movie reviews February 2013

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

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Snitch
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In Snitch, former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh takes on the federal mandatory minimum sentencing and conspiracy provisions in anti-drug laws. Inspired by a 1999 Frontline documentary, Waugh and Justin Haythe wrote the screenplay based loosely on true events. And like most projects with an issue to push, the film feels forced, filled with cardboard dialog and stiff performances.

John Matthews' (Dwayne Johnson) idiot son Jason (Rafi Gavron) agrees to let a friend mail him a Ziploc bag full of Ecstasy pills. It's a setup under a new federal law, intended to make small-time drug dealers inform on the big fish. It's main application; however, has been to create a chain reaction of first-time offenders entrapping other first-time offenders. Jason faces a minimum prison sentence of 10 years if he doesn't offer up another friend.

Despite being beaten in jail and realizing he'll miss his chance to go to college, Jason refuses to trick any of his friends. So Matthews makes a deal with prosecutor Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) to find a dealer of his own. He enlists Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con employed by Matthews' construction company, to unwittingly introduce him as a legit businessman looking for fast ways to make cash during the recession. Matthews' new semi-trailer trucks, used to haul construction material, are irresistible to the traffickers, and Matthews is forced by Keeghan to stay in the game until they can catch a cartel boss (Benjamin Bratt).

As a father desperate to save his son, Johnson isn't much of an emoter. The actor's dreams of this role getting him taken seriously are going to be seriously dashed. More ham-fisted than hammy, Matthews is written as non-dynamic. And Johnson plays him as if he's afraid to be anything but macho. Even in the most vulnerable position — at the mercy of a prosecutor with ambitions to become a senator — he acts as if he's in the office merely for a chat.

The other performances aren't much better, although the real actors do show up Johnson a bit. Sarandon relies on her usual squint, as if she can stare down injustice even though she's portraying someone on the other side here. Polishing off his accent, Bratt is as much of a cartoon character as Johnson and Michael K. Williams, whose old school drug dealer seems straight out of New Jack City. The only one of note is Barry Pepper as an undercover cop who actually exhibits ambivalence about the proceedings.

From the beginning, the script was hampered with after-school-special ambitions of bringing an issue to the screen. In the shadow of this agenda, character development and story never stood a chance. And for a film helmed by former stuntman, Snitch is surprisingly without many thrills. There's one good semi wreck, but the rest is just boring. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 02/23/13)


Beautiful Creatures
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Based on the series of young adult novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures contains exaggerated mythmaking, laughable CGI and a convoluted plot. Despite this, writer/director Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud, The Fisher King) brings an endearing, very human charm to this Gothic love story.

High school senior Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) spends his time contemplating attending a college far away from his small, isolated Bible Belt town and reading books banned from its library. The arrival of Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the mysterious dark-haired beauty who has been haunting Ethan's dreams, validates his antipathy toward his hometown and his love of literature.

As Ethan and Lena grow closer, she gradually reveals her supernatural background and the curse that may claim her for dark powers on her sixteenth birthday, soon approaching.

Take away the supernatural elements and Beautiful Creatures still offers a great Gothic coming-of-age love story. With squared and properly furrowed brow that brings to mind some of the mentioned authors in the film, plays Ethan as clever but vulnerable, and his banter with world-wise Englert is sweetly reminiscent of the tentative reaches into maturity by Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor's in the '70's great Ode to Billy Joe.
Their bonding over post-war American literature adds a lyrical depth to their romance, and gives the characters much-needed implied inner lives.

There's no separating out the witchery, however, Luckily, there's a fantastically arch super cast to support it in Jeremy Irons as Lena's reclusive wizard uncle and Emma Thompson in mercurial dual roles as Bible-thumping matron who becomes possessed by Lena's dark-sided siren mother, manipulating mere mortal Ethan to claim Lena for her evil team. Emmy Rossum is a bit of a throwaway as Lena's sexpot cousin, and Viola Davis is literally the Magic Negro. But once past her first channeling scene, Davis excels as uber librarian, guiding Lena to knowledge about her own power.

