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reel reviews
movie reviews
July '09
500 Days of Summer  •  Orphan  •  The Hurt Locker  •  The Ugly Truth  •  G-Force
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince  •  Brüno  •  I Love You, Beth Cooper  •  Public Enemies
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs  •  My Sister's Keeper •  Chéri

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

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500 Days of Summer
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The makers of 500 Days of Summer are being disingenuous when they declare in the opening frames that the new film is not about love.

Much of the charm of the new movie is that it focuses on just about every moment in the relationship except the frozen moment when two lovers hold hands as the screen fades to black.

Freshman director Mark Webb, and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber borrow heavily from Woody Allen’s breakthrough movie Annie Hall, but they demonstrate that people who seem like opposites are probably not well suited for each other even if Hollywood has told us that for generations.

To an outsider, it’s obvious that Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) have little business being in a relationship. The only things the two seem to share are age and hair color.

Tom makes his living writing and illustrating greeting cards but is really a frustrated architect (that explains all of the animated graphics that run throughout the film) and a hopeless romantic. Just as some believe fervently in UFOs, he’s certain that fate has selected a partner for him, and that she’s just a few cubicles away. Summer, however, doesn’t believe in either destiny or permanent relationships.

Despite the deep affection and hormonal drives Tom and Summer feel for each other, it’s not a spoiler to admit that any union between them will be fleeting. Webb and the screenwriters find dozens of creative ways to make the obvious seem fresh and intriguing.

For example, by presenting the story out of order, 500 Days of Summer actually builds tension by making viewers wait to find out when Tom and Summer reach the peaks and valleys in their relationship. The chronology may be inverted, but it’s not random. Neustadter and Weber place the events carefully so the story still moves even if it isn’t proceeding in a straight line.

Like Annie Hall, 500 Days of Summer is presented subjectively, as if the camera were peering through Tom’s head. His fantasies are presented as fact (a trip to the movie theater results in Ingmar Bergman tributes that reflect what he’s thinking). Some of the whimsy falls flat (the voiceover at the beginning isn’t terribly helpful), but Webb and screenwriters have so much up their sleeves that they quickly follow weaker sequences with ones that amaze.

Webb cut his teeth on music videos, and it shows here. He not only has fine taste, but he fits pop tunes into the film so seamlessly that even 30-year-old Hall and Oates songs sound as if they were written just for the movie.

Neustadter and Weber also have a knack for churning out engaging banter. Tom’s sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz) describes one of Summer’s crushes as “just some guy she met at the gym with Brad Pitt’s face and Jesus’ abs.”

All of the wit and creativity might have been for naught if the leads weren’t charming or capable. In Stop-Loss, Manic and The Lookout, Gordon-Levitt has developed a knack for playing characters that are on the verge of sanity, so he’s a natural for Tom. He also just smart and appealing enough to make viewers hope he’ll succeed even if his quest is hopelessly futile.

Deschanel may be playing a rigid character, but she imbues Summer with enough vitality to make Tom’s attraction seem like more than an act of folly. She and Gordon-Levitt also have a natural chemistry that makes their bickering sound less like arguing and more like an intense verbal tennis match.

No, Tom and Summer won’t be walking into the sunset together, but their broken affair is a lot more entertaining than most successful ones. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted: 07/31/09)


Orphan
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

There’s been plenty of “bad seed” type thrillers produced over the years, where some nice, upper-class white folks lovingly adopt some child only to find out later that said child is some kind of demon/ghost/psycho out to destroy their family. Most of these movies are, frankly, not very good: They are manipulative and rely on goofy shocks and really stupid adults who ignore little things like the child torturing animals and setting fire to things.

While Orphan isn’t anything new here, it is probably the best that has been made in this genre — which is not to mean that it’s good. It’s not. The only thing that’s really effective here is the “twist” at the end, which about half of the audience will figure out before the final act.

