movie reviews January 2010

Edge of Darkness  •  When in Rome
The Tooth Fairy  •  Crazy Heart  •  Extraordinary Measures
A Single Man  •  The Book of Eli  •  Broken Embraces  •  The Lovely Bones
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus  •  Leap Year  •  Youth in Revolt

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

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Edge of Darkness
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Thanks to his messy divorce, drunken driving and anti-Semitic rants, it’s tough to watch Mel Gibson’s movies without thinking of his off-screen foibles. On-screen, however, Gibson is still a formidable leading man in part because he’s no longer the suave, handsome charmer he used to be.

In Edge of Darkness, he plays a grim Boston detective named Tom Craven. He is a quiet, no-nonsense sort of fellow who probably scares criminals even though he’s obviously shorter than six feet.

A combat veteran and an old hand with Boston’s Finest, Tom probably looked morose before his adult daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) was gunned down only inches from where he was standing.

As he’s gotten older, Gibson’s face has become lined and haggard. His cold, blue eyes look as if they’ve already seen every corner of hell. Consequently, he’s an ideal casting choice to play a man with nothing to lose. Gibson has played revenge stories before in Ransom and Payback, but he’s never portrayed blind vengeance as convincingly as he has here.

Tormented by the guilt of being unable to defend Emma from her murderers and single-minded in his pursuit of revenge, Tom is more dangerous than he initially appears because there’s nothing worse that the bad guys can do to him. When the killers turn out to be more than ordinary thugs, they are horrified to discover that Tom is as quick-witted as he is trigger-happy.

Screenwriters William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell (Lantana), working from a 1985 British miniseries, reveal the villains and some of their motives early. Needless to say, military contractors and shady national security types are involved. As a result, Edge of Darkness feels both convoluted and obvious. When people speak to Tom evasively, it’s obvious they’re up to no good. Also, some basic details also go unexplained. For example, we never learn anything about Emma’s mother or why Tom has no family other than his daughter.

During his pursuit, Tom begins an uneasy series of meetings with a burly but enigmatic Englishman working for the CIA named Matt Jedburgh (Ray Winstone). Even with his thick cockney accent, Jedburgh is urbane, cultured and could probably take Tom out at any point if he felt like it. Thanks to Winstone’s appropriately creepy bearing, you get the sense he’s letting Tom continue his quest for motives other than mercy or righteousness.

Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro) may never be known for making anything other than action films, but to his credit, he knows how to stage fights and fills Edge of Darkness with a few potent jolts.

Monahan’s predilection toward gore and gloom show up repeatedly in Edge of Darkness. Why have two or three gruesome deaths when you can have dozens? A little subtlety might have made the ending less groan inducing.

Like his former co-star and protégé Robert Downey, Jr., Gibson may be able to get audiences to look past his personal issues and see his talent. Now that he’s no longer coasting on his looks, Gibson may have something new to offer. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 01/27/10)

When in Rome
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Most movies follow a template; When in Rome has been stenciled. The stillborn new comedy is so bound to routine conventions that it does little more than relieve viewers of the burden of thinking, or even staying awake.

Despite some decent performances and some photogenic settings, the movie isn’t all that amusing and causes more heartburn than heart warming. Despite its title, When in Rome is actually set in two great cities, so both get insulted by the new film.

Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) plays Beth, the typical leading lady in bad romantic comedies. Like Renée Zellwegger in New in Town and Amy Adams in Leap Year, she is a capable professional who is in a quandary because she can’t land a guy.

While the other characters constantly tell her she’s a good curator for the Guggenheim in New York, she doesn’t seem all that capable. She repeatedly assigns tasks to her best friend Stacy (Kate Micucci), who proceeds to bungle them before important deadlines. Thanks to plot contrivances, Beth manages to look good even in situations where both of them would probably lose their jobs in real life.

Speaking of forced storylines, Beth’s sister Joan (Alexis Dziena) abruptly announces that she’s getting married in Rome and needs her as a Maid of Honor immediately. Beth complies and almost loses her cynicism about romance when she meets a klutzy but hunky New York Daily News sports writer named Nick (Josh Duhamel).

When her sibling’s good fortune fails to rub off on her, Beth jumps into a magical fountain where Romans toss coins in the hope of attracting someone they love. She steals a few, thinking she’ll save others from future misery.