The more understated CGI works well here. Lena paints her room in verse. She also commands vines for a quick getaway for Ethan. But a magical family reunion goes over the top, bringing a bit too much camp and giving the film an uneven tone. The magic here should be taken seriously, such as Lena's dangerous telekinesis in school — think Carrie — or not. But the film wants it both ways. The comedy isn't necessary, though, with the great dialog between the two leads and the movie's message of love and sacrifice. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 02/16/13)


Safe Haven
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Because Safe Haven is based on the Nicholas Sparks novel it contains lots of contrived tricks. Adapted for the screen by Dana Stevens and Leslie Bohem, the film is basically a rehash of Sleeping with the Enemy with precocious children and the ghost of a dead wife hanging around. Disappointing Swedish director Lasse Halström adds the schmaltz that has become his trademark in recent years.


There isn't much that's straightforward in this coy script. The plot is nearly impossible to discuss without giving away the cheats. A serviceable Julianne Hough plays Katie, on the lam from what at first seems merely a dedicated detective (David Lyons) but who, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention, will figure out quickly is really her alcoholic, abusive husband. With fake name and her only belongings able to fit in a pillowcase she's gets a job as a waitress, rents a cabin that would be extremely popular on Pinterest, and starts dating the most eligible bachelor (Josh Duhamel), a widower with two kids, in the sleepy Mid-Atlantic hamlet where she randomly got off her bus. She also becomes “besties” with the ghost of the widower's dead wife.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out any of these twists. Sparks stories aren't known for any real complexity or ambiguity. All the obstacles stem from easily resolved misunderstandings or secrets. Unreliable narrators turn out to be the most reliable of all, and this is a shame. Perhaps a few rough edges on one of his extremely likable characters would allow the plot to hang in a more unsettling and interesting way.

But that may upset the easy digestibility of these movies. Sparks' fans clearly get an eyeful of candy in shabby chic remote cabins, soft, sun-bleached cottons, and non-threatening boyish charm of the lead actors.

With his ridiculous asymmetric haircut and comfortable flannel Garanimals, Duhamel fits the bill. Hough provides a sufficient hapless perkiness, and the imaginary coastal town is the stuff post-adolescent girls' dreams are made of. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 02/16/13)


A Good Day to Die Hard
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In his late 50s, Bruce Willis can still look imposing standing in front of an explosion, but much of the appeal of his break-out hit Die Hard was the fact that he wasn't an action hero back in 1988.

Having in initially made his mark in the TV comedy Moonlighting, he seemed like an odd choice to face down a skyscraper full of terrorists. Willis' John McClane could hold his own against Rambo, but Willis made him seem identifiably human. Stallone and Schwarzenegger never showed fear. Willis demonstrated the same nervousness most viewers would experience walking in John McClane's bloody footprints.

If you watch Die Hard again, notice how McClane courageously faces down bad guys even though he obviously knows they can kill him and all the people they've taken hostage. McClane never shrinks from a fight, but he knows mere determination won't save the day.

As you've probably guessed by now, the new fourth sequel to Die Hard is so uninspiring that it has become difficult to write about the current installment. It's so much more fun to recall the joy to be had watching the original.

A Good Day to Die Hard sends John McClane to Russia in order to see if he can do something to negotiate the release of his son Jack (Jai Courtney) from a Moscow prison. John is certainly a fish out of water and is grateful his cheery cabbie speaks enough English to help him to the courthouse.

Before John can do what he’s set out to do, the courtroom explodes.

Hey, this is a “Die Hard” movie.

Before John can fully understand what has happened, he spots Jack leading Russia’s most wanted political prisoner, Komarov (Sebastian Koch) into a van. During a massive car chase that destroys half the bridges in Moscow, John discovers that Jack is actually one of the CIA’s toughest agents and that Komarov knows damaging information about the current president of Russia, Chigarin (Sergei Kolesnikov).

Complicating matters is the fact that John is new to espionage and that Komarov won’t do anything without his daughter Irina (Yuliya Snigir).

John and Jack have never gotten along, and that could have made for some interesting interaction whenever the shooting stops. Instead, Skip Woods, the mind behind Hitman and Swordfish, starts off with some potentially worthwhile plot threads and character points, and quickly abandons them when it’s time to destroy more hardware.