John and Kate Coleman, an upper-class yuppie-type couple with two lovely children, live in a multi-million dollar house. Despite that, all is not well: Kate has suffered a miscarriage (this fact is mercilessly beaten over the audience’s head), and wants another child. Enter Esther, a Russian orphan the couple becomes charmed with during a visit to your standard nun-run orphanage. After about thirty seconds, they decide to take her home, and bam! She’s in their house, wearing creepy clothes and acting progressively more violent.

Kate (Vera Farmiga) begins to suspect something is wrong with little Esther, who is obviously far smarter than any of the adults around her. The dad, John (Peter Sarsgaard) is…well, he’s a moron. He refuses to believe his own wife’s suspicions about his precious Ester, and spends most of the movie wandering around in some kind of bizarre haze of ridiculous denial. Esther covers her tracks by threatening her siblings with knives and John’s gun (which he kept in a safe with the key in a box right next to it).

Esther manipulates every event, turning everything back on Kate. In one scene, Kate takes Esther to her psychologist, whom after having a session with Esther, blames everything on Kate and wants to institutionalize her. Evidently, the doctor missed the class where they explain that children sometimes lie.

Really, the only things watch-able here is the performance of Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther, who effectively channels a homicidal Wednesday from the Addams family, some above-average cinematography and the mildly clever twist ending. There are many plot holes here, unlikely events and plenty of idiotic behavior. (When Kate finally does confront Esther, who has just tried to kill one of her children, she smacks he in front of a dozen witnesses, including some cops. good job…)
Still, as moron-movies good, this is mildly fun to watch, if you can just turn you mind off and roll with it. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 7/24/2009)


The Hurt Locker
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

War movies have run the gambit from simplistic, jingoistic patriotism (The Green Berets) to anti-war diatribes (Born on the Forth of July, Casualties of War) with studies in personal or metaphysical philosophy (Apocalypse Now) somewhere in between. The Hurt Locker touches on all three at times in a heart-stopping roller coaster of a ride that wires the nerves of the audience up much like the bombs at the heart of this film.

While news back here at home about the dangers of “IEDs” (Improvised Explosive Devices) is frequently a part of the reporting, the ways the military deals with them is far from well known, and with good reason: It’s terrifying.

The first scenes, where a high-tech robot bounces through a Middle Eastern street (the film was made in Amman, Jordan, which doubles quite well for Iraq) straight out of the 15th century speaks volumes about a war fought between a high-tech military and a faceless insurgency that could smile and call you friend right before pushing the button.

Behind that robot is a three-man bomb disposal team made up of two “spotters” who cover while the third takes out the IED with that robot, or explosives, or his bare hands if necessary. Well trained and comfortable with each other, the team is shattered when the two spotters lose their leader as he tries to disarm the bomb while wearing an armored “suit” that looks as uncomfortable as it looks useless.

Their teammate is quickly replaced with a new face, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who disdains robots, and indeed most safety measures in favor of “getting personal” with whatever deadly configuration of IED he must deal with. The other two, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), an older, grizzled African-American who just wants to make it home and Specialist Eldridge (Brain Geraghty), a younger farm-faced blond who’s already showing signs of PTSD, reluctantly follow James in a stressed partnership that threatens to blow like a bomb itself.

The film is shot in a shaky, hand-held style, particularly during the more harrowing scenes, which enhances the feeling of barely controlled chaos even more. The script, written by Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) is never interested in making any political statement: There is no Arabic-faced mastermind controlling it all, no blame laid at the feet of the Iraqis. Indeed, in one scene early on a cab races into an intersection where James is looking for an IED: over the next minute or so, the two men, soldier and cab driver, stare at each other until finally the driver backs up and leaves. Was he an insurgent who lost his nerve, or just a cabbie? Did he sit there out of fear, defiance or just an inability to understand English? We never know, and it’s a devastatingly effective analogy of whatever soldier there has to deal with, every single day.

