movie reviews April 2011

Potiche  •  Prom  •  Fast Five  •  Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil
Of Gods and Men  •  Water for Elephants  •  Rio  •  Certified Copy  •  Scream 4  •  The Conspirator
Kill The Irishman  •  Win Win  •  Born to be Wild  •  Hanna  •  Jane Eyre  •  Soul Surfer  •  Arthur
Your Highness  •  Miral  •  Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune  •  Bill Cunningham New York  •  Source Code  •  Hop

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

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Potiche
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If Potiche doesn’t have anything new to say about gender relations that might be because it’s adapted from a French play that was later featured in a 1983 television broadcast. Thankfully, the new big screen adaptation from director François Ozon (Swimming Pool) is so lively, witty and sincere that both the story and the subject matter still seem fresh.

Potiche

Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) has pretty much every creature comfort she could want. Her father ran a successful umbrella factory and her corporate cutthroat of a husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) bought out her old man. With grown children and a general sense of malaise, Suzanne wonders if there is more to her life than being a “potiche” or a trophy wife and writing short, annoying poems about it.

As the film opens, it quickly emerges that Robert treats his workers as badly as he does Suzanne. He continually battles with the local union and has a loveless affair with his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard). While some might feel that being a titan of commerce requires an iron hand, Robert’s is more like lead. When he isn’t ignoring labor concerns, he’s living the good life on a boat that he bills to the company. Other than being a kleptocratic, lecherous dictator, perhaps he’s not a bad guy.

The aggravated union calls Robert’s bluff and kidnaps him, and he later has a massive coronary. Apparently, being a hotheaded tyrant isn’t a healthy lifestyle. The workers, remembering Suzanne’s father and his more genial and paternalistic management style, demand that she take over for Robert.

By actually listening to the workers and taking advice from her daughter Joëlle (Judith Godrèche), Suzanne smoothes over the labor issues and finds ways to make her competitors nervous. Her previously idle son Laurent (Jérémie Rénier) designs some new umbrellas that look more stylish and sell beautifully.

She also rekindles her friendship with her husband’s archenemy Maurice Babin (they had to have a role for Gérard Depardieu somewhere, didn’t they?). Babin is a Communist who used to run the union and is now both the mayor and the local Member of Parliament. Once upon a time, he was also Suzanne’s lover.

Unfortunately, Robert’s health improves, and he’s so eager to return to work that he’ll hurt the company and his relationships to do just that. In the hands of a lesser actor, Robert would be a one-note, sexist oaf, but thankfully Luchini (Intimate Strangers) is an old hand at playing conniving characters. His Robert is so odious that it’s almost mesmerizing to see how low he’ll stoop.

Deneuve and Depardieu have played opposite each other several times (most notably in The Last Metro), but their chemistry is still there. The Plebian Maurice thinks of himself as a progressive, but he’s got some sexism issues of his own. Curiously, none of that stops him from gazing at the upper class Suzanne with longing.

Deneuve has made a career out of playing ice women, but she’s a versatile enough as an actress to also project a maternal warmth that’s perfect for Suzanne. Considering what an oaf Robert is, it’s impossible not to want her to right his copious mistakes.

Despite working with material intended for the stage, Ozon’s direction never feels stiff. He comes up with dozens of creative techniques to tell the story including using split screens. None of these little flourishes ever seems like a gimmick.

The late ‘70s costumes also add to the fun. Yes, even in France, people wore horrid polyester outfits. Ozon also includes hints of issues that would arise later. Suzanne, who actually cares about her employees, balks at this newfangled concept called “outsourcing.”

Perhaps Potiche doesn’t feel stale because its observations are still valid, even if they are three decades old. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/29/11)


Prom
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Disney's Prom aspires to be ranked among the most iconic teen movies but even its nods to the greats play as shopworn and easily anticipated. Writer Katie Wech's screenplay goes overboard on earnestness and is more deserving of a comparison to a “Stepford” movie than any of John Hughes' best.

Prom

The overly coiffed student body at Brookside High School is in a tizzy preparing for its “Starry Night” senior prom. Although some senior boys stage elaborate invitations that would rival most marriage proposals, the hoped-for date of Nova Prescott (Aimee Teegarden), class president and event organizer, merely asks if she'd like to carpool. She accepts. However, when a lit candle left behind after another of these labored events set up to pop the prom question burns down the storage shed with the prom decorations in it, Nova is forced to build new ones from scratch with bad boy Jesse Richter (Thomas McDonell), who is doing time for tardiness, cutting class and resembling a 21 Jump Street-era Johnny Depp.

While Nova and Jesse negotiate their love-hate relationship with intermittent sabotage from her dad (a very out-of-place Dean Norris), Nova's dull classmates work out their own tedious dilemmas and disappointments, the most serious being Mei (Yin Chang) confessing to boyfriend Justin (Jared Kusnitz) that she'll be attending Parsons in New York instead of going to Michigan with him. In addition, sophomores Lucas (Nolan Sotillo) and Simone (Danielle Campbell) fall victim to the machinations of perfidious varsity quarterback and prom king Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon), who, if anyone here deserves that timely delivery of pig's blood. Unfortunately, the bucket never drops.

Granted, this is Disney, but director Joe Nussbaum plays it safe and squeaky clean. The actors seem to be following the directive to stay wide-eyed and smiling. They stay clear of the muck. The only transgressions committed by bad boy Jesse come with family-friendly rationales. When aggravated by girls swooning over the prom poster near his locker, he carefully removes it from the wall and re-tapes it to the one across the hall. This pansy doesn't deserve his rep.

This is true of the film in general. The dramatic moments, which take up huge chunks of the film as if every moment is momentous, are largely undeserved. The character that doesn't make a heartfelt, self-conscious speech within moments of being introduced on screen is too few and far between. What is it with these kids and their obsession with their feelings? With these self-aware performances already happening, Nussbaum missed a great opportunity to push his actors one more step into Mamet territory. That would be a prom to remember.

The comic relief is as misguided as the drama. Although I wouldn't trade for the grown-up cynicism and snark of Easy A, the funny parts in Prom could use a touch of gritty reality. Ironically, Lloyd (Nicholas), a John Cusack lookalike, repeatedly uses the same intricate methods of his peers to get a date, but they keep backfiring on him in predictable ways. Rolo, a creepy stoner type who compulsively sates his munchies with the eponymous candy never actually smokes that the audience can see. Lucas' friend Corey (Cameron Monaghan) acts jealous and spurned, but never comes out. Even the humor is impotent. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 04/29/11)

Fast Five
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

When watching any installment form “The Fast and the Furious” franchise, you can almost feel your brain cells dying from the exhaust fumes emitted by the muscle cars. If a character utters an interesting line or has more than one personality trait, it’s an accidental bonus.

Fast Five

The primary reason to sit through these films is the speeding cars and the frequent crashes and explosions. The latest chapter, Fast Five, delivers more than its share of engine noises and property destruction. To up the ante, it even includes gunplay (that cleanly kills) and the unique scenery of Rio de Janeiro. With all the mayhem and other eye candy available, there’s no faulting Fast Five for taking some shortcuts on character or story.

In order for a movie like this to run, people are simply functional. They’re like a car radio. They’re standard issue with the film and are there if desired, but they aren’t essential in going from A to B.

This time around master car thief Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and former federal agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) have fled all the way to South America after Brian has busted Dominic from a prison-bound bus in the most spectacularly implausible way. Before you can say, “yeah, and Donald Trump’s hair is real,” the two fugitives and Dominic’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) are lying low in Rio.

Even in Brazil money is still essential to get by. The favelas are run by a suave drug lord named Reyes (Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida).

Violence isn’t his first resort, but that doesn’t mean he’s above shooting or beating to death anyone who doesn’t do as he requests. When Dominic and Brian almost die in the process of upsetting him (let’s just say it involves cars, trains and explosions), they discover a computer chip that lists all of his business dealings and the location of every safe house where he hides hundreds of millions in cash.