Instead, when she returns to the Big Apple, Beth finds herself being stalked by every man whose coin she stole from the fountain. Somehow all of these folks just happen to either live in New York or find bizarre ways to get there.

They include an older sausage magnate (Danny Devito), an obsessive Italian artist (Will Arnett), a narcissistic male model (Dax Shepard) and an aspiring illusionist who’s apparently stolen Chriss Angel’s hair (Jon Heder). Even Josh appears to have fallen under the spell because he’s obsessed with her, too.

Making stalking funny is a challenge, one for which director Mark Steven Johnson (the auteur who has written or helmed such cinematic treasures as Ghost Rider and the Michael Keaton flop Jack Frost) is ill prepared. Of the unwanted suitors, only Heder is remotely amusing. While the others have all been funny in the past, the script sticks them with one-note roles.

Johnson never finds the right tone for the material, even for the gags that almost work. Stacy, for example, is supposed to come off as a lovable romantic. Instead, she’s a manipulative bungler who does her friends no favors. Johnson and his collaborators also have bizarre ideas of what makes a situation potentially romantic. Eating dinner in a completely dark room seems more like a setup for weak pratfalls than a way to treat your sweetheart.

Perhaps if the filmmaker were willing to take risks or find an unusual way to approach the setup. The same magic that sends men chasing after Kristen Bell is missing from the rest of the film. Screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman think having Bell’s shoes break a heel at an in opportune moment is potential comedy gold. It might be if viewers aren’t expected to care about the heroine or if heel-related disasters hadn’t dominated New in Town or Leap Year or half of the other romantic comedies dumped on the market in recent years. It’s too bad there isn’t away to revise the First Amendment so we can get rid of dull heel jokes from all those passages about free speech.

Watching the credits for When in Rome is really disappointing because they include prominent actors, moonlighting athletes and even a musician. For the cash it took to recruit these folks and to shoot in the exotic locales, you’d think the producers could have found some material that was worth filming. Sadly, tossing coins into fountains doesn’t seem to work for screenwriting (PG-13) Rating 2 (Posted on 1/29/10)

The Tooth Fairy
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Contrary to what might be expected, The Tooth Fairy isn’t as unpleasant as a root canal. The movie still plays like a smudged carbon copy of The Santa Clause, but it’s actually better than the third installment of that kiddy trilogy.

Now that the bar has been set sufficiently low (think tooth fairy height), it’s fair to say that this rote comedy probably wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t properly cast. Former pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has actually matured into a capable leading man. In addition to his brawny physique, he has an expressive face and a wry charm that can get him through mediocre material.

He has plenty of that here.

Just in case we ever forget his roots as a jock, Johnson plays Derek “The Toothy Fairy” Thompson, a mediocre hockey player. Derek’s only not worthy trait is that he has a knack for ruining the dental work of opponents during games. Because many of these games are played in Canada, which has universal health coverage, perhaps that’s why fans seem to enjoy watching him brutalizing the other team.

Despite playing in the minor leagues, Derek manages to pay most of his bills and has managed to woo an attractive single mom named Carly (Ashley Judd). Apparently his cynically abrasive personality and lack of career prospects lead her to believe he’ll make a fine role model for her children.

Even if you do believe in fairies, this is a stretch.

Derek’s life takes an odd turn when he makes the mistake of telling Carly’s six-year-old daughter that the Tooth Fairy is a fraud. Later that evening he discovers that fairies do exist because he actually transforms into one. His back grows wings, and he’s stuck in a pink tutu.

It seems his dissing of the whole tooth fairy phenomenon has angered Lily, the supervisor of the fairies (who else but Julie Andrews), and he is now forced to turn baby teeth into cash for two weeks or until his attitude changes. If it’s the latter, he’ll be at this business for a while.

The sight of the ultra-macho Johnson wearing the tights is funny for a few minutes, but fortunately, he approaches the role with more gusto than Dwayne himself might have. As a result, it’s almost easy to go along with the idea.

He gets some help from Billy Crystal as the demented fairy quartermaster (they do need supplies) and Seth MacFarlane as a “fairy dust” pusher. Both roles are too brief, but they give viewers a hint at how the movie might come close to working.

