movie reviews May 2011

Queen to Play  •  Kung Fu Panda 2  •  The Hangover 2
In a Better World  •  Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Cost of a Soul  •  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Meek's Cutoff  •  Bridesmaids  •  Earthwork  •  Everything Must Go
Cave of Forgotten Dreams  •  Thor  •  There Be Dragons  •  Jumping the Broom  •  Something Borrowed  • 

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

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Queen to Play
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a great story about how a young man was making a few bucks cleaning up his father’s legal office. The attorneys carelessly left their files on their desks assuming the lad couldn’t or wouldn’t read them. Perhaps if they knew the janitor would grow up to be Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, the lawyers might have been more discrete.

Queen to Play

The new French movie Queen to Play elegantly reminds viewers that people employed, as janitors are often smarter than the people who sign their paychecks. Similarly, freshman writer-director Caroline Bottaro finds dozens of ingenious ways to move her story, adapted from Bertina Henrichs’ novel La Joueuse d’echec, without giving away what her final play will be.

Her achievement is even more astonishing when you consider that she’s made a captivating movie about the seemingly uncinematic game of chess. Sandrine Bonnaire (Intimate Strangers) stars as Hèléne, a middle-aged maid who makes her living cleaning up a hotel at a seaside resort. Her husband Ange (Francis Renaud) paints houses and boats, but work is drying up more quickly than the paint. Her daughter Lisa (Alexandra Gentil) is taking expensive school trips to London but resents her parents’ blue-collar roots and wants to move beyond them.

Hèléne’s domestic woes fade from her mind when she discovers an American couple (Jennifer Beals, Dominic Gould) at the hotel playing a flirtatious round of chess. Facing empty nest syndrome and a husband whose work related anxiety makes him a brooding lump at home, the game becomes a growing obsession for her. The difficult thing is that hardly anyone she knows who can play it.

She finally locates an opponent when she discovers one of her cleaning clients, the retired American expatriate Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), is not only accomplished at the game but has the patience to teach her. Kröger comes off as gruff and bitter but is instantly taken with how easily she takes to the game. Because the seaside Corsican community is small, tongues start wagging.

Bottaro avoids taking Queen to Play in obvious directions. If her chess playing is anything like her filmmaking, I’d hate to be her opponent. At first some of the locals on the island resent Hèléne’s preoccupation and the time she spends with the somewhat creepy doctor. That changes when they discover that a fellow working class woman can clobber the island’s elites.

Without advertising it, she also gives viewers subtle hints at what’s troubling the doctor. She figures the audience is as smart as Hèléne and don’t need to be bludgeoned.

The dialogue Bottaro has written with Caroline Maly is sparse but clever. Most of the drama is in Bonnaire’s face. If subtitles frustrate you, Queen to Play doesn’t have that many of them. Visually, Bottaro find dozens of ways of letting viewers know how the game is taking over Hèléne’s life. Even the tiles on the floor begin to look like a match in progress. As someone who avoids playing chess because my then nine-year-old nephew humiliated me, I was pleasantly surprised at how credible the matches looked.

Apparently, Bottaro approaches her craft as if she’s playing to win. Fortunately, movies can allow all competitors to emerge as victors. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 5/27/11)


Kung Fu Panda 2
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you see one sequel this weekend, stick with the one that has the kung fu fighting monkey instead of the dope-peddling monkey. The makers of Kung Fu Panda 2 have apparently concluded that there was room to improve on the successful predecessor and that there was no reason to proceed with the new installment if they couldn’t do certain things better. As a viewer, I must do as the Chinese and say, “xièxiè.”

Kung fu panda

This time around screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger find some new territory to explore with their voracious and pudgy title character (Jack Black). Po the Panda is no longer a bloated klutz who longs to be martial artist. By being the Dragon Warrior, he is one by default.

His bulky size belies an astonishing agility that makes the other animals in ancient China look at him in awe. He’s now equal with his compatriots in the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan).

That said, his old master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) politely informs Po that he won’t reach his full potential until he achieves inner peace.

That’s a tall order. Po has always been curious because his father is actually a goose named Mr. Ping (a delightful James Wong). Even in the cartoon world, it’s obvious that Po is adopted, so naturally he’d like to know why.

Po doesn’t have much time to ponder the question. A vain but lethal peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), who has parental issues similar to Po’s, wants to rule China under his flowing feathers. He also has a new weapon: a cannon that shoots incendiary shells.

Scratch that. He’s got dozens of such cannons and copious ammo because he and his posse of wolves and gorillas have plundered all the metal in the realm. Punches and kicks are useless against flaming balls of iron.

Actually, Po doesn’t think so, but his personal issues start getting in the way of his fighting. With the advice of a wise old goat (played with subtle dignity by Michelle Yeoh), Po may be able to fight with weapons he never realized he had.

Although it’s regrettable that Shifu doesn’t get as much screen time in this outing, it’s refreshing to see Po bonding with his butt-kicking colleagues. Tigress is no longer contemptuous of Po and gives him emotional support when he really needs it. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was the story supervisor on the last film, handles potentially sensitive subjects like adoption with aplomb. If Po were to remain as buffoonish as he was in the first film, his antics wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable, and he certainly wouldn’t be as sympathetic.

Stairs are still a problem for him, though.

If you listen closely, you might get to hear Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Haysbert and others as animal kung fu masters, but the real delight is in the visuals. Yuh Nelson uses 3D with a finesse that actually merits the glasses and the higher ticket prices. There are several grand battles and hair-raising chases. Delicately combining Chinese architecture and scenery with western cartooning, just about every frame is breathtaking.

Throughout Kung Fu Panda 2, it’s easy to believe that the filmmakers were thinking of more than toy tie-ins. It probably helps that a bulky panda trying (unsuccessfully) to sneak through a town without being seen is inherently funny. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/27/11)


The Hangover 2
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Because Todd Phillips’ The Hangover made nearly half a billion dollars at the box office, a sequel was inevitable. Too bad it wasn’t necessary.

