movie reviews February 2012

Act of ValorWaNDERLUST The Secret world of ArriettyThis Means War PinaJourney 2: The Mysterious IslandSafe HouseThe Vow ChronicleThe Woman in Black

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

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Act of Valor
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Mike “Mouse” Mc-Coy and Scott Waugh are two former stunt men known as the Bandito Brothers who have come up with a novel approach to fiction filmmaking. In preparing to make an action movie that celebrated the achievements of Navy SEAL (sea, air, land) teams, they noticed that after talking with the sailors that getting an actor to convincingly replicate their exploits would be prohibitively difficult.

It takes years of training and practice to pull off saving hostages from Somali pirates or other feats, so why not eliminate the middleman and simply have the SEALs play themselves. As a result, the Bandito Brothers’ new movie Act of Valor is a mixed blessing. Combining the SEALs expertise in butt kicking with the Brothers’ own skill at making staged action look both spectacular and convincing results in jaw-dropping mayhem and gripping raid sequences.

Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) pieces together a serviceable, if muddy storyline, from events that occurred in real SEAL missions. Think of Act of Valor as a “Greatest Hits” from SEAL exploits. Basically, an amoral Russian drug kingpin (Alex Veadov) and a sadistic Chechen terrorist (Jason Cottle) are in cahoots to attack American interests in a variety of places. The main plot is a tad convoluted, but the individual missions are rousing.

Individual sequences would make great short films, and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, who deserves to be known as more than the recipient of Christian Bale’s fury on the set of Terminator Salvation, uses a variety of small digital cameras, to follow the SEALs and their antagonists in some of the most unlikely places.

In one sequence, a vehicle races through the downtown of third world capital as if it were competing in the Indy 500. During some of the raids and rescues, it’s easy to see whom the good guys and bad guys are despite low light. Despite the moving cameras and quick pace, Act of Valor avoids the shaky cam affects, and the Bandito Brothers thankfully remember that viewers want to see the action not needless experimentation.

While the explosions, shootouts and gunplay belie Act of Valor’s meager budget, don’t expect Sam Worthington or other action heroes to apply for unemployment just yet. Because the SEALs depicted in Act of Valor are still active duty sailors, they aren’t billed under their full names. If some want to go into acting full time, this will give them time to develop their chops before viewers learn their names.

By attempting to make the SEALs more than serious butt-kickers, Johnstad saddles them with dialogue that appears to be lifted from a cliché dictionary. That’s a shame because statements of loyalty to each other are not bromides or platitudes to soldiers or sailors. These folks depend on having each other’s backs and often remain close after their active duty years. Good thespians can occasionally recite lines like these and make them sincere. It’s understandable that the SEALs have a little trouble.

The bad guys and a CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) are played by seasoned professional actors, and the “impostors” are more believable during the scenes where the performers take breaks between gunshots. That said, a SEAL billed as “Senior Chief” is terrific, especially during a realistically nail-biting sequence where he interrogates a villain. You get the feeling this fellow has probably grilled a few bad guys and that he could probably scare the toughest of thugs.

One thing that should be noted: “Senior Chief” obtains vital information without water boarding or other forms of torture. Because this guy is a SEAL, no one would call this guy a wimp or soft on terror. Nonetheless, he’s out to get usable information, and suspects under duress frequently make up things simply to stop the torture. Jack Bauer’s techniques in 24 probably wouldn’t do much good in real life.

If reciting dialogue should be left to the professionals, Act of Valor is promising in that it demonstrates that combat expertise and good filmmaking can be more cost effective than CGIs. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 02/24/12)

 

Wanderlust

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

 

Written by veterans of MTV's The State David Wain and Ken Marino, Wanderlust indulges in the absurdity and caricature of sketch comedy, yet the film also exhibits maturity in its embrace of honesty through satire and sweetness in character. Wain, who also directed, gives his stellar cast the freedom to play outcasts and oddballs without losing the plot or the beliefs that it supports.