It’s also worth noting that this movie has some of the best dialog I’ve heard in a while, particularly give this summer’s painfully brain-dead attempts by Hollywood to mimic how people actually talk to each other, instead of favoring having them just talk at each other.

The director, Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, Near Dark) has cast mostly unknowns in an effort to center completely on this excellent and brutal story, and the result is some spot-on acting by all involved to create fully fleshed, three-dimensional characters as gritty and realistic as this film. Skip the giant robots, and go see this movie: and make sure you wear deodorant, because you will sweat, no matter how cool the theater is. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 7/24/2009)


The Ugly Truth
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Insert an orphan, remove the F-bombs and abundant tacky sexual references from The Ugly Truth and what would you have? The 1948 movie The Mating of Millie. Millie stars Glen Ford as a blunt bachelor who sets out to teach an uptight businesswoman (Evelyn Keyes as Millie) how to catch a husband.

In The Ugly Truth the uptight woman is none other than Grey’s Anatomy’s Katherine Heigl playing Abby, a ponytail wearing morning show producer. Enter Gerard Butler as the crass, cynical, bachelor Mike and stir: instant romantic comedy cliché.

He loves to flirt with her. She loves to push him away.

And the sparks really fly when she learns that he’s been hired to do a frank segment about relationships on her morning show. She’s a prize-winning journalist, and he’s a wisecracker who rolls around in a big tub of Jell-O ™ with twins.

Abby doesn’t hide her contempt for Mike. Yet she can’t ignore his knowledge of the male psyche. So she decides to let him tutor her in the art of seduction.

Just like in Millie, tutor starts with a makeover for his student. She loses the ponytail and business suit, and gains curls and a little black dress, of course. But she also has to lose her personality in favor of a kinder, gentler babe persona.

Mike admonishes Abby to “never criticize,” and she doesn’t. “Laugh at all his jokes.” She does.

Unlike Millie, The Ugly Truth has no talk of marriage, just sex and pleasure. But just like Millie (and quite predictably, I might add). Mike starts to fall for his student with all of her quirky uptightness.

But while their doing the mating dance, the audience is left with a predicament similar to that of Abby’s clueless doctor love interest. He doesn’t know it, but he’s not getting the real woman just a gussied up version an illusion.

Alas, the poor audiences of this film will get the same: a gussied up version of a 1940’s comedy. But with the gussying comes a bit of sullying. When did crass become the new funny? (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 7/25/09)


G-Force
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Somewhere, there must be a market for a 3-D movie about talking guinea pigs that want to be FBI agents. If demand is sufficient, movie lovers should rejoice because it can only mean that someone else will make a better film about them than G-Force.

For now, those who’ve been craving this seemingly new genre will have to settle for a movie that has some occasionally striking images and a sadly undercooked story. If only super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer had decided pay a little more for some new scribes instead of 3-D eye candy, perhaps G-Force could have been fun.

Unfortunately, Bruckheimer is the man behind Bad Boys II and Kangaroo Jack, so this is standard operating procedure for him.

The existing script credited to Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley, the husband and wife time behind the similarly pointless Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, concerns a top secret operation established by a slightly nerdy scientist named Ben (Zach Galifianakis). He’s trained three guinea pigs and a mole to do covert ops that humans might find impossible. With their small size and high-tech tools, they can infiltrate just about any building before the bad guys can discover they’ve been compromised.

The no-nonsense pig Darwin (voiced by Sam Rockwell) is the team’s leader. The other pigs are the wisecracking Blaster (Tracy Morgan) and the mysterious but feisty martial arts expert Juarez (Penélope Cruz). Providing technical support is a mole named Speckles (Nicolas Cage), whose computer skills are as keen as his eyesight is poor.

Ben sends G-Force to monitor an electronics mogul named Leonard Saber (Bill Nighy). Saber says he wants to integrate computers and household appliances so that entire houses can be integrated so that homeowners will always have hot coffee and cold milk. Darwin, however, discovers that integrating every device in a house could be disastrous for the world.