Dominic quickly deduces that the best way to get the gangster off their backs is to steal all of his cash so that he can’t pay people to go after them. You can’t argue with logic like that.

Dominic and Brian have another obstacle because the FBI has sent a tough, no-nonsense operative named Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) after them. Hobbs comes with a squad that is as heavily armed as Reyes’ men so shootouts in the slums are inevitable.

Much of what follows is an excuse for gun fu, fistfights and peel outs. It also manages to throw in the crews from 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and the original installments. These folks can be located on surprisingly short notice despite every cop and gangster in Rio looking for them. Perhaps they’ve been checking Dominic’s Facebook updates on a regular basis.

Occasionally, the people in the film can be as much fun as the vehicle wrecks. As the motor-mouthed henchman from Dominic’s crew, Tyrese Gibson is a riot, even if his lines sometimes come off as more tacky than clever. A recent Onion News Network sketch indicated that the screenwriter for this chapter of the story was a five year old, and the actual script has lines that seem more at home coming from the mouth of a toddler than from post adolescents. For the record, the actual screenwriter is an adult named Chris Morgan.

The women in the film have the unenviable task of speeding away in motorcycles and cars and looking as if they were born to wear bikinis. One (Gal Gadot) is an Israeli spy who has managed to be an agent even though she stands out in a crowd. Do intelligence agencies hire public agents these days?

Director Justin Lin’s handling of all of this is a mixed blessing. Some of the optical candy is truly impressive, but his shortcuts get downright annoying. For example, when Dominic stakes his car on a race, we only see the outcome, not the race. What’s the point of making a peel out movie if you don’t show the cars breaking the speed limit?

In other scenes, we can hear the roar of the engines, but action seems symbolic. Viewers sometimes don’t feel as if they’re riding with Dominic as he lives Al Gore’s high-octane carbon nightmare. There’s no point in faulting Lin for making these films instead of another movie like his clever, darkly hilarious debut Better Luck Tomorrow. Fast, noisy cars are a more lucrative subject matter than high school gangsters, and Lim knows better than to rely on cheesy CGIs the way original director Rob Cohen did.

The final chase is as spectacular as it is silly. Seeing Rio’s finest chasing our heroes during rush hour is certainly worth the price of admission. It just takes a little time to recover from the exhaust fumes. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 04/28/11)


Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

While the world hasn't exactly waited in breathless anticipation for a sequel to Hookwinked, the original fairy-tale mish-mash did have enough laughs for both kids and adults to at least hold their attention. With the follow-up, the filmmakers have carefully managed to remove anything even remotely fun or clever, instead replacing it with the bland, annoying and pointless mess that is Hookwinked Too.

Hoodwinked Too

The plot, just to get it out of the way, is about Red Riding Hood trying the find out who kidnapped her Granny and stole a recipe for a magical treat that gives you superpowers. That's all you really need to know because most of the rest of the movie is so stunningly boring that only at the end will you actually remember any of that, not that you'll care.

First of all, the animation is just terrible. This looks like one of those cheap Saturday morning cartoons from the mid-1990s that were just starting to experiment with CGI, with often-poor results. The wolf's fur looks like a bunch of cactus thorns, there's an appalling lack of detail, and I've seen more expressive faces on mannequins.

So, naturally, it's in 3D, because you really want to enhance all that, right?

Actually, it's more like 2.1D, because it doesn't exactly leap of the screen as sort of occasionally hop a little bit. In fact, the best thing I can say about this film is that with a little help (I'm looking at you, “Avatar 2”), it might begin killing off the pointless fail that is modern 3D. Until they try and shove it down the movie-going public again four or five years later, anyway.

Also, I feel the need to make a quick note about puns for the filmmakers: if you tell or show them to people, and nobody ever laughs, they are not funny. Hope that helps.

It's not that this couldn't have been a good movie — you've got childhood characters everybody's familiar with, and a stellar cast of actors to back you up. But all that's thrown away for a bunch of flat sight gags and humorless action sequences that are painfully slow and stupid. Just look at the sheer amount of voice talent that's wasted here: Glenn Close, Hayden Panettiere, Patrick Warburton, Joan Cusack, Bill Hader, Martin Short, Amy Poehler. They even got Cheech and Chong back together for this, and didn't have one single hidden pot joke for the adults! Not one. How do you miss that?

Oh, and Kanbar Entertainment, the studio behind the original is actually suing The Weinstein Company, who financed the sequel, for moving the film back from it's original release date and "their failure to live up to contractual obligations for the sequel". Not sure what that all means, but it's not a surprise this fairy tale would end up in court with a bunch of lawyers talking about contract laws, which might actually be more interesting to watch. (PG) Rating: 0 (Posted 04/29/11)

Of Gods and Men
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Of Gods and Men gets off to such a quiet and slow beginning that you have little idea of how the rest of the film will play. Nearly 10 minutes pass before characters even speak to each other in a movie that edges just above the two-hour mark. That can feel like an eternity.

Of Gods and Men

It’s appropriate to mention that a good deal of the film is set in a French Catholic monastery.

This placid approach belies the gradual but accelerating tension that runs throughout the movie. The monastery in question is located in Algeria during the mid-1990s. It’s near a rural village where arguments about the legacy of colonialism or disagreements about religion never seem to occur. Perhaps it’s partly because the only doctor in the area is a Cistercian brother named Luc (Michael Lonsdale, Munich). He sees more patients in one day than most physicians might see in a month.

The soft-spoken leader of the group is Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) who studies the Qur’an while he’s consulting with recollections from St. Francis of Assisi. He and the rest of the brothers freely mingle with the villagers and often discuss religion with the local imams. Christian and his peers believe they have been sent to serve, not proselytize the villagers. As a result, the locals invite them to birthday parties and feel free to pray Islamic prayers around them, even though the brothers silently refrain.

Unfortunately, even the most remote villages can’t escape the Algerian civil war. The Algerian government has held onto power by ignoring an election and is deeply corrupt. The terrorists who oppose them believe a distorted, fanatical version of Islam that the village leaders vehemently condemn.

Like his Algerian neighbors, Christian doesn’t trust the government or the military and understandably don’t want their help. There’s a distinct possibility that he’ll need it, though. The terrorists kill indiscriminately and believe that God sanctions their looting and murder despite what is actually written in the Qur’an (the bad guys may never have been able to read or bothered to pick up a copy).

The situation puts Christian and the other monks in a difficult spot. While they agreed to give up their previous lives to become monks, does that mean they have to be martyrs? Few would fault them for leaving because they couldn’t serve the villagers if they’re dead.

Director Xavier Beauvois and screenwriter Etienne Comar have made the most rare of films, one that explores and enhances our understanding of religion without beating viewers over the head for their lack of piety. Thanks to an able cast, the monks come off as both admirable but thoroughly human. There aren’t a lot of big emotional outbursts, but that doesn’t mean Of Gods and Men is dull by any means.

While they do a lot of good and demonstrate astonishing bravery, the monks have genuine worries. Some would love to go back to France, but because they are in their 60s (or in Luc’s case, even older), they have little idea how to live outside their current sphere. These would be tempting moments for a thespian to bellow, but thankfully nobody does here. The ideas the monks debate are so powerful than any amplification is unnecessary.

Stylistically, Beauvois makes several odd but satisfying choices. The score for Of Gods and Men consists primarily of monastic choir tunes and patches of traditional Algerian music. The usual bursts of orchestral bombast aren’t missed. It’s also a pleasure to hear Wilson lead the rest of the cast in the songs. His voice is nicely suited for the task.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs when the monks sing on despite the noise from an army helicopter. The eerie sensation that accompanies the scene is as haunting as all the bloodletting Sam Peckinpah ever unleashed. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 04/22/11)


Water for Elephants
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For the movie adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) shortcuts any actual filmmaking to create set pieces that joylessly propels the story forward to its inevitable conclusion. Made for its built-in audience, Water for Elephants shamelessly relies on a familiarity with the source material, as well as its star power.