 

 

After George's (Paul Rudd) office is shut down by the Feds and HBO declines to pick up Linda's (Jennifer Aniston) documentary, the couple drives away from their mortgage on a West Village “micro-loft.” They intend to stay with George's vulgar brother, Rick, and his bored and drunk “real housewife,” Marissa (Michaela Watkins), while they look for new jobs. But blowhard Rick's boasting about his wealth and possessions hurts George's pride, and he can't stop thinking about the adventure he and Linda had during their stay at the hippie-run bed-and-breakfast, Elysium, the night before, which causes him to change their plans.

 

George convinces Linda to return to Elysium, and the two are welcomed by dreadlocked spiritualist Seth (Justin Theroux), blond yogi Eva (Malin Akerman), nudist novelist Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio), bitter feminist Karen (Kathryn Hahn), mother figure Kathy (Kerry Kenney), and commune founder Carvin (Alan Alda), who appears to be suffering from dementia. The couple decides to give “intentional community” living a two-week trial and subject themselves to no privacy, farm labor, and honesty rituals that involve hallucinogenic tea. Not surprisingly, dilettante Linda adjusts to the new lifestyle quickly and easily, whereas George struggles and fears he may lose his wife to Seth. Meanwhile, casino developers threaten to steal Elysium's land if Carvin can't remember where he put the deed to the property.

 

With its reunion of so many members of The State and Rudd and Aniston headlining, Wanderlust may inspire intense feelings of nostalgia for the '90s. But before you break out the flannel shirts, baby doll dresses and chunky black shoes, know that this film is firmly anchored in current times. The satire surrounding mortgages, McMansions and job opportunities is thick but sharp. (Linda's patchwork resume includes almost all recent fads, including an “occasional cafe.” I'm sure it served cupcakes.) However, as George, Rudd is back to the '90s-era combination of cynicism and haplessness that made him so appealing. It's a delight to see Aniston in her element and get to have fun being ridiculous, but even better to watch Rudd fumble and flounder.

 

Plus, the desperation of unemployment and the confusion of technology and other trappings of the modern world are what make Elysium so appealing to the two, who in most other circumstances would have walked away from the place. Luckily, Wain carefully handles the commune scenes. The talented cast of characters, including Lauren Ambrose as the smug, pregnant half of an interracial couple, plays to the stereotypes but then also go a step further. They react to one another and exhibit a realistic humanity, even in the most ridiculous situations. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 02/24/12)

 

The Secret World of Arrietty
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you’ve ever wondered why a sugar cube or a pin has disappeared or why there’s a strange rustling on the floor that couldn’t be from a mouse or insect, it could be that your home has Borrowers living in it.

British author Mary Norton’s, "The Borrowers," is a tale of miniature people who secretly take our possessions when we aren’t looking. It’s been adapted a fair number of times, but the Oscar-winning Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli manages to make the oft told story feel fresh and original.

Pairing Norton with Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) is a marriage made in heaven. Both specialize in fanciful characters and settings, so it’s a wonder Miyazaki and the rest of his crew haven’t tackled the story before.

As with most Miyazaki movies, the title character is an intrepid, if rather tiny, teenage girl (voiced by Bridgit Mendler, Wizards of Waverly Place) who’s eager to join her dad Pod (Will Arnett) on his quests to provide essentials for her and her worrywart mother Homily (a delightful Amy Poehler).

The family matriarch may be naturally nervous, but her fears are rational. Borrowers are only a few inches tall and could easily be eaten by cats or stepped on by oblivious humans. To keep out of danger, the borrowers take only what they need to survive and do everything possible to avoid being seen.

Unfortunately, the family cat and an observant but sickly boy named Shawn (David Henrie) spot her outside. Despite the obstacles, Shawn, who’s in the country to relax before heart surgery gradually becomes friends with the feisty Arrietty. While Shawn can keep a secret, the housekeeper at the country house Hara (Carol Burnett) would love to capture Arrietty and her family and turn them and other Borrowers into zoo attractions.

Much of the joy of Miyazaki’s previous movies has come from the fact that the writer-designer-animator-director is a workaholic perfectionist. At 71, he’s pushed himself rather hard, so it’s not surprising that he’s only credited with writing The Secret World of Arrietty. Thankfully, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has easily met Miyazaki’s exacting standards.