Hangover

The Hangover Part II follows a little too closely in its predecessor’s staggering footsteps. Whereas the first film was as unpredictable as it was gross, Part II is merely the latter. In fact, Phillips repeats lines and camera angles from the first installment in the hope the audience will laugh reflexively, the way Pavlov’s dogs salivated.

Admittedly, doing so is still occasionally funny, but Phillips and his co-screenwriters Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong follow the original’s outline so closely that viewers can anticipate when the shocks are coming, thus reducing their impact. It’s like hearing the same dirty joke, over and over and…

This time Phillips sends his wolf pack to Thailand instead of Vegas. Repressed dentist Stu (Ed Helms) is about to marry his fiancée Lauren (Jamie Chung) in her ancestral homeland. Her Thai-born parents can’t stand him, and his old pals Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are miffed that they have to fly across the Pacific for the nuptials.

They’re also annoyed because Stu, vividly remembering the horrors he and the rest of the wolf pack encountered in the first movie, won’t have a bachelor party, but he can be persuaded to include Doug’s demented brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis) at the wedding. Alan is still a walking WMD, even when he’s sober.

Despite trying to keep on the up-and-up, Stu, Phil and Alan wake up in a squalid Bangkok hotel room with no memory of how they got there. Alan discovers that his head is shaved like a Buddhist monk’s, and Stu gazes in horror at the mirror when he sees an embarrassing familiar tattoo on his face. While these setbacks are embarrassing, Lauren’s 16-year-old brother Tommy (Mason Lee) is missing and could be dead.

From here, the trio slowly discovers that they’ve left behind a trail of debauchery, property damage and possibly dead bodies. Despite being half the globe away from Las Vegas, the story remains the same. Because you can pretty much set your watch to when something gross is about to happen, it’s not as funny. Phillips and company also make the mistake of actually repeating gags from the first film either hoping that repetition increases the humor value or that audiences won’t notice the lack of new ideas.

Also it’s a little disconcerting to notice that none of the wolf packers have grown or changed since the last movie. The uptight Stu is still a coiled spring, Phil is still cool-headed but immoral and Alan still utters eerie non sequiturs. As a result, they become less sympathetic because they really haven’t learned anything since 2009.

In the first film, their lack of familiarity was an asset. There was hope that Phil could become a mensch, Stu could learn to calm down (and find someone as earnestly loving as he is) and that Alan could find a capable exorcist. Instead, they come off as boorish, Ugly Americans, who could probably use a lot of humbling. Disappointingly, the best performance comes from a brilliant capuchin monkey named Crystal who can deal dope and humiliate all the humans in the film.

The story behind the making of The Hangover Part II is a lot more interesting than the film itself. Mel Gibson was supposed to play a cynical tattoo artist, but the cast and crew were understandably uneasy about working with a guy who left vitriolic, abusive, homicidal voicemails to his girlfriend. This is the same bunch that also previously worked with convicted rapist “Iron Mike” Tyson.

Liam Neeson took over the role, but when reshoots were necessary, the second actor was in the middle of shooting another film for the same studio. So the scene had to be reshot from scratch with moonlighting director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) in the role.

The ultimate mark of a decent sequel is if it offers anything that can’t be witnessed in the first offering. Part II, on the other hand, does little more than faintly remind viewers of the buzz they might have received from the original Hangover. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 05/25/11)


In a Better World
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Danish director Susanne Bier’s In a Better World may concern the lives of children, but it skillfully examines issues that adults never fully master. The movie won Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards and captivates because with it Bier shows that easy solutions to human foibles are elusive and probably don’t exist.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor who splits his time between an African refugee camp and the small Danish town where he lives with his son Elias (Markus Rygaard) and his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm, The Celebration). The life in the camp is sometimes bleak but rewarding, but his life in Denmark practically sends him back to Africa. His marriage to Marianne is collapsing even though he’s earnestly trying to patch things up, and Elias is having a miserable time in school.

Because he’s a Swedish Elias’ classmate already look down on him (Swedes compete for jobs in Denmark), and his small size makes him a prime target for bullies. The school officials seem more interested in criticizing Anton’s absences from home instead of addressing the problem.

That changes when a lad named Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) starts attending Elias’ school. The two instantly become friends, in part, because Christian has a proactive strategy for dealing with bullies: He ambushes them and assaults them within inches of their lives.

Anton warns the boys that violence only begets violence and attempts to show them through his own example by not violently reacting when a local thug slaps him. While Anton shows genuine courage by keeping his cool, Christian isn’t convinced and his mean streak only gets worse. Because Christian knows his way around knives, clubs and gunpowder, it’s only a matter of time before his misplaced vengeance hurts someone besides a schoolyard bully.

Back in Africa, Anton wrestles with the fact that the lessons he tries to teach Elias seem like wishful thinking during a war that’s maiming and killing his patients. One particular warlord known only as “the Big Man” (Odiege Matthew) is so sadistic that he cuts open the bellies pregnant women to taunt their husbands. Imagine the quandary when the tyrant becomes a patient in Anton’s camp. His Hippocratic Oath requires Anton to treat Big Man’s infected leg despite the fact that many of his other patients are only there because the warlord’s treachery.

Despite his imposing screen presences, Persbrandt effortlessly captures Anton’s vulnerabilities, particularly his dejection about losing Marianne. While Anton does heroic things, he still seems thoroughly human, as does his wife as she fruitlessly tries to defend her son against administrators who seem indifferent to the lad’s plight. Marianne could have been a secondary role, but Dryholm takes command of just about any scene she inhabits.