For example, the storyline is loosely based on the rivalry between real-life Russian President Vladimir Putin and imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The movie could have explored a fascinating and timely subject while crashing automobiles. Instead, A Good Day to Die Hard drags when things don’t go boom.

It’s as if the exposition scenes weren’t intended to tell the story but merely to keep the producers from exceeding the pyrotechnics budget. As enjoyable as it is to watch a fleet of Mercedes turn into scrap metal, it’s even more delightful when viewers can care if the occupants of the vehicles emerge from the crashes and the gunplay alive.

The amount of wasted potential in A Good Day to Die Hard is staggering. One highlight of the previous sequel, Live Free or Die Hard was getting introduced to John’s equally blunt daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Cyber criminals knew that if McClane would raise hell to save her, and that she, in the words of Sylvester the Cat, was “as helpless as a porcupine in a nudist colony.”

Winstead is back, but Woods and director John Moore, who has given us the wretched remake of The Omen, have no idea what to do with her. She plays off of Willis well, and it would have been more fun to see her bicker with Willis instead of having Courtney do it.

With an R rating, Willis can finally cuss as freely as he did in 1988, but the profanity simply isn’t as clever as it was back 1988. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 02/14/13)

Haiku
A Good Day to Die Hard

Russian car chases are
no good when people driving
in the cars are dull.


Identity Thief
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Melissa McCarthy hasn't had a decent role since her scene-stealing performance in Bridesmaids. Paul Feig and Kristen Wiig aside, very few Hollywood filmmakers understand how to use the actress' unique comedic talent, least of all director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses). Hampered by a convoluted plot from writer Craig Mazin, Identity Thief buries McCarthy in sight gags and slapstick, putting her down every chance it gets.

The set up for Identity Thief is both boring and preposterous. An accountant at a financial firm in Denver, prudent Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), naively gives up his personal information over the phone. When Florida resident Diana (McCarthy) uses this information to rack up thousands of dollars in bills against his credit and gets him arrested on outstanding warrants, Sandy must try to convince Diana to travel back with him to Colorado to clear his name.

The characters, painted in the broadest of strokes, act only in ways they must to move inevitable events forward. Yet, scenes stall out, taking too long for inane and unrealistic detours until they finally reach their obvious conclusion. It's a lazy script that gives no pretense of being clever.

Because the script demands it, the two drive west instead of fly. Their trip is complicated and made gratuitously violent by bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) and vengeful mobsters (T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez), hired by imprisoned phony credit card ringleader (Jonathan Banks).
As Diana, McCarthy is subject to much physical abuse. It's a very physical comedy, and McCarthy generally excels at this. Still, the moments of her control over her movements, such as trying to run away from Bateman as a healthy, long-legged Sandy or in the bedroom scene with Eric Stonestreet, are very different than when she's thrown around like a rag doll, hit by a car or put into convulsions by a police Taser.
Stuck between two extremes of entitlement — a boss with a big bonus and a liking for Ayn Rand (Jon Favreau) and Diana, who uses other people's credit to hoard her house with appliances in multiples — Sandy resists stooping to either level until the story runs out of other things for him to do. Sandy claims it's Diana who provides the inspiration for his new spirit of ruthless confidence and ambition, but his suit and potential position as six-figure salaried VP are closer to the nasty boss than Diana's tacky, low-rent materialism, for which he always shows disdain. That is, until she finally caves to public pressure and asks for a makeover. Only then does Sandy start to like her. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 02/09/13)


Amour
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Michael Haneke makes movies that are as engrossing as they are relentlessly bleak. From the opening frames of movies like Caché, The Piano Teacher or Time of the Wolf, the Austrian writer-director makes no secret of the fact that things are going to end badly, and yet it’s impossible to look away.

With his new French language film Amour, Haneke sets his cold but unflinching gaze at how aging and decrepitude can be as agonizing as they are unavoidable. While this might sound like someone complaining that water is wet, the director manages to make the struggle to deal with end of life issues seem fresh and engaging.

One of the filmmaker’s shrewdest moves was casting two beloved performers from the French New Wave of the 1950s and ‘60s. Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, My Night at Maud's) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) star as George and Anne, a pair of retired music teachers whose modest but content existence is upended when Anne starts checking out mentally during routine tasks.