Andrews is a welcome presence as well, but The Tooth Fairy could have used a more creative filmmaker than director Michael Lembeck, who has the dubious distinction of having directed both sequels to The Santa Clause. While he has a long and credible record with television, it would be nice if he could stretch a little bit with his movie work.

Thanks to a legion of credited screenwriters and some so-so effects, the movie never becomes more than a shallow, broken promise. It’s sort of like discovering Santa Claus’ identity.

Now that Lembeck has tarnished another dear childhood memory, perhaps he can call it a day before he desecrates our image of the Easter Bunny. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/22/10)

Crazy Heart
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, Crazy Heart is, without a doubt an actor’s movie. What exactly do I mean? Well, I mean a movie that gives an actor a character they seem destined to play, and potentially turn in an Oscar-worthy performance.

While I know nothing about the novel, it would seem that you could pretty much rename this story “A somewhat-biography of somebody who’s a lot like Kris Kristofferson.” Bridges simply nails the legend that is that man, from the gravel-filled voice to the scraggy beard, even the way he walks, and the result is absolutely mesmerizing.

Unfortunately, the rest of this movie is not. You would think that a plot about an aging country musician making one last gamble at love and redemption sounds a little like … well, like a bad country song, and you’d be right.

Bad Blake is a fading country legend (also a legendary alcoholic) who’s reduced to playing hole-in-the-wall joints and staying in an endless procession of rundown motels. A chance meeting with Jean, a younger woman journalist leads to an unlikely (and, of course, doomed) romance. As Jean, Maggie Gyllenhaal gives her all but there’s just not much chemistry between her and Bridges, no matter how hard they try. Meanwhile, Blake’s one-time protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell in a badly miss-cast role) has soared to success, and left his mentor far behind.

While enough can’t be said about Bridge’s performance, it doesn’t cover all the forced drama here. We aptly see the effects of alcoholism on Blake’s life, only to have him “cured” after apparently one AA meeting. The anger Bad feels about Sweet’s success seems odd since Farrell’s character genuinely wants to help his old teacher. The music is pretty standard country songs that have little resonance given the powerful songs Kristofferson himself wrote and performed. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 1/22/10)

Extraordinary Measures
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Almost no one wants to see sick children die so it’s easy to see why family medical dramas are a tough sell on the big screen. Often the words “based on a true story” mar the film immediately because they tell viewers that the cute, lovable tots will live to see another day, removing any suspense the movie might have had.

In the case of Extraordinary Measures, the two youngsters in question, Meagan and Patrick Crowley (Meredith Droeger and Diego Velazquez), have Pompe disease. It’s a type of muscular dystrophy that usually kills its victims before they turn nine. Until then, the children lose control of their muscles, and their internal organs become dangerously enlarged.

Because both children have already survived longer than the odds have indicated they would, their understandably worried parents John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) and Aileen Crowley (Keri Russell) contact a talented Nebraska biologist named Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford). Because conventional medicine has failed miserably to help Crowley’s family, Dr. Stonehill is the only researcher who seems to have a clue on how to treat and possibly cure the rare genetic disorder.

Because his resources at the University of Nebraska are so meager, John quits his secure, upwardly mobile job to start a biotech firm that specifically treats Pompe disease. He even moves to Nebraska from Portland to supervise the company that he’s founding with Stonehill.

As John quickly discovers, Stonehill is an exceedingly capable, hard working and principled. The scientist won’t even cash his hefty paycheck until he creates a viable commercial drug.

He’s also a nightmare to work with. For one thing, he’s never worked in commercial drug development. Some of his theories would result in medicines that wouldn’t be profitable to make. Stonehill is also so uncompromising that he berates anyone who disturbs his quirky working methods. If you don’t like listening to Joe Walsh or the Band played at ear-splitting volumes, sharing an office with him won’t be pleasant. Ford relishes the chance to play a character with more personality and dynamics than Indiana Jones or Han Solo have offered.

Whenever Ford takes a break from being brusque and rude, Extraordinary Measures becomes a stale, bland offering that would seem more at home as a Lifetime Original than a theatrical release. Ford’s crankiness gives the film the only energy it has. His character is a composite for some of the real scientists who worked on the project. Curiously, he’s also the only real or interesting person in the film. Director Tom Vaughan (What Happens in Vegas) and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (Chocolat) don’t come up with anything that would separate Extraordinary Measures from its small screen counterparts.