The youngsters seem eerily natural and don’t have any of the mannerisms you can spot on the Disney Channel. Nielsen, in particular, is scarier than most of the adults. He and Bier prevents Christian from becoming a caricature by including offhanded hints about how he got the way he is. Explicit information would have reduced In a Better World to a shallow morality play. By keeping things vague, Bier forces viewers to figure out on their own how to prevent their own youngsters from becoming clones of this kid.

Bier and co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, who teamed up with her on Open Hearts and After the Wedding, don’t have the answer to these kinds of issues. If they did, they’d probably have great careers as diplomats. Instead, they accomplish quite a bit by simply acknowledging that an eye-for-an eye may make the world blind, but it can often be tempting. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 05/20/11)


Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Product placement is an easy target for derision. Even and Wayne’s World and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! featured a few potshots at how corporate sponsorships can influence movies and television. Fortunately, Morgan Spurlock, who almost killed himself gorging on fast food in Super Size Me, has come up with a unique way of looking at the phenomenon.

It’s one thing to mock painfully obvious pitches. It’s another to use them to finance a documentary. As he made Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock filmed himself seeking support from advertisers into making a film that examined how advertising works.

The results are often sidesplitting. If Spurlock isn’t welcome at McDonald’s anymore, throughout the film he proves to be a rather able pitchman. Throughout the film he actually has to use the stuff he’s plugging, so he as to fly JetBlue to various destinations and has to stay at Hyatt hotels even when others might offer a better deal.

As he actually obtains support from JetBlue, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice, Hyatt hotels and other companies, he seamlessly and not so seamlessly (he tells consumer advocate Ralph Nader a blatant lie about a product) pitches his supporters in the film itself.

He wears a sports jacket featuring the names of all his benefactors while commenting on how prevalent and misleading advertising has become. Spurlock embraces the challenge with an enthusiasm of a teenager who has acquired his or her first car. It’s hard not to hope that he obtains the support of Mane ‘n Tail shampoo, which can indeed be used for both humans and horses.

While Spurlock’s ironic clowning and pitching are genuinely entertaining, he also manages to sneak in some rather scary and intriguing points. He obtains a brain scan to see how advertising actually works on his own mind, and apparently even our dreams can be turned into billboards.

He also talks with other filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who actually wanted to feature the opening scenes of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction at a Denny’s but couldn’t get permission because the chain was leery of his profane, violent movies. Directors like J.J. Abrams (Super 8) and Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) speak warily of product placement, while Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) shows no reticence about putting, say a Coke can into Jackie Chan’s hands during a scene.

Having to make sure his film actually makes its money back, Spurlock even does a little advertising himself. He buys advertising on a fence for a cash-strapped school to ensure that his opening date doesn’t get missed. This, of course, makes one wonder if youngsters are being flooded with material that could adversely affect them as adults.

He also heads to Sao Paolo, Brazil where the city has banned outdoor advertising altogether. While the First Amendment would probably prevent such prohibitions here in the States, the ban has a noteworthy effect on merchants there. Shop proprietors tell Spurlock that they’re more dependent on customer goodwill and satisfaction than business owners in other cities. Perhaps discouraging advertising could result in better merchandise and customer service.

Then again, as some of the experts and people on the street tell Spurlock throughout the film, looking for happiness in consumerism is a futile task. A product may work as intended, but it won’t make a person any more content or fulfilled, unless the product in question is alcohol.

Despite the irony and the giggles, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold still manages to raise some haunting points about living in a society where having the freedom to lie is essential if not always beneficial. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/20/11)


Cost of a Soul
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Made for next to nothing, writer-director Sean Kirkpatrick’s debut Cost of a Soul is at its best when the director settles for gritty instead of arty. Filmed on the mean streets of north Philadelphia, the movie concerns a pair of veterans who may be home from Iraq but are facing a war zone as terrifying as the one they left.

Marines aren’t paid well so it should surprise Tommy Donahue (Chris Kerson) that his wife Faith (Judy Jerome) has deeply indebted the two of them to the local Irish loan shark Charles “Bernie” Burns (Greg Almquist). Despite his benign sounding nickname and moments of pleasant cajoling, no one says no to Bernie and lives. When Bernie says he needs a new enforcer and that a retired marine will do nicely, Tommy knows he can’t talk back.

Fellow vet DD Davis (Will Blagrove) was a Green Beret, but landing a civilian job proves frustratingly difficult for the young African-American. In addition, his younger brother James (Daveed Ramsay) is enamored of their older brother Darnell (Nakia Dillard). It’s too bad the senior sibling is involved in the dope trade.

While DD and Tommy might have Iraq in common, they live almost parallel lives. Under ordinary circumstances, their chances of meeting would be slim. Because both are reluctantly involved in crime, it’s only a matter of time before Bernie’s operation and Darnell’s will clash.

Having lived in or around Philly for most of his life, Kirkpatrick makes good use of his old hometown and sets up a believably downbeat environment for his returning vets. Despite being a newcomer, he has a remarkable ease with the performers, who really do look like they’re at the ends of their ropes. Almquist usually plays more innocuous roles but can go pleasant to homicidal in a heartbeat. Simply by opening his mouth, he can be more threatening than some men can be with their fists.

The microscopic budget and lack of recognizable actors are actually pluses. The real Philly locations are certainly more believably grim than a Hollywood substitute, and the lack of familiarity with the performers gives Cost of a Soul an unpredictability that wouldn’t have come with an A-list cast.

While cinematographer Chase Bowman manages to get the most out of his meager resources, Cost of a Soul occasionally suffers because the filmmakers want to show what they can do despite their tiny budget. There are abrupt switches between black-and-white and color that serve little purpose other than to demonstrate they can be done. Seeing people trying to make the best of horrible situations is already involving, so technical doodling can get distracting.