Water for Elepants

Orphaned and broke, Jake Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) finds work as a veterinarian with a struggling circus in 1931. He forges an uneasy alliance with big top owner August (Christoph Waltz ), while also courting August's wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction. To pay for better care for the animals, on which Jacob insists, August withholds pay from the other workers, and even “redlights” some of them — throwing them off the moving train. Yet, he continues to wine and dine his wife and Jacob.

In a last-ditch attempt to save the show, August adds an elephant, Rosie, to the menagerie, putting Jake in charge of her training, and pairs her with Marlena. Although Rosie and Marlena's act draws crowds, August's cruelty increases with his suspicions of her infidelity. He cracks down on his workers, redlighting several of Jacob's allies, and sends his thugs after Jacob and Marlena, who have run off together. When Jacob returns to exact revenge, he learns of the plot by the redlighted workers who have survived to destroy the circus by releasing the animals on the crowd during the show.

Bogged down in narration through both a frame story and Jacob's voiceovers throughout, Richard LaGravense's screenplay comes off as an outline of the source material that merely serves to move the plot forward. Minus a few too self-referential moments (“We drink because it's the Depression”), it merely hits the highlights of the narrative without any grounding details to create dimensional characters or establish period.

Yet, the movie still slowly grinds to its close with all elements subjugated in service to the set pieces attempting to establish the love triangle story. The static, capsule scenes force the cast, as Depression-era stereotypes, to pose and utter laughable jargon in economical, stifling ways.

Costume, makeup and production design don't flow from one scene to the next. They're carefully planned for individual scenes. Marlena's makeup is more Hollywood starlet than starving carny, and Jake owns more boots than an aristocratic polo player. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 04/22/11)


Rio
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The opening of Rio is so delightful that it sets a high bar for the rest of movie to reach. Legions of colorful Brazilian rainforest animals break into Latin-inflected songs and gracefully dart across the screen in 3D. Carmen Miranda is certainly smiling down from heaven on a sequence like this. Thanks to endearing characters, a solid story and a uniquely captivating setting, the rest of the cartoon is equally festive.

rio

The star of this lively outing is a rare blue macaw appropriately named, well, Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg from The Social Network). Kidnapped from his home by poachers, he has miraculously found his way into the heart and home of a shy Minnesota bookstore proprietor named Linda (Leslie Mann). She prefers the company of her pet to that of her own species, and he’s the only surviving male of his.

Their close bond is interrupted when a Brazilian scientist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) shows up at Linda’s frosty door and informs her that his lab in Rio de Janeiro has the only remaining female of Blu’s species. Although Blu and Linda are quite happy in the deep freeze, the two are morally obligated to help prevent blue macaws from going extinct.

The mating is a bit more complicated by the fact that Blu’s new partner Jewel (Anne Hathaway) is a feisty, irritable creature who likes captivity almost as much as Glenn Beck likes progressives. Having rarely ventured from his cage, Blu is happy with his station. Part of his complacency may be due to the fact that he’s never learned how to fly.

Before Tulio’s experiments get started, a group of poachers steals the birds and tries to sell them on the black market. For once, Blu concurs with Jewel about the necessity of escaping. The two wander through the streets and outskirts of Rio getting to meet dozens of memorable characters and getting their first taste of Carnival.

Director and co-writer Carlos Saldanha has helmed the last two Ice Age movies, but there’s something about doing a film on his native city that brings out the best in his work. He acknowledges some of the danger and poverty that plague Rio (or pretty much every other city) and still manages to keep the film lively and engaging.

As with just about every cartoon these days, there is a galaxy of celebrity voices, but Saldanha makes better use of his cast than he has in the past. Casting Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes as wisecracking geese is certainly a smart move. In addition, he wisely chose will.i.am and Jamie Foxx (who play two other birds named Pedro and Nico) because they can sing the film’s original tunes nicely. It doesn’t hurt that Hathaway has a great voice as well.

Thanks to the South American setting, the music for Rio is distinctive and catchy. The onscreen characters won’t be the only ones dancing by the time the movie’s over. Veteran Brazilian arranger Sergio Mendez’s touch can definitely be heard throughout the film, and John Powell’s incidental themes fit nicely with the rest of the soundtrack.

Unlike Saldanha’s previous outings, Rio consistently feels like an act of love instead of a studio obligation. As a result, it’s easy to return the affection. (G) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/14/11)


Certified Copy
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Writer/director Abbas Kiarostami digs deep to deliver an engaging film that dissects ideas without being overwhelmed by them. Certified Copy transforms a merely charming start into a spellbinding mystery.

Certified Copy

In Italy on a book tour, English author James Miller (William Shimell) accepts an invitation from a woman, referred to only as She (Juliette Binoche), to tour the Tuscan countryside. On the drive, the two discuss the subject of Miller's book — art originals and copies — their personal philosophies and their lives. She seems to have an ax to grind when it comes to Miller's thesis for his book. However, when they stop for coffee and an elderly barista mistakes Miller for the woman's husband, She plays along, pulling Miller reluctantly into the pretense.

However, as the afternoon progresses, and the two keep interacting as spouses, the charade becomes more serious. Is it possible the two have met before? The exact nature of their relationship becomes increasingly difficult to determine. The two begin to quarrel, putting into question whether they will finally separate and revert to being strangers again or stay together, becoming more and more enmeshed.

As She, Binoche is the life force behind the film. She gracefully fluctuates from flirtatious to quarrelsome, exhibiting a natural caprice. As the architect of the plan to meet the author, as well as the main player in the abstract marriage, she portrays an appropriate gravitas that practically dares Shimell as Miller to rise to the challenge of the layered narrative. And rise he does, which is at once disconcerting and fascinating.

To capture the lively conversation in the car, Kiarostami employs his signature innovative dashboard camera. However, once the couple ditches the car, the straightforward shots don't end. At a pivotal moment, the camera hides in a bistro's bathroom mirror. It captures the brightness in She's eyes that tend to look hopeful but at the same time convey sadness. But what's illusion and what's real?

The showcasing of real-world details is the hallmark of the film. The characters interact with each other and the material world in believable ways. Interrupting cell phones provide a sense of authenticity, as well as a contemporary deus ex machina. At the start of the film, She is irritated by her son's absorption in a game on a cell phone. At another point, She is navigating a narrow cobbled street while talking her son through finding an object in a drawer while Miller interrupts with insistent retorts.

Through the careful skill of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, the Tuscan scenery is at once full of ancient wonder as well as claustrophobic exhaustion. As the pair sets out on their adventure, full of pep and certain of themselves, the countryside is fresh and new. However, as the afternoon wears on, and they transform into conspirators, acting out hurt and bitterness, the quaintness wears into claustrophobia. In the end, you feel, like the characters, as if you've been somewhere. (Unrated) Rating: 4 (Posted 04/15/11)

Scream 4
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As much as I enjoyed the first Scream, I sometimes wish it hadn’t been a box office hit. While it’s great seeing good movies making their money back, profits have an annoying tendency to inspire legions of unwanted sequels and remakes that make viewers forget why they love the original movie in the first place.

Scream 4

Because it’s been 11 years since Scream 3, viewers have had a chance to cleanse their palates for Scream 4. The last installment suffered because original writer Kevin Williamson wasn’t around, and the wisecracks and meta references of the first two movies weren’t nearly as much fun.

In the opening minutes of Scream 4, Williamson’s wit has returned (to be fair Ehren Kruger did some uncredited rewrites), and he and series director Wes Craven have a ball trashing not only the horror movie clichés they demolished in the earlier movies but also torture porn and the omnipresence of social networking. Courtney Cox seems to be having fun exploring how her abrasive character Gayle Weathers-Riley is chafing after retiring from tabloid journalism and marriage to Woodsboro’s new sheriff, Dewey (David Arquette, until recently Cox’s spouse).

Once the new plot kicks in, Williamson and Craven start falling into the same genre shortcuts they used to ridicule. Now long out of school and out of Woodboro for good, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), has been touring the country selling a self-help memoir about surviving the rampages of dozens of would-be mass murderers wearing masks inspired by Eduard Munch’s painting “The Scream.”