Perhaps the most telling deficiency of the film is that its not nearly as engaging as a short video that’s included on the movie’s web site where the real John Crowley recounts his quest to save his children. While Fraser makes a valiant effort, it’s not nearly as moving to watch him reenacting Crowley’s story as it is to watch the real man holding back a tear as he recalls what motivated him to risk his career to keep his kids alive.

Crowley and the scientist he collaborated with went to astonishing lengths so that his children and others wouldn’t have to die from a terrible condition. If the film about their efforts had been made with the same love and determination, perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so mundane. Emotionally, the new film would have been better titled, “Routine Tasks.” (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 01/22/10)

A Single Man
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In its own way, Tom Ford’s debut movie A Single Man is as immersive as Avatar, even if it’s not in 3D and lacks blue-skinned aliens.

Working from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Ford makes viewers dive head first into one man’s grief and despair but also manages to make a film that is vibrant and engaging because of its sadness.

Ford came to prominence and earned a king’s ransom as a fashion designer for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. Because Ford is an old hand at arranging fashion and magazine cover photographs, it’s a given that he’ll be able to make a visually striking film.

A Single Man is loaded with rich colors and striking compositions, but Ford often cleverly subverts the glossiness of a fashion shoot. The actors are sometimes photographed in unflattering angles, and frequently the hair on a person’s arms or legs is readily visible.

The imagery that Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau create might have been for naught if Ford hadn’t cast a remarkably empathetic actor as the lead. Colin Firth has a rare gift for making his characters’ issues our own. As George Falconer, a gay college profession in 1962 California, Firth effortlessly conveys a torment that George himself is unable to share.

The winter before the film begins, Jim (Matthew Goode, Leap Year), the man George has loved and lived with for nearly 16 years, dies instantly in a car accident. To say that George is inconsolable is an understatement.

Jim lived with a confidence that George has always lacked and can’t find now that Jim is gone. If the loss in itself weren’t bad enough, George can’t even talk about what’s devouring him because people just didn’t come out of the closet in 1962. Because his relationship was forbidden, George is not even invited to Jim’s funeral.

In addition to his unbearable anguish, George senses the world isn’t worth staying in. Updates about the Cuban Missile Crisis blare over the radios, and the energy he sees coming from his students only gives him a sense of entropy instead of hope.

Throughout the day, George follows a meticulous plan to end his life in a manner that’s as tidy as his apartment. As he quickly discovers, suicide is tougher than he anticipates. A student of his (Nicholas Hoult, About a Boy) is asking some bizarre and intrusive questions, and his longtime friend Charley (Julianne Moore) wants him over for dinner. Charley has issues of her own. Age hasn’t been kind to her, and a tough divorce makes her long the unreceptive George.

If the storyline of A Simple Man is simple, Ford’s remarkably assured writing and direction and Firth’s astonishingly subtle performance make the film seem unusually brisk for such a morose tale. While Ford’s sensual images make life seem more precious as the film progresses, Firth makes viewers care enough about George to wish that he’d change his mind.

The supporting cast is also terrific. The accents are so capably pulled off that it’s hard to believe that the British Firth is the only lead using his own voice. Goode and Hoult are both Englishmen playing Yanks, and Moore is one of the few Americans who can pass for someone across the pond.

But what’s most amazing about A Single Man is that Ford can take viewers inside the agony of a man who can’t express it and yet somehow leaves viewers wanting more. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 01/15/10)

The Book of Eli
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

At first it would seem a little odd that a big-budget action flick staring Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman would end up getting dumped in the no-man’s land of the film season…until, unfortunately, you see it.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world where most memories of the past world have been forgotten, a wander named Eli (Washington) roams the wasteland offing road warrior rejects with a really big knife. Eli carries with him a single book that he guards religiously. After running into a town ruled by the evil Carnegie (Oldman), one of the few people left who can read, Eli finds himself on the run with Solara (Mila Kunis) as Carnegie and his minions chase after them and the elusive book.

While this might sound like a good action film plot, the strangest thing here is that the word is already out and with it, a possible embrace from the Christian community. THE BOOK is a copy of the King James Bible — the last one —and as the film ends, Eli becomes a Christ-like figure, sacrificing all to save sacred knowledge.