Cost of a Soul won the Big Break Movie Contest, which means it opens in 500 AMC Independent theaters today, and it played at KC FilmFest. The contest enables smaller films like this one to find audiences eager to see something other than a needless Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.

Although Cost of a Soul is a bleak and unsettling offering, the contest indicates there is a market for movies that aim to do more than divert. Kirkpatrick shows some genuine promise, and it’s refreshing to think that paying audiences don’t necessarily want multiple sequels. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/20/11)


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

One of the dumbest things a criminal can do is return to the scene of the crime or to commit the same offense over and over again. Doing either of these increases the chance of getting caught. Apparently this is especially true of piracy.

I have a great long sleeved T-shirt for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Now, I’m ashamed to wear it in public. The enjoyable novelty of seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003 is pretty well gone at this point.

Since then Gore Verbinski has decided that three Captain Jack Sparrow movies were enough for him and concluded that the animated Rango was more his speed. Unfortunately, Rob Marshall (Chicago) has apparently decided to cash in after directing failed prestige pictures such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine. Furthermore, series screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio decided to keep working despite running out of ideas a long time ago.

Apparently, all parties involved figured Johnny Depp’s mincing and preening could make up for a general indifference. The sad thing is that even a character as inspired as Depp’s Captain Jack needs a good story. You know the movie’s going to be a long painful voyage when Keith Richards’ cameo as Jack’s dad is a highlight.

To give an idea of how far down the barrel that Elliott and Rossio have dug, On Stranger Tides deals with Jack and others’ attempts to find the Fountain of Youth, somewhere in the West Indies. This time around Jack hears that every other sailor operating in London and even some in Spain think that he’s leading an expedition for the treasure that eluded Juan Ponce de Leon a couple of centuries earlier. Instead, Jack gets shanghaied into being a deckhand on the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

The captain on that vessel, the ruthless Blackbeard (Ian McShane), needs the water from the fountain to ward off a dire curse that will kill him in two weeks. Meanwhile, Jack’s rival Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has gone legitimate and is leading the King’s expedition in order to prevent the Spanish from finding the Fountain.

Actually, the Fountain itself isn’t much of a prize. The magical water is useless without a mermaid’s tear, and mermaids make sharks look weak and timid. Furthermore, another person has to give up his or her years so that someone else can live longer. Blackbeard may succeed because he’s got legions of enemies he’d sacrifice for a few extra years, and his long lost daughter Angelica (Penélope Cruz), who is as tough he is, will do just about anything to help out her dad.

Of course, she and Jack go back a long time, but the relationship isn’t that well thought out. Cruz is believably feisty, but neither she nor the rest of the cast are asked to do much. More effort has gone into the production design, the special effects and the costumes than into the actual story. Curiously, Elliott and Rossio’s script often has the characters discuss supernatural wonders instead of experiencing them. With all the money that gets thrown around in Jerry Bruckheimer produced film, you’d think we’d get to see Jack’s ship the Black Pearl literally shrunk into a bottle. Instead, we get to hear about it. A few more special effects might have distracted us from the undercooked story.

Marshall, who can stage dance number beautifully, choreographs the action decently, but he doesn’t bring anything new or interesting to the setup. Apparently, more effort went into negotiating his pay package than his actual movie.

A couple of weeks ago Lonely Island performed a Jack Sparrow-themed song with Michael Bolton that had more laughs and entertainment value than this expensive bore. You can watch the clip online for free, and you won’t have to give yourself eyestrain from the so-so 3D. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 05/20/11)


Meek's Cutoff
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With prodigious craft, director Kelly Reichardt once again sustains a muted tension immune to both cliché and melodrama. Meek's Cutoff quietly yet assuredly casts its spell of contained suspense and wild, rugged beauty.

Meek's Cutoff

Based on historical accounts surrounding fur trapper and self-professed wagon train guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the story follows Meek and three families, each burdened with an oxen-towed covered wagon, as they try to navigate the uncharted territory of the Oregon High Desert in 1845. The members of the families represent composite characters as well as real ones, such as headstrong Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and Thomas Gately (Paul Dano).

After confirming the caravan is indeed lost, the families, purportedly led by Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton), fire blowhard Meek in lieu of shooting him and change course in the chosen direction of the male majority. However, when the ragtag band of pioneers takes a native hostage (Rod Rondeaux) in the hope of his leading them to water, it becomes clear that practical, level-headed Emily is calling the shots. As the group follows their reluctant, possibly treacherous, new guide, they're increasingly stripped of the luxuries and comforts from their previous lives, and bared to an unrelenting sun-baked landscape and the stress of uncertainty.

Paired with Reichardt's non-traditional pacing, Jon Raymond's minimal script and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt's narrow frame cultivate an almost palpable sense of mystery and strain. Although at first glance this perfect storm seems excessively restrained with its long periods of silence, sun-bleached colors and boxed-in vista that prevent an easy forward momentum, the austere narrative plods forth until it breaks through in fatalistic but surprising suspense. The film depicts the triumvirate of drama distilled to its three most basic conflicts: Man Against Nature, Man Against Man, and Man Against Himself.

Except here in the desert, there are also women. Dressed in head to ankle printed calico, shy, young Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan), pregnant and inquisitive Glory White (Shirley Henderson) and Emily each cope with the monotony, exposure and hidden threats in different ways. Yet, the three are often grouped together, each toiling nonstop in silence at a mundane task, such as grinding coffee, kneading dough or bowing in prayer, late into the night or early in the morning at their campsites, looking as if they came straight out of an Amy Cutler print, only grittier.

Through these careful details, Meek's Cutoff brings to life its all-too-human characters and the enormity of the journey they have undertaken. As they strive to fulfill their nation's ideal of Manifest Destiny, it becomes clear they must wrangle first with their own. (PG) Rating: 5

Bridesmaids
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Unlike a lot of fellow Saturday Night Live veterans, Kristen Wiig can easily hold an audience’s attention for longer than 10 minutes. In her first starring vehicle, Bridesmaids, Wiig proves that commercial breaks, television censorship and sound bite heavy sketches have denied viewers the full extent of her talents. Freed from the restraints of sketch comedy, she effortlessly plays that most challenging of roles, an ordinary person.

