movie reviews February 2011

Waste Land  •  Hall Pass  •  Cedar Rapids  •  Somewhere  •  Unknown  •  I Am Number Four
Gnomeo & Juliet  •  The Eagle  •  Just Go With It  •  The Company Men  •  The Illusionist

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

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Waste Land
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If I told you that Jardim Gramacho, or Gramacho Garden was a place in Rio De Janeiro where you can find the best in people and images of remarkable beauty arise, there’s a chance that you’d probably want to book a flight to Brazil immediately. Jardim Gramacho is actually the world’s largest landfill, and it’s scheduled to be closed next year. Rio’s poorest residents live in slums nearby, and the drug trade has made the place dangerous to live. From the air, it looks as horrid as you might imagine, but my first sentence is not a lie.

Directors Lucy Walker, Karen Harley and João Jardim may have captured the ultimate example of making lemonade out of lemons, but Waste Land won’t rot your teeth or ruin your waistline. The film follows the successful Brazilian artist-photographer Vik Muniz as he tries to give something back to his native land.

Muniz grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Sao Paolo and vividly describes how his life almost ended when he was shot in the leg as he was trying to stop a fight. Using the compensation he received, he flew to New York and started a unique type of photographic work where he combines photographs with materials like sugar and peanut butter.

Muniz is obviously grateful for his good fortune and comes off as sincere in wanting to help the people who make their living pruning the recyclables from the refuse at Jardim Gramacho. He actually meets them as they’re working and gets to know them. While Muniz comes off as pleasant, articulate and earnest, Walker and company stay away from him for a while and get to know the catadores or garbage pickers as people.

While their work is dangerous and unpleasant, many are happy to make an honest living instead of turning to crime. Many of them have lost jobs, and one woman has understandably been unable to get over the loss of her three-year-old son and the abandonment of her husband.

Despite the misfortunes the catadores have suffered, Walker and company never view them with condescension. These folks are highly resourceful and have even formed an effective association to represent themselves like a union. Two of them, Tiaõ, the Association's president, and Zumbi are voracious readers despite their limited educations. Digging through books that have been left in the garbage, the two have understood Machiavelli’s The Prince more effectively than many professional politicians.

In a move that’s both shrewd and humane, Muniz works with the catadores as collaborators instead of mere subjects. They help him assemble the art from materials the recyclers don’t want and share the proceeds to help the Association provide education and other services for its members. While the catadores are happy to be making a living, some understandably want more from their lives. With this project, getting away from Jardim Gramacho becomes more than a vague hope. As for the artwork, it’s well crafted and worth a considerable sum.

Because Waste Land focuses more on the people than on the grim surroundings, it’s easy to look past their difficulties and to share their dreams. These people are tough, but their hearts can be broken. Muniz and his associates even have a fierce debate about whether exposing the garbage pickers to the art world and returning them to the slums might crush them. As you can expect, these folks are much stronger than they appear.

Waste Land is uplifting but unsentimental. The droning score by Moby manages to capture the bleakness and joy of the area without being oppressive. The film doesn’t sugarcoat how rough the conditions at the landfill are (one worker recalls breaking each of his limbs), so when the catadores do succeed, their victories seem even sweeter. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 02/25/11)

Hall Pass
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

No faulting sibling writer-directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly for vulgarity. That’s like condemning Jean Luc Godard for being French. With movies like Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary, they’ve perfected bodily function humor into a ballet-like discipline. Their movies have been funny because they found ways to gross out viewers without resorting to typical gags involving flatulence or urine. Even if they did fall back on those old standbys, they somehow managed to amuse us with emissions that we never knew existed or worked in ways we couldn’t anticipate.

The element of surprise that dominated their earlier films is long gone with Hall Pass as are the wit and likable characters that made the sophomoric gags easier to tolerate. Saddled with a sitcom premise, the Farrellys latest wallow in filth is more fulsome than fun.

Owen Wilson and Kansas City’s own Jason Sudeikis star as Rick and Fred a couple of salesmen who have developed a crippling 15 year itch. While both are betrothed to attractive, loving but frustrated wives named Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate), the two overgrown adolescents have wandering eyes and rose colored memories of their days as young swingers. Rick and Fred can’t stop scoping out a 20-something barista (Nicky Whelan), and Fred even resorts to masturbating in the family sedan because his libido isn’t sated in his marital bed. The fact that he parks the car in front of the house doesn’t stop him.

