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reel reviews
movie reviews
May '09
Up •  The Brothers Bloom •  Cowtown Ballroom…Sweet Jesus!
Terminator Salvation •  Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian •  Dance Flick • 
Angels & Demons •  Sugar •  Hunger •  Star Trek •  Lymelife •  Is Anybody There? •  Next Day Air
X-Men Origins: Wolverine • Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

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

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Up
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Pixar’s tenth film is a bit of a cinematic curio, not just because of its technical achievements (which are many). The deft treatment of serious life issues elevates this animated flick. Up is more akin to Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite or Barefoot in the Park than it is to Pixar predecessors such as The Incredibles and Cars.

The movie tells the story of an adventure-seeker named Carl (voiced by Ed Asner). In the first 20 minutes or so we get a visual reminiscence on Carl’s relationship with his wife Ellie, from childhood through the early years of their marriage to their old age.

As children, both Carl and Ellie seek adventure. They admire famous explorer Charles F. Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) and dream of someday going on a big adventure to Paradise Falls.

The young dreamers get married and begin saving for their big adventure. But their daily needs (car repairs, house repairs, etc.) eat away at their savings. Ellie then dies, before the two can have their big adventure.

Carl then becomes a reclusive curmudgeon, until young wilderness explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) shows up at the front door. The boy wants to help Carl so that he can earn his explorer badge for helping the elderly. This is the last badge he needs to earn the rank of senior explorer.

But Russell winds up doing much more than simply walking an elderly man across the street. He becomes an unlikely companion to Carl, who heads for Paradise Falls in his house. By tying thousands of helium balloons to his house, Carl uses his expertise to turn the domicile into a floating device akin to a blimp.

On the journey, Carl and Russell meet strange and funny creatures, and have their adventure. But they also discover the richness of everyday relationships.

Similarly, the richness of this film is in its simplicity and the emotional depth of its story. Yes, Pixar jumped through some pretty challenging technical hoops. The technical team used more than 10,000 balloons to create the floating house. The filmmakers also created an extraordinary color palate for this production.

But beneath all of that is a recognizable but moving story about how relationships give life meaning, about how the little, seemingly mundane events of daily life can add up to a big adventure.

Co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson paid great attention to detail, which added a level of realism and richness to the movie. For instance, there’s an old Victrola-type record player in Carl’s house, which recalls a distant past, and a coffee table with a lamp and three pill bottles of varying sizes. Also, Carl begins the journey with a clean face but along the way develops a “five o’clock shadow,” the gray stubble on his face growing a bit longer each day.

Despite its emotional and philosophical depth, Up seemed to capture the attention of the many children who attended the screening I went to. There was not a peep heard out of them until near the end when a lone girl’s tinny soprano voice uttered, “Goodbye, Ellie!”

Goodbye, indeed. As the credits roll some viewers might feel the emotional tinge of bidding farewell to a newfound friend.

This is the kind of film that elicits laughter, tears and an abundance of memories that turn viewers into repeat viewers. (PG) Rating: 5


The Brothers Bloom
by Dan Lybarger

Unlike the con artists the movie depicts, The Brothers Bloom rewards rather than exploits viewers by defying their expectations. Writer-director Rian Johnson is so determined to flaunt convention he’s guaranteed to lose some viewers during the opening frames. When cats and camels start behaving in ways that defy nature, it’s a litmus test for whether you’ll like the rest of the movie.

Combining the look and narrative style children’s storybooks with some very adult references to literature, The Brothers Bloom has a warmth and whimsy that’s usually missing from con artist movies like The Spanish Prisoner and Nine Queens. The new film has all the plot reversals of those films, but there are characters that are likable instead of being merely intriguing.

The tale begins in the United States where two orphans discover they are the only ones each other can trust. Outcasts from the rest of their peers, Stephen decides the other kids are ripe for plucking, so he convinces his younger brother Bloom, who hates his unknown first name so much he never uses it, to sucker the other kids into an elaborate scam.

The two eventually wander around Europe pulling off almost operatic swindles on the continent’s most gullible tycoons. The schemes are so orchestrated and daring that they almost earn the fortunes they steal.

While Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is pleased with the artistry of his cons, Bloom (Adrien Brody) has grown tired of making a substantial income from using his own sad sack nature to dupe people. He’d simply like to live as a real person.

Ironically, his chance to do just that may come during their next caper. The mark is a beautiful but eccentric heiress named Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener). Penelope has spent almost her entire life stuck indoors in her New Jersey estate. As a result, she feels awkward in social situations and has picked up an intimidating large set of hobbies. Because of some childhood illnesses and her current affliction of epilepsy, she’s also constantly wrecking her expensive roadster.

Instead of being merely a sap for the brothers’ new scheme, Penelope actually welcomes the opportunity as the adventure she’s never had. The dour Bloom actually finds himself falling for her enthusiastic spirit, even if he knows he’ll have to eventually tell her she’s going to get played.

Thanks to an inspired performance by Weisz, The Brothers Bloom becomes more than a collection of quirky, Wes Anderson-like (The Darjeeling Limited) gags. Weisz actually learned many of the odd skills you see her demonstrating in the film. One of her card tricks was photographed in a long take so that you can see she’s really doing it. She also imbues Penelope with a vibrancy that makes her seem like anything but a victim.