It’s too bad she’s made the mistake returning to her old hometown for a book signing. Yet another maniac who can’t understand that scary films aren’t to be emulated is stalking Woodsboro’s teens, including Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). The new killer would also like to do one thing none of the predecessors have never done, which is kill Sidney herself.

In addition to having to survive the killer (or killers), Sidney and the teens have to get past audience indifference. This time around the citizens of Woodsboro and a few outsiders seem almost suicidal. At times they practically leap on the new Ghostface’s blades. They open doors that most viewers would happily leave shut. They walk out of cars in creepy parking garages even after Ghostface has already tried to get into the vehicle. On the plus side, these folks ensure that their mental defects won’t infect the gene pool.

It doesn’t help that some of the new characters are drawn so broadly that any sociological points Williamson and Craven are trying to make get blunted. Alison Brie plays Sidney’s literary agent who wants another book from her now that she’s being stalked again, and the Woodsboro high school has a two-man AV club (Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen) who believe that even the most tawdry or pointless portions of their lives should be posted online in real time. In the first two films, Williamson and Craven were on firm ground because they not only knew the rules of scary films but also knew where they could bend or break them. Their potshots at living in public don’t come from fresh observations, so they don’t seem as honest or amusing.

By trying to tell part of the story from the killer’s point of view and by examining the fine line between voyeurism and violence, Williamson and Craven are attempting a tribute to Michael Powell’s classic Peeping Tom. During Scream 4, the characters make sure to name-check the earlier, better movie. You know you’re in for a tedious slog when you can catch the allusions before the characters or even the filmmakers themselves do. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 04/15/11)


The Conspirator
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In The Conspirator, director Robert Redford uses the trial of one of the accused conspirators in Abraham Lincoln's assassination as a historical metaphor for certain current political controversies. Unfortunately, screenwriter James D. Solomon's script sacrifices dialog and detail to speech making and sweeping comparisons.

The Conspirator

A nation shocked by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in the wake of the close of the Civil War looks to the men running the nation's capital to avenge their beloved leader's death and restore order. With John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) fatally shot by a Union soldier in pursuit, the trials of the conspirators — seven men and one woman — take center stage. Hand-picked by Maryland U.S. Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), young Union veteran Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) takes on the defense of the female co-conspirator Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) despite the disfavor this causes him.

Wanting a speedy conviction to satisfy the public blood lust, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) stacks the deck with a military tribunal, headed by ally David Hunter (Colm Meaney). Although initially fueled by the lofty ideal that the Constitution guarantees a defense for all accused, in the course of his investigation Aiken becomes increasingly convinced that innkeeper Surratt may be more innocent than originally thought — her trial is bait to lure her son John (Johnny Simmons) back to the city. However, his attempts to elicit clemency fall on deaf ears.

The Conspirator is an awkward and boring film. The scenes are wildly uneven. While some drag on to belabor ideological principles, others exist merely to set up narrative or character as quickly as possible. A battlefield scene tells us Aiken is of high moral fiber. A brick through the window tells us the public vilifies the accused. The movie often takes a tell, don't show point of view. Still, it flows as if other scenes are missing altogether.

Although there are many impassioned speeches included in the film, there's an obvious lack of passion for character or historical detail. Although the sets seem adequate, they're lit with the same soft focus that refuses to differentiate a boarding house from a courtroom from the Century Club from the Secretary of War's office from Surratt's prison cell. Costume and makeup has given a nod to the period, but not taken great pains to make the players on the set too believable or interesting.

Supporting actors, including Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, and Stephen Root are merely padding for the cast roster. Justin Long, sporting fake facial hair, seems like he believes he's stumbled onto the set as a titular character in the remake of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Yo, Abe. Duuude. Danny Huston's turn as prosecuting attorney is the one bright moment of the film.

The center of the film, the relationship between Surratt and Aiken, remains distant and static. As Surratt, Wright is appropriately wrung-out yet stoic. However, the embodiment of the wronged pious woman doesn't lend to building a trusting relationship. McAvoy as Aiken doesn't ever quite know what to do with her. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 04/15/11)


Kill The Irishman
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Kill the Irishman is about a fellow who may have actually experienced a few miracles. In some ways, the film itself comes off as an unexpected pleasure because it’s produced by starlet Tara Reid (who’s known more for tabloid appearances than her roles) and her brother Tommy, and is co-written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, the mind behind Armageddon and the director of the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher.

Kill the Irishman

Perhaps the Reids and Hensleigh have succeeded because they’ve discovered a genuinely fascinating story with an intriguing protagonist. With those two elements in place, it’s easier to make a worthwhile film.

In this case, the subject is a union leader and mid-level wise guy named Danny Greene (played by Belfast native Ray Stevenson). Despite being a high school dropout who’s had to fight for his life on the mean streets of Cleveland, Greene spends the early part of the film rising to the top of the longshoreman’s union.

Greene’s meager education belies his remarkable intelligence and his voracious reading. When the current president of the union (Bob Gunton, The Shawshank Redemption) tries to put the screws on him, Greene quickly turns the tables and takes the job himself. This achievement is remarkable considering the fact that Greene’s predecessor had ordered henchman to kill the upstart. When the old boss discovers the thug’s eyeglasses, he realizes that the person who wore them failed in the mission and that he himself must seek new employment.

This was the start of a bizarre trend throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. When the law ends Greene’s career as a union leader, he gradually becomes a thorn in the Cleveland mob’s side. Greene had a small crew, but they were loyal to him instead of the mafia. When the New York courier steals a loan that was intended for Greene, the Italian gangsters in the Big Apple and Cleveland demand that Greene return the cash even though he never received it. They even pressure Green’s Jewish mentor Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken) to take a contract out on the Irish nuisance.

Finding Danny Greene is remarkably easy. The health conscious hood buys food in open markets and works out in public parks.

Killing him is another matter.

In the process of trying to destroy Greene and his crew, the local Italian mob don Jack Licavoli (Tony Lo Bianco) starts a car bombing campaign that seems more suited for Baghdad than the “Mistake by the Lake.” Despite dozens of exploding cars, Greene survives. When the mob sends snipers, he shoots back. That’s a stupid move on the part of the mafia. Although it’s not mentioned in the film, Greene was a Marine Corps marksman.

Before you can start accusing Hensleigh of exaggeration, he expertly cuts to actual news footage that documents Greene’s astonishing ability to survive. To compound the Italians’ humiliation, Greene freely grants television interviews. One reporter who talked with him was a young Brian Ross (now the lead investigative reporter at ABC News). The chaos that ensues makes the don in New York (Paul Sorvino) conclude that the Cleveland mob is loaded with buffoons who can’t be trusted with important business. In addition, Greene has allied himself with John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio), the only Italian gangster in the city not on Licavoli’s payroll.

Because Greene has as much blood on his hands as the people who are trying to neutralize him, it could have been difficult to identify with him. Thanks to Stevenson’s galvanizing performance, that’s not a problem.

With his broad shoulders and quick, darting eyes, he projects a sense of authority that makes it easy to believe that the other Irish hoods would follow him to the grave. Because Stevenson’s version of Greene is as intelligent as he is caviler about his safety, it never feels as if he’s foolishly risking his life. His astonishing grasp on economics and politics certainly make one wonder what Greene could have accomplished in legitimate ventures instead of crime.

Hensleigh cribs a lot from Martin Scorsese (casting Paul Sorvino means that viewers will instantly recall Goodfellas), but at least he knows where to steal. He and screenwriter Jeremy Walters also take a few unnecessary narrative shortcuts. An Irish necklace he wears is offered as an explanation for his longevity. Pseudo mysticism isn’t needed when the real story is so engrossing. Val Kilmer is cast as a cop who grew up with Greene. He’s given little to do, so Hensleigh should have simply named him, “Lt. Composite.”