When Rick and Fred make buffoons of themselves on hidden camera, their wives give them a one-week hiatus or “hall pass” from their marriage. Essentially, the two are invited to woo and potentially seduce other women. This isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. Both have pronounced middle-age spreads and haven’t developed the skills to sew their wild oats. They don’t even know where to find receptive females (news flash: Applebee’s might be a wrong turn). In the meantime, Maggie and Grace find that plenty of men would be eager for a night with them.

The main deficiency with Hall Pass is that Maggie and Grace would be less likely to give their men hall passes than pink slips. We’re not talking the undergarments here.

It’s not just that they’re boorish. These two fellows behave so selfishly, it would be difficult to forgive their recklessness.

In There’s Something about Mary, Ben Stiller’s innocent, if stalkerish, behavior was leavened by hilariously repellent performances from Matt Dillon and Chris Elliott. These folks were adequate proof that Cameron Diaz could do worse. Rick and Fred’s rivals, however, seem like an improvement.

Another troubling defect is that the secretion gags that highlight a typical Farrelly Brothers simply aren’t up to their amusingly low standard. Much of the fun of their previous movies is that gags came from unexpected places. Who knew how gross tooth flossing could be until Kingpin? This time around the churlishness seems obligatory instead of organic. As a result, Hall Pass gets dull between bowel movements and ejaculations.

Perhaps the Farrellys need a break from filmmaking until they can find ways to make discharges funny again. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 02/23/2011)


Cedar Rapids
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Miguel Arteta is a wonderful filmmaker and a potentially terrible dinner companion. In his movies such as Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and Youth in Revolt, Arteta has radar for the sordid underside of ordinary life. Perhaps only he could make a bawdy, unsettling and occasionally vibrant comedy set in an insurance agents convention in Iowa.

Arteta manages to get away with this conceit because his protagonist, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), is the polar opposite of his surroundings. He hails from Brown Valley, WI, a town he’s never left in all of his 30-something years. Nonetheless, he’s living his dream. By selling for BrownStar Insurance, he imagines himself as a hero who helps people rebuild their lives after disasters. With his earnest demeanor and genuine desire to help, perhaps he is.

Even in Brown Valley, all is not as it seems. Tim’s only character flaw appears to be his long-term affair with his former science teacher Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), whom he still calls Ms. Vanderhei. Perhaps that’s why she’s not eager to commit even though Tim wants to cement his relationship with his youthful crush.

He’s also in for a rude shock when BrownStar’s top salesman dies in an oddly sordid manner just before the annual convention. Tim, who has never been on a plane in his life, has to fly to Cedar Rapids in order to represent the firm in a competition to earn a coveted award.

Cedar Rapids may seem like a small burg to us in KC, but it’s bigger than any place Tim has ever lived. His garden-variety motel is like the Four Seasons to the wide-eyed innocent. It takes him a long time to figure out that a woman smoking outside the building is a hooker and meeting his hotel mate Ron (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is traumatic for the rube. Apparently, meeting an African-American is a new thing for Tim.

He also discovered that even simulated rock climbs can induce vertigo and that his peers don’t share his enthusiasm for saving his customers’ lives and property.

Tim’s boss back home (Stephen Root) warns him to up hold the Association’s strict Christian ethics, but Tim gradually discovers that others at the convention don’t. Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) is openly hostile to the Association’s emphasis on faith and does everything in his power to upset the organization’s uptight president (Kurtwood Smith). Tim also becomes friends with a married agent (Anne Heche, in a welcome return to form) who views the convention as a temporary escape from her humdrum years of matrimony.

Thanks to Helms’ convincing earnestness and the consistent sympathy that Arteta and screenwriter Philip Johnson devote to Tim, the character’s fumbles are funny without being condescending. The jokes involving debauchery and bodily functions wouldn’t work if Tim were a mere object of ridicule. You get the feeling that Arteta and Johnson wish there were more Tim Lippes out there looking after the interests of their clients. Tim may not be the fastest thinker on the block, but he appears to belie the old maxim about how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. For him, they seem to lead him both into and out of disaster.

An added bonus is Reilly’s wonderfully acerbic turn as Dean and Whitlock’s understated performance as Ron. The two have complementary personalities that are amusingly volatile.