It’s refreshing to see a con artist movie where the women are depicted as more than arm candy or chattel. Rinko Kikuchi steals the show as the brothers’ demolition expert Bang Bang. Having played a deaf character in Babel, it’s not much of a stretch for Kikuchi to play a character that says almost nothing, but she gives the character a sly wit that makes dialogue seem needless. When she does speak, however, it’s hilarious.

Brody is good at playing nebbishes, and Ruffalo projects a tenderness that makes Stephen’s mendacity seem a little less odious.

Johnson has altered his sensibilities radically since his debut film Brick. The previous film is grim, claustrophobic, gritty and nightmarish. The Brothers Bloom, however, features glowing colors and a sense of quirky glee. The one trait both films share is Johnson’s stylized dialogue, which sounds fascinating even if it bears little resemblance to real world conversations.

Johnson makes some subtle nods to previous films in the genre (listen to the melodies Penelope plays on her instruments), but the new tale is interesting enough in its own right. Johnson also intentionally leaves some important questions unanswered, forcing viewers to reach their own conclusions, and a few gags don’t become apparent until a second viewing.

On the down side, the ending seems undercooked, as if Johnson had run out of idiosyncratic approaches. Whereas the rest of the film gives a sense the filmmakers were willing to try anything, the conclusion seems more like a sigh than a bang.

Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to find a film that’s eager to surprise instead of regurgitate. The Brothers Bloom may not always be golden, but at least it’s never stale (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 05/28/09)


Cowtown Ballroom…Sweet Jesus!
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Loaded with more nostalgia than a well-stocked flea market, Cowtown Ballroom…Sweet Jesus! is an affectionate look back at unique, and sadly long-defunct Kansas City institution.

While KC’s history with jazz and barbecue is well established, our hometown’s contribution to ‘70s rock is also worth noting. The Cowtown Ballroom was a downtown venue where performers ranging from Frank Zappa to Van Morrison once played. The shows were then broadcast to 40 different markets in the United States and even to London. The concert hall was also the launching pad where Missouri acts like Brewer and Shipley and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils started their climb to national prominence.

All of that happened in the space of a mere 38 months, which probably explains why most Kansas Citians have never heard of the Cowtown Ballroom. Director Joe Heyen was a regular visitor at the Ballroom, and the new documentary he and co-writer, co-producer, editor and photographer Anthony Ladesich have put together is loaded with reverence for the Ballroom and a surprisingly clear understanding of the smoke-filled era that spawned it.

Fans who attended shows at the Ballroom didn’t have to worry if they had forgotten to pack along some weed; they’d a get potent contact high from simply breathing the air in the room. The Ballroom also featured no chairs (patrons sat on the floor), two bathrooms, a crummy air conditioning system and radio interference that plagued the performers’ sets.

But to hear patrons and musicians describe the place, it was magic. The venue was established by entrepreneurs who wanted a venue that was more organic and fan-friendly that the other big KC performance hall, Freedom Palace.

Even the regulars who no longer toke can describe the feeling and the shows in vivid detail. Surprisingly, in the film, both B.B. King and Steve Miller still fondly remember the Cowtown Ballroom even though they’ve played in countless other places.

The Ballroom also featured double bills that were so random even a diehard pothead could not have conceived them. Wizzo the Clown, who had been part of several KC childhoods, received possibly the warmest reaction of his life before he opened for a rock band.

Memory, time and controlled substances can do funny things to the truth, so Ladesich’s editing contrasts witnesses’ memories, letting viewers know when a speaker might be getting into a fish story. Heyen and Ladesich also do a remarkable job of marrying what little film footage exists of Cowtown Ballroom shows with sound clips and contact sheets of still photos.

If the talking heads in the film are all convinced of the magic of the place, Heyen and Ladesich reveal that the building was previously the site of a ‘30s dance club where white and black performers played together and that it later became a skating rink before becoming the Cowtown Ballroom. Heyen and Ladesich include touching recollections from couples who fell in love there. The film isn’t all sweetness and light, though. The Ballroom operated in the ominous shadow of the Vietnam War.

The innovations of the Cowtown Ballroom, like featuring an early all-female band Fanny, who predated the Runaways and the Go-Gos, also came at a sad price. Despite the affection the performers, the fans and the promoters had for it, the Cowtown Ballroom didn’t generate enough money to be sustainable. Looser radio formats in the early ‘70s that made the venue’s unique offerings possible gave way to more rigid playlists that prevented the eclecticism that thrived at the Cowtown Ballroom.

The Cowtown Ballroom may have been a blip in this city’s timeline, but the new documentary indicates that it offered a high that music fans cannot, will not and don’t want to recover from. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted 05/26/09)


Terminator Salvation
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) meets War of the Worlds (2005) in the latest, sober installment of the Terminator series.

This time around the machines appear close to winning the war with mankind. Skynet, the nearly omnipresent artificial intelligence network, has decimated the world with nuclear weapons and continue to capture survivors.

The earth has become a barren, scary place where man has to hide from machines that constantly patrol the air and the land seeking to capture survivors and members of the Resistance.