Before the guinea pigs can warn the globe about coming danger, a humorless FBI official named Kip (Will Arnett) shuts down the program, which forces the animals into a pet store where they are treated like ordinary critters.

The outline has potential for a decent kiddie flick, but the characters aren’t all that interesting. Darwin is simply a competent professional, and a sidekick he picks up in the store named Hurley (Jon Favreau) does little except cower in fear and break wind. Tots may find this amusing, but parents will be rolling their eyes. If Mel Brooks had anything to teach future filmmakers, it’s that unless you can create hysterically funny fart gags, you shouldn’t bother.

Bruckheimer and rookie director Hoyt Yeatman also make some questionable casting moves. While Cruz is appropriately spirited as Juarez, Cage’s nasal voicing gets old quickly.

It’s also downright bizarre to cast the eerily amusing Zach Galifianakis in a sympathetic straight role and assign Arnett to play nothing more than a foil. Both performers handle the roles competently, but it’s as if the filmmakers had cast Jet Li as an iron lung patient.

The 3-D effects work best in the vehicle chases (I have to admit that not every movie has SUVs pursuing rodents in mechanized exercise balls). Unfortunately, some of the images, like broken glass, look like grainy video game leftovers than genuine spectacle. In addition, the film owes a sizable debt to Transformers, and putting the machines in 3-D only seems to emphasize the borrowing.

The folks behind G-Force should have understood that while 3-D can be pretty cool, a crummy story is still a crummy story. Instead of imagining how the movie would look with the glasses on, Bruckheimer and his crew should have imagined material that’s suited for more than the bottom of a cage. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 7/23/09)


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While the Harry Potter movies have always been a wonderful excuse for jaw dropping special effects, it’s gratifying to see the fantasy landscapes populated by wizards and witches with flesh-and-blood personalities.

As the series has progressed, series stars Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) have grown from cute kids who looked like their characters in the books into real actors.

As a result, it’s easier to get caught up in the newer chapters of the story because the performers are now up to speed with the visuals. In addition, screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote all the Harry Potter scripts except for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, seems to be having a field day now that Harry and all of his classmates at Hogwarts are going through puberty.

In addition to feeling dread about having to eventually face down the dreaded evil super-wizard Voldemort, Harry and his chums have been hit with an onslaught of Cupid’s arrows.

Harry has been pining for Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), while Hermione’s crush on Ron is thwarted by the eerily enthusiastic Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave). Because Hogwarts is a magic school, students have to be wary of love potions their peers may have used on them.

And you though your teenage love life was complicated.

Fortunately, Kloves and director David Yates know how to stage convincing teen relationships while keeping them chaste enough for any of the younger Harry Potter fans.

Harry’s new potions teacher Horace Slughorn (a wonderfully absent-minded Jim Broadbent) believes that Harry has become a star pupil, but Harry has gotten a little bit of help. His copy of his textbook for the class has an extensive series of annotations written by its previous owner, the Half-Blood Prince. No one knows whom this individual might be or if his unfailingly accurate revisions of the text might lead to something other than good grades.

Harry and his mentor, the school’s headmaster Professor Dumbledore (Sir Michael Gambon), gradually learn how Valdemort came to power and how he might be stopped. Having once been a student at Hogwarts himself, professors’ memories of him (played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, the nephew of adult Voldemort actor Ralph Fiennes) are stored in Dumbledore’s office and are full of potentially useful clues.

The quest is an urgent one because Voldemort’s disciples Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and Beallarix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) are out to assassinate someone.

The characters and the plot are much more engaging this time. While we still have two more films to go, Yates actually underplays a lot of the effects so that when something really spectacular happens, it sticks out for a change.

In the first two films, every framed picture was in motion, and every candlestick floated in mid-air. As a result, the visuals seemed cluttered and hyperactive. It was a bit hard to follow the action.