The satire of religious hypocrisy gets a little heavy handed. Arteta’s potshots at sanctimony were more carefully targeted in The Good Girl and Youth in Revolt. Considering how Arteta’s eye for detail with the setting is so sharp, it’s a shame he couldn’t have approached faith in the workplace issues with a little more subtlety.

Nonetheless, the sight of Helms in a poolside orgy is worth the price of admission or maybe the premium on an insurance policy. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 02/18/2011)


Somewhere
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As she did with Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola manages to make characters that have all the material things they want and still make them sympathetic. She’s also got a knack for making mesmerizing films about boredom and loneliness.

Her latest isolated subject is a commercially successful but internally empty actor named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Johnny has enough cash to stay in deluxe hotel suites and fill his time with Guitar Hero or driving his loud sports car quickly, but aimlessly. If he’s really down in the dumps, he can hire twin pole dancers with supernatural agility for a personal performance.

When he breaks his wrist in a fall, the injury barely breaks his cycle of attending hotel parties and mechanically participating in press events. He has a string of handlers (some of whom aren’t even on screen) and shows up from gig to gig the way a salesman might deal with clients.

Dorff looks suitably tormented and lonely without seeming like a spoiled crybaby. Coppola waits almost 45 minutes of Somewhere’s 97-minute running time before going into the thin plot. This is actually a shrewd move on her part. We never get to see if Johnny is a good actor, but we slowly discover that much of his work is unpleasant and even miserable. It might be more luxurious than say, coal mining, but there are annoyances that could compete with black lung disease. He has few genuine friends, and the work seems more soul crushing than glamorous.

Like someone who might get to know a person like Johnny in real life, we only gradually learn that he has an 11-year-old daughter named Cleo (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s equally talented sister). While Johnny is fond of his offspring, he’s seen her so little that he doesn’t even know that she’s an ice skater or his match in a Guitar Hero duel.

His absentee fatherhood ends abruptly. His ex-wife decides to take a mental health break with no deadline, so Johnny has to take her on press junkets and take on the responsibility he’s previously avoided. He’s both elated and terrified of being a parent, and Cleo has little idea what to make of her mother’s abandonment. Johnny also discovers that long dormant emotions are coming to the surface, and he’s not sure he wants them there.

Thanks to a pair of solid leads, Coppola manages to get more out of the story that might be discernable from a plot outline. Her quirky visual style keeps long, static shots of mundane events from getting dull. It’s one thing to explore a character’s boredom. It’s another to force an audience to share it.

Somewhere won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival last year, and while some complained that jury president Quentin Tarantino handed the award to Coppola simply because she’s his ex-girlfriend, the film does have a resonance and a willingness to leave key questions unanswered. It’s intriguing to try to fill in the blanks that Coppola leaves. Is Johnny going to be more of a hands-on father or will the emptiness of his life prevent him from fulfilling his love and duties for Cleo? Coppola figures we can determine that better than she can.

I tried to watch Somewhere twice. During my first viewing, I quit early after making the mistake of waiting for something earth shattering to happen. Sometimes the strongest emotions come when the earth stays put. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 02/18/2011)


Unknown

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Unknown is a movie about memory loss that succeeds a little too well at getting the audience into the head of its bewildered protagonist. Little of the film makes any impression in part because it wanders in the path of better movies. Borrowing heavily from The Bourne Trilogy, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Memento and a host of other amnesia flicks, the only memorable traits for the new film are its Berlin setting and the gap it leaves in the viewer’s wallet.

Liam Neeson and January Jones play Martin and Liz Harris, an American couple in the German city for a biotech conference. Before Martin can present his research, his cab driver Gina (Diane Kruger) winds up sending him to the hospital in a horrific wreck. After four days in the hospital, he wakes up with no identification, a limited grasp of German and a troubling change in his circumstances. Liz no longer recognizes him, and a different man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his persona so flawlessly that Martin can’t reestablish his identity to save his life.

Before Martin can decide if he has lost his mind or his identity, he starts to notice that almost nobody around him is telling him the truth. Even a fellow with memory loss notices when people contradict themselves and individuals who should have nothing to do with each other are fraternizing.