John Connors (Christian Bale) is not yet the Resistance leader. But he has taken on the crucial task of finding and protecting the teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek, 2009). If Reese doesn’t survive, Connors will not be born in the future.

Of course, keeping Reese alive will be a chore because he’s bent on being a hero. Reese has taken responsibility for a young girl, Star (Jadagrace Berry), which adds to his burden and instantly makes him a likeable character.

Besides dealing with Skynet and trying to rescue Reese, Connors eventually has to deal with a new and unforeseen threat, a half man, half machine named Marcus (Sam Worthington). The biggest issue is that Connors has trouble discerning whether this strange creator is friend or foe.

Director McG and company have worked visual magic on this production. They have created a world that is both beautiful and barren, a hopeless desert that is at times as beautifully sparse as tree limbs in winter.

Unfortunately, this film’s emotional landscape is as sparse as its physical landscape. We see Resistance leaders shouting orders, Connors and his companions running, planes tracking fugitives but get little dialogue that would explain who these characters and what motivates them to stay alive.

There two touching scenes involving Marcus and a woman who fights for the Resistance. He shows her tenderness and then she risks her own well being for him. But this film is mostly special effects and adrenaline.

The actors manage to create believable and likeable characters. Still, at times the constant barrage of explosions, chases and special effects gets tedious.

Terminator Salvation is a war flick purist’s dream: not much conversation, little emotion and lots of action. But the special effects will wow many audience members, and there’s a surprising scene in the last half that gives an entertaining nod to earlier films in the series. (PG-13) Rating: 3


Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Much like a repeat trip to an actual museum, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is full of stuff you’ve seen before, but there are enough new exhibits to keep the visit from becoming completely monotonous.

Like the 2006 original, the new film concerns an ancient Egyptian golden tablet that causes the normally static exhibits to come to live once the sun goes down. Wax statues of presidents and replicas of long-extinct animals walk together on the same floor.

Screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (the minds behind Reno 911!) have correctly figured the novelty has worn out of the premise of the first film, so they place their nocturnal displays in a much larger, richer environment.

Ben Stiller is back as the bumbling security guard Larry Daley, but it’s a little hard to recognize him. In the first installment, Larry simply needed a job because career as an inventor was going nowhere.

In a couple of years, however, his creations have done so well he can even hire A-list celebrities to endorse them in infomercials.

The displays at the Museum of Natural History where Larry used to work, however, are not so fortunate. The curator (Ricky Gervais) is replacing the established exhibits with 3D holograms. The old materials are being sent to the basement of the Smithsonian.

The magic tablet gets shipped with them and winds up awakening every exhibit in the Washington, DC complex. As a result, all of the buildings at the Smithsonian burst with life. This is particularly concerning because the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria, The Simpsons) is now back in the flesh and wants to use the tablet to rouse an army of the dead and rule the rest of the globe they way he lorded over the Nile.

To stop Kahmunrah’s conquest, Larry breaks into the basement and teams up with a regenerated Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) and General George Custer (Bill Hader).

Some of the new characters are fun enough to temporarily keep sequel-itis from setting in. Azaria, who actually plays three roles, appears to be having the time of his life playing the malevolent pharaoh. He flawlessly imitates Boris Karloff’s performance as the title character in The Mummy and achieves a tricky balance between menace and comic buffoonery.

Adams’ turn as Earhart is an acquired taste. She comes off as so spunky that you wonder if all that energy inside her is going to cause her head to fly off her body. It’s doubtful the real-life Earhart would have achieved all that she had if she were a wallflower, but the perkiness that made Adams endearing in Enchanted serves her ill this time around. It also doesn’t help that the screenwriters saddle her and Stiller with a romance that never quite works.

With all the oversized personalities that surround him, Stiller gets upstaged. In the first film, it was a little easier to follow his antics because he was as awed as the viewers by the mayhem on his watch. By making him a bit of a bumbler, it was compelling to watch him gradually learning both his trade and a bit of history in the process.

This time Stiller’s a foil for Adams, Azaria and the special effects. While it’s nice to know that people like Larry can grow into competence, it’s more fun watching him trying to learn the ropes instead of already knowing them.

There’s still a sense of wonder that runs throughout the film. The visuals remain enjoyably jaw dropping, but from watching both of the Night at the Museum films you get a sense that history can be fun even without the optical trickery. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 05/22/09)


Dance Flick
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

While it goes without saying that one doesn’t expect much from a Wayans Brothers movie any more, it’s still rather disheartening that after so many films they still haven’t learned very much about film-making, other than how to turn a quick buck.

Having forged a small entertainment empire out of their extended family, Keenan Ivory Wayans and younger brother Shawn handle the writing here, while brother Damien directs yet another parody of a movie genre that is already pretty much a parody of itself anyway. Even the title, Dance Flick, shows how much forethought they put into this stinker: little to none.

It’s not like these guys haven’t been involved in any actually good films: Keenan wrote the script for A Low-Down Dirty Shame and I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka! both of which are pretty good flicks which took the standard blaxploitation films of the ‘70s and cleverly stood them on their ear. For whatever reason, all that has been abandoned here in favor of jokes about farts and camel-toes.