Another plus is that the adult characters in the tale are deeper and more interesting. Gambon’s Dumbledore is warm, witty and paternal, but his secrets are so grave you can sense the toll running Hogwarts has taken on him. By appearing in the Harry Potter film, it’s not likely Gambon will receive any awards for his work here, but his undeniably fine performance prevents Dumbledore from becoming a stock character.

The new film is darker than its predecessors, but oddly, it’s also more fun. I, for one, can’t wait for the next term at Hogwarts. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 07/14/2009)


Brüno
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In Bruno, British comic Baron Cohen sets a gold standard for offensiveness. From the opening frames, viewers are assaulted with images of genitalia doing things that seem scientifically impossible, and Baron Cohen’s title character is so eager to achieve fame that he will stoop to depths that seemed previously impossible.

And unfortunately, there are plenty of others in this movie who are just as depraved. And sadly, some of them are not fictitious like Bruno. Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, who teamed with him on Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, know how to make this sort of craven behavior funny, if guilt inducing.

Bruno is the third character from Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show to get his own movie, and like the other two he generates a cornucopia of chuckles by interacting with people who don’t know he isn’t for real.

In the film, Bruno is the host of Austrian television show where his shallow worldview appears to be an asset. Bruno’s idea of a deep discussion is explaining why autism is “in” and Chlamydia is “out.” Obsessed with fashion and fame, Bruno loves interviewing models about their labor and dreams of being, as he puts it, “the most famous Austrian since Hitler.”

Bruno’s career goes down the toilet when an accident involving a Velcro jumpsuit ruins a fashion show in Milan. In short order, his show is cancelled and his boyfriend dumps him.

Hoping to follow in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s path to glory, Bruno moves to LA and tries everything from starting a talk show, to addressing a world problem (ending the skirmishes between Palestinians and Israelis in “Middle Earth”) and even adopting an African baby just like Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

In America, Bruno finds that his actions, which made Austrians occasionally nervous, scare the hell out of some Yanks. His exhibitionistic sexuality makes even tough guys squirm, and it’s a miracle he gets through several situations alive. It doesn’t help that he’s so shallow and vain. Even his obsequious “second assistant” and would-be lover Lutz (Gustav Hammarsten) gets sick of his boss’ abusive treatment.

It’s not shocking to hear that Baron Cohen has done something outrageous on TV or in a movie. Eyes start to glaze over after seeing him wearing a bizarre thong-like swimming suit or hearing that he’s embarrassed a prominent political figure (Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich have fallen for his pranks). The real jolts come from what other people do in his presence.

For example, Bruno recruits real parents to participate in a photo shoot with his adopted son and repeatedly asks moms and dads if they have problems with their toddlers playing with heavy machinery, dressing like Nazis or even dealing with swarms of bees. While his questions are uncomfortably amusing on their own, the parents’ unflinching compliance with his request is, depending on your mood, either hysterically funny or beyond disturbing.

Bruno even tries going “straight” in scenes that were shot in Kansas and Missouri. One pastor who tries to coax him out of being gay by suggesting he find a woman who’s “tolerable and interesting” and that his duty as a man is to tolerate the petty and irritating things that women have to say.

Ah, what woman wouldn’t swoon at the thought of being tolerable and interesting? From listening to this guy talk, it sounds as if marriage is less an act of love or sacrament, and more of an endurance test. While it might be fair to criticize a straight comedian like Baron Cohen for his depiction of gay men, the folks who are trying to convert Bruno to the “straight life” come off far more caricatured than he does, and they’re supposed to be real people.

While catching Baron Cohen and Gustav Hammarsten puking the Westboro Baptist Church is undeniably delightful, the film reveals some chilling observations about our celebrity obsessed culture.

When Bruno does anything, it’s not because he feels genuine compassion. He simply wants to use his junket to Israel and Lebanon to plug himself. As he talks with a former Mossad agent and a Palestinian, the discussion leads to nowhere because he can’t tell hummus from Hamas. You get a sense that this sort of grandstanding isn’t isolated to Austrian fashion reporters.