About the only person who leaves much of an impression is German-Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (Downfall), who gives a droll performance as a former Stasi agent turned private eye named Herr Jürgen. Ganz seems aware that Unknown never builds the gravitas or the tension necessary for a good thriller, so Jürgen’s longing for “the good-old days” seems to mirror the thespian’s hunger for another great role. At least he milks this one for all that it is worth.

Neeson and the rest of the cast play things straight, which is a misjudgment in a storyline as convoluted as the one etched out by novelist Didier Van Cauwelaert and screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell. While the initial setup is derivative but intriguing, the payoff is consistently lacking because no one involved with Unknown can think of anything new to do with the trope or can remember what worked better in previous amnesia movies.

Producer Joel Silver from the Lethal Weapon and Matrix movies is behind this, and it shows. When the story is in danger of reaching a satisfying plot point, car chases and explosions come out of nowhere or are foreshadowed so obviously that they’re not shocking when they happen. Former music video director Juame Collet-Serra’s previous movies were the Paris Hilton House of Wax and Orphan. It’s safe to say that he hasn’t learned much since those previous offerings. He can stage action competently, but his attempts at suspense are giggle inducing. Without a sense of irony, the script’s implausibility (like where did Martin get so much pocket money if his wallet and passport are missing?) seems glaringly obvious.

After I got out of Unknown, I wound up with one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages. That’s not a good sign if you’ve just seen a thriller. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 02/18/11)


I Am Number Four
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Producer Michael Bay (Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) should have told his team of writers — all five of them — to go with number one. Sure, it would have messed with the story by Pittacus Lore — his novel is the basis of the film I Am Number Four — but maybe we could have gotten a better movie. Admittedly, centering on number four has a little of that underdog feel to it but when you’re dealing with teenagers, don’t most of them carry the weight of an underdog? And in this movie, being number four just adds to it.

Alex Pettyfer is John, having escaped the planet Lorien with his protector, Henri (Timothy Olyphant). The pair is on the move, changing locales and names. The Mogadorians are after them, going down the list of Lorien saviors in descending order so to wipe out the race forever, the remaining number apparently hiding out on Earth. One through three have been killed, John is number four.

In Paradise, OH, John settles in to yet another town and another high school. As with most scripts centered on teens in high school, the stereotypes abound. There’s the bully and his crew. Badass Mark (Jake Abel) is (what else) the school’s star football player. He’s all the more agitated because his former main squeeze Sarah (Dianna Agron), now a soul-searching amateur photographer, has taken an interest in the new kid, John. Filling in as sidekick to John is Sam, another outsider and brunt of sadistic pranks by Mark. Sam (Callan McAuliffe) has a mean step-dad, his real father having been — Sam believes — abducted by aliens.

As John begins to fall for Sarah, defies Henri by wanting to stay in Paradise and pushes back against Mark, his powers begin to emerge. Let’s just say, anything Superman can do, John can do … though he’s still in the learning stage being a teen and all. Meanwhile, the Mogadorians, pulling along a something or other big, bad, huge, monster-type animal, are hot on his trail, setting the stage for the big showdown — where else, but at the town’s high school.

As the battle begins, John can’t seem to hold his own against the trench-coat-wearing Mogadorians but then who shows up? Number 6, a hot blond (what else?) played by Teresa Palmer. She kicks butt, saves John’s hide and proves that together they are stronger. It figures — four and six makes ten.

After victory is secured, Sarah seems a little mystified, Mark appears to be getting another shot at her and numbers four and six, with sidekick Sam and a monster dog/pet/guardian ride off together to find other numbers, setting us all up for a sequel.

If you’re a 12-year-old middle-schooler, I am Number Four rocks with its CGI and attractive cast. For more discriminating filmgoers, consider it a comedy. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 02/18/11)


Gnomeo & Juliet
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

(Please forgive the following indulgence; it was out of my control.)

It’s a little bit funny,
this feeling on screen,
when Elton John songs
are used in scenes.

It worked great
in Moulin Rouge!
But Gnomeo & Juliet makes him
Look like a stooge.

An animated reworking of the Shakespeare play, Gnomeo & Juliet re-imagines the feud in Verona as if it were between ceramic garden gnomes in British lawns instead of allegedly noble families. Visually, the film starts out intriguingly because the texture artists actually manage to make the characters look as if they are fired clay come to life. When one of them takes a leap, it looks as if the individual might shatter after landing.