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to admire or even be inspired by someone who made such short work of the mob and the odds. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/08/11)


Win Win
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) makes quiet little movies that don’t feature a lot of yelling or physical action, but they’re anything but dull. His latest, Win Win, is easily his most accessible film, but thankfully he hasn’t lost his unique touch, which makes his earlier offerings worthwhile.

win win

Playing yet another overeducated underachiever, Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a small town New Jersey attorney who curiously can’t make a living based on his current caseload. He can’t even pay to fix the dying boiler in his office basement.

When his client Leo Poplar (Burt Young) is diagnosed with advancing dementia, Mike finds a loophole that will let him serve as Leo’s guardian. Because Leo has little sense of what’s going on around him, Mike can place him in a retirement home even though Leo would rather remain in his own house. Having not seen his daughter Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) in decades, Mike has no one contesting him for aid he receives.

Or so he thinks.

Mike discovers Leo’s teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) on the front porch of the old man’s house. The lad has run away from Cindy, her drug addiction and her violent paramour. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) reluctantly take the lad in. The sullen, laconic Kyle comes with a blessing that rivals the cash that Mike gets for allegedly taking care of Leo.

Mike moonlights as an assistant wrestling coach, and his team wins as frequently as the Royals. Kyle changes that. Not only does he clobber his competition in seconds but also he inspires the rest of the squad to excel.

Of course, the streak could come to an end if Mike reveals what he’s really doing with the cash intended for Leo’s care. McCarthy’s gentle, even approach effortlessly switches from droll humor to sober grief. McCarthy is one of those rare filmmakers who can tug at your heart without ever making you feel as if you’re being manipulated.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s assembled a dream cast. Giamatti, who could but thankfully doesn’t play roles like this in his sleep, balances Mike’s desperation with a sense of compassion that helps ameliorate the crooked attorney’s transgressions. It takes a real actor to make a shyster sympathetic. Similarly, Shaffer does a marvelous job of hinting at the soul hiding under Kyle’s unresponsive exterior.

Whereas The Visitor was sadly devastating, McCarthy is aiming for laughs here, and easily succeeds. Bobby Cannavale is a scream as Mike’s best friend Terry. Newly divorced, Terry throws himself with insane abandon into assisting the coaching of Mike’s team. He works in the financial industry, and his hard driving ways are hilariously out of place in his bucolic surroundings.

Win Win never treats any of its quirky or tainted characters with condescension. Even the over-the-top Terry comes off as lovable, and Cindy becomes more human once the drugs have left her system. McCarthy’s affection for his characters runs through just about every frame and, like a virus, spreads to viewers before they even notice it. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/08/11)


Born to be Wild
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you are unmoved at the thought of watching adorable baby animals learning how to live in the wild, I can recommend an excellent psychiatrist.

Born to be Wild

On an emotional level, Born to Be Wild practically bludgeons viewers with cuteness, but it’s hard to complain. Director David Lickley has actually found some good uses for 3D photography. Watching young elephants opening doors or baby orangutans climbing on trees is an ideal use for the technology.

The story of how these images of “awww” came to the big screen is also fascinating. For several decades Birute Galdikas has been raising orphaned elephants in Kenya while Daphne Sheldrick has being doing the same thing for orangutans who’ve lost their parents in Borneo. Now in their 70s, the two women still tirelessly work to raise the animals in a way that will enable them to do well in the wild once they are grown.

If you think raising a human baby is challenging, elephants and orangutans are high maintenance as well. When an elephant loses its mother, the baby still needs milk, and other females are loath to “adopt” the children of others. They also require 24-hour care. Galdikas’ staff put in seemingly endless hours to help the critters reach maturity.

Similarly, Sheldrick’s compound features elaborate jungle gyms that prepare her orphans for trees and other places where they’d normally live.

Both women also have the unenviable task of undoing centuries of human destruction. Ivory poachers don’t care about an elephant’s long weaning period, and the trees that provide home for the orangutans are quickly disappearing.

These operations are labor intensive and certainly expensive, so conscientious viewers can visit recommended web sites that are named in the film’s closing credits. Until then, Lickley gives viewers lots to marvel. The animals are inherently camera friendly, but Lickley thankfully provides several moments that have some narrative weight as well.

When Galdikas’ workers spot a baby elephant wandering among the bulls, Morgan Freeman’s deep authoritative voice warns us that that’s a bad sign because bulls have no child rearing skills whatsoever. The rescuers have to rescue the child from a group of huge bulls who could tip over and destroy their vehicle without straining their muscles.

Freeman’s delivery is sincere but not overbearing. The women who are the focus of the film offer plenty of worthy insights of their own. There’s also some appropriate levity. As the orangutans practice their climbing skills, we are informed that they are under Sheldrick’s care but not control. Trying to dominate and supervise a wild animal is an exercise in hilarious futility.

If you’re eager to hear Steppenwolf’s classic song of the same title, Born to Be Wild will disappoint you, but Lickley and has crew have assembled a terrific soundtrack that seems a good deal more thoughtful and imaginative than the ones most nature documentaries have. Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo provides the quirky but effective incidental themes. It’s also impossible not to love a film that finds suitable ways to use tunes by Hank Williams (who probably wasn’t thinking about orangutans when he was recording his songs but should have) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Running only 42 minutes, Born to Be Wild leaves several questions unanswered (where do these women get the cash to run their essential operations?), but Lickley thankfully doesn’t waste a single moment. I wish the same could be said of the new remake of Arthur. (G) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/08/11)


Hanna
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

A disappointingly pedestrian origin story deflates the ambitious and visionary aesthetic director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) uses to craft this ultra-modern fairytale thriller. Hobbled by a formulaic action plot from screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr, Hanna stumbles to a clumsy finish despite its chimerical lead, vertiginous action sequences and engaging interludes.

Hanna

Ethereal yet baleful, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) begins to chafe under the sole tutelage of her father Erik (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA agent who has secreted them in a remote cabin in snowy Finland in order to prepare his daughter to complete the mission of her life. Although feral-looking in head-to-toe fur and haphazard dreadlocks, the pair is far from wild. Instead, Erik has used his own training as an operative to hone his daughter into a disciplined, multilingual dispassionate killer with a second-hand knowledge of the world a quaint single-volume encyclopedia and a made-up back-story she knows only from rote. After Hanna finally proves she's ready to encounter the world — she longs to hear music — Erik unearths a transponder linked directly to his former agency and leaves her alone with it. Game on.

A groomed Erik leaves before the inevitable arrival of the special ops squad, which captures Hanna and brings her to a sprawling, windowless compound where she is led to believe she has killed Erik's nemesis and possibly former lover, agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Thinking her mission accomplished, Hanna executes a great escape and begins to make her way to Berlin to reunite with her father, who is being mercilessly tailed by the real (and alive) Agent Wiegler. On her travels, Hanna's peculiar talents come into play as she tags along with a free-spirited English family and evades the sadistic, effeminate Eurotrash mercenary Isaacs (Tom Hollander) and his skinhead goons.

Although built on an implausible premise, the film, at least for the first half, overcomes numerous unanswered questions through long, sweeping shots that linger in ways few action films risk. In fact, the camera follows the chase and fight scenes with an unflinching steadiness that practically evokes giddiness in the viewer. In addition, cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler renders the world in rich earth tones that intimate either a pre- or post-apocalyptic sensibility, yet Hanna's clear blue eyes remain perfectly blanched throughout. Frankly, the result is stunning.

In the tradition of some of the best '70s action thrillers, the plot is allowed to diverge from the main narrative. In pivotal moments, it gives the chase a rest and lingers in contemplative scenes, such as a Flamenco dance, the vigorous use of a waterpik or a slumber party-like confession of friendship. Only when the story attempts to offer explanations or forcibly move forward does the magic spell break, revealing an overused contrivance. Under such a pretense, the father and daughter reunion, especially minus the foreshadowed fatal blow, could never live up to their separate journeys. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 04/08/11)

Jane Eyre
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Although the latest film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's gothic novel technically remains true to the source material, it skimps on pivotal formative events and glosses over the titular character's considerable ambivalence toward the romance with her employer to speed to an undeserved tidy ending.