As with Borat, Baron Cohen’s new film should be rigorously avoided by people who are easily offended. But by pointing out how low some people will sink to hit the heights of fame, he can raise as many valid discussions as he can squirms. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 07/10/09)


I Love You, Beth Cooper
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

High-school Uber-nerd Denis Cooverman has a problem: He’s about to graduate from Buffalo Grove High School, after which he will never see the secret love of his life, Beth Cooper, again. Since Beth, a cheerleader who’s dating an older testosterone-filled army jerk, doesn’t know Denis exists, he decides to proclaim his love at his valedictorian speech during graduation … in front of the entire school, including Beth, Beth’s boyfriend and Denis’ parents.

Will Denis survive the repercussions of his impulsive act? Will Beth see the good man inside the skinny geek? Does this movie make anybody really care?

Well, director Chris Columbus certainly gives it a good try, and the man knows his family films (among his many flicks are Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and two of the Harry Potter films). The three main leads, Denis (Paul Rust), his best might-be-gay friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter), and Denis’s love Beth (Hayden Panettiere) have enough chemistry to be watch-able, and the opening scene where Denis lets loose during his speech is both funny and touching.

But after that, this movie turns into a sort of Superbad-lite, complete with the big party scenes, bully attacks and jokes about cow poop. All the rest of the characters here — from Beth’s two “bff” cheerleader friends to Denis’s horny parents — are painfully bland and two-dimensional. Particularly so is Beth’s jerk boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts), whose only purpose here is to show up whenever the plot gets lost and have him chase Denis around for a while. Oh, and like most teen movies, no matter what anybody does there are no police at all, anywhere.

In fact, if not for Kevin’s perfectly timed appearances/attacks, it would be hard to see why Beth is dragging Denis and Rich around at all during her graduation night shenanigans. Also, while I liked Paul Rust, he looks like he’s in his mid-thirties (note to Hollywood: skinny does not equal young, ok?). Panettiere tries to play Beth as the sad girl with the party exterior, but since we’re given no back-story about her character, it’s impossible to tell why she is the way she is, or really care about it.

The script, based a book by Larry Doyle about his real-life school mishaps, has some of the bittersweet moments and fish-out-of-water humor that made other films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the classics that they are, but it lacks the smart dialogue and character development of a truly great coming-of-age story. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 7/10/09)


Public Enemies
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The allure of the bad boy, the shortsightedness of obsession, and the hypocrisy of crusaders come to the foreground in director Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.

In movies like Ali and The Insider, Mann has shown a flare for pushing reality in viewers’ faces with handheld cameras and awkward close-ups that evoke distant memories of faux documentary style dramas such as the 1994 flick Reality Bites.

Lots of handheld camerawork coupled with the sharpness of digital cameras give Public Enemies a crisp look. There are lots of long shots and visual depth. Add to that a sometimes dreamy sound track (which includes jazz by Diana Krall and Billie Holiday), and the senses are well fed. The performances are merely dessert. 

Johnny Depp plays gentleman bank robber, John Dillinger, with his usual cool and quirkiness.

Enemies begins in 1933 and takes us through Dillinger’s final days as he robs banks and repeatedly thwarts the efforts of FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to capture him and his peers. This could be seen as an epic struggle between good and evil, but I see it as a struggle between a charming delinquent and aggressive (sometimes misguided) authorities.

Dillinger has a gleam in his eyes as he alternates between captures and escapes. And Purvis’s eyes glisten with determination.

There’s a sequence in which a captured Dillinger talks to news crews in the midst of a crowd of citizen admirers. This mock archival footage becomes a bit ethereal, the smoke from torches tinting the scene with orange and adding a smoky ambiguity to the visuals.

At 140 minutes this flick is a bit long, and we only get a concept of the man John Dillinger. Yet Mann, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, and a stellar cast (including Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie) present a drama of paradoxes in which the villain is part genius, part loyal friend and part unrepentant criminal. At the same time, the lawmen are inept, calculating, determined and at times more evil than their criminal counterparts.