The title characters fall for each other despite the fact that Gnomeo (James McAvoy) lives with his blue-garbed family on one lawn and Juliet (Emily Blunt) and her clan all dress in red. In Romeo and Juliet, the rivalries ended in duels. In the cartoon, they lead to lawnmower races.

Of course, none of this activity happens when humans can see it. The new film borrows that trope from Toy Story, but the idea isn’t executed with the same finesse. Even with the Bard’s framework intact, the tale never really kicks into gear. The toddlers at my screening were fidgeting in their seats as much as I was.

Gnomeo and Juliet has been floating around for about 11 years, so several potentially entertaining ideas are introduced and then abandoned without much explanation. There are nine credited screenwriters, including director Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2), and that probably didn’t help establish any kind of narrative order.

Another reason it’s hard to care if the two groups of gnomes can stop their fighting and let the two young lovers live their lives in peace is that Sir Elton John’s songs feel as if they’ve been shoehorned into the tale. Hearing the melody from “Rocket Man” playing whenever Gnomeo does something heroic quickly gets distracting. John and his husband David Furnish are both credited as producers, so Captain Fantastic's footprint quickly gets overbearing.

When a line or two from one of his 1970’s hits starts playing, it’s hard not to want to hum along and think of Bernie Taupin’s original lyrics instead of the slightly altered ones in the film. These songs were intended to be heard on their own, and simply don’t blend into the film as a whole.

Taupin and John have written a couple of new tunes, but they don’t fit the action either. When John teamed up with Tim Rice for The Lion King, the songs like “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” were both catchy and integral to the story. Taupin, who is no slouch of a wordsmith, still hasn’t figured out how to write lyrics that fit into a broader tale.

Maybe if the characters sang the tunes themselves, it might have worked. Hearing John and Lady Gaga wailing as the lovers meet seems a bit out of place. On second thought, maybe we could do without having to hear a great actor like Sir Michael Caine, who plays Juliet’s dad, sully his reputation with atonal vocalizing.

Caine isn’t the only A-lister roped into the film. Dame Maggie Smith is Gnomeo’s mom, Ozzy Osbourne is typecast as an oblivious plastic deer and Dolly Parton’s familiar drawl can be heard in one brief sequence. On the plus side, Patrick Stewart is a riot as Shakespeare himself. Fittingly, he’s a bronze statue that comes to life whenever people aren’t in a park.

Perhaps it’s a testament to John and Taupin’s skills as tunesmiths that their songs can easily drown out a substandard storyline. And I think it’s going to be a long, long time before someone is going to taint them in an unworthy movie. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/4/11)

The Eagle
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In attempting to create an earnest yet entertaining film for young people, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) has made a preachy, overly simplistic anti-imperialism morality tale that is laughable in its fetishizing of “exotic” and “savage” peoples. The Eagle's script is credited to Jeremy Brock, but could just as well pass as one of Rushmore's Max Fischer's magnum opus, and starring Channing Tatum as the most talented actor on the high school stage.

Two decades after his father led the 5,000 troops of the Roman Ninth Legion to certain death at the hands of the wild tribes in Caledonia (modern-day Scotland) and lost its treasured metallic mascot, beefy Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) takes command of a remote outpost near Hadrian's Wall, intent on restoring his father's reputation and finding The Eagle. In his first skirmish with the longhaired, cult-like Druids, the hunky warrior successfully defends the fortress but is severely wounded and sent south to recuperate at the seaside Italian villa of his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland).

Recuperated enough to attend the small, local gladiator exhibition, Marcus shows mercy to a Briton slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), who refuses to fight to save his life. Uncle Aquila then buys Esca and gifts him to Marcus, to whom Esca pledges his utmost loyalty but never his friendship. Esca then escorts Marcus north of the wall in his continued search for the great Roman symbol. There, the two happen upon Guern (Mark Strong), a deserter from the Ninth who has assimilated into a local tribe and, along with other deserters, assists Marcus in his final battle for The Eagle against the savage Brigantes tribe or “seal people.”

Clearly, Marcus is supposed to represent a heroic figure at a time when his empire is crumbling. He obsesses over valiant behavior and dreads shaming himself, even under the influence of unanesthetized surgery. In general, the Romans in the film are schlubs. First, they speak in Yankee accents, worry about latrines, and are really, really scared of the Briton tribes. Yet, as Marcus, Tatum is unemotive and often slow on the uptake. His delivery is stilted and amateurish.