The plot revolves around Thomas Uncles (Damon Wayans Jr.), who at least seems charming, if not very funny here. Thomas and his gansta friend A-Con (Affion Crockett) owe a weight-challenged local mobster named Sugar Bear (David Alen Grier) $5,000 for no reason whatsoever. Thomas soon hooks up with the beautiful, classically trained dancer Megan White (played by Shoshana Bush and yes she’s white: get used to hearing some of the stupidest character names ever), who refuses to dance because her first audition killed her mother, or something like that anyway.

The duo team up to enter a street-dance contest to win back the money with the help of the rest of their aptly named Musical High School friends, with the occasional parody of Twilight or Superman thrown in with little to no humor.

While Airplane! barraged the audience with super-fast editing in a roller-coaster ride of joke after joke, and Blazing Saddles played off stereotypes with a manic glee, this movie doe neither. The few jokes presented are lingered on waaay past the point of “beating a dead horse,” and the stereotypes presented are neither funny nor even offensive: They are boring and clearly ripped off from other sources. It’s also hard to believe this movie got away with a PG-13 rating: maybe the ratings board members just turned it off after the first few minutes and gave it a good guess.

Save your money, and go watch some reruns of In Living Color, back when the Wayans were actually funny. (PG-13) Rating: 1


Angels & Demons
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s easy to think of Ron Howard’s new effort Angels & Demons as more of an apology than a movie. Because it’s the sequel to the tedious speculative history yarn The Da Vinci Code, the new installment has nowhere to go but up.

In bringing Dan Brown’s controversial bestseller to the screen, Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who both won Oscars for A Beautiful Mind) proved that sacrilege could be just as boring as piety. Admittedly, Brown’s bizarro interpretation of how Jesus and his church might have developed was pretty intriguing.

But Brown’s characters are so one-note and his cliffhangers so routine that a typical Sunday school lesson is more compelling. Howard and Goldsman only added to the malaise by following Brown’s pedestrian setup as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This time around Howard and his cohorts deviate a little from Brown’s blueprint. Angels & Demons was actually written before The Da Vinci Code, but the filmmakers decided to set it in the aftermath of the previous tale. Globetrotting Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) finds himself being pursued by the Vatican.

If they’re mad about Langdon for his discoveries in the previous film, they’re willing to forgive his previous transgression. The Illuminati, a secret group of scientists persecuted by the Church in the 17th century, have been sending threatening notes to the Holy See. Whoever is claiming to be a spiritual descendent of Galileo, has kidnapped the four cardinals who are most likely to be elected the new pope days after the previous pope has died.

The bad guys have also created an anti-matter bomb that could blow up all of Vatican City and much of Rome with it. Knowing the suppressed history of the Illuminati, Robert teams up with Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), the scientist who inadvertently made the bomb possible. By digging through Rome’s past for hidden clues, they and Swiss Guard boss Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård) and Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), the Camerlengo or treasurer for the Holy See, attempt to catch the Illuminati before they can make their plan more than a coded game of hide and seek.

Langdon’s new adventure moves much faster than his previous one. Howard, Goldsman and co-screenwriter David Koepp keep just enough of the revisionist history to preserve the setup but concentrate on action instead of the hidden messages. With a photogenic Roman backdrop and a more claustrophobic environment, there are chills that were missing in the previous movie. By forcing Langdon to outwit his enemies before midnight, the filmmakers have come up with an infinitely more suspenseful framework.

Unfortunately, they’re still dealing with Dan Brown material.

The ancient clues are intriguing, but they’re more logical than the plot. The characters are also monochromatic. After two movies, Langdon is less defined than the symbols he studies.

None of the other characters are that well drawn, either. Zurer, Skarsgård, McGregor and Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays a pedantic senior cardinal, are grossly overqualified for their roles. In Brown’s world, people don’t talk; they trade information about obscure, buried texts.

If Howard is working with worth material as he did with Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, he can get the most of out of it. With Brown’s writing, however, there’s no way he can get it to pass for a lost Gospel. (PG-13) Rating 2.5 (Posted 05/15/09)


Sugar
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

The story seems both overdone and overwrought — poor kid with a great sports talent is discovered, goes to the big leagues, get disillusioned and finally finds his true self in his love of family and camaraderie. Thankfully, filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) have taken that clichéd plot and turned it on its ear, resulting in a complex and multilayered story that quietly holds the viewer all the way to the end.

Shot both partially as a documentary (think The Office) and almost entirely in Spanish, Sugar follows the life of young Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a promising pitcher playing for a farm team in the slums of the Dominican Republic.

Sugar’s only hope for a better life is to get to America to try and make the big leagues despite being one of hundreds of others like himself. Finally, he is picked, goes to America and soon finds his only value is as a player. His coaches are mildly racist (also constantly giving him long, rambling speeches about “playing the game,” which is both funny and sad since they seem to have forgotten that he barely speaks a word of English) and the elderly farm couple he is assigned to stay with is only interested in his ability to win games for their home team.

Overwhelmed by the system, Sugar runs away to New York, gets a job, and slowly finds confidence in both himself and the game he once loved.

Again, the plot here is terribly simple, almost hackneyed, but two things rescue it from mediocrity: The thoughtfulness of how it is shot, and the use of a non-actor in the main role. Found literally playing on a ball team, Algenis Perez Soto could give a lot of so-called “professional” actors a run for their money. His quiet expressions often convey to the audience all it needs to know, which is a welcome silence given how poorly written most movie dialog is nowadays.