For minutes at a time, she blanks out and has no comprehension of what happened during those moments. As Georges quickly realizes, the situation is only going to get worse.

Yes, it takes only a sentence or two to describe Haneke’s storyline, but there isn’t a dull or uninvolving moment in Amour. Because Trintignant and Riva are familiar faces (at least for fans of foreign movies) and because they made names for themselves when they were in their 20s and 30s, the sight of their recognizable but obviously older selves is a jarring.

It also doesn’t hurt that each of them are working in peak form. Riva conveys Anne’s descent with astonishing subtlety and grace. As each new malady starts creeping up on Anne, viewers become as shocked as Georges and feel the same grief that he does over the fact that the woman he married is still alive but will never be the same person.

Riva has received an Oscar nomination because Anne’s collapse is so vivid and real, but the film wouldn’t work if Trintignant weren’t equally good. Perhaps more Academy members and even some American filmgoers should take a chance on subtitles.

Relationships like the one depicted in Amour are often more challenging for the partner who isn’t physically sick. Now that Anne is incapable of taking care of herself, George has to do much more around the house and has little time for his own needs. Trintignant effortlessly portrays Georges’ grief and frustration. Resentment and guilt frequently creep up on his face even though his affection for her is undiminished.

Haneke also explores how Anne’s difficulties affect the rest of her family. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who has had a busy life of her own, is crushed to see her mother’s suffering and could use her support more than ever. But Anne is in no shape to give it.

Essentially, Haneke asks the audience if love is real if one of the partners is incapable of loving back. It’s a difficult and troubling question, and Haneke maximizes its narrative potential by presenting the tale in a detached, almost clinical way.

The music never swells to announce that something dire is about to take place. Haneke probably figures we can determine that for ourselves. Because the story is inherently emotional, Haneke’s handling is just about perfect. Any unnecessary emphasis would reduce Amour to a shallow soap opera.

With the stars he’s selected, Haneke knows that any embellishments are unnecessary. Perhaps that’s why he’s able to make a movie about senility that feels so vibrant and insightful. (PG-13) Rating: 5 (Posted on 02/09/13)

Haiku Review

Riva does more in
two hours than most actors do in
all of their careers.


Bullet to the Head
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

During the ‘80s and 90s, Sylvester Stallone starred in a long series of forgettable action films that relied more on his brawny shoulders than on his occasionally lazy acting and mediocre taste in stories, which he sometimes scripted.

With his latest, Bullet to the Head, he’s doing the same punching and pistol waving he did in dreck like Cobra, but now that he’s older (66, to be exact), it seems a little more fun. For an action movie to work, it’s essential that the film’s star look as if he or she is enjoying beating up or killing bad guys or driving fast cars.

Now that he’s older, Stallone doesn’t have this need to prove to the world that he’s tough. In Judge Dredd and other movies, the actor often bellowed his mush mouthed lines as if viewers needed reminding he was capable of hurting criminals.

Now that he’s past retirement age and still has biceps that bulge like watermelons, no one’s going to call him a wimp. This confidence makes his turn as New Orleans hitman James Bonomo a k a Jimmy Bobo all the more entertaining. He can punch and kick like a younger man. Having been a hardened wise guy for decades, Jimmy has also learned a few tricks that his younger colleagues and competitors will soon regret not knowing.

His brutal survival skills come in handy when one of his clients sets him and his partner up after a successful liquidation. Because the younger fellow thug lacks Jimmy’s reflexes and skills at facing knife-wielding assassins, he winds up dying before Jimmy can find the killer.

An out of town cop named Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) takes an interest in Jimmy’s last assignment because the victim was a corrupt colleague who had simultaneously alienated both honest cops and the Mob. Even though half of the Crescent City wanted him dead, it takes Taylor only minutes to figure out who did the hit and that there are bigger fish involved in this crime.

Taylor tries to get Jimmy to help with the investigation because Jimmy would obviously like to get the guys who iced his compatriot, and Taylor’s going to need all the assistance the hired gun can give him.

It doesn’t help that Taylor is both dim and straight-laced. The detective may be the most geographically ignorant in the country. Could he be the only person in the nation who knows that Big Easy cops have a reputation for ethical lapses?