Then, there are the tribes. Wild and savage, they dress in leather bondage strips, sculpt their hair into dreadlocked mohawks, and cover their bodies in white clay. Or they form a more organized cult and follow someone who resembles Charles Manson, complete with dead, crazy eyes. They send their children out to fight and kill them when they fail to exhibit loyalty. They brag about eating human flesh. They partake of hallucinogenic drinks and go to Burning Man. Their homeland provides beautiful scenery, though. And Esca seems to be a different breed altogether, although he somehow knows their languages.

The lone bright point, Donald Sutherland as Marcus' uncle is his usual chipper, enlightened self. Sitting Marcus down in the bleachers at the Coliseum-like games, the uncle exclaims, “Fun!” Whether this is to explain to idiot Marcus what the activity is to convey or just an exclamation is hard to tell, but it's good to see at least one person enjoying himself at this film. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 02/11/11)


Just Go With It
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s easy to get leery of movies set in places like Hawaii or the Bahamas. One can wonder if the stars agreed to do the film simply to land a tropical getaway at the expense of the production. This appears to be the sole reason Just Go With It was made. From seeing the finished result, it’s difficult to think of another.

A loose remake of the French play and the 1969 American movie Cactus Flower, Just Go With It stars Adam Sandler as Danny, a plastic surgeon who has a unique method for making sure his one-night stands never make it to another evening.

After discovering his fiancé has been cheating on him the night before his wedding, he stumbles on to the fact that women will dive head first into bed with him if he claims to be in a miserably dysfunctional marriage. Even though he’s never tied the knot, his previously unnecessary wedding ring becomes the perfect lure for an incalculable amount of sympathy sex.

This is the first of several issues that keep the story from working. With his short stature and egg-shaped head, Sandler would probably not be a babe magnet if he weren’t a successful comedian. Even if he’s angling for pity, his wooing doesn’t seem all that romantic.

Like most confirmed bachelors in films, Danny changes his tune when he meets a comely schoolteacher, 20 years his junior, named Palmer (Brooklyn Decker). His plans for an honest and lasting union are dashed when she discovers his wedding ring. Palmer is a child of divorce and doesn’t want to relive her mother’s abandonment, so Danny frantically scrambles to find a woman to double as his soon-to-be ex-wife. Apparently, the truth, that he’s a commitment shy guy who uses the ring from a marriage that ended before the altar, is a little too implausible.

Danny changing his tune might have been plausible if someone like Goldie Hawn, who projects a vivid and appealing personality, had played Palmer. She actually won an Oscar for playing a similar role in Cactus Flower. Decker, a model with a flourishing career, won’t have to worry about being confused with a full-time actress. When she shares the screen with Jennifer Aniston (as Danny’s secretary Katherine) and Nicole Kidman (as Katherine’s longtime enemy Devlin), her limited chops become even more obvious.

Even if Decker were a budding Meryl Streep, the new script by Allan Loeb (the genius behind such cinematic swill as The Dilemma and The Switch) and Timothy Dowling gives Palmer very little definition. It’s also hard to believe that someone who can get through medical school isn’t smart enough to figure out that basing a relationship on a lie is going to end well.

Despite that annoying fact, director Dennis Dugan, who seems to have helmed half of Sandler’s oeuvre, expects us to believe that Danny will learn to become a better person by pretending that Katherine and her offspring from a failed marriage are his own wife and kids. In more able hands, this dubious setup might work. Dugan, however, is an astonishingly lazy filmmaker with an irritating sadistic streak. On three occasions, male characters in Just Go With It receive injuries to their crotches, and in one sequence, Danny slams a girl into the ground. This bullying behavior isn’t the sort of thing that makes for great fathers.

Dugan doesn’t even have the chops to stage physical comedy properly. During a dance scene, it’s annoyingly easy to tell when Dugan switches from an actress to a double, as a result the scene isn’t as funny as it could have been. There are also moldy gags involving closeted gays that might have worked had Dugan let viewers figure out what was happening instead of practically advertising his points.

Sandler, despite the mediocrity of much of his film work, is a terrific comic actor, but his overreliance on mediocre directors like Dugan and marginally talented costars like Nick Swardson have blunted his formidable potential.