The Book of Eli almost certainly could be the first Christian-themed movie to have cannibals in it. All jokes aside, the basic flaw here is so blindingly obvious, so off-the-mark that it makes the book seem more like an important item in a video game than the word of God.

It’s not the physical possession of the bible that controls faith: We know humans had forms of religion before we had written words. So if they didn’t have a book with all their beliefs to carry around, how did they pass it on from generation to generation? Well, I’m no scientist, but I’m betting that they told each other what those beliefs were. The sheer idea that you have to hold a book in order to understand its knowledge is just dumb. Why don’t they just read the book?

Well, part of the answer might be that the writer, Gary Whitta, is indeed primarily a writer for video games, but most likely it just gives the bad guys a reason to keep chasing Eli and letting him kill them off a few at a time.

There’s also something so standard about the survivor compound ruled by Oldman, as if they decided that the main sign of the apocalypse is just lots and lots of dust. C’mom people: You say it’s thirty years later and nobody can use a broom? Also, how come the survivors know what shampoo is, but have no idea who Jesus was, or what a cross stands for?

Really, the only thing watchable here is Denzel, whose performance as Eli is as riveting…as it is sad to be wasted in such a stupid film. (R)Rating: 2 (Posted 01/15/10)

Broken Embraces
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Known for his heavy use of symbolic imagery and complex character interactions, famed Spanish director Perdro Alomdovar’s latest film is no exception. Even his own personal…well, maybe not muse, but certainly favorite actor, Penelope Cruz, is the center of desire here as she is in many of his scripts. The result is a sometimes dynamic, sometimes soap opera-ish tale of a romantic trio gone wrong during the making of a film that is destined to ruin them all.

Harry Caine is a blind scriptwriter with a strange past. Fifteen years ago his name was Mateo Blanco, a promising director who losses his sight and the love of his life in a suspicious car accident (bet whoever was driving that car will be a big plot point later).

As the story unfolds (told in flashbacks to his assistant’s son, Diego), we realize that Lena (Cruz), his lover and the star of his film was also the mistress/wife (not sure there) of Ernesto, the producer, a rich, abusive, and possessive man (and a possible suspect in the accident, right?). After the crash, Ernesto re-cuts the film, putting in the worst of the filmed scenes, essentially ruining both Mateo, the movie and driving him into seclusion.

While the film tries to build on the mystery behind these past events, it does seem at times like Pedro is a little more in love with his alter-ego filmmaker on the screen than the audience might be. Lluis Homar as Mateo/Harry tries his best to portray a blind man, but he does so without the standard dark glasses, which seems to make his face rather expressionless. Cruz, as always, gives a virtuoso performance as Lena, but her vulnerability is somewhat ineffective because she frankly comes up as a gold-digger of sorts.

When Harry relates the final events of the night of the accident, he’s finally given the chance to fix his movie with the original footage, and metaphorically reunited with his true identity (and we find out who was in the car, right?).

The photography here is lush and elegant, a signature of Pedro’s auteur abilities, as is the use of the “film within a film” concept. But the addition of several other sub-plots here does push it into a tepid melodrama (we’re not gonna find out who was in the car, are we?).

While this all makes for a somewhat uneven movie, it is compelling at times, which, in a way, is Pedro’s style. As for who was in the car? Your guess is as good as mine. (R)Rating: 3 (Posted 01/15/10)

The Lovely Bones
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

With The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson took dense fantasy novels and turned them into three terrific films. Since walking away with a trio of Oscars and a king’s ransom for his labors, the director has lost none of his ambition and creativity. Because he’s willing to wrestle with challenging material, it’s easy to forgive him if he doesn’t create additional masterpieces every time he steps behind the camera.

Alice Sebold’s best selling novel The Lovely Bones is certainly not an easy fit for a cinematic adaptation. That’s primarily because its 14-year-old central character Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) is dead for most of the story.

Her murderer is her quiet but creepy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Because he keeps to himself and rarely talks with anyone else, only the deceased Susie knows that there’s a long trail of blood following him.

In a state of limbo that seems imagined by a teenage girl, Susie looks down at how her Pennsylvania community reacts to her passing. Her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) is driving himself mad trying to chase down leads that end up going nowhere, and her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) becomes withdrawn with grief.