Jane Eyre

Mistaking silence for soulfulness, director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and screenwriter Moira Buffini shortcut the necessary spiritual connections between the film's protagonist and the other players and focus too long on the rush to get back to Jane's literal flight from and return to Thornfield Hall.

All governesses have a tale of woe, according to Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). And his latest governess, Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) is no different. Yet, the film gives only a cursory glance into the mistreatment of young orphaned Jane (Amelia Clarkson), first by her unjust aunt Mrs. Reed (a woefully underused Sally Hawkins) and strict headmaster Mr. Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney). Even less screen time is given to pious friend Helen Burns (Freya Parks).

The film slows down once Jane is eventually installed as the governess in Thornfield Hall. Much is made of education and class by Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), but not enough of it is mentioned in the few interactions between Jane and Rochester. This makes their affinity for one another, on which the rest of the story hangs, as difficult to believe as Jane's assertions that she is plain and small. Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane in Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 version was more convincing, and her banter with curmudgeonly William Hurt as Rochester more enthralling and suspenseful. In the current version, Rochester comes off as handsome and arrogant as opposed to attuned to Jane's sensibilities.

Visually fitting in its muted, dusty tone, Jane's fretful respite at the village school, arranged by missionary St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant), does provide the perfect turning point for Jane's decision to return to Thornfield Hall. Although critical elements are missing (realizing they are related, after all), the scene provides the perfect starting point for Jane to tell her story. If not following the chronology of the novel, this seems the natural point of departure.

With its slow pacing and textured close-ups, this adaptation resembles Bright Star, Jane Campion's 2009 film about Keats's romance with Fanny Brawne. Like that film, Jane Eyre creeps along humorlessly, taking itself too seriously without providing sustenance for an audience to believe in the possibility of love making equals out of the unequal. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 04/08/11)

Soul Surfer
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Soul Surfer is a Lifetime Original Movie that occasionally passes for a big screen feature. Its routine nature is occasionally relieved by a good cast and a worthy tale. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also true.

Bethany Hamliton (ably played by Anna Sophia Robb) is a woman whose career as a professional surfer would be remarkable even if you didn’t consider that she’s done it with only one arm. Let’s face it. Very few people with all their limbs could make a career out of what can be a dangerous though fun to watch sport.

Soul Surfer

While losing her left arm to a shark might have ended her life (she nearly bled to death), much less her surfing, Hamilton spends most of the film working to regain her poise on the waves and to learn how to do things that become incredibly difficult one-handed.

Hamilton and her parents Cheri (Helen Hunt) and Tom (Dennis Quaid) are devout Christians, and it’s doubtful that Hamilton’s recovery would have been so complete emotionally and physically without their faith. Watering down their religious beliefs would have left the movie feeling hollow and fulsome. The filmmakers also bring some candor to the discussion by dealing with some of the doubts that Hamilton experienced during her ordeal. It’s sometimes hard to believe in God if He lets a shark almost make a meal of you.

In other respects, director Sean McNamara (whose career leans heavily on Disney Channel offerings) sticks a little too close to convention, robbing a true story of some of its authenticity. Hamilton’s chief rival for a surfing title is a mean girl (Sonya Balmores), who is so cartoonish that one wonders if she’s supposed to be menacing Raven Simone instead of Robb.

The screenplay is written by a legion of scribes, and it shows. The narrative is jumbled, and you can almost sense where one scribbler started and the other stopped. As a result, the film moves like a car with a faulty transmission. It gets to the destination but the ride isn’t all that smooth.

If McNamara relies too heavily on worn out tropes, at least he seems to know how to film the surfing scenes. It’s great to be able to actually see the surfers standing on boards that should be capsizing at the whims of the ocean. It’s hard not to feel grateful that Hamilton chose a photogenic way to make a living. It’s hard to imagine getting worked up about, say, chess competition.

Hamilton has also taken part in missions to areas that have been hit by natural disasters. Because she’s used her faith to help people instead of merely proselytizing, it’s easy to like her. Soul Surfer features some footage of Hamilton mastering waves and making a concrete difference in the lives of others. It’s tempting to wonder if a documentary about her might have been more watchable than a fiction film. In the brief footage that runs before the credits, she comes off as pleasant and genial, and seems a little more inspiring than the film made about her. It’s hard to improve on a story that needs no embellishments. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 04/08/11)


Arthur
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Steve Gordon’s 1981 comedy Arthur is such a charming and entertaining movie that it’s easy to forget how delicately crafted it was. The writer-director succeeded in asking viewers to care about whether a lazy, alcoholic heir could find true love. If handled improperly, the original film could have sent the audience dashing for the exits because the title character could have come off as a selfish, destructive creep.

It was an astonishingly assured balancing act, which seems even more amazing because Gordon had never directed a feature movie before (he was a veteran stage and TV writer) and sadly would never make another. He died of a heart attack just 18 months after Arthur debuted.

Gordon’s passing is tragic, but it’s comforting to know that he won’t have to see his story mutilated by people who have failed to understand how tricky his accomplishment was.

Arthur

As with the first Arthur, the filmmakers have reached across the pond for their title character. Englishman Dudley Moore’s turn in the 1981 movie was a comic marvel. Moore projected an innocence that belied Arthur’s hard drinking ways. As a result, it was easy to wish that he could fall in love with Liza Minnelli because you’d hope that Arthur could eventually live outside of his booze-soaked haze.

Moore’s fellow countryman Russell Brand isn’t so cuddly. With Brand’s personal history (he’s been candid about his own adventures with substance abuse), he’d seemed like a good fit, but onscreen Brand doesn’t have an innocent bone in his body. He was almost convincing as the voice of an Easter bunny in Hop, but his haggard features simply don’t fit his current role.

Much of what works for him as a standup comic and in his previous roles (like Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is that he comes off as rude and dangerous. He says and does things a viewer would never dare to replicate. As a result, you can laugh at his audacity, but identifying with him is another matter. It’s easier to believe him as a recovering drunk who has seen the horror of alcoholism than it is to buy him as a harmless underachiever.

In the new film as in the previous one, Arthur Bach must marry a socially acceptable bride in order to keep his nearly one billion dollar fortune. Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) is a trusted associate of Arthur’s mother (Geraldine James) and has all the ambition that Arthur lacks. While Bach International’s shareholders might salivate over the nouveau riche Susan marrying the old money Arthur, he’s actually falling for an illegal tour guide named Naomi (Greta Gerwig) who wants to write children’s books. Meanwhile, Arthur’s nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) is trying to keep him from getting deeper into trouble, which would seem an impossible task.

Screenwriter Peter Baynham (Brüno) sticks pretty closely to Gordon’s story outline, and to be fair, the original story wasn’t all that innovative. That said, he lacks Gordon’s effortlessness with a wisecrack and his sense of tone. In the original film Sir John Gielgud had Mirren’s role, but Gordon gave him juicier material. Somehow, she’s still about to get a laugh without the sterling text. After a few minutes, it seems like Gielgud and his cast mates had it easy. Watching Jennifer Garner and Nick Nolte (as Garner’s ruthless father) struggling through obnoxious, one-note roles makes you wonder if the previous cast would have faltered with this new script.

Like Gordon, director Jason Winer has never helmed a feature before. This is about all he and Gordon have in common. If you listen closely, you can hear a few bars of the 1981 movie’s theme song in the background; about all it does is remind you that the best that you can do is rent the first movie. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 04/08/11)


Your Highness
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Though they’re listed as writers for Your Highness, it appears neither Danny McBride or Ben Best have left their college days behind them. Both attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and, like many of us, could be said to have found inspiration — or so we thought — and plenty to laugh at, whether funny or not, while passing the bong among friends.