Taylor is as dull as he is upright, and Kang doesn’t know how to make him more interesting. In just about every scene they share, Stallone barrels past Kang and easily upstages him.

Imagine if this guy had been paired with Nick Nolte instead of a young Eddie Murphy in Walter Hill’s 48 Hours. Nobody remembers this movie because of the plot or the writing. The joy of simply having Nolte and Murphy one-upping each other was enough.

Hill is in charge of this one, too, and never figures out what to do with Kang. At least he comes up with lots of bone crunching, car crashing action and enough of the requisite explosions for Bullet to the Head to meet its mayhem quota.

Screenwriter Alessandro Camon (The Messenger) makes the mistake of sticking Stallone with a lot of pointless voiceover. The content doesn’t really tell us anything interesting about Jimmy, and Stallone’s mumbling works better when he delivers putdowns because his flat tone emphasizes how little regard Jimmy feels for his marks and his clients. The rest of the dialogue consists of exposition. In Camon’s New Orleans, all the characters sound as if they’re guiding viewers from scene to scene instead of having conversations.

Even though Bullet to the Head is based on a French graphic novel, it still feels like the same old thing Stallone has always made. At least this time, he’s finally enjoying himself for a change. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 02/03/13)

Haiku
Bullet to the Head

Even though he’s old
Stallone can still shoot, punch and
mumble thugs to death.


Warm Bodies
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Both concept and execution of writer/director Jonathan Levine's (50/50) latest film Warm Bodies, adapted from Isaac Marion's 2011 young-adult novel, suffer from drastic shortcomings. Described as a zombie romance — there are allusions to Romeo and Juliet — the film relies on rhetorical tautology to appease genre purists (it won't work) and overly expositive voice-over narration to compensate for a non-verbal protagonist.

Eight years post vague apocalypse, disaffected zombie youth R (Nicholas Hoult), who can't remember his full name or many other qualities of being human except, apparently, sarcasm, is consigned to a lonely and unsatisfying life wandering through an airport terminal surrounded by other members of the undead. But when on a pack hunt for human flesh, R spies dream girl Julie (Teresa Palmer) and feels an immediate connection, which is helped along by R's eating the brains of Julie's militantly anti-zombie boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco). Fueled by zombie yearnings and Perry's transferred memories, R kidnaps Julie by slathering her in his blood and scent to keep her safe from the other “corpses” and stows her away in the abandoned 747 where he keeps hoarded objects from the pre-dystopian era.

Surprisingly undeterred by her recent trauma and close proximity to a stalker zombie, Julie makes herself comfortable in R's lair. In the ultimate male fantasy version of Stockholm syndrome, she's seemingly unphased by R's overtures. In fact, other zombies are inspired to reclaim their humanity by Julie's reliance, which the filmmaker wants to portray as compassion, for R. Yet, after R's lie to keep her there expires, Julie runs back to the walled town, where her father, General Grigio (John Malkovich), leads the human opposition to the zombies. At risk of his own peril, R follows, catching the attention of the skeletal uber-zombies, the Bonies.

Warm Bodies is a sophisticated production. Javier Aguirresarobe (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Others and two of the Twilight features) photographed the film in blue-gray with widescreen long shots to provide a true sense of a wasteland caused by apathy. Production design from Martin Whist includes a desolate Montreal cityscape, complete with street art by Shepard Fairey. R's airplane hoard could just as easily belong to a hipster character from a Wes Anderson movie. The soundtrack contains heavy-hitters that resonate — all too much with the emotional note of a scene.

Yet, the romantic story and Levine's attempt to subvert or extend zombie mythology come off as throwaways. Character motivation is uneven and plot is furthered or stalled at whim. Hoult's zombie walk has been perfected, but his delivery, even with the stammering, still comes with a self-satisfied smirk — the same he sported as child actor in About a Boy and kept throughout his stint in the U.K. series Skins. As a result, his R looks more psycho killer than Romeo. Finally, there's the heavy-handed message of human kindness' ability to reanimate the dead, unless they're too far-gone. Then you still have to shoot them in the head. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 02/03/13)

 



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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