Bridesmaids

Because Bridesmaids is produced by Judd Apatow, the mastermind behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad and Knocked Up, that ordinary person will have to contend with embarrassing sexual situations and unfortunate bodily functions. There will also be wall-to-wall profanity.

Thankfully, Bridesmaids is also written by Groundlings veteran Annie Mumolo and Wiig and directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig. The screenwriters find consistently creative ways for something as routine as engagements to go terribly wrong, while Feig’s empathy for misfits prevents Bridesmaids from every slipping into mean spiritedness.

Wiig stars as Annie, a frustrated 30-something whose life has fallen into a rut. An able cook, she lost her bakery in the recession and now unsuccessfully sells jewelry to couples who probably think their relationships will last as long as the stones. Because she’s involved in a humiliatingly one-sided relationship with the shallow but hunky Ted (Jon Hamm), she can’t imagine anybody else finding lasting love.

Perhaps she could simply open her eyes. Her best friend Lillian (fellow SNL veteran Maya Rudolph) announces her engagement and asks Annie to be her maid of honor. The task soon turns out to be more than she can handle. Lillian’s other friends have successful careers or rich spouses, so they all want to hold the bachelorette party in locations where Annie can’t afford to travel. Annie also resents how fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne) gradually usurps her role. Annie’s fragile self esteem keeps getting crushed as the other members of the bridal party continually remind her of how life has seemingly done her wrong.

Because she’s played by Wiig, Annie’s outbursts of frustration are unpredictable and hysterically funny. When a handsome Irish cop (Chris O’Dowd) pulls her over, Annie finds amusingly unusual ways to prove that she hasn’t been driving drunk. On TV and in supporting roles, Wiig fearlessly embraces her characters’ quirks and eccentricities. As a leading lady, however, she also demonstrates a vulnerability and a more nuanced style of acting that prevents Annie from becoming a jealous caricature.

Wiig dominates Bridesmaids, but she happily shares the spotlight. Melissa McCarthy is a scream as the groom’s butch, overbearing sister and Byrne thankfully gets to demonstrate there are real insecurities lurking under Helen’s smug, seemingly perfect façade. Even small roles like Hamm’s uncredited cameo are a scream. Keep an eye out for Mumolo as a nervous flyer and for Peter Frampton’s daughter Mia Rose Frampton as an obnoxious customer in Annie’s store. Sadly, this is the last movie Jill Clayburgh, who plays Annie’s mother, ever made. At least, the role and the film are worthy.

Having endured 27 Dresses, Confessions of a Shopaholic and Something Borrowed, I can now say that all three might have benefitted from some curse words and flatulence. There was no way any of these films could have been any worse.

On second thought, it’s odd that the R-rated, profane movie has believable, if somewhat exaggerated, characters who encounter real-world problems, like being short of cash. In the heat of frustration, Annie makes regrettable decisions, but she’s capable of remorse and is willing to look outside her own little bubble. It’s a pleasure to watch her slowly bounce back from her funk. If it takes a few gross out gags to spur on such a transformation, perhaps that’s a good thing. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 05/12/11)


Earthwork
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Before I get to commenting on Earthwork, the new biopic about Lawrence, Kan.-based crop artist Stan Herd, I have a couple of disclosures to make. First, my old boss Jon Niccum plays a journalist in the film. Second, if you’ve ever seen a photo of Herd’s “The Ottawa Beanfield Cola War,” I’m one of the 700 people who can been seen in the aerial photograph portraying giant, crushed soda cans. I didn’t encounter Herd during the creation of that work. He left it to others to tell us what to do.

earthworks

It’s hard to be a Kansan and not have an opinion of Herd’s artwork. He works on huge canvases that can only be seen from the air. He creates his pictures by getting people to wear shirts that make up the colors he’ll need for certain objects, or he’ll grow crops that can do the trick as well. Neither is easy, and his artwork has been made all over the place here. Because he works in an area with a small population and a lot of open land, he quickly made a reputation here. Earning money for his labor was another matter.

Earthwork begins in the early 1990s when Herd’s career hit a troubling crossroads. The artist (played by John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone) wanted to send his wife Janis (Laura Kirk) to medical school but could barely pay his bills. It’s not that easy to sell artwork that’s plowed over once it’s been photographed.

Working with a photographer friend of his from New York named Peter B. Kaplan (Bruce MacVittie), Herd heads to the Big Apple to create something people outside of the Sunflower State can see. He barges into a meeting held in real estate developer Donald Trump’s tower with a proposal for a vacant lot the tycoon owns.

He’d love to do the same thing with it he’s done with Kansas land. While Trump (who isn’t depicted in the film) has always loved bragging about his riches, his representatives find it hard to resist Herd when he offers to work simply for the use of the land. Even tycoons like saving money.

That said, Herd’s art isn’t cheap to make. Without notifying Janis, he takes out a loan to fund the effort and signs her up for school. He discovers that materials that are cheap and easy to come by in flyover country are prohibitively expensive in New York. His hope is that the temporary costs will justify a potential windfall later.

He also finds a group of homeless men who live on the plot. Gradually, he gets to know them and even recruits them to help him get the picture done. Freshman writer-director Chris Ordal (a KU almnus) wisely focuses the film on the relationship Herd develops with the men who live as squatters in Trump’s lot. They are an expectedly eccentric lot: a poet who calls himself El-Trac (Sam Greenlee), a graffiti artist named Ryan (Chris Bachand), an angry loner appropriately dubbed Lone Wolf (James McDaniel) and a fellow in a suit the others call the Mayor (Zach Grenier).

