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March '09
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Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In the new Italian movie Gomorrah, organized crime is so omnipresent that gangsters aren’t villains or heroes. They’re simply a fact of life. In five interlocking stories, viewers discover that the long arm of the law only reaches so far.

Set primarily in Naples and Caserta, the film presents a series of individuals who occasionally look nothing like stereotypical wise guys but who are deeply involved in Camorra, or the Neapolitan mob.

Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) looks almost like a bill collector, but he’s actually visiting people to give them money. He distributes mob payments to families with relatives in prison. Nonetheless, he’s greeted almost as warmly as if he were with a collection agency because his bosses aren’t as generous as the families need them to be. Because the transactions are illegal, all they can do is complain.

His set routine comes to an abrupt end when a rival gang decides that any member of his crew is fair game, even if the Don runs small cash payments instead of guns or drugs.

Franco (Toni Servillo, in the film’s most memorable performance) behaves like an enthusiastic real estate developer. Wearing immaculate suits, he’d seem right at home planning luxury condos. He’s such a fancy dresser that he even wears his full suits under Hazmat gear. Franco buries toxic waste without regard to the damage it could do to a community or to his own workers.

At times it’s hard not to share his misplaced joie de vivre. When his drivers balk at completing a job after one of them becomes sick with the contaminants, he ingeniously recruits neighborhood boys to complete the task. While Gomorrah has more than its share of gunplay, Franco’s scenes are by the most disturbing. It’s as if he thinks he can atone for his behavior with his glee and energy.

Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is obviously proud of his work as a tailor, but it’s not enough to pay the bills. On the side, he tutors the Chinese immigrants who work at and run a factor that rivals the one where he’s employed. In most places, moonlighting might be an exhausting way to make rent money. But the boss at his day job, who has Camorra obligations, doesn’t take kindly to Pasquale working with competitors. There’s a reason he has to go to the Chinese factory in the trunk of a car.

The young in Gomorrah are practically born into the corruption. Thirteen-year-old Totò (Nicolo Manta) decides being an errand boy for the mob beats his current gig delivering groceries. And teenagers Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) think that by imitating Al Pacino in Scarface, they can rule the world. To their credit, the dim lads at least know that they’ll need guns in the quest for global nomination, and a mob stash is the perfect place to get them.

There is a sense of tragedy throughout Gomorrah, but it’s not because director Matteo Garrone loads his film with operatic Godfather-like moments. Garrone presents the violence in a quick, matter-of-fact manner. He doesn’t try to draw out the horrors for suspense. He simply shows the attacks and moves on.

Nonetheless, the tales have consistently powerful moments. Long before Marco and Ciro’s story ends they get beaten up by real outlaws. During their pummeling, the two cry like small children. All of their bluster is for naught when confronted with people who aren’t into crime for the thrills.

The sadness that runs through the film come from the fact that getting away from the clutches of the Camorra is far from easy. The chilliest part of watching Gomorrah is knowing that it’s inspired by real events. Stick around for the closing credits, and you’ll discover that the grasp of the Camorra extends frighteningly close to home (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/27/09)


Monsters vs. Aliens
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Preparing an animated movie for a digital 3D presentation can reportedly add up to $15 million to its budget. With that in mind, the folks at DreamWorks certainly received some of their money’s worth with Monsters vs. Aliens.

Unlike the old red and bluish-green tinted glasses that resulted in eye strain and headaches, the new version of the technology treats viewers to occasionally jaw-dropping effects. Ordinary images like paddleballs and wedding processions take on a mind-bending quality, when they seem to be leaping out of the screen.

If some of the time and effort that went into designing the visuals of Monsters vs. Aliens had gone into the material, the film would have been more than an astonishing light show. As it stands, viewers who are stuck watching it in 2D will still be entertained, but it will be like being forced to look at the Mona Lisa through night vision goggles.

The film stars Reese Witherspoon as the voice of Susan Murphy, a young bride who’s wedding to an up-and-coming Modesto TV personality (Paul Rudd) goes horribly wrong. When a meteor lands a little too close to her, she turns glowing green and grows so tall that she rips a hole through the church’s roof.