The movie is consistently breathtaking to look at. Those who think that 2D animation is passé probably haven’t seen anything Miyazaki or Yonebayashi have made. The animation and the backgrounds are more than beautiful. Take a good look at the scale of the Borrower’s home, and you’ll see a lot of care and effort went into it. There are also a lot of multiple shots where viewers can get a sense of perspective even without those annoying 3D glasses.

While Yonebayahi’s images are expectedly dazzling, it’s the characters that make the story work. One refreshing aspect of Miyazaki’s animated world is that his protagonists grow and change. Arrietty gradually learns the difference between courage and recklessness, and the cat turns out to be more complicated than he seems initially.

If you’ve never seen any Studio Ghibli films before, The Secret World of Arrietty is a terrific introduction to one of the finest legacies in the cinematic world. Miyazaki has been called “The Walt Disney of Japan,” and the comparison is an insult to both men. Since the company that bears Uncle Walt’s name is distributing Miyazaki’s work, why not simply acknowledge that both men have made great movies. (G) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 02/17/12)

 

This Means War

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

               

This Means War might be fun for those who don’t think too hard. The movie is at its most enjoyable, however, if you look away from the screen and have some really good songs playing on your iPod, .mp3 player or radio.

 

               

Actually watching This Means War is certainly not traumatic as enduring combat, but it’s certainly not entertaining. It’s as if the filmmakers had declared hostility toward ticket buyers and tried to make a romantic action comedy with no heart, poorly staged mayhem and no laughs to speak of.

               

Despite featuring some talented, attractive leads and a generous budget, This Means War proves that money has limitations when the material and the direction are lacking. A typical plot summary isn’t necessary because the script credited to Timothy Dowling (the far superior George Lucas in Love) and Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is so thin and underdeveloped that it should never have been filmed.

               

What there is of a plot involves a romantic triangle with two CIA agents named Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine), and a product tester named Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). Don’t bother asking what the character’s last names are or attempting to determine their personalities. Tuck and FDR appear to be the same person in different bodies, and only Hardy’s British accent helps make the distinction clear. At least with Mr. and Mrs. Smith there was a discernible chemistry between Pitt and Jolie.

 

No such luck here.

 

Comic Chelsea Handler gets considerable screen time as Lauren’s randy best friend. Unfortunately, all of her wisecracks fall flat. At least, she saves the viewers from having to deal with the storyline for a few seconds.

               

Director McG, the mind behind the Charlie’s Angels movies and Terminator: Salvation, has a gift for taking all the joy out of action. For a car chase to work, viewers need to feel as if they’re in the car with the heroes, hoping the driver’s foot is heavy enough to outpace the bad guys.

 

McG must suffer from severe ADD and appears determined to inculcate his malady into everyone watching his movies. Right before gunplay, punches or speeding cars become close to generating excitement, McG cuts away to something less interesting. It’s as if he were trying to do with cinema what William S. Burroughs used to do with writing by literally cutting and pasting unrelated passages together. This approach doesn’t work with action movies.

               

Once upon a time, McG helmed the far more watchable We Are Marshall, but he apparently thinks only prestige movies need a coherent story and interesting characters. This Means War is permeated with a sense that everyone involved signed their contracts before discovering the disaster that awaited them. In the battle to save viewers from boredom, it’s obvious that these folks have surrendered. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 02/17/12)

 

Pina
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, The American Friend, Buena Vista Social Club) wanted to make a movie with dancer-choreographer Pina Bausch, but she died of cancer in 2009 shortly before the project was supposed to start.

 

 

The Oscar-nominated (Best Documentary) film that Wenders eventually made about his fellow German and her dance company has instead become probably the best possible tribute to her spirit and her work. If like me, you can’t tell a pirouette from Pier One, Pina is a terrific introduction to her contributions to dance.

 

For balletomanes, Wenders comes up with several ingenious ways to make the performances uniquely cinematic, pulling off some clever editing tricks that result in dance sequences that are impossible to set up on stage. Pina has delights that simply can’t be seen outside of a multiplex.

 

Oh, and I should mention that the movie is in 3D. Before you start imagining the eyestrain and the discomfort of wearing the glasses (as well as the higher ticket price), Wenders and cinematographer Hélène Louvart go to great lengths to use perspective in a way that highlights what the dancers are doing. By being able to seem them close up, it’s easier to see how small gestures and shrugs can affect the entire performance.