There are shootouts, violence and deaths, but the mind games between the criminals and the authorities are where the real action lies in this flick. (R) Rating: 3.5


Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s fitting that the second sequel to Ice Age is set in pre-history. The film’s story is so dry and unimaginative that it appears to have been preserved in amber from an earlier era.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is pleasant and inoffensive. There’s little chance of tots expanding their vocabulary or asking a lot of uncomfortable questions to their parents after the show. Sadly, there isn’t much else to say for the film.

A typical Pixar is also family friendly, and the studio’s creative approach to storytelling keeps adults awake and youngsters delighted. The newest Ice Age brings back the previous cast of characters but puts them in a scenario that’s not terribly involving for those who are well past driving age.

In this installment, the mammoths Manny and Ellie (Ray Romano and Queen Latifah) are preparing for the birth of their first child. While Ellie may have cravings and other issues concerning her, it’s Manny who has become a nervous wreck. He’s built an elaborate playground for his offspring and drives anyone willing to listen to him crazy with his fears about his upcoming fatherhood.

Diego the saber tooth tiger (Denis Leary) might be interested in Manny’s situation if he weren’t dealing with issues of his own. He’s no longer able to hunt the way he used to and may be losing not only his joie de vivre but also even his ability to survive.

Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), however, has found some new friends, but they’d make less trouble if they were his enemies. After falling in a cavern, he discovers three eggs and warms them until they hatch. Out pop three baby dinosaurs that tear up everything they encounter in the valley.

The rest of the animals force Sid to take his new “children” back to the cave where he found them, and they discover that the cave leads to a subterranean area where dinosaurs are still flourishing. Among the creatures living there is the mother of Sid’s hatchlings. She quickly captures both the kids and Sid forcing the Ice Agers to rescue their old buddy.

Despite the new setting, the characters and the situations seem fossilized. On second thought, Sid has changed. He’s moved from slightly cloying to irritating. His endless bumbling and whining has gotten tiresome, and it’s easy to identify with the other creatures when they tell him to go away.

Other than the dinosaurs, whose only task it seems is to look scary, the only new character is a one-eyed weasel named Buck, who offers the only hope Manny and his crew have of finding Sid. Enthusiastically voiced by Simon Pegg (Star Trek), Buck’s combination of street smarts and total insanity make him the only interesting character in the movie.

Like seemingly every computer-animated movie out these days, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is in 3D. Whereas Monsters vs. Aliens used a series of clever spatial gags to compensate for an underdeveloped script and Up had a great story that made 3D a delightful option for enjoying an already terrific film, the new movie only rarely pushes the medium to the limit. While the images have been adequately rendered, they really don’t look any more impressive with the glasses on (or at a higher ticket price).

Whereas Pixar movies continually adjust the studio’s successful formula into fresh and involving movies, the makers of the Ice Age movies seem content to leave their characters, storylines and images frozen in time. Even adding a new female squirrel to fight with Scrat for his elusive acorn doesn’t help. In this series, creativity is an endangered species. (PG) Rating: 2.6 (Posted 07/01/09)


My Sister’s Keeper
Reviewed by Deborah Young

A not-so famous poem by Alice Walker starts: “Letting go in order to hold on. That’s how poems are made…” Letting go is also how strong people are made, lives transformed and bitterness melted like butter.

My Sister’s Keeper dramatizes novelist Jodi Picoult’s novel about a mother, Sara Fitzgerald (Cameron Diaz), trying to hold tight to dreams of her terminally ill daughter’s recovery. Meanwhile, other family members suffer from unmet (and unacknowledged) needs.

The simmering family problems boil over when the youngest daughter, Anna (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine), hires a lawyer and asks the court for medical emancipation from her parents. Anna was conceived to be a donor for her ailing sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva, TV’s Medium).