After imagining the experience was merely a nightmare, she awakens near a group of four other enormous oddities. The first is an insect wearing a lab coat (Hugh Laurie). He sounds like a mad scientist. That’s because he used to be one before he tried one too many experiments on himself.

Another large, furry bug named Insectasaurus can be guided to any target its masters want to destroy by merely shining bright lights in its face. The Missing Link (Will Arnett) would like to be as scary as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but is not nearly as creepy or powerful as his fish-like forbearer.

While all of these creatures certainly look odd, none are as entertaining as a large one-eyed blue blob of goo known only as “B.O.B.” If the friendly, but gullible B.O.B (Seth Rogen) seems a bit lame-brained, it may be because he doesn’t have a brain at all. In outdoor gatherings, he even chats with Jell-O molds hoping they might make suitable mates.

Whenever B.O.B. is on the screen, the film is a giddy delight. Rogen’s deep voice seems so at home with the character that anything that comes out of B.O.B.’s mouth (even if it’s his own eye) seems funny. He’d be downright cuddly if he weren’t the living version of Slime.

It’s ironic that the dimmest of the characters in Monsters vs. Aliens is the best thought out. None of the others are that interesting. Even the malevolent alien Gallaxhar (Riann Wilson), whom the monsters fight to protect the earth, is a letdown. It’s as if the film’s designers liked the way the villains looked in Mars Attacks! and didn’t feel like exerting themselves.

The voice casting is also problematic. While Rogen was an inspired pick, Witherspoon and the rest of the cast don’t bring anything distinctive to their roles. It’s easy to miss vocal cameos by Keifer Sutherland and Amy Poehler because their characters are too thinly conceived to be memorable and could probably be played just as well by full-time voice actors like Maurice LaMarche (Animaniacs).

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where the story will go (have these folks seen a Japanese monster movie in the last few years). It’s almost as if the filmmakers spent all of their creativity on B.O.B. and the 3D effects. It’s too bad the new glasses can’t fix sloppy writing (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/27/09)

I Love You, Man
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The relatively new terms “bromance” and “metro sexual” may hint that America is softening its concept of heterosexual men. But a close look at this new buddy flick gives a clue that old things have not completely passed away.

Screenwriters John Hamburg (who also directed) and Larry Levine give us two stereotypically divergent male buddies. Paul Rudd plays the sensitive, considerate one-woman man Peter Klaven, who (at least at first glance) appears the opposite extreme of Jason Segel’s modern cave man, Sydney Fife.

Déjà vu! Think The Odd Couple, Sideways and the associated male-bonding clichés. Like The Odd Couple, I Love You, Man features one guy who seems in touch with his feminine side and one who’s determined to be the grossest caricature of masculinity.

Sydney walks his dog on heavily populated bike/walking paths, but he refuses to pick up the dog’s poop. This habit creates more than one run-in with other walkers. Peter, on the other hand, is the kind of man who makes floats garnished with Pepperidge Farm® Pirouettes® for a gathering of his wife’s friends.

So how the heck did these two get together? The movie starts with the answer to this question.

Peter proposes to his girlfriend. She accepts and immediately jumps on the phone to tell her two best friends. Then she offers Peter the phone, but he refuses it. Seems his parents are the only folks he has to share the good news with, and they’re probably sleeping.

As the wedding plans begin it becomes obvious that Peter has no male friends. When he overhears his fiancé and her friends discussing the downsides of his friendless status he decides to find a male friend worthy of being his best man. He solicits the help of his gay brother, who’s a trainer at a gym.

Yes, I know the plot sounds ridiculous, but Paul Rudd creates a character so believably awkward and vulnerable that we want to root for him. And Jason Segel’s understated performance adds a bit of charm to an immature and sometimes insensitive character that could have been very unlikable.

Unfortunately, just about every other straight man in this film is a jerk. There’s the guy in Peter’s office that insists on sharing with Peter an Internet porn clip of someone’s grandmother. Then there’s his fiancé’s friend’s husband who’s rude to his wife’s friends and can’t seem to get along with his wife unless it has something to do with sex.

Ultimately, I Love You, Man pokes fun at the idea of straight men approaching male relationships with the kind of sensitivity previously associated almost exclusively with women and gay men. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Felix Unger was comedy’s “girly man.” More than 40 years later we’re still poking fun at neat and sensitive men.