Your Highness

Apparently, the sorties continue; how else to explain a screenplay that relies on repeating the words “fuck” and “fucking” as the laugh inducer and dialogue filler in the film, accompanying by all the stereotypic mugging found among young men worrying about the size of their penis, never getting laid and the terrifying thought of having to grow up. Toss in a plot as old using profanity to fill gaps in intellect and creativity about a quest to save a damsel in distress, and some viewers will be rendered dumbfound why some A-list actors agreed to be in this film.

Your Highness is a bad movie that perhaps could be made more tolerable in the company of a bong.

McBride plays Thadeous, the doofus, frat-boy number-two son of King Tallious (Charles Dance) who is constantly in the shadow of perfect number-one son Fabious (James Franco). Franco, who received near universal praise for 127 Hours must have taken to the bong also in agreeing to be in this film. Franco comes across like he’s in a high school play, constantly tuned to ham it up, mix in some sincerity and boyish naivety, convinced he can wink and smile his way across the screen demonstrating that all of this is just goofin’ for the enjoyment of the ticket-paying public. It doesn’t work. While it’s easy not to expect much from McBride, Franco, considering his talent, embarrasses himself.

The plot centers on rescuing Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) from the evil Leezar (Justin Theroux) who plans to deflower her in order to gain power to control the world. Along the way our princes encounter a stoned-out Yoda-type character fond of being touched, naked warrior nymphs, a horny Minotaur and a knight at death’s door who comes out of the closet — Boremont, played by the very capable Damian Lewis who, like Franco, should have known better.

It’s only when Natalie Portman shows up as Isabel that some element of class emerges on the screen. She becomes the plot device that helps mature Thadeous — because he so wants to bed her — and the one character capable of kicking butt on a consistent basis while, of course, looking all the more ravishing. Portman is the only reason to see this film … barely.

Amid the f-word, dick jokes, bare bosoms, Your Highness does have some adequate CGI that, unfortunately, is almost negated by some lousy camera work during the fight scenes. One would have hoped that director David Gordon Green could have gotten that right assuming he also directed the car chases and explosions in Pineapple Express. But as we all know, quality control can be fleeting when partaking in “wizard weed.” (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 04/08/11)

Miral
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

More a naïve, overly earnest sermon on freedom than anti-Israeli propaganda, director Julian Schnabel's latest film relies on distracting camera tricks to cover up Rula Jebreal's callow script, which is replete with an unfocused narrative and absurd political aphorisms. Ambitious in its desire to cover events from 1947 to the early 1990s in Jerusalem, Miral lacks proper details to keep the narrative grounded and give its simplified ideas weight.

Miral

Despite her position as titular character, Miral (Freida Pinto) appears in only one of four chapters that make up the film. The others belong to Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), Miral’s alcoholic mother, who ends up in an Israeli prison after fleeing an abusive home. Fatima (Ruba Blal), serving several life sentences for leaving an unexploded bomb in a crowded movie theater, is Nadia's roommate in prison. She is also Miral's aunt. Preceding these is Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), founder of a girls' boarding school that Miral attends after her mother kills herself.

Notwithstanding warnings about political protest from her father, Jamal (Alexander Siddig), as well as Hind (now badly aged with the use of heavy makeup), Miral develops a crush on a young activist, Hani (Omar Metwally) and is caught with contraband leaflets by Israeli soldiers. Threatened and beaten by police officers for 24 hours, Miral becomes more dogmatic than ever and only gradually warms to her cousin's Jewish girlfriend, Lisa (Stella Schnabel), while staying with an aunt to recuperate. When she returns to Jerusalem, she and Hani have one more clandestine meeting, where they whisper sweet platitudes about the two-state compromise to each other, before he is killed because he's rumored to be a police informant. The film ends with scenes of Hani's funeral inexplicably accompanied by Tom Waits' gravelly voice singing “All the World is Green.”

The sweeping chronological order of the movie is extremely confusing and by the end seems a complete waste of time. To grant Hind that large a role in the beginning, supported by heavyweight actors Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave, weakens the movie by the time the audience realizes her storyline is merely supporting what seems like a less important, less interesting character. In fact, of the four women who warrant chapters, Miral is the least interesting.

The movie has a few bright moments. Miral's pushy new friend Lisa is complex. Despite such a small role, she manages to impart a realness that the other main characters lack. Nadia, too, has her moments, particularly at a club in which she's become a dancer.

These faults can be largely attributed to the imperfect screenplay. However, the random, art school camera work is all Schnabel's. He switches among hand held, blurred and washed-out shots, which come off as pretentious and annoying. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 04-08-11)

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Like Bob Dylan, the late Phil Ochs initially made his mark as a protest singer, using his self-penned tunes to confront the injustices he witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. Dylan’s early tunes are often still resonant because the metaphors he has used can be applied to today’s villains as well as those from the past. “Maggie’s Farm” or “Like a Rolling Stone” could be applied to a seemingly endless number of situations.

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune

Ochs, however, faced his subjects head on, directly criticizing the Cold War, segregation and other evils. While you might have to dig through a history book to understand some of the names he drops in a song, Ochs’ songs, too, are surprisingly current. As the new documentary Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune demonstrates, Ochs’ songs never became hits, but they should have.

Joan Baez, who came the closest to making one of his songs sell (with her cover of “There But for Fortune”), gushes throughout the film about his gifts, and from hearing a few of his compositions, it’s hard not to follow her example. “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” is a brutally funny dismissal of left-leaning people who can’t bring themselves to radical action when the situation requires them to do so. Punk vocalist Jello Biafra recalls how little he had to update the song when he sang an impassioned cover of it in the mid-1990s.

“Draft Dodger Rag” might take a little more effort to bring up to the 21st century, but “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” is still applicable because the images Ochs evokes in the song sadly haven’t changed in a half-century. Ochs himself had a limited vocal range, but his throat offered sweeter sounds than Dylan’s hoarse, nasal whine. He was also committed to fighting social wrongs with his music long after Dylan had changed genres and political movements.

Ochs often passed up some lucrative gigs to play at labor events and other gatherings that could have gotten him killed. When helping striking miners, Ochs had to sleep in metal bathtub to avoid being hurt by a stray bullet or two.

That said, one of the fascinating aspects of Ochs’ life and career that director Kenneth Bowser unearths is that Ochs longed to have the fame that Dylan had. Actually, he wanted the same adulation that Elvis Presley had. Considering that fame often make the King miserable, perhaps Ochs should have wanted something else. He also admired John Wayne and was mystified at the Duke’s support for the Vietnam War.

In some of his later gigs, Ochs showed up dressed in gold jumpsuits. While his commitment to fixing the world never wavered, many folk music fans were angry with him for the lush pop arrangements on the albums he recorded at A&M Records. Dylan’s switch from folk to rock led to a similar backlash.

Bowser offers a boilerplate talking-head documentary, but Ochs’ story, which is recalled by his relatives and collaborators, doesn’t need any embellishment to be heartbreaking. Like Dylan, Ochs suffered from anti-Semitism during his youth and as a result frequently indentified with outsiders and the downtrodden.

While many of his fellow activists also became disillusioned as the ‘60s wore on (Tom Haden and other former radicals share their memories in the film), Ochs was additionally afflicted with bipolar disorder and made the mistake of treating it with alcohol. The footage of an inebriated Ochs mouthing off to the camera is disturbingly tragic. It’s a shame to see such a bright mind reduced to drunken babbling. He also lost some of his favorite targets. When the Vietnam War ended, he literally ran out of things to say and wound up taking his own life.

Because of his association with radicals like Abbie Hoffman, Ochs had a thick FBI file. Sadly, the film doesn’t really touch on J. Edgar Hoover’s scrutiny. The information in the file is often hilariously inaccurate (his name is incorrectly spelled “Oaks.”), so revealing this aspect his life would have certainly been interesting.

Time has been kind to Dylan and his legacy, and by simply living to tell about it, Dylan has gained new admirers. As Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune demonstrates, Ochs’ music takes a little more effort to dig up, but it’s more than worth the trouble. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/01/11)


Bill Cunningham New York
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Even if, like me, the only fashion designer you’ve ever followed is Levi Strauss, Bill Cunningham New York is a consistent delight. The subject of this documentary, New York Times fashion and lifestyle photographer Bill Cunningham is frequently more intriguing than the world he covers.