I hope that Sandler, Swardson and Dugan enjoyed their vacation. It’s too bad that paying audiences had to subsidize it. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 02/11/11)

The Company Men
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Notwithstanding his success at luring successful movie actors to the small screen, writer/director John Wells (ER, The West Wing), in his first feature, transforms a peach of a cast and crew into a fruit roll-up — flat, dry and artificially sweet. The Company Men plays on the audience's sympathy for its unsympathetic characters merely because they face ordinary circumstances.

International transportation conglomerate GTX has been hit hard by the recession, and its shareholders are out for blood. Rumors and stress abound when proverbial hatchet-wielding Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) visits the shipbuilding arm in Boston. Having survived previous rounds of layoffs, salesmen Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) and consultant Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) attempt to leverage their personal relationships with VP Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who built the shipbuilding company from scratch with partner James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), now CEO of the entire company, to keep their jobs. But shipbuilding not being what it used to be, McClary carries no clout, and Salinger gives the go-ahead for axing all three men.

Faced with losing a very comfortable livelihood, the three men react in very different ways. Walker eventually tucks his MBA between his legs and takes a job hanging drywall with his brother-in-law, Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner). McClary, disgusted with his wife's conspicuous consumerism, moves in with his mistress, Wilcox, and begins plans to single-handedly revive the American shipbuilding industry and hire back his former employees. Woodward, without advanced degrees and having worked in only one industry his entire life, realizes the futility of the job search in this economy and kills himself. Perhaps the film should have been re-titled No Company for Old Men.

Despite its Oscar-winning cast members and talented crew, such as cinematographer Roger Deakins, Wells can't shake his small-screen tropes. He divides the storylines into three distinct narratives, only mixing them up again at the very end, the way television pilot episodes do for a season run. In addition, individual scenes are too polished, cut from beginning to end to convey message and character, as if making way for commercial interruption.

The characters, also, are too familiar, based as they are on stereotype, such a blue-collar Dolan. And Wells' choice to focus on Walker, who seems entirely too rigid and lacks innovation for his age, is confounding. Played for laughs, his cynicism at the group exercises at the job center is unsurprising and unearned. If that scene had been given to the older Woodward, it would have been a serious and forceful scene. As it is, these characters, all played by able actors, remain static and unbroken when the film had ample opportunity to get to the very bottom of their souls. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 02/06/11)


The Illusionist
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

While most of America’s main-stream animated films depend on simple plots packed with as many pop-culture gags and references as can be crammed in there, French animation is far more … well, French.

Director Sylvain Chomet is a master at presenting common, simple characters that stubbornly (and comically) defy the actions of a hostile world, as he did so well in The Triplets of Belleville. The Illusionist (adapted from an original screenplay by the exceptional writer Jacques Tati) is much in the same vein, although the villain here is time rather than kidnappers.

On the surface, this is about as minimalist a story as you can: The titular Illusionist is one of the last of his breed, struggling in smaller and smaller theaters as a new age of “rock stars” draws the audiences away. But underneath lies … not much more at all, really. There is a kind of subplot with a young girl, Alice, who leaves her tiny village to “travel” with this much older man. Oh, their relationship is innocent enough: He buys her clothes, and shoes, despite struggling to pay for his own things, and after he runs out of money she promptly leaves him for a young man with more money. Nice, huh?

Aside from the questionable character of Alice though, there’s very little else that happens here, and I for one am thankful for that. This is that perfect style of animation that simply lets you sit back and enjoy what is obviously a labor of love. No effects, CGI or 3D here, thank you, just glorious artwork that, at times, almost needs no plot at all. Weather the Illusionist is in the Scottish countryside or the backstreets of London, every scene is filled with light and motion, and often a subtle, gentle humor at our poor protagonist’s expense.

I do have a few problems with this film, quibbles though they might be. Although there is almost no dialog, what is said here is in French, and trust me when I say that a rudimentary memory of French 101 doesn’t help very much. I ended up feeling like I missed some bits of information that might have helped me follow the narrative better. The ending itself (there is a short scene after the credits end, by the way) is as maudlin as you can get, but after some thought, I’m glad they kept it that way: a sudden happy ending would just clash with the tone of the rest of the film, and that just wouldn’t be very French, now would it? (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 02/04/11)

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Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.


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