot. First off, the narration at the beginning says that the Nazis created the original drug … and yet the only people with powers are either American or Chinese, and some of them would seem to be older than the WWII era. Also, the powers here are totally inconsistent. Early on Nick can’t flip a single die over, only later to sling guys through the air with ease. Then there’s Kira …

You see, the super-drug Kira has stolen is supposed to hype up their powers, except that several times in the film it is noted that the drug has KILLED EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO HAS TAKEN IT. Only Kira has survived, for absolutely no reason at all, and she hardly seemed powered up. So what are they after? The drug is essentially worthless, right?

The ending is another one of those attempts at the old switcheru, as well as a set-up for a possible sequel, like maybe “Push 2: More Pushier”! (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 02/06/09)


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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