Ordal doesn’t give us all of their histories, which is actually a plus. There really isn’t a pat reason why these guys are here, but gradually we get to see how easy it is to walk by fellow human beings and miss what they have to offer. Ordal also refuses to pity the squatters, which prevents Earthwork form getting maudlin.

Although, Herd cooperated with the making of the film, Earthwork thankfully doesn’t put a halo on him. His occasionally irresponsible acts make viewers wonder if Herd’s unique work is worth the sacrifice, and it’s hard to imagine raising a family is easy because of the father’s impulsive decisions.

Hawkes, who played a mesmerizingly repellent meth dealer in Winter’s Bone, effortlessly juggles Herd’s drive for his work, his risky behavior and his compassion for his collaborators. It’s a rare film that makes viewers love a fellow who takes needless chances. After seeing it, I really wish I had gotten to know Herd in that beanfield outside of Ottawa in 1988. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/13/11)


Everything Must Go
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In the time it takes for the opening credits of writer/director Dan Rush's film Everything Must Go, you could have read all seven pithy parts of the Raymond Carver short story, “Why Don't You Dance?” on which the movie is loosely based. Google it, and it's there on the Internet in its entirety. Better yet, pick up or download (I'm not judging) a copy of Where I'm Calling From, the collection in which the story first appeared. Despite its brevity—or maybe even because of its economy—it will haunt you much like the unnamed girl is haunted in the story.

Everythingmustgo

1993's Short Cuts proved that adapting Carver's stories to film is a difficult task. In the hands of a virtuoso like Robert Altman, it resulted in a confused hodgepodge of plot lines and characters. Forced to extrapolate to fill a protracted timeline with motive, character and subplot, Rush falls prey to exposition, and many of his choices prove problematical. Inevitable comparisons to the source material aside, Everything Must Go just isn't a very good movie.

Relapsed alcoholic Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) finds himself jobless and homeless in suburban Phoenix. His wife, still in an off-screen recovery, has changed all the locks on the door and gate of their house and left all of his possessions in the front yard. With his bank account frozen, Halsey decides to live in the yard under an obscure ordinance regarding yard sales revealed to him by his and his wife's joint sponsor Frank Garcia (Michael Peña), a Phoenix detective.

To pay for a steady stream of domestic beer, Nick employs neighborhood loiterer Kenny Loftus (Christopher Jordan Wallace)—his mother provides in-home care to an elderly woman who lives a few houses down—to run the sale in exchange for lessons in baseball. Nick also spies on, befriends, and then alienates new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), pregnant and with an absentee husband. He also looks up and visits a classmate from high school he hasn't seen since graduation (Laura Dern). Eventually, Nick sobers up, sells the junk that's been cluttering the lawn for days, and moves back into his house.

To make sense of the story line, Rush had to fill in the blanks in Nick's circumstances. Unfortunately, many of the filled-in pieces raise more questions than they answer. The viewer can get distracted wondering at the reality of Nick's wife being able to freeze him out of a joint account or even keep him out of an empty house he owns. Without money, where does she expect him to go? Where's Kenny's mother, and why is she letting her son hang around a homeless drunk? If Samantha's interested in being a photographer, why doesn't she shoot a single frame in the course of the movie?

However, these practical matters aren't even the biggest distraction. As Nick, Will Ferrell seems incapable of hitting the bottom needed for his transformation. Ferrell smirks throughout, as if all this is a big joke, which it is – and it isn't. In addition, Nick never seems drunk enough to viciously lay into the neighbor or to finally give in and give up his possessions. He comes off as merely tired, petty and unlikable. As a result, his major transformation rings false, and he fails to earn the Hollywood ending that Rush insists on giving him. R Rating: 1

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Leave it to Werner Herzog to figure out how to make an engrossing film about a hole in the ground. The 68-year-old German director has eaten his shoe on camera, successfully remade the seemingly untouchable classic Nosferatu and even collaborated with a dead man (Grizzly Man). While he’s responsible for classics like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, much of the reason Cave of Forgotten Dreams is such a powerful documentary is that Herzog has definitely selected the right hole.

cave of forgotten dreams

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s found an excellent subject for 3D photography.

The Chauvet Cave in southern France had been unseen by human eyes for several millennia till it was discovered by Jean-Marie Chauvet and two other spelunkers in 1994. Inside they discovered breathtaking rock formations and what may be the oldest works of art ever created. Dating back nearly 30,000 to 11,000 years ago, these paintings of horses, mammoths and woolly rhinos appear recent despite their age.

As Herzog observes in his narration, the illustrators of these walls may have been pioneers in his own field. Some of the animals have multiple legs, which was a prehistoric way of emulating movement. The paintings also hug the contours of the walls, so seeing them in 3D really helps.

What’s most remarkable about Cave of Forgotten Dreams is that it may be your only chance to see what’s there in the cave. The environment down there is so fragile that the only people who are allowed down there, except for Herzog’s skeleton crew, have been guards or scientists. In fact the film crew is so small that Herzog had to personally hold up the lights so the cave could be photographed. You can’t go there as a tourist. Furthermore, there is a surplus of radon gas there so being there for more than an hour or two could kill you, even if the French did let you in.

Herzog gets to interview several of the people who’ve studied the paintings and the cave and learns several juicy details. For one thing, people probably didn’t live in the caves because the only bones on the floor belong to bears. That could, however, mean the people who lived there were delicious. The researchers have even been able to determine which of the paintings were done by a single artist because he or she had a crooked finger.