 

The film includes segments from Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), Café Müller, Vollmond and Kontakthof. In all Bausch’s distinctive approach comes through.

 

Part of the reason Wenders wanted to film Pina in 3D is because Bausch’s dances depended on atmospheric elements. For Le Sacre du printemps, Bausch had her performers practically wallow in dirt. That makes sense because the entire ballet deals with primitive rituals. In other segments the dancers frolic in pools of water and splash each other as their performing.

 

Bausch’s best-known work is the unsettling Café Müller, where the performers practically toss their peers into each other’s arms. At times, the performers risk certain injury because they have to remain passive for minutes as they flop around, trusting that their partners will catch them.

 

Throughout Pina, Wenders includes testimony from the dancers who are part of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. It quickly becomes obvious that Wenders wasn’t the only one enamored with her. Many of these dancers had been with her for decades, and several came from around the world to join her. In some cases, the children of other dancers wound up joining their parents in the company.

 

In a touch reminiscent of Wings of Desire, the members’ voices can be heard while their faces remain motionless. If any doubts about the loyalty of the dancers to their master remain, Wenders eliminates them by including 2D footage of Bausch performing in Café Müller. The dancer who plays her role in the film imitates Bausch with eerie precision.

 

Bausch’s dancers recall how she encouraged them to embrace a sort of craziness, and thankfully this has rubbed off on Wenders. In addition to studio set pieces, he sometimes has the dancers performing in public parks or near busy intersections. In one delightful sequence, a pair of dancers admires a miniature of the set and then observes how tiny people inside are starting to dance.

 

Bausch may be gone, but her approach to dance appears to have been designed to flaunt convention and to find new ways to approach her art. Wenders is following in her wandering footsteps. As a result, both dance and film are better off. (PG) Rating: 5 (Posted on 02/10/12)

 

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Ostensibly a sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is that most unique of sequels where only one character from the first movie is back, and neither the screenwriters or the director felt like returning either. The only things that have stayed the same are the 3D computer effects, the studio and a loose affiliation with the writings of Jules Verne.

This might have been a good thing. The new cast is capable, and occasionally screenwriters Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, and director Brad Peyton come up with just enough imaginative content to keep Journey 2 from slipping into complete tedium.

In this installment, a construction company owner named Hank (Dwayne Johnson) is having trouble relating to his teen stepson Sean (Josh Hutcherson, the only returning performer). The lad is obsessed with finding his long missing grandfather Alexander Anderson (Sir Michael Caine), even though the old man hasn’t been heard from in years.

Actually, that’s not correct. Sean has been monitoring some strange coded broadcasts. Thanks to Hank’s previous service as a Navy decoder, the two discovers that the old man is apparently alive and well on the island Verne described in The Mysterious Island. They also quickly learn that the uncharted isle wasn’t a fictional locale and that Jonathan Swift and Robert Louis Stevenson were both telling the truth in Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island.

Naturally, the two have to find the old adventurer and his exotic new home near Palau. The only tour guides who are willing to take them to their destination are a scrappy helicopter pilot named Gabato (Luis Guzmán) and his feisty daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens). Or course, like the characters in the book, they get stuck on an island full of small creature who are big in the outside world and big ones that are small in the outside world. Not many islands have elephants the size of mastiffs.

Much of what follows is routine, but every now and there, there’s something cool like the pygmy elephants.

The first movie benefitted from coming out at a time when 3D was considered a novelty. The new film enters a glutted marketplace, and uses the 3D to primarily make objects fly into viewers’ faces. The results are generally effective but not terribly creative. That said, seeing Johnson demonstrate a unique activity he can pull off with his chest muscles is a little unusual.

Caine will be happy to tell you that many of his previous movies are junk. In his autobiography, he freely admits the only reason he agreed to perform in Jaws: The Revenge was to get money to purchase a house. To this day, he hasn’t endured the film.

That said, he appears to be so happy to be a working actor that he imbues even potentially mediocre material with full bore gusto. When he agreed to play Scrooge opposite the Muppets, he elevated the film by treating his cloth co-stars as flesh and blood ones. As a result, the film became infinitely more entertaining, even if the story has been recycled repeatedly.