Kate’s kidneys are failing, and Anna’s expected to donate one of hers. If Anna wins her legal case she won’t have to donate the kidney, but Kate will likely die.

Whew! This emotionally charged situation could launch the worst type of melodrama or a compelling, believable story. As it turns out, Director and co-writer Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) and screenwriter Jeremy Leven give us a bit of both.

My Sister’s Keeper begins with each family member telling his or her story through voiceovers. We hear how they feel and what they’ve been through, ad nauseum. So the first part of the movie comes across as a visually enhanced rendering of a book on tape.

Then the real action begins. The family starts to disintegrate. Sara makes it clear that she will do anything to prolong Kate’s life. Kate’s brother, Jesse (CSI: Miami’s Evan Ellingson) becomes an unconcerned delinquent. Kate’s dad, Brian (Jason Patric), finally tires of his wife’s bulling of everyone and starts to assert himself.

What a mess! But it’s easy to root for these loveable characters, and this fine ensemble cast is natural and believable. I heard plenty of sniffling at the end of the screening I attended, but I suspect audience members could easily let go of this story. For me, it did not linger in my psyche like, say, Imitation of Life (1959) or even Spike Lee’s comedy She’s Gotta Have (1989).

Yet My Sister’s Keeper does have quite a few compelling moments, and it may even spark spirited discussions about children making medical donations to siblings. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5


Chéri
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Thanks to a radiant performance from Michelle Pfeiffer, Chéri occasionally overcomes a storyline that never quite develops momentum. The new film marks a reunion of the star, director (Stephen Frears) and the screenwriter (Christopher Hampton) of 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons. The new film lacks the consistency of its predecessor, but at Léast Hampton and Frears haven’t embarrassed themselves the way they did with the justly forgotten Mary Reilly.

Pfeiffer plays Léa de Lonval, a French courtesan whose career of becoming wealthy by stealing the hearts of tycoons is coming to an end. While age has been relatively kind to her, it’s obvious that she’d rather not go through the king’s ransom she has accumulated alone.

Her loneliness comes to a mercifully quick end when the rival courtesan Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates) asks Léa to look after her wayward son Fred (Rupert Friend, who goes by his nickname Chéri.

The name, which translates into “dear one,” is a tad ironic because there doesn’t seem to be much to revere about him, save for his hunky appearance. Although in his late teens or early 20s, Chéri seems to have accomplished little with his short life except for maybe rising from bed. Madame Peloux fears that his appetite for champagne and women will send him to an early grave.

For Léa, he’s a dream come true. Thanks to a flat personality and an inability to say much for himself, he doesn’t waste time bragging about his achievements the way her other lovers have. Because there’s not much in Chéri’s head or soul, Léa can mold him easily.

Their union is long but cannot be permanent. Madame Peloux has found a suitor for him and has the naïve assumption that he can lead the conventional existence that she and her circle have never been able to.

With Mary Reilly, Frears and Hampton attempted to breathe life into a tedious novel that reworked Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This time around they’re adapting two novels by Colette (Gigi), Chéri and The Last of Chéri. As with Dangerous Liaisons, Hampton’s dialogue is exquisitely biting, but some of the subtleties of Colette’s pen don’t translate easily to the screen.

Part of the problem is that until the end of the film, Chéri’s sole personality trait appears to be shallow petulance. While Léa may crave an empty vessel, it’s not that engaging to watch a couple where only one partner is interesting. Friend makes a valiant effort, but there’s only so much a performer can do with the whiny jerk of a role.

Fortunately, Pfeiffer relishes playing the engaging half of the duo. It’s fascinating watching Léa come alive either in Chéri’s arms or merely thinking about getting back together with him.

As with the last time he directed her, Frears concentrates on the performers’ faces, often letting viewers know that what the characters are saying has little to do with what’s on their minds. In the case of Léa, the results of Frears’ approach are almost magical. When the film concentrates on Chéri, however, emptiness is still empty (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 07/01/09)


Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at dkayyoung@hotmail.com.
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.