One other note of interest: If you see the posters for this film, you’ll notice that he’s wearing a KC Royals’ jersey. That’s right — if Sugar had been one of the very few to make it to the big leagues, his reward would be to play for (then) one of the worst teams in the league. That’s hardly sweet at all. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 05/15/09)


Hunger
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you’re going to make a film about an extremist, it makes sense to tell the story using extreme or at least unusual techniques.

In recounting the final six weeks of Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands’ life, British director Steve McQueen consistently toys with viewer expectations. Hunger is McQueen’s first feature, and he dispenses with conventional storytelling out of the gate.

After some obligatory title cards explaining the situation in 1981 Northern Ireland, a man eats breakfast with his wife and prepares for work. Because no one speaks throughout the sequence, the only way you’d know that he was in Belfast is when he checks the underside of his car for a bomb.

McQueen reveals that Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) has reason to fear for his life. He guards IRA prisoners. The captives consider themselves POWs and refuse to groom themselves or wear prison uniforms so they will not be confused with common criminals. They even smear feces on the walls to show their British captors they will not be broken.

Lohan and his fellow guards return the favor and more. They beat the prisoners mercilessly and forcibly cut the prisoners’ hair and beards. They even provide civilian-style clothes to the prisoners that wind up being even more insulting to them than the uniforms.

McQueen presents the prison sequences in consistently daring ways. I think there was more dialogue in the first half-hour of WALL-E. When characters do speak during the first half of the film, it’s in brief, superficial exchanges.

Having made his living as a visual artist and director of short films, McQueen can tell more with an image than most filmmakers can with protracted soliloquies. Keep an eye out for Lohan’s knuckles, and notice how the first prisoner (Brian Milligan) has a large gash in his scalp before he’s even placed in his cell. McQueen lets viewers know both men are suffering but tells it so elliptically that inattentive viewers may miss out.

By only alluding to the horrors, McQueen and his co-screenwriter Enda Walsh soften the audience up for the final blow. They also wait until after the middle of the film before the first substantial conversation begins, but once it happens, it’s riveting.

Sands (Michael Fassbender) reveals to Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) that because the previous tactics he and other prisoners have tried didn’t work, he’s leading a hunger strike. The priest, who shares Sands’ Republican beliefs but not his support for violence, thinks the idea is foolish and immoral. The exchange is sometimes darkly funny and raises interesting questions. For example, are there other ways the prisoners could have maintained their dignity without going to such extremes? On a technical note, the conversation takes approximately half an hour, and begins with a 17-minute unedited shot. Because what they have to say is enthralling, McQueen wisely takes a break from his dynamic visual touches and leave the actors alone.

One thing that seems abundantly clear is that the draconian treatment of the incarcerated was in the end counterproductive. It seems to have stiffened their resolve. To avoid falling into propaganda, McQueen and Walsh do present some of the IRA’s crimes and present Lohan in a human, if not always flattering light.

The hunger strike is presented in appropriately gruesome detail. When Sands’ mother kisses him as he’s lying on his deathbed, it’s touching because he’s so far gone that he may not even know she’s there.

Sands’ story has been filmed before. Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son examines the politics behind the strike more explicitly, but McQueen’s film is far more visceral, making the cost of the characters’ actions more concrete.

Despite all of the madness and cruelty in the prison, McQueen finds moments of haunting beauty. One of the prisoners reaches through a hole in the window of his cell and actually tries to touch the housefly that’s landed there. It’s not your usual prison movie scene, and McQueen’s repeated rejection of those kinds of sequences makes Hunger uniquely satisfying. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 05/15/09)


Star Trek
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Anyone crazy enough to try a remake/re-launch/restart of a franchise as iconic as the Star Trek universe better have some good ideas, correct casting and big cahones if they want fan acceptance … and producer/director J.J. Abrams has shown all that and more.

While the Internet had the cast list out before the ink on the contracts had dried, there were still a lot of fans wondering how their favorite Starfleet personnel would be re-cast. Thankfully, Abrams manages to keep their best qualities intact while still giving his actors a little room to flesh them out.

Even the main character — which happens to be a Constitution-class Starship named Enterprise — is given a loving touch-up and then let loose to kick some Romulan ass.

In essence, this is an "alternate timeline" of the ST canon, the result of the elder Spock (Leonard Nimoy, reprising the character he made one of the most famous of all time) accidentally coming back in time 120 years to a point where he was still a Starfleet instructor who had yet to meet Kirk, Bones or the rest of NCC 1701's crew. Following Spock is Nero (Eric Bana), a Romulan who wants vengeance for Spock's failure to save his home-world Romulus from the same accident that threw them both back in time.

One of Nero's first actions is to attack the USS Kelvin, where a young officer named George Kirk is killed saving his escaping crew, wife and unborn son. Jump forward twenty years and that son, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) is now an unfocused troublemaker with a fat mouth and an eye for the ladies. Challenged by his mentor Capt. Pike, Kirk joins Starfleet academy where he meets Leonard "Bones" McCoy (fans will enjoy finding out where the "Bones" nick-name comes from), Hikaru Sulu and the rest onboard the brand-new flagship Enterprise.