In Journey 2, he and Johnson have some great verbal sparring, and he projects just enough enthusiasm so he really looks like he’s piloting a bee like a glider. If he and the others looked bored, it would be easy to return their displeasure.

The journey to Journey 2 isn’t all that breathtaking, but it occasionally beats staying at home. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 02/10/12)

 

Safe House
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

There’s little that’s more fun than watching the handsome, charismatic Denzel Washington get in touch with his inner cad. With his resonant voice and confident manner, he projects a “smartest man in the room quality” that makes him an intimidating villain. With a quick, condescending glance he can reduce the burliest of thugs into whimpering puppies.

While Washington is the top billed star in Safe House, he’s actually the secondary lead. That’s a shame because it’s more fun watching him outwit his antagonists than it is to watch leading man Ryan Reynolds racing to keep up with the quick-witted Washington.

Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a CIA safe housekeeper. While the responsibility is formidable, the job is excruciatingly dull. On the distant chance that a threat to US security occurs in Cape Town, South Africa, it’s his job to have a secure facility ready for interrogators. For the longest time, he’s felt lonelier than a Maytag repairman.

That changes when the infamous traitor Tobin Frost (Washington) unexpectedly turns himself in at the US Consulate. Since the late ‘80s, Frost has been selling secrets to the highest bidder and using the manipulation skills he learned to make Communists defect against his former country.

Needless to say, the Agency wants Frost badly. When an interrogation team shows up ready to grill the rogue agent, a group of gunmen storm the facility. Weston and Frost have to flee for their lives, and Weston’s bosses (Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson) at Langley aren’t much help. Because ambushes at safe houses are so rare, the three begin to wonder if Frost has used his mental magic and has persuaded Weston to join him.

Screenwriter David Guggenheim and director Daniel Espinosa would have certainly done well if they’d have given the gifted Washington a chance to get in a psychological duel with Reynolds. Much of the fun in Training Day happened as Washington slowly but skillfully drew Ethan Hawke into his character’s sick view of the world.

Reynolds is a capable performer, but his Weston isn’t terribly dynamic. In Training Day, there was a real danger that Hawke’s rookie detective would become as depraved and cynical as Washington. In Safe House, Weston’s ethical dilemmas are not compelling or complicated. They’re the espionage version of a “white people problem.”

Instead, Guggenheim and Espinosa must have decided that mind games weren’t as enjoyable as fisticuffs and blurry, poorly edited car chases. As someone who loves a good explosion twice as much as the next moviegoer, I don’t mind a good vehicle pursuit. The problem is the car chases here seem less like adventures and more like acts of desperation. Mental face offs require well-crafted dialogue, and toward the beginning of the second act, nobody here seems eager to get in touch with their own feelings or anybody else’s.

You don’t need to be a trained CIA analyst to see the big plot twists coming, and when they do arrive, shock doesn’t follow. Thrillers aren’t thrilling if you can match wits with CIA professionals and beat them. All the property destruction and fatalities that ensue seem for naught because no real surprises emerge.

Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs jolted viewers when it came out in 1992 because many thought that they had seen a horrifically violent movie. Freeze frame it on DVD, and you’ll discover that all of the graphic violence is off screen, and the number of assaults in the entire film can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The reason Reservoir Dogs still puts knots in a viewer’s stomach is because the characters are well developed. Whether we like them or not, it’s easy to care if they come out alive. With Safe House, it’s hard to get worked up about the proceedings, just as it’s hard to care much about the repairman if the Maytag appliance is working properly. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 02/10/12)

 

The Vow
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

Like a lot of movies, particularly the ones that dominate the cable channel Lifetime, The Vow is based on a true story. Sadly, true stories aren’t all that enjoyable if we can’t quite believe them.

 

 

Actually, the basic idea behind The Vow is touching. Imagine the challenge and possibly the horror of having to learn how to love your spouse or sweetheart after he or she has lost all memory of you.

 

That’s what happens to the unbelievably attractive Paige and Leo (Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum). Their blissful Bohemian existence comes to a halt when Paige goes flying through their windshield during a traffic accident. While both of their perfectly sculpted bods emerge with only minor scars and scrapes, Paige, thanks to a brain injury, has no memory of her nearly half decade of courtship and marital bliss with Leo.