Because she’s no longer among the living, Susie can’t directly comfort her surviving family or bring George to justice. As a result, the metaphysical issues in the film are confused. Jackson’s depiction of the afterlife is also garbled even if it makes for stunning eye candy. Susie’s interpretation of her dad angrily trashing the ships in bottles he’s spent hours assembling is worthy of René Magritte. The score by electronic musical wizard Brian Eno (who has spent his recent career producing U2) fits the 1970s setting perfectly and is an appropriate accompaniment to Susie’s post-mortem environment.

The Lovely Bones has jarring shifts in tone, making it feel as if it were two or three different films cut and pasted together. When Susan Sarandon appears as Susie’s alcoholic, chain-smoking grandmother, the film becomes darkly amusing, but her booze-soaked stumbling seems out of character with the rest of the movie. It might be interesting to learn how Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens collaborate on their scripts because this film, more than its predecessors, actually feels like the work of three people instead of one.

Jackson fares better when he treats the film as a thriller. When major characters are stuck in dangerous situations, Jackson knows how to maximize the chills with precise editing and a sense of when he’s played his hand.

He’s also thankfully retained his skill with actors. Ronan manages to be both unaffected and oddly ethereal. With her enlarged blue eyes and flowing hair, she seems right at home in Jackson’s CGI afterlife. Jackson has been criticized for not making Susie’s death more gruesome and upsetting, but Ronan is so captivating in the role, it’s impossible not to feel sorrow and anger at her senseless death. The gore that Jackson reveled in with Dead Alive is needless here.

Tucci also finds some fresh angles on playing a serial killer. He instills George with lots of quirks like hiding behinds his glasses and his messy hair. But he keeps the mannerisms from dominating the performance. While Tucci manages to find some depth to George, he never asks viewers to sympathize with the creep. As a result, George is endlessly fascinating to watch even as we’re waiting for his ruin.

Perhaps, The Lovely Bones might have worked better if Jackson had kept some of his computer-generated toys at home. Nonetheless, there’s something oddly refreshing about a filmmaker who tries too hard to wow his audience instead of one who doesn’t try at all (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 01/15/10)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

It’s hard to believe that the lone American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus — who started out creating bizarre and twisted animation shorts to bridge the jump between skits— would go on to become the writer/director of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Terry Gilliam’s rise from animated potty humor to one of the most visually creative and impassioned filmmakers today is easy to follow (or maddening, if you’re not a fan), and much like Stanley Kubrick, each movie he makes has a long and meticulous pedigree.

Much like The Baron of Munchausen (the last film Gilliam wrote), the Imaginarium is as smart as it is breathtaking, with characters that often make us squirm in our seats as they dance between good and evil. In Terry’s world fantasy and reality can exist within each other quite well, thank you, and his latest creation is no different…except for the rather remarkable fact that it got finished at all.

The sudden death of Heath Ledger halfway through principal shooting would seem to have left the production with a terrible choice: use CGI or other effects to try and create the unfinished scenes or just scrap the whole thing and start over, essentially throwing away the last performance of a well-respected actor.

However, since Gilliam is both writer and director, he was able to rewrite certain as-yet un-filmed scenes (namely those where Leger’s character Tony enters the Doctor’s fantasy world), with three other actors, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrel, who volunteered to finish Heath’s role (they’re also donating any profits they make to Matilda Ledger, Heath’s young daughter).

The result is truly a triumph, not just that in it got made, but that such a drastic re-write actually works to the benefit of the film.

The plot centers on a bargain Parnassus made with the devil (here called “Mr. Nick”) to gain immortality, with a simple price: any child the Doctor has becomes the property of the devil when they turn sixteen. After centuries of developing the ability to allow people to physically enter his own wild imagination, Parnassus suddenly, unexpectedly has a daughter Valentina. In an effort to thwart the bargain, a new bet is made: the first of the two to “get” five souls before the other wins.

Together with Valentina (played by the luminous Lily Cole) their assistant Anton and a gruff dwarf named Percy, the group travel through England in a huge wagon that serves as both home and stage for their “show.” They fail to get any new customers until the strange discovery of Tony, whom they find hanging from a noose under a bridge. At first he seems a boon, but as his identity is slowly revealed, it becomes clear that he may be, indeed, worse than the devil.