It doesn't take long before Capt. Pike is captured, Spock and Kirk are butting heads and all the Federation worlds are threatened by Nero's gigantic world-destroying spaceship from the future.

Sliding aside the science fiction elements in favor of a straight-out action flick was a good move here, particularly in avoiding all the clichés that ruin most origin stories. Abram's doesn't waste screen-time explaining what the "Federation" is, or how the transporter works: He just uses them to further the story along from fight scene to fight scene.

While the story has plot-holes galore, nobody will or should care: The action is relentless, the effects simply mind-blowing, and most importantly the banter between Kick, Spock and McCoy are kept as center-stage as it was in the series and previous movies. Aside from a short line near the end, Pine stays away from any Shatner-esque acting, which is smart since he's no Shatner, while Zachary Quinto's Spock is a dead-ringer for Nimoy's original portrayal from the series.

The delightful surprise here is Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy, the forever put-upon foil that acted as both conscience and soul for the crew, bridging the differences between Kirk and Spock. He has some of the best lines, and grumbled and gripped his way through every scene he was in. Some fans will probably be upset that the other crew members such as Sulu (John Cho), Checkov (Antony Yeltsin), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and the rest are given little to do, but I wouldn't be too worried: There will undoubtedly be a sequel with plenty of chances for them to flesh-out their roles.

There are a few things to gripe about, like the Phasers that flip barrels between "Kill" and "Stun" (can you say "toy tie-in"?), or the Enterprise's own Phaser banks that now look like red machine-guns, or the replacement of the bridge's view screen with a structurally questionable big window. But all those are tiny gripes at best.

In many ways, this isn't a remake considering it's got the same heart as Roddenbury's original series just with new actors and different effects. Overall, it's a fantastic example of how a filmmaker can breathe new life into a beloved story instead of looting its grave for a fast buck. (PG-13) Rating: 4


Lymelife
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Starting life as a subject in Robert Redford’s Sundance script-writing lab, Lymelife is obviously a project of much love from directors/writers/brothers Derick and Steven Martini.

Much like American Beauty this drama is all about desperation in the suburbs, where over the course of an hour and a half we see two families fall into an abyss of infidelity, shame and revelations that inevitably destroys them both.

And is it depressing. It’s also eminently watch-able due to an excellent cast, clever cinematography and a very cool ‘70s soundtrack … but it’s just so damn depressing that even all that can’t garner a good recommendation here.

The story is told through the eyes of Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), a fifteen year old on the edge of adulthood whose quirky qualities include collecting Star Wars toys and giving Travis Bickle-like monologues into his bedroom mirror (most likely a nod to Martin Scorsese, who is an executive producer for the film).

At first glance, all appears sunny and right in the Bartlett household. Scott’s father Mickey (Alec Baldwin in a truly Oscar-caliber performance) is a real estate tycoon on the rise, and Scott’s his older brother Jimmy has returned from basic training. It’s no casting gimmick that Scott’s older brother Jimmy is played by Rory’s real-life older brother Kieran Culkin; both are exceptional actors and their real-life relationship simply enhances their work here.

Living next door are the Braggs, whose father Charlie (Timothy Hutton) has been crippled by Lyme disease contracted while hunting with Mickey. Their young daughter Adrianna has become Scott’s love interest, resulting in some tender and highly accurate scenes about how we all stumble through our first romances.

However, both families hide devastating secrets. Mickey is having a none-to-obvious affair with Melissa Bragg (Cynthia Nixon), Charlie’s wife, which explodes when Jimmy confronts him on what are apparently numerous indiscretions in his marriage. Soon Mickey is living alone in the house he was building for them all, while Charlie is spiraling down under the pressure of his ailments and the less-than-subtle cuckolding from his wife.

The dialog here is some of the best around, particularly from Baldwin, who manages to make a cheating and abusive father still seem sympathetic, but the sudden actions of Charlie at the very end would seem to destroy any chance at redemption.

There are many great scenes from this talented cast, and it’s hard not to recommend this film. But given the state of the economy nobody really wants to watch anybody failing so miserably, both as individuals and a family. Unfortunately, Lymelife is about as fun as a funeral. (R) Rating 2.5


Is Anybody There?
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Like a good number of films, Is Anybody There? is saved from being a routine offering by the presence of Sir Michael Caine.

With his droll, distinctively Cockney delivery and subtle gestures, he can make good material shine and mediocre texts become golden. Caine doesn’t have to work too hard to make novice screenwriter Peter Harness’ writing involving.

But it would have been nice for Caine and his able supporting players if Harness had taken their characters into more unexpected directions. Even though the film deals with old age and memory loss, you don’t have to be an Alzheimer’s patient to think you’ve seen this before.

Is Anybody There? is set in a retirement home in 1980’s Britain. The proprietors are a married couple (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) who’ve recently taken on the responsibility of providing a final home for residents whose memories are fading and are unable to care for themselves.

The wife, who’s never named, thinks the challenging venture could be a rewarding business, while her nameless spouse thinks the enterprise is doomed. For their ten-year-old son Edward (Bill Milner), however, the place is loaded with mystery. He obsessively watches television to learn about ghosts and sneaks in his tape recorder into dying patients‚ rooms hoping to find evidence of the supernatural.