 

While their doctor (Wendy Crewson) recommends that Paige return to the couple’s modest but improbably spacious home in Chicago’s north side, her smug, well-off parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) want to take care of her themselves. For two people who haven’t seen their daughter in years, they’re eager to be the caring parents they weren’t when Paige’s memory was working properly.

 

All of this leads to predictable complications that have arisen in similar films of this ilk. The problem is that all of them are so neat and telegraphed that the story never really comes to life.

 

The predictable class conflicts, while they could easily occur in the real world, seem strangely convenient. It’s only a matter of time before Paige’s dad reveals what a cad he really is, and when the secret gets out, it’s almost as shocking as learning that William Shatner’s hair might not be genuine. Money does change everything, but this film might have worked better if it had simply stuck to the real issue. All of this plays like a soap opera, and not a good one.

 

What could have made The Vow worthy of its inspiration would be examining the actually challenges that would accompany losing whole years of one’s memory. Characters in The Vow briefly discuss difficulty with medical expenses or how not remembering the streets in one’s own neighborhood could be a problem.

 

The movie would be a lot more powerful if viewers could experience these challenges with the characters. Nobody wants to be dumped by a loved one so watching what the real couple in question might have done would probably be a lot more interesting than watching McAdams and Tatum making goo-goo eyes at each other and prance around in their undies. Instead of having the two deliver bawdy wisecracks that don’t work, it would be easier to sympathize with the couple if we could see how they kept together despite the lost years.

 

It’s almost tempting to wonder if the film might have worked better if Oscar-nominees Paul Giamatti and Melissa McCarthy had replaced McAdams and Tatum. Casting performers who don’t look like Greek deities might seem counterintuitive, but having more realistically proportioned performers would instantly improve the rest of the film’s credibility. When a still photo of the real couple flashes on the screen, they are far from homely, but they don’t have the hopelessly photogenic builds of the stars.  

 

Memory loss can lead to tragedy, so it is remarkable and inspiring that the real couple can have a love that conquers a potentially crushing setback. Instead of looking at the situation this way, the filmmakers have instead decided that memory loss is a great excuse for an issue-of-the-week movie without all those icky medical issues. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 02/10/12)

 

Chronicle

Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

 

Writer Max Landis asks an interesting question in his first major film script: If you gave a small group of people actual super-powers, what would they do with them? In the comics, of course, they put on some colored spandex and go out to bravely save people in peril and fight crime. Landis, however, presents a different scenario in Chronicle, one where teen angst and embarrassing party-fouls are more of a driving force than a need to fight for right.

 

 

Since this is told in the "found footage" style, a k a Paranormal Activity or Cloverfield, we start with Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a geeky, introverted high-school loner setting up his new video camera, presumably bought to film his abusive, drunken father's daily beatings. As he films his world, one thing quickly becomes clear about Andrew: his life really, really sucks. Drug dealers on his street beat him up. Other kids at school beat him up. Girls don't like him, and even his only apparent friend, his cousin Matt (Alex Russel) struggles to get Andrew to "act normal".

 

Oh, and Andrew's mother is lying bedridden at home on a ventilator, dying from some unspecified illness.

 

The real story starts when Matt takes Andrew to a "rave" at some old warehouse. Naturally, Andrew gets ignored until he and Matt, along with the popular and good-looking Steve (Michael B. Jordan), find a strange hole in the ground out back. As Andrew films the three go deeper until they find a strange green crystal pulsing with energy. A sudden flash drives them stumbling out, apparently unhurt ... but not unchanged.

 

Quickly, the trio learns a startling fact: They have all begun to have the power to move objects with their thoughts. They start off slow, throwing weird curve balls at each other, levitating small objects, flipping up girl's skirts, etc. But soon, as their telepathic power grows, they're flying around playing tag football at 30,000 feet (with predictable dangers) and moving parked cars around for fun. It's all excitement and jokes between the three, with Steve even encouraging Andrew to use his ability to wow the crowd at a talent show ... until one day Andrew gets a little miffed with a tail-gaiter, and does something about it with near fatal results. Matt tries to instill some basic rules, but Andrew becomes increasingly erratic, fighting first with Steve and Matt, and finally going full-blown villain in an effort to get money for his mom's needed medication. In the end it's a showdown between Matt and Andrew in a superman-like slugfest through downtown Seattle (the Space-Needle does not fare well).