Bill Cunningham

A genial and relentlessly cheery fellow, Cunningham has spent decades documenting not what designers are selling but what people are actually wearing on the streets. From looking at his volumes of images (he keeps them in a network of file cabinets), a person can follow what trends actually caught on instead of the ones that received attention.

He zooms around the Big Apple on his bicycle spotting anyone he thinks is dressing in an interesting manner. He’ll even snap a picture while he’s on the bike. His friendly manner makes normally wary New Yorkers comfortable as he photographs them trying to avoid puddles and other obstacles on their way to work.

In many ways, he’s an anti-paparazzo because he couldn’t care less if a subject is famous. When he’s covering events in Paris, Cunningham ignores screen legend Catharine Deneuve because he thinks her clothes aren’t interesting that evening. He sticks with covering charity parties for causes he endorses, regardless of who’s on the guest list, unless the guests happen to be wearing something that would look good in the pages of the Times.

If Cunningham’s energy, workload and enthusiasm for his trade make him seem like a young man in a hurry, he’s actually in his early 80s. While he still shoots on film (which others develop), he now records digital audio essays for the Times web site. As director Richard Press follows him around, it seems miraculous he’s survived this long. His diet consists almost entirely of cheap takeout (he won’t eat or drink at the swank parties because he considers doing so an ethical violation). He’s also managed to dodge some of the most hostile motorists in the world.

Press paints a reverent portrait of Cunningham, but he still manages to ask some uncomfortable, if essential questions. Cunningham has never married and claims to have never had any romantic relationships (gay or straight) in his life. He attends a Catholic church every Sunday. Considering the decadence involved with the beat he covers, it’s a bit of a surprise that religion plays such a huge role in his life. He rarely mentions his faith unless someone else brings it up. Because fashion has been his lifelong obsession, it’s surprising to learn the other passions in his life.

While Cunningham comes off as downright lovable, it quickly becomes obvious that he’s also opinionated and demanding. If he weren’t so bubbly and charming, he’d probably be a pain to work with.

Press also reveals that Cunningham is an astonishingly modest dresser (no one with any sense is going to wear a tailored suit on a bicycle) and lives in a cramped apartment in Carnegie Hall with barely any room to sleep. Because he’s always on the go, that’s all he needs. Press may have captured Cunningham at the most dramatic period of his long life because the directors of Carnegie Hall spend the much of the film trying to kick out him and other artists who’ve kept studios there for years.

Because of Cunningham’s sunny disposition, it’s remarkable that Press also captures him when he’s cranky or would rather not be filmed. Even then, it’s hard not to like the roving photographer because anybody else would probably tell Press and his crew to go home as well. Even when he’s annoyed, Cunningham is better company than most people are when they’re content. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/01/11)


Source Code
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

While Hollywood has always been happy with sci-fi in terms of exploding aliens and big spaceships with lots of lasers, it has a definitely questionable history when it takes a shot at the more cerebral side of that genre.

There are, of course, some remarkable exceptions to that rule. British director Duncan Jones’ first feature Moon was indeed that and more — a clever and taut thriller that unexpectedly could hold an audience without any exploding whatever. The buzz was soon strong about his follow up feature, an enigmatic film called Source Code.

Source Code

We start with Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a military helicopter pilot who suddenly wakes up in the body of a different man on a train in Chicago, which eight minutes later is blown up by a terrorist. You see Colter is actually inside a machine called the “Source Code,” which gives him the ability to enter the mind of the man on the train. There, over and over (think Groundhog Day), he can act for the last eight minutes to find the identity of the bomber, who has an even bigger bomb waiting. Also on the train is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), Steven’s love interest, who he must find some way of saving from a fate that she has already suffered.

First, let’s start with the positive: Gyllenhaal is superb in a difficult and challenging role; the unraveling of the terrorist’s identity through the multiple “jumps” is both compelling and humorous, and the pacing is excellent, wasting no time drawing us into the story.

As for the main problem … it's the Source Code itself. Coulter has a handler, a sympathetic female commander who can speak to him while he’s in the Code, who in turn has some kind of civilian scientist-boss named Dr. Rutledge (Jeffery Wright). Rutledge tries to explain to Colter what exactly the Source Code is (mostly in several lines of contradictory gibberish), and it is those scenes that rob the film of most of its plausibility. I’m not going to go into specifics for fear of any spoilers here, but when the main plot device changes half way through the story, it means that maybe director Jones wasn’t sure what it was to begin with.

If only the filmmakers would have had someone simply say, “Look, we don’t know how this works, if it’s a simulation, a time machine or alternate reality- we just know it does and we have to stop this bomber!” the viewers could sit back and enjoy the plot. Instead, we get an explanation that only muddles up the whole concept. I also have a big problem with the “upbeat” ending, which simply makes no sense whatsoever.

Still, despite all that, this is a fun and cerebral little film — just forget about the good doctor’s exposition and enjoy the show. (PG 13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 4/01/11)

Hop
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Despite being made by the same studio that gave us the appealingly clever Despicable Me, Hop is pretty much guaranteed to give its viewers a case of seasonal depression, in the middle of spring. Perhaps the real Easter Bunny should ignore the filmmakers’ houses this year.

hop

The first of several mistakes that director Tim Hill (the auteur behind Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties) makes is awkwardly mixing live action with CGI animation. While the animated segments of the film are full of cuddly characters, jaw dropping images and bright Easter colors, the live action sequences are gracelessly cheap.

Hill doesn’t have much facility with live actors. Normally, capable thespians like James Marsden and Gary Cole work so broadly that they look as if they’re competing against their animated costars. After a while, it’s easy to feel sorry for these down-on-their luck thespians and be vindictive toward their agents.

At least the beginning looks impressive. A young rabbit sits atop one of the mysterious sculptures on Easter Island, banging furiously on bongos. It seems that young E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand) has little desire to follow in the footprints of his father, the current Easter Bunny (Hugh Laurie). E.B. has both the talent and the desire to put Gene Krupa to shame. Sadly, there aren’t too many openings for drummers on Easter Island.

E.B. escapes to Los Angeles where he befriends another young misfit, a two-legged one named Fred O’Hare (James Marsden, Enchanted). Fred still lives with his frustrated parents (Elizabeth Perkins and Gary Cole) and is under pressure to find some sort of employment. Naturally, his laziness gets in the way.

Of course, with a name like O’Hare, it’s safe to say that he and E.B. will become inseparable. The rabbit begs Fred to help him find drumming gigs, while the human begins to wonder if being the Easter Bunny might be his own calling. He’ll have to get past the Easter Bunny’s vindictive assistant Carlos (Hank Azaria), a short-tempered chick who thinks somebody other than rabbits should be running Easter.

Animation has been awfully good to Russell Brand. In both Despicable Me and Hop, he demonstrates that he can play more than a burned out rocker. His E.B. has a sweetness and charm that his live action performances haven’t yet demonstrated. Perhaps if all of Hop had been animated, the onscreen actors might have been served better. Instead, they make viewers long for the story to get back to Easter Island. Seeing David Hasselhoff attempting to play himself and doing it badly only makes the wait more excruciating.

At least Hill wisely avoided filming Hop in 3D. Watching Hasselhoff or Marsden’s grotesque mugging in 3D might traumatize younger viewers. Some of the same writers who worked on Despicable Me worked on this one, but the wit they demonstrated in the previous film is missing here. Seeing rabbits defecating jellybeans isn’t nearly as funny as discovering the former name of the Bank of Evil.

There are at least some charming moments that would make great YouTube clips if they weren’t marred by being included with the rest of Hop. E.B. has a duet with a legendary combo that justifies the chapter select feature on DVDs. If Hop had more sequences like this, viewers wouldn’t be jumping toward the exits. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 04/01/11)


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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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