With his inclination toward magic, it’s inevitable that Edward will gradually become friends with the home’s latest resident. Clarence (Caine) is a magician whose retirement is obviously not voluntary. He’s clearly in no shape to be driving his touring van any more, but his mind is in far better shape than those of the rest of the residents. While they are singing children’s songs, he can pull off elaborate card tricks.

To their credit, Caine and Harness find ways to let the audience know that Clarence’s short-term memory is diminishing without telegraphing his infirmities. It becomes easier to sympathize with the irritable Clarence because his recall comes and goes without warning. At one point, he’s proudly asserting his independence while helplessly dependent the next. His lapses are so gradual that it’s hard for him to know they’re happening at all, and his most painful recollections are impossible to shake.

The rest of the movie lacks this careful, incremental approach. You can guess what Edward is really going to wind up recording, and many of the supporting relationships are too pre-ordained to be compelling.

Fortunately, director John Crowley manages to coax good work from the rest of the cast. Milner comes off as a real kid with believable foibles and avoids any obvious child star acting ticks. Morrisey is a riot, playing a man terrified of reaching the other side of 40. To reclaim his youth, he wears a mullet and ghastly ‘80s clothes that look even worse to a contemporary eye. He also tries to win over one of his teenage employees even though she finds him either repellent or invisible.

Is Anybody There? is pleasant, but at 76 Caine has announced that he’s slowing down, so it would be nice if he could go out with a role that’s worthy of his formidable gifts. It’s not unreasonable to wish that any potential swan song from the dual Oscar-winner were more memorable. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 05/08/09)

 


Next Day Air
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If the comedy-thriller Next Day Air were an airline, it would probably be ValuJet, crashing its way into oblivion. It delivers neither laughs nor chills and offers no visuals more interesting than the Exit signs on the theater doors.

Despite a capable cast and an intricate storyline, music video director Benny Boom and screenwriter Blair Cobbs believe that viewers will fall out of their seats laughing when two bank robbers (Mike Epps and Wood Harris) botch a heist because one tells his accomplice to hit the safe and instead steals the surveillance tapes.

These folks can’t even make a decent pun.

The movie features omnipresent pot smoking, which seems to be part of the film simply because the characters’ actions would be inexplicably stupid otherwise.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe that the most baked of stoners would blow a robbery in the manner depicted in the movie. Perhaps the filmmakers are dumber than the average stoner or believe the audience is.

Either way, it’s not fun.

The Philadelphia-based hoodlums who left the cash in the safe find themselves unbelievably lucky when a hard-“toking” courier named Leo (Donald Faison, Scrubs) delivers them some bricks of primo cocaine. The thugs hope to sell their accidental bounty to a slick dealer (Omari Hardwick).

Unfortunately, the package was actually intended for their next-door neighbor, a low-level Puerto Rican drug runner named Jesus (Cisco Reyes).

We learn of the mistake early because Boom holds the camera on the door numbers long enough for the even the visually impaired to read them.

In addition to being the butt of a series of groan-inducing jokes involving his namesake, the Lord and Savior, Jesus is at the mercy of his nagging girlfriend (Yasmin Deliz) and a Mexican narco-lord (Emilio Rivera) who doesn’t believe in lost door tickets.

What self-respecting dope merchant sends their product through a commercial courier, where their loot might easily make it into the hands of law enforcement? The filmmakers haven’t asked that question, and it shows.

Next Day Air’s limited budget is immediately obvious because of the limited number of settings. Most of the movie takes place in the same run-down apartment building. Perhaps the static location might indicate why the film never builds any tension despite a couple of gruesome sequences. Boom’s sluggish pacing doesn’t help.

Still, Dog Day Afternoon was set almost entirely in a bank and was loaded with suspense. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare the new film to an established classic. But I would add why launch a rocket at all if you aren’t going to aim for the moon?

The makers of Next Day Air have set their sights far lower, and it shows. It didn’t cost them much to make this film, but it will cost a typical viewer the same amount to see a much better movie. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 05/08/09)


X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

At first glance, there are plenty of reasons to expect that X-Men Origins: Wolverine wouldn’t be very good. It’s a supposed prequel to the original X-Men trilogy, which in itself incensed fans with an incoherent plot and the pointless deaths of some beloved major characters in the third installment.

Rumor also had it that several major scenes were re-shot to lighten up a tone the studio felt was too dark, which had Hugh Jackman going online to try and defuse the issue as best he could.

Even the title is a misnomer, because it seems unlikely that there will be an “X-Men Origins: Cyclops” or an “X-Men Origins: Storm,” particularly since Halle Berry is probably a little more expensive now a’ days.

The movie was also leaked online in a nearly complete form, free for anybody who knew how to click on a link. Fox frantically claimed at first that the bootleg version was nothing like the finished version, then later promised ticket-buyers a variety of “special endings”— think the very end of Ironman, for example.

As far as that goes, this reviewer can absolutely guarantee all that there are at least…two.

The plot starts with a quick re-cap of Marvel’s own four-issue Wolverine origins series, where we see James Logan/Wolverine as a sickly boy living in the wilds of Canada in the 1850s. Driven away by tragedy with his half brother Victor, the two mutants fight in war after war (their ability to heal wounds almost instantly also makes them semi-immortal), until finally joining a secret government hit squad made up of mutants and led by William Stryker (Danny Huston).