The good news is that it’s good, clean, mostly non-offensive fun. And at the end of the day the 21st century “girly man” gets to go home to his attractive, understanding fiancé, Zooey (played capably by Rashida Jones).

Okay. So I Love You, Man isn’t Shakespeare or even Neil Simon, but it’s got enough good jokes to entertain for nearly two hours. (R) Rating: 3

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Duplicity is a cleverly charming and sophisticated film about treacherous people.

The people in this movie are so amoral that in lesser hands their deeds might inspire overwhelming indifference. It’s like trying to figure out whom to root for in a game between the Oakland Raiders and the Detroit Lions.

Thankfully, Tony Gilroy, who wrote the screenplays for The Bourne Identity and its sequels, and who penned and directed Michael Clayton is in charge. As a result, the characters and their machinations are as engrossing as they are sleazy. Gilroy churns out reams of snappy banter and assigns it to a first-rate cast, who can somehow makes viewers care if one of the heels in the film comes out ahead in the end.

In some ways, you can excuse Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and Ray Koval (Clive Owen) for being underhanded. After all, they make their living as spies. She’s a veteran with the CIA, and he’s a top operator for Britain’s MI6. Inevitably, their paths cross, and the two feel sparks, even though falling in love jeopardizes missions.

Eventually, the two leave the public sector and discover that plying their trade in the corporate world is even more dangerous and degrading. Both are trying to undermine veteran Burkett Randle CEO Howard Tully by leaking his mysterious new product before it hits the market. Claire is trying to grasp the secret by working as a double inside Burkett Randle while Ray is operates outside of the company.

Their challenge is heightened by their vindictive boss, Dick Garsik (played to vein-popping perfection by Paul Giamatti), the CEO of rival drug film Equikrom. Howard and Dick hate each other so vehemently that they even get into physical brawls while waiting for planes. The idea of creating a product that could bury his competitor is simply irresistible for both.

If navigating between the bitter rivals weren’t hazardous enough, Claire and Ray have little inclination to trust each other. Yet both wonder if they can ever let go of the suspiciousness, an essential part of espionage but fatal for romance.

If the two leads weren’t played by bona fide stars like Roberts and Owen, it might have been difficult to care if they ever found love with all the moral desolation around them. Similarly, the story wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun if Gilroy didn’t have a knack for churning out snappy lines at random.

When Claire ask Ray if a thong she’s found on the floor is from another woman, Ray replies, “The only other woman who’s been here is my landlady, and that thing wouldn’t even fit around her wrist.” Perhaps, it might be easier to tolerate real-life jerks if they offered zingers like these.

Roberts isn’t as prolific as she used to be, but her taste in roles seems to have improved exponentially. With this and Charlie Wilson’s War, she’s demonstrated that quality has been trumping quantity for her lately.

As with Michael Clayton, the storyline is complicated, relying on a series of flashbacks that slowly make the rest of the story come into focus. If you miss a few minutes of Duplicity, you might get lost quickly. This approach is a bonus because Gilroy isn’t taking audience attention for granted. He also comes up with a series of clever plot twists that keep viewers from getting complacent.

While the tone of the new film is much lighter than Gilroy’s previous effort, Duplicity works because Gilroy consistently treats his viewers and their collective intelligence with a respect its characters have great difficulty giving to each other. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 03/20/2009)

Black Hand Strawman
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While Kansas City is known throughout the globe as the home of great jazz and barbecue, Terence O’Malley’s new documentary Black Hand Strawman recounts that our city has left another time-honored tradition: organized crime.

From the turn of the 20th century till the dawn of the next, our city has been the home to a series of well-connected wise guys who terrorized local citizens and dominated city and even state politics.

O’Malley unearths all sorts of intriguing documentation that resoundingly demonstrates the “good old days” often weren’t so good. New Italian immigrants who prospered in their adopted home gradually found themselves plagued by “black hand” letters, where extortionists would demand payment if the recipients wanted to live. O’Malley even includes samples of the actual correspondence people received.

Gradually, crooks moved beyond simply targeting individuals and engaging in enterprises like illegal alcohol that were as lucrative as they were dangers. An alliance between Italian and Irish mobsters gave power to the machine of Tom Pendergast, who dominated Kansas City’s Democratic Party for years. Even iconic politicos like Harry S. Truman owed him allegiance.