 

While the acting here is better than par, there are more than a few problems with this film, mostly concerning the ridiculously 2-dimensional abusive dad (whom after getting whipped by the super-powered Andrew promptly forgets that happened and goes right back to abusing his son), the dying mom and cookie-cutter bullies. Is it really necessary to make Andrew's life THIS bad? In one little scene with a spider we learn about Andrew's violent tendencies, somewhat voiding the first third of the film. Also, while the three do talk about using their powers to help others, they never even try and Andrew's actions — as he looses it at the end — makes little sense. Some of the effects don't look that great, and several plot holes rear their head.

 

All in all, though, I enjoyed the simple, basic premise, and what the filmmakers did with it. Don't expect to get any super-powers out of this film, but at least it is more of a hero than a villain. (PG 13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 02/03/12)

 

The Woman in Black
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Having played Harry Potter for the last 11 years, it’s understandable if Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t find another role that’s as iconic. It’s also hard to fault him for playing it safe with his first post-Potter movie.

The Woman in Black features some of the same gothic atmosphere that ran through Radcliffe’s earlier movies. Again, Radcliffe is playing a sort of haunted everyman, but this time he’s not casting any spells in his own defense.

He plays Arthur Kipps, a struggling London attorney who’s never come to terms with the death of his wife (Sophie Stuckey). When his four-year-old son Joseph draws pictures of Arthur, he’s always frowning.

Actually, Arthur has more to grieve than his late wife. His law firm demands that he visit a remote seaside village to organize the paperwork of the late residents of Eel Marsh House. The local solicitor Mr. Jerome (Tim McMullan) has been less than forthcoming with the necessary documents. The firm is eager to set up a quick sale, and the only way to close the deal properly is to get the papers that are still in the once stately mansion.

It’s not a plum assignment. Arthur has little choice but to comply because his job depends on it. Before you can ask who would want to live in a place called “Eel Marsh House,” Arthur discovers that the local inn won’t book him any room but the attic. Despite having not met him, the locals stare at him as if he suffered from severe halitosis. He can see windows and doors slam shut as he passes by.

The only person who has anything meaningful to tell Arthur is local tycoon Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds). Being that it’s the turn of the 20th century, he’s also only fellow around with a car or a telephone. The former comes in handy because no one else will take him to the house. During high tides, the hill where the mansion rests becomes an isolated island, forcing anyone there to be stuck there with whatever malevolent spirits inhabit it.

The locals may be superstitious, but they’re not stupid. Everyone from the richest to the poorest has lost children in the most horrifying ways. Daily’s wife (Oscar-nominee Janet McTeer from Albert Hobbs) is so bereaved from the loss of their son that it’s hard to tell if she’s possessed or just plain mad.

With all of this supernatural menace hanging around, it’s actually wise of Radcliffe to shed the Harry Potter glasses and playthings straight. He’s also enough of a gentleman not to hog the spotlight from terrific performers like McTeer or Hinds. One refreshing aspect of his interpretation of Arthur is that he’s at least wise enough to avoid saying, “I ain’t fraid of no ghosts.” Believing his beloved is still by his side, he actually tries to understand why the house and the village are afflicted.

Screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), working from Susan Hill’s novel, creates believably tormented characters, and director James Watkins emphasizes creepy atmosphere instead of gore. The house is full of almost lifelike toys that can be mistaken for spirits in the right light.

Actually, Watkins could stand to rely even more on the surroundings. Every now and then, he’s determined to make the audience jump and practically telegraphs the surprise he has waiting. When the camera wanders through Eel Marsh House, Marco Beltrami’s score sets the right off-kilter tone. But when it’s time for a jolt, the music blares like an alarm, negating the intended shock value.

On stage in Equus and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, and on TV shows like Saturday Night Live, Radcliffe has demonstrated he can play more than the intrepid wizard. Perhaps casting agents might want to use their imaginations a little more. At least the folks behind The Woman in Black seem to be knowledgeable enough to get through the first few classes at Hogwarts. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 02/03/12)

 

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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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