For reasons far from clear Logan leaves the team and goes off to become a hunky lumberjack with a hot girlfriend who is far nicer about him occasionally popping his bone-claws out during a bad dream than one would expect, but at least he can keep the animal inside him in check … until Victor/Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber) shows up and kills his girlfriend. While the whole “avenge the girlfriend” plot point is both a comic book and action movie staple, this death is so telegraphed it contains no emotional content whatsoever. None.

Logan, with the help an ex-teammate who can teleport a l a Nightcrawler (played by mega-hip-hop star Will. i. Am. for no good reason at all) goes after Victor, gets his butt kicked by Victor and then turns to Stryker and his “Weapon X” program for an upgrade to help him take out Victor for good.

Using an indestructible metal with a name spell-check does not like, Stryker coats Logan’s skeletal structure, bone-claws and all, turning him into the classic dude with the razor-sharp hand-gear from both the comics and the X-Men trilogy.

Note to all the comic and geek-people fandom out there: I agree completely that the “bone-claws” are horribly stupid and unnecessary, and not even logical, but Marvel did that first, so blame them, not this movie. ‘Nuff said.

Finally we get some real Wolverine on Sabretooth action, which at times is kick-ass, and at other times not so kick-ass. Then a bunch of goofy plot twists lead up to a confrontation on top of a cooling tower at the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant with the super-mutant “Weapon 11”, and Stryker using a gun with bullets made out of the same super-metal to blank Logan’s mind, setting up the events of the first X-Men movie.

Most comic fans will groan deeply at the whole super-metal bullets thing (and should), but then like any prequel they pretty much had to come up with some reason for him to not remember any of these people, so it is what it is, that’s all.

Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber manage to growl and claw through their roles well enough, and when the effects work, they work well. It would have helped to get to the action a little quicker: the first half has far too much talking (and the dialog throughout this film is really awful), but since Wolverine doesn’t get his claws until halfway through, you just get to wait, and wait.

Mediocre as this movie is, it was at least nice to seen Wolverine popin’ claws and calling bad guys “Bub” again, even though that thrill is tinged with all the lost and wasted opportunities of the original X-Men films. (PG-13)Rating: 3 (Posted 5/1/09)


Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

There are some things that even Matthew McConaughey’s laid-back charm can’t fix. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is one of them.

Lacking wit, interesting characters, romantic passion, imagination or even a sense of comic timing, the new film makes celibacy seem oddly enticing. Come to think of it, the film is so dull that loneliness becomes exciting.

McConaughey stars as Connor Mead, a fashion and magazine photographer who has managed to bed just about every woman he has captured on film.

The movie loses credibility from its opening frames. There’s no sign of “PhotoShopping.” There’s no lighting adjustment. Connor just walks in and clicks the shutter. Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore aren’t aiming for realism here, but it would be nice to acknowledge that not just anybody can do what Annie Leibovitz or David LaChapelle do.

Because Connor has an unbelievably easy, well-paying job, he has lots of time to seduce and abandon roughly half of the earth’s population. He’s so busy that he even dumps three women over a conference call.

While Connor thinks of monogamy as an outdated idea, he still serves as his brother Paul’s (Breckin Meyer) Best Man. The choice seems odd because most of the bridesmaids and the prim and proper Maid of Honor Jenny (Jennifer Garner) have all been wooed and dumped by Connor.

Before he can ruin the wedding and before you can yell “Charles Dickens,” Connor receives a visit from his late lecherous uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas, in the film’s only remotely entertaining performance). Apparently, Uncle Wayne was a lousy role model, and his ghost and three others will haunt Connor during the evening to teach him the error of his ways. Another sloppy bit of storytelling arises when some of the “ghosts” represent living souls. How this inconsistency occurs, no one bothers to explain.

Waters would like viewers to root for Connor to become a mensch and finally commit to Jenny. The problem is that Connor is so shallow that his womanizing is all that gives him character.

Dickens created a classic not simply because he made holiday hater Scrooge respect Christmas but because he also made Scrooge care about people with whom he did not have financial ties.

Ghosts or not, it’s hard to believe that Connor would make much of suitor for a compassionate, sophisticated woman like Jenny. Frankly, it would make more sense for her to be with the blandly virtuous Brad (Daniel Santjaya). Loaded with tiresome monologues about the joys of commitment, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past offers little more than sermons to counteract the appeal of vice.

It doesn’t help that McConaughey simply glides through the movie, behaving the same way before and after he’s been “cured.” It’s hard to believe a romantic comedy where at least one of the leads seems consistently immune to cupid’s arrows.

For a film that supposedly encourages men to behave better, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past reeks of misogyny. With the exception of Jenny, most of the women in the film are dim and not terribly sympathetic. Paul’s future wife Sandra (Lacey Chabert) is a moody bridezilla, and the other bridesmaids’ only conversations concern whether they’ve “conquered” Connor.

Without any sense of dynamics or any memorable gags (other than a collapsing wedding cake), all the supernatural help in the world can’t rescue this one. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 05/01/09)


 
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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