As O’Malley points out, there were some unintended benefits to gangsters running Kansas City. Jazz flourished in the numerous clubs that mafiosos owned, and the Pendergast machine helped end the exclusion of the city’s numerous Catholics from participating in city government.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Nick Civella and his crime family skimmed millions of dollars off of Las Vegas casinos while they were telling local businesspeople where and when they could set up their shops. Black Hand Strawman even includes samples of the surveillance tapes conducted under Operation Strawman where Civella and his associates described how they pulled off their crimes in explicit detail.

Each of the eras of KC wise guys is distinct and fascinatingly scary. Because there is such a rich and fascinating past to our town, O’Malley understandably runs into trouble trying to cram a century of evil into two hours and 10 minutes. Key figures in the Cowtown underworld are reduced to names and mug shots. As a result, it’s hard to feel a sense of relief when bad guys got what they deserved or sorrow when those who tried to fight the gangsters died. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of names.

Pendergast and his associate Johnny Lazia could each merit a two-hour documentary on their own. Black Hand Strawman could have been far more effective as a miniseries like Ken Burns’ Civil War. O’Malley’s debut film Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time was so effective because it allowed viewers to get so close to the film’s remarkable subject, clothing entrepreneur Ellen Quinlan Donnelly Reed. Without a clear focal point, the impact of the new film is blunted. The famed Union Station Massacre is reduced to a few scant minutes.

Nonetheless, Black Hand Strawman is an important corrective to those who long for days when this town was safe and clean. They never existed. (N/R) Rating: 3.5. (Posted 03/20/2009)

Super Capers
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Slower than a glacier at the South Pole. More powerful than the strongest insomnia cure. Able to empty theaters with a single frame. It’s a turkey! It’s a Hindenburg! It’s Super Capers!

Writer-director Raymond Griggs, who makes his feature debut with this one, attempts to parody superhero films without realizing that he is boldly going where many more talented filmmakers have gone before. It’s doubtful that anyone would spend $10 or more on a ticket for this collection of weak in-jokes when he or she could simply rent The Incredibles.

So how wretched is this movie?

Imagine a character yelling “Crap!” before stepping into a pile of feces. No, this is not a first grader’s attempt at wit, but an actual scene from a film allegedly written and directed by adults staring professional actors needing work between better projects.

It actually gets worse. At one point a bored Adam West voicemails in a scene where he plays a cab driver that was once the masked vigilante Manbat. Holy desperation, Robin!

In exactly 90 minutes, the writing in Super Capers never rises to the level of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Justin Whalin, the fellow who used to play Jimmy Olsen on Lois and Clark, stars as Ed Gruberman (a name derived from the Canadian sketch “Tai Kwan Leep”), a bumbling crime fighter who can’t subdue muggers, much less super-villains. During a trial after a botched rescue, the annoyed judge (Michael Rooker) sentences Ed to an academy for apprentice superheroes.

There he meets the vain but largely ineffectual Will Powers (Ryan McPartlin), the appropriately named Puffer Boy (Griggs), the emotionally icy Felicia Freeze (Danielle Harris) and Herbert Brainard (Samuel Lloyd, Scrubs), who can move objects with his bulging brain.

There’s little plot to describe. Apparently, Griggs figures that viewers will be so happy at simply seeing June Lockhart from Lost in Space that they won’t be upset that he’s given her and the rest of the cast nothing worthwhile to do.

Some really talented performers like Doug Jones (Hellboy) and Jon Polito (several Coen Brothers movies) can be spotted in small, undignified roles. In other cases, lesser-known performers imitate stars to little effect. There’s a short robot who speaks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a gadget guru who apes John Cleese in the James Bond movies. You have to wonder if this film has been sitting on the shelf because that last two 007 movies haven’t featured the Q character, and a lot of the topical references seem fossilized.

When the somber Watchmen has more intentional chuckles and seems shorter despite running twice the length, it’s safe to say that Super Capers is a lump of Kryptonite to your entertainment dollar (PG). Rating: 0 (Posted 3/20/2009)



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at
Deborah Young can be contacted at
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at

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