All praise to Ledger aside, it’s really the chemistry between Parnassus and the devil that works the best here. Christopher Plummer’s performance as Parnassus is so exact, so believable it shows that once again he is one of the most underrated actors on the screen, and as for the devil…well, he’s played with loving innocence by Tom Waits, and if your gonna pick somebody to be the devil, he’s a damn good choice.

The visuals, as per any Gilliam film, are whimsical, stunning, exhilarating and frightening, often at the same time. Sure, there’s some plot holes here: the devil gains souls by apparently blowing people up, while Parnassus gets one each time somebody goes through his imagination, after which they come back on stage in a big swing, laughing wildly. Does that mean they lost their soul? Even the devil seems more sad than evil, and only interested in keeping the game going rather than winning.

As flawed as this film might be, one gets the feeling that this is what Gilliam really wanted from it, and after all, that’s really the power of imagination. (PG-13)Rating: 4 (Posted 01/08/10)

Leap Year
Reviewed Dan Lybarger

Throughout the centuries, the Irish have exceeded their quota of misery. They’ve been occupied by outsiders, weathered the Potato Famine and tolerated annoying jokes about Lucky Charms cereal. This adversity has made them tough people, so they’ll probably recover from the irritatingly unimaginative romantic comedy Leap Year.

I won’t.

While it’s guaranteed that a lot of people worked very had on this film, there’s slothfulness to the script that permeates the entire film. Leap Year has been pasted together with a “maybe the audience won’t notice” attitude.

When actors stand in front of a dramatic Emerald Isle landscape, even the most nearsighted of viewers can spot matte lines, indicating that the thespians have been reciting their banal lines in a studio, far from where the scenery was actually photographed.

It probably wouldn’t be that easy to notice technical glitches like these if the characters didn’t seem to be polluting Ireland’s lush hillsides with their unpleasant personalities. Amy Adams, who was downright endearing as a cartoon damsel stuck in the real world in Enchanted, plays Anna, a young woman whose relationship anxieties make her a pain for anyone else to deal with.

Perhaps it would be easier to tolerate her excessive concerns if her beau were a genuine catch. Jeremy (Adam Scott) is a cardiologist, but his financial prowess is negated by his annoying habit of showing Anna cell phone pictures of surgeries.

This witlessly conceived character trait doesn’t merely telegraph to viewers that Anna will probably not be walking down the isle with her insensitive beau; it posts a billboard, launches a web site and just plain advertises what will happen next. Screenwriters Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, the minds behind such similarly condescending drivel as Made of Honor and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, are apparently unable to figure out how to convey the information subtly or, worse, assume that we aren’t that bright.

Because Jeremy has been splurging on earrings instead of jewelry for her fingers, Anna figures she needs to take drastic (or possibly irrational) action. He’s heading to Dublin for a conference, so she decides to follow him unannounced so that she can take advantage of a tradition that some Irish people might not know (or care) about. It seems that on a Leap Day, women can propose to the men in their lives.

Of course, there’s no law that says such behavior is verboten here in the States, so the trip and the tradition are both unnecessary. And chances are if Jeremy has cold feet he won’t be swayed by being pursued by a stalker.

Even good movies defy logic, so Anna’s quixotic venture must continue. When she makes it to Ireland, she winds up not in Dublin, but in a rural seaside village and thanks to some overly convenient plot twists, she recruits a cynical pub owner named Declan (Englishman Matthew Goode, The Watchmen) to drive her to the capital city.

The two aren’t remotely compatible. Anna is a Martha Stewart-like control freak, while Declan is an indebted slob. Thanks to Hollywood psychology, they’re destined to be together. The sense of déjà vu is exacerbated by the fact that Adams spends most of the film wearing a pair of expensive 10-inch heels that don’t go well with the terrain. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble if she had bothered to watch Renée Zellweger stumbling her way through Minnesota ice in New in Town.

The clichés would have been easier to tolerate if Anna and Declan were at least likable or interesting or if they believably matured into better people. None of that happens in Leap Year. Anna is the personification of an Ugly American. She rudely demands that others alter their already occupied lives so that she can make it to Dublin, assuming that their needs are subordinate to her possible engagement.