That said, the most intriguing portions of Cave of Forgotten Dreams come when Herzog, who normally drones on philosophically throughout his documentaries, takes a break from pontificating and lets the walls of the Chauvet Cave speak for themselves. With nothing but Peter Zeitlinger’s moody score playing behind them, the paintings raise more questions than they answer. Why were horses worth painting while people barely appear in them? Did these paintings reflect the artists own experiences or are they works of imagination? It’s hard to tell when their descendants, being born 30,000 years later, have no memory or record of them. Was there something these folks were trying to tell us years later even though we’re at a loss to know what?

Herzog’s coda, which involves albino crocodiles, seems a little out of place at first. But given time, his logic is actually sound. In an odd way, the cave paintings represent the current world as well as the past, even if wooly rhinos are tough to come by these days. As new eyes observe them, they take on a meaning that the prehistoric illustrators never imagined. The same could be said for Herzog’s quirky but reverent take on them. (N/R) Rating 4.5 (Posted on 05/06/11)

Thor
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Like a lot of comic/sci-fi/fantasy geeks out there, I was not exactly thrilled to hear about a new movie starring Marvel comics’ favorite Norse deity, the mighty Thor. While the rush to get out individual features about all of the main characters in the upcoming Avengers movie makes sense, it also frankly sounded like a perfect recipe for disaster.
Thor
Sure, Iron Man was pretty great, but both Hulk movies were train-wrecks, and even in the comics Thor was pretty much a one-note character, a super-strong kinda dumb guy who talked like a Ren-Fest refugee. But then news came that the director would be…Kenneth Branagh!? Yup, the great Shakespearian actor was in charge of a film about a big blond Viking god who throws a hammer at bad guys. What would be the result of such an odd combination?

Well the result is…pretty damn cool, actually! Essentially, the movie covers the basic premise of the comics: an arrogant and reckless Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is sent to Earth by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to learn some humility. In the comics, Thor had to spend most of his time as Donald Blake, a mortal man only able to summon his true form with a magic cane. While the movie does play a quick homage to that storyline, here he’s simply stripped of his powers and his mighty hammer, which he must find to regain his abilities.

An attempt by the frost giants, ancient enemies of the Asgardians, to steal a magical cask drives Thor to a reckless attack that threatens to start a new war. Plot points aside, the battles both in Asgard and on Earth are truly epic: Thor pretty much pulls out every trick with his hammer that he does in the comics, with visually stunning effects. Every geek in the audience gasped with delight when he spun that hammer super-speed, then threw it while still hanging on so that he became a flying projectile that, well, smashed things real good.

Odin, who is less than pleased with all this smashing, exiles Thor to earth to help keep the peace with the frost giants. Thor’s evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) soon takes advantage, and Thor must find his hammer and return before Odin and Asgard falls under Loki’s control.

While I don’t want to go too much more into the plot, I will say that there are plenty of “easter-eggs” for the comic book fans (most everybody in my row knew exactly who the guy with the bow and arrow was), but like Iron Man it still works as an independent film all on its own.

The effects, particularly the setting of Asgard itself, are stunning, the fight scenes massive and fun, and there’s plenty of well-timed humor to fill the duller scenes on Earth. Yes, Chris Hemsworth got the job almost certainly because of his massive build, but surprisingly he owns the role, and his transformation from arrogance to understanding is actually pretty believable here.

As for the downsides, I would most certainly rather see this in a regular format: it was not filmed to be in 3D, and that shows. Also Natalie Portman as the love interest is completely pointless, although at least we probably won’t have to hear about how she became a real scientist in just a week of study. (PG-13) Rating: 4


There Be Dragons
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you were to chop There Be Dragons into thirds, you might get three potentially fascinating movies. It’s too bad that none of the three strands fit well together.

There Be Dragons

There’s a storyline about a Spanish biographer named Robert (Dougray Scott) who needs input from his long-estranged father on his new book. His father Manolo (Wes Bentley) is a coldhearted veteran of the Spanish Civil War whose failing health is exasperated by his memories of a lifetime of treachery. Having been a double agent during the war who betrayed people on several sides of the conflict, it’s no wonder Robert hates him.

That said, Manolo was a childhood friend of Robert’s latest subject, the legendary priest Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (Charlie Cox), who founded the Catholic order Opus Dei. The old man has information on the priest that no one else has and would be invaluable to understanding Josemaría’s life.

That’s a lot content to fit into a running time of just over two hours. A film about a son and father overcoming their animosities, the Spanish Civil War or the life of Escrivá would easily make a solid two-hour movie. In splitting the story into three parts, writer-director Roland Joffé barely allows any plot line to properly develop.

Joffé has given us terrific fare like The Killing Fields and The Mission and outright junk, like his boneheaded take on The Scarlet Letter. The previous movies were written by Oscar-nominee Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) and Oscar winner Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, Lawrence of Arabia). The third film was obviously not written by anybody in danger of earning a little gold man (Nathaniel Hawthorne himself was sadly unavailable at the time). In addition, Joffé’s ear for dialogue needs a little tuning.

For example, in a long passage of voiceover, Manolo informs viewers that “Josemaría was no angel.” But it might have been more effective to learn of his faults on our own. Nothing Joffé presents indicates anything other than that Father Escrivá was a good priest and a caring individual. Because the real-life priest has been canonized recently, presenting any negative character traits could be an issue, especially if they aren’t in the historical record. Dramatic license was apparently not an option.

The fictional Manolo has only fleeting interaction with Josemaría. As a result, some potential narrative fireworks quickly get defused. Having a few interactions between the cynical, self-serving Manolo and the generous Josemaría, who often gives his meager funds to the poor when he needs shoes of his own, would have given the story more backbone and energy. Instead, their tales seem placed together arbitrarily.

If Joffé’s depiction of Escrivá and Opus Dei, which is Latin for “God’s Work,” comes off as one-note, it is still a refreshing change from the way the group has normally been depicted in movies. Paul Bettany played a psychotic, albino member in The Da Vinci Code, and in Breach, Robert Hanssen, the notorious FBI traitor, was also as involved in the group as he was in real life. In There Be Dragons, however, Escrivá’s philosophy about God’s calling to love and meet the needs of ordinary people is undeniably appealing. Perhaps if Hanssen had actually observed some of Escrivá’s tenets, he wouldn’t be in a supermax prison now.