Adams and Goode share a lot of screen time but no chemistry. After a while it becomes hard to sympathize with someone who has material security but wastes considerable time and energy on a foolish venture. When many folks are looking for work, these actions seem more profligate than romantic. In addition, how can Anna make so much money working in real estate when the housing market is so depressed? Perhaps the script was picked off a shelf after it had been resting in deserved obscurity for years or even decades.

Considering that Ireland has given us such talented filmmakers as Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and such gifted actors as Daniel Day-Lewis, it is safe to say the nation won’t be sullied with the stain that is Leap Year for long. The only way to improve Leap Year would be to extend the footage of the rolling hills and to digitally remove all the obnoxious outsiders who wandered along them. (PG) Rating: 1 (Posted on 01/08/10)

Youth in Revolt
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Thanks to movies like Superbad and Juno, Michael Cera has made a career playing likeably harmless young men. With Youth in Revolt, however, Cera proves that he can also do more than capitalize on his boyish face.

By teaming with director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl), Cera proves he can play icy and destructive characters just as easily as he can play mensches. In Youth in Revolt, he portrays a quietly seething high-schooler named Nick Twisp, who has an understandable animosity toward adults.

His mother (Jean Smart) has divorced his father (Steve Buscemi) and hooked up with an amoral slob named Jerry (an amusingly typecast Zach Galifianakis). Nick’s semi-stepfather has a tendency to sell faulty things to be people and acts surprised when they return wanting his head.

Nick doesn’t get along with his fellow teens, either. Most find his interest in classic foreign films and Frank Sinatra records to be hopelessly dweeby. When he finds a young woman named Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) who actually relates to him and has an appealing fascination with all things French. Before he can get closer to her physically or emotionally, Sheeni’s parents (M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place) send her off to a French-language boarding school so Nick can’t see her.

Because her parents are pious Christians, Sheeni has an attraction to men she considers bad. To win her over, Nick starts following the advice of an imaginary altar ego named Francois Dillinger (Cera, sporting a moustache). While Nick may argue loudly with Francois, he follows the other’s psychopathic advice to the letter.

As a result, Nick starts a crime spree that is intended to bring Sheeni back. But in the process of winning her heart and keeping her from her current boyfriend Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright), Nick engages in acts that could actually hurt Sheeni in order to bring her into his own arms.

Arteta has specialized in making movies about people who do foolish and even dangerous things to prove their love. Chuck & Buck, for example, deals with a gay stalker whose single-minded pursuit of an un-reciprocating man he once loved becomes as poignant as it unsettling.

What makes Nick’s pursuit of Sheeni as funny as it is disturbing is that Arteta and screenwriter Gustin Nash (adapting C.D. Payne’s novel) don’t make Francois into an invisible villain. While Nick might be arguing with Francois in his head, the other characters always make eye contact with Nick himself. He’s less a voice on Nick’s shoulder and more of an embodiment of the pent up rage that’s been building up in him since childhood.

Cera not only succeeds in being convincing in both roles, but he demonstrates a dark side he’s never had to portray before. In many ways, Nick gets away with his appalling behavior because his cherubic features hide how cynical and mean he can become.

Nick’s astonishingly bad demeanor is clearly explained, but it might have been even more entertaining to learn how some of the other people in his world became as wretched as he is. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Saunders’ fanatical Christianity is mentioned but only cursorily explored. Having a clearer picture of their faith might have made Sheeni’s actions make more sense and would have certainly produced more stomach-churning laughter.

That said, Arteta does give a terrific supporting cast plenty to do even if their individual roles might be brief. Fred Willard is typically funny as a former ‘60s radical whose desire to shake up the system ignores current realities.

Arteta also incorporates animated sequences that skillfully reflect Nick’s deeply unbalanced mind. Even before he goes off the deep end, Nick is a dreamer with a repressed libido, so it’s not much of a stretch to see cartoon versions of himself getting into trouble.

The director isn’t afraid to alienate viewers by candidly depicting Nick’s repressed sexuality or his growing contempt for everyone else around him. Arteta manages to keep Nick from becoming completely repellent by making him just enough of a romantic to make viewers hope he can wise up in a way that none of the adults in his world seem able to do.

The ending for Youth in Revolt seems a little pat, but Arteta and his cohorts deserve credit for exploring how funny it can be to admit that life can get disgusting. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 01/08/10)

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

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