On the DVD/Blu-Ray edition, Joffé should set up some chapter select features so viewers can follow one story at a time. Perhaps the film might improve. Having cut his teeth making commercials, his movies are always great to look at; it’s too bad the important ideas he’d also like to explore get shortchanged. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 05/06/11)

Jumping the Broom
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Jumping the Broom comes dangerously close to jumping the shark. It’s got an overly familiar setup, and some of it simply doesn’t work. The romantic comedy with a primarily African-American cast has been produced by megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes, who has a cameo in the movie. So it’s not surprising that Jumping the Broom is often overtly Christian. Not many recent comedies make a big deal about the bride and groom being celibate before they tie the knot, but screenwriters Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs have a refreshingly honest perspective on human frailty that keeps Jumping the Broom from being a 90-minute sitcom.

Jumping the Broom

Paula Patton stars as Sabrina Watson, an attorney whose career is skyrocketing as her love life is spiraling downward. She prays that the Almighty will grant her a fellow who won’t treat her as a one-night-stand, and she winds up lightly hitting the handsome, principled Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) with her car.

The two clearly belong together, but their families are radically different. Sabrina’s parents (Brian Stokes Mitchell and Angela Bassett) are old money, and Jason’s mother (Loretta Devine) is a postal clerk. Neither family has met their new in-laws, so the Watson’s are in for an unpleasant surprise.

Jason’s mother, on the other hand, loathes people with ostentatious wealth and uses any opportunity she has to knock the Watsons down a few pegs. She’s especially adamant that Jason and Sabrina jump her late husband’s broom, a tradition that goes back to slavery in America. The Watsons don’t want to be reminded of a stain on American history during their daughter’s wedding.

Director Salim Akil has difficulty juggling melodramatic plot twists and broad humor. The script is loaded with a cornucopia of last-minute revelations when one or two would suffice. After a while, it’s hard not to get impatient for the wedding or the potential divorce.

If the characters often seem to be placed in the story merely to make a moral point, at least they’re also dynamic. Without some redeeming traits, Mrs. Taylor could have come off as a carbon copy of the horrible mother in Precious or a shoddy stereotype of African-American working class mothers. Similarly, the skeletons in the Watson’s closet make them seem less like condescending snobs.

The supporting cast is delightfully rich, with several memorable characters. It’s refreshing to see Mike Epps play a nuanced role who is more than a loudmouthed buffoon. The one character that doesn’t work well is Julie Bowen’s turn as a wedding planner who inadvertently spouts out insulting racial terms. One wonders how she can make a living at preparing nuptials when she’s that dim.

There isn’t that much imagination in Jump the Broom, but at least the love that went into making the film is evident. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/06/11)

Something Borrowed
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Something Borrowed is supposed to be a romantic comedy, but the characters all behave like the gangsters in Goodfellas. Because all of these folks are so duplicitous and self-absorbed, it’s impossible to believe that any of them are capable of love. Because of the tepid dialogue and Luke Greenfield’s workmanlike direction, it’s a safe bet these folks weren’t aiming to subvert the genre. They’re simply incapable of even following the clichés.

Something Borrowed

Ginnifer Goodwin plays Rachel, a repressed attorney, who is gloomy because she’s reached 30 without finding a mate. Perhaps she’s so glum because her best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson) doesn’t act much like a friend. At best, she can be described as an obnoxious frenemy.

When Darcy ambushes Rachel with a surprise 30th birthday party, she uses the occasion to discuss her own love life, with only incidental references to Rachel. Darcy also exits the gathering early, inadvertently leaving behind her $2,000 purse. At this point, you can hear a collective groan in the audience. Anyone who can afford to spend that much on a purse isn’t going to get a lot of sympathy.

During the process of locating the purse that costs more than the amount of cash that possibly could be contained in it, Rachel winds up having an unusually frank conversation with Darcy’s fiancé Dex (Colin Egglesfield). He comes from a moneyed but miserable family and was Rachel’s crush when the two were in law school. Apparently, the scatterbrained, pleasure-seeking Darcy doesn’t have much of an academic record.

When Rachel and Dex enter a cab, years of pent-up attraction overtake them, and they start an affair under Darcy’s nose. There really isn’t much tension here. For Something Borrowed to work, Darcy would have to be lovable despite her faults.

She’s not. Even Ayn Rand would probably advise her not to be so egocentric.

Hudson is trying to do what Audrey Hepburn achieved in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: make viewers care about a character who does reprehensible things. Unfortunately screenwriter Jennie Snyder, working from a novel by Emily Griffin, has saddled Hudson with a Sisyphean task. There’s no way she’s going to get that stone over the hill. No matter how Hudson winks or grins at the camera, it’s impossible to like Darcy. In real life, the other characters would set sprinting records getting away from her.

If Darcy is detestable, the other characters aren’t all that interesting, either. Rachel spends most of the movie imitating a doormat, and the blandly hunky Dex has a personality of a dried twig. John Krasinski from The Office has a weakly defined role as Rachel’s guy friend who warns her about the mess she’s getting into. It’s hard to figure out why he’s in the film, except maybe to help the running time seem even longer.

Greenfield’s sluggish pacing makes the whole experience seem slower, as if the footage had be run at half speed. Apparently, his experience making The Animal and The Girl Next Door wasn’t helpful for making comedies that require a lighter touch. Maybe some fart jokes or some mugging from Rob Schneider might have improved his latest offering.

Too much of Something Borrowed appears to have been on loan from more entertaining films. Where is the repo crew when you need them? (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 05/